“Damon has an amazing ability to relate to a young generation and stick to his guns at the same time,” wrote one engaged adult in the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., after attending Joy-Filled Marriage NJ, a program founded by Damon Owens.
Wrote another, “The most helpful part was about waiting to [be intimate] until after you get married and how it can effect and help the bond you have after being married.”
Greg Molochnick, who attended with his fiancée (and now wife), Sue, even signed his evaluation. (Most prefer to remain anonymous.) “Damon handled tough topics that are faced every day,” he said. “His own experiences and struggles really brought home the Church’s teachings.”
In the last three years, in the Metuchen Diocese alone, upwards of 600 couples have attended Joy-Filled Marriage NJ annually as the program spreads across the state.
“So many of our couples say, ‘I never knew what the Church’s teaching was — how much God wanted for our marriages,’” adds Metuchen’s family-life director, Judith Psota. She finds their transformations remarkable. “The teaching resonates in their heart and soul,” she says. “I know this is of God. The whole experience is to step aside from the world’s view of marriage and into what God’s vision of marriage is, then living it out.”
In July, Joy-Filled Marriage NJ also became a regular part of Newark’s archdiocesan program for all engaged couples. The archdiocese’s average 2,648 Catholic couples married annually will be getting God’s plan according to Scripture, from Genesis to Jesus’ teaching on marriage.
“It’s a perfect complement to pre-Cana and Engaged Encounter,” finds Father Marc Vicari, archdiocesan vicar of family-life ministries. “While pre-Cana very much focuses on practical aspects like finances, communicating well and responsible parenthood, Joy-Filled Marriage focuses on the faith and sacramental aspects of marriage.”
Owens didn’t institute Joy-Filled Marriage NJ overnight. In 1993, he and his wife, Melanie, were so enthusiastic about their own pre-Cana class they quickly became pre-Cana teachers themselves in the Newark Archdiocese. They made this move while studying the Catechism, Humanae Vitae (The Regulation of Birth) and natural family planning (NFP), which they’ve taught at Seton Hall University and throughout New Jersey since 1993. In 1996 they expanded to the Archdiocese of New York, teaching an average of 125 pre-Cana couples weekly.
“We were challenged. It was a tough environment,” says Owens of the responses from many skeptical, modern Manhattan couples. In 2000 he was introduced to theology of the body through a Christopher West tape.
“I knew what he was doing would work with what we were doing in New York,” explains Owens. “When I tried some of his approaches, they were home runs — intelligent, challenging, orthodox. Couples were responding.”
When the Owens’ fifth daughter was born (they now have seven girls, one adopted), Melanie gave up traveling and encouraged Damon to go from the corporate world to full-time speaking. He became head of the Newark Archdiocese’s NFP office and started speaking nationally on marriage preparation and enrichment while developing his own course on the theology of the body. In 2003 he talked with West, who told Owens he was readying a similar program for Ascension Press called God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage.
The trio dovetailed. Owens explains Joy-Filled Marriage NJ is really the fruit of God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage, West and Ascension.
“They had not yet launched the program nationally,” he says, “and now they had one of the biggest states in the country with someone who could run it.” With a few tweaks, Owens had Joy-Filled Marriage NJ ready for a state that’s home to more than 3.5 million Catholics.
The task of reaching everyone still is not easy. Owens says most couples are poorly catechized at best or nonbelievers at worst, their consciences malformed by the culture’s distorted view of human sexuality.
“Their whole concept of God, the Church and marriage is skewed, disoriented,” he says. “The first battle to present the Church’s beautiful teaching on marriage is to provide a language to show them that what the Church teaches is what they want.”
Many couples look at the Church as a lawgiver. With Joy-Filled Marriage, he shows them that what they think are rules imposed from outside end up being truth that wells up from their own hearts.
“The Church is the bride of Christ,” he teaches, “and she understands our human heart better than we understand our own. So God’s plan for a joy-filled marriage is better than any one they could craft.”
“When you see what it takes to pierce the shield of the modern couple,” says Owens, “you see why Joy-Filled Marriage is such a home run.” Statistics from more than 2,000 couples surveyed from the parent program, God’s Plan for a Joy-Filled Marriage, discovered turnarounds like these: 91% were sexually active before the program, while after it 48% said they’d save sex for marriage; 31% would definitely use NFP and 45% might; 78% had a better grasp of the Catholic vision for marriage; and 61% made a deeper commitment to Christ.
No wonder Owens is “convinced the language and approach of theology of the body is what God has given the Church at this time.”
Joy-Filled Marriage also introduces couples to NFP. “The hope is it will encourage couples to learn the practice,” says Father Vicari. There has even been a ripple effect in places like LifeNet Education, a pro-life and chastity program in Montclair. Its director, Christine Flaherty, relates how one of their speakers and her husband had Owens as their instructor and now they’re living life with NFP.
The goal of Joy-Filled Marriage NJ also extends beyond engaged couples. Owens sees it expanding to speaking of the universal goods of authentic marriage in the public square. “It will have social and political impact, helping people understand why marriage is so good, and equip them with a language to speak in confidence,” he says.
And nationwide, beginning in January, Owens’s new 13-part series on NFP for marital holiness is scheduled to air on Eternal Word Television Network.
Spur to Social Change
He considers the timing providential. With New Jersey a battleground for marriage, the state’s bishops asked him to provide marriage education for all five dioceses leading up to a December vote (which was postponed) on same-sex “marriage,” with many lectures in parishes and universities.
“He’s a man who not only is able to teach the Church’s teachings and John Paul II’s theology of the body,” says Psota, “but Damon and his wife, Melanie, are living it. They’re such life-giving, loving parents, as well. They are an example of what the ideal marriage can be. They’re certainly trying to live up to that standard.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen
is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
ON THE WEB JoyFilledMarriageNJ.org