A big wedding sounds so romantic. The bride in white. The smiling groom. Lots of hugs and kisses. But after the wedding dress has been placed in the closet and the photo album stored on a shelf, after the bouquet of flowers has dried up and the romance has dissipated into routine conversation, many spouses often become disillusioned and distant with one another.
Having been married for 35 years with seven children ranging in ages from 32 to 12, Steve and Kathy Beirne know how difficult marriage and family life can be. They also know the statistics: One in three first marriages ends in divorce within a decade, while one in five ends within the first five years.
But the Beirnes believe in marriage. They learned reverence for the institution from both their parents, who were not only devoted Catholics but also devoted partners. Steve's parents had been married 46 years when his father died; Kathy's were closing in on their 30th anniversary.
The Beirnes also want to help others believe in marriage. That's why, nine years ago, they launched a newsletter for newly married Catholic couples. Published six times a year, Foundations covers one specific marriage-related topic per issue — communication, finances and sexuality are recent examples — and contains articles, book reviews, cartoons and exercises. All the content is designed to spur couples to think and talk about their relationship.
“It just takes one article, one cartoon, one exercise that grabs them and gives them that epiphany experience: My marriage is important; this person is important; this relationship can last forever,” says Kathy, 57, who met Steve in high school. “We're not looking to transform peoples' lives with every issue and every article. We just want to get a toe in the door. “
With few examples of lifelong marriages in their lives and often with little connection to a faith community, many couples don't know how to work on nourishing their sacramental vocation, Steve says.
“The first and most important thing is that our Church believes that marriage is a sacrament,” explains Steve, 59. “In this sacrament, the very life of Jesus becomes real and present in the life of the couple. And their committed love is a sign to the world of God's love for humanity and Jesus' love for the Church. Married couples are instruments of evangelization, just by being married couples, just by living a life of true love for one another and service to one another and to the larger community they evangelize. So why should we do this? Because we believe in marriage. We believe it's a path to holiness for the couple. It is their way to God. Their way to work out their salvation with and through each other.”
Marital Work Plan
If Steve sounds like he has worked for the Church, it's because he has, as director of family-life programs, first for the Diocese of Jefferson City, Mo., in 1977 and then for the Diocese of Portland, Maine, in 1984. He was on the board of directors for the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers (NACFLM) when the organization decided in 1991 to look into publishing a magazine that would act as a follow-up to the many marriage-preparation programs in dioceses and parishes in the United States.
The idea interested Steve, who started researching it with Kathy, and soon the idea of a publication began to take shape. It would be a newsletter, it would come out bimonthly, and it would not be published by a Catholic publishing company because all the publishers the Beirnes talked to either had no interest or didn't want to take a risk. A friend suggested they publish it themselves and, with the permission of their publishing partner, NACFLM, the Beirnes sent out their first issue to 200 couples in April 1993. Steve has been working full time on Foundations since 1998.
From the beginning, the couple had two main goals, says Kathy, the newsletter's main researcher and writer (who has a master's degree in child and family development from the University of Missouri): to help couples develop skills in areas that most marriages need work, like communication and conflict resolution, and to keep them connected to the Church.
Andre and Karina Lopez, from Flushing, N.Y., were married in a civil ceremony two years ago, but got married in the Catholic Church last August and have received two issues of Foundations so far. They realize that marriage takes work, and they like what the newsletter brings them.
“It helps us to come to know that we're not the only ones out there with minor problems, or even big problems,” says Andre, 21. “It helps to bring you closer together so you understand each other and understand the meaning of life — hopefully forever.”
Circle of Conjugal Life
Couples receive Foundations in several ways after their weddings: as a gift from their parish or a friend or as part of their marriage-preparation program. Some of the dioceses that offer the newsletter as part of their pre-Cana programs, meaning that couples get a free year's subscription, include Hartford, Conn.; Miami; Brooklyn, N.Y.; San Antonio; and Cincinnati. An individual couple ordering a subscription pays $20 for a year, while dioceses or parishes pay $10 per couple.
One challenge facing the Beirnes, who live in Portland, Maine, was that couples don't get married at the same time. In other words, what happens if the issue on communication has been published in April and a couple gets married in November? For this reason, they decided to cover 18 topics over a three-year period. And as each year passed, the topics would be a subset of the previous year. For instance, communication was the topic during April 1993. The next April, something similar — decision making — was addressed, while in the third year conflict resolution was up to bat. The cycle then starts up again at the end of the third year.
“It's kind of like a ferris wheel,” Steve says. “People get on in different cars. The wheel goes around and around and, sooner or later, every car gets back to the first point again.”
The articles are never repeated, and the research is always up-to-date. No matter the topic, every issue contains an article on the spiritual dimension of that topic.
About 13,000 couples, from almost every state and from parishes in countries as far away as Ireland and Australia, subscribe to Foundations, Steve says.
“It is our belief that God uses us to evangelize these newly married couples,” Steve says. “God presents the opportunity. He does-n't need a lot of time to change our lives around. He just needs a little opening somewhere along the way.”
Carlos Briceno writes from
Woodside, New York.