National Catholic Register

Culture of Life

To Have and to Hold, Happily

Programs abound for marriages that could use a little help


June 25-July 1, 2006 Issue | Posted 6/26/06 at 11:00 AM


“Marriage and the family are not in fact a chance sociological construction, the product of particular historical and financial situations. … The question of the right relationship between the man and the woman is rooted in the essential core of the human being.”

So said Pope Benedict XVI in his address to participants in a June 2005 convention, in Rome, on family and Christian community.

“The human being is created in the image of God, and God himself is love,” added the Holy Father. “It is therefore the vocation to love that makes the human person an authentic image of God: Man and woman come to resemble God to the extent that they become loving people.”

Those are some lofty ideals. What marriage can live up to them?

The answer: Most Catholic marriages can, with a little help from one of a number of authentically Catholic groups, programs and resources that have sprung up to strengthen healthy marriages and save sickly ones.

Here’s a roundup of some of the most notable.

Marriage Enrichment Program

Objective: Supports the vocation of marriage through all life stages.

Background: Compiled by Ralph and Ruth Johnson.

Structure: Six subprograms serving teens to seniors; available in English and Spanish.

Reach: 21,000 couples in 100 parishes served over 30 years.

Contact: (505) 884-8250;


Ralph and Ruth Johnson of Albuquerque, N.M., decline to be called the authors of the Marriage Enrichment Program. The program “has evolved from married couples living the married life — literally thousands of couples,” says Ralph Johnson. The Johnsons, who were among the first six couples to present the program, say they simply took notes and wrote revisions as the parish-based program was sculpted and refined by clergy and married couples.

The Marriage Enrichment Program reaches all ages. Teens learn about healthy relationships and the vocation of marriage. Engaged couples prepare for the sacrament with the help of clergy and parish couples. For the married, parish-based retreats, education and support groups assist them in renewing and sustaining their vows throughout their lives.

The pontifical council Pro Familia reviewed the program in 1983 and stated: “It shows remarkable creativity in offering concrete answers. … It is an excellent means of vitalizing a parish, excellent means of helping priests … and has a complete vision of the human, social and supernatural reality of the family.”

To Trust Again

Objective: Prepares engaged couples for remarriage in the Catholic Church.

Background: William F. Urbine, author.

Structure: Three components presented in one all-day session or three separate mini-sessions. 

Reach: More than 20,000 couples since 1990.

Contact: Greg Pierce, Acta Publications: (847) 676-2282;


In To Trust Again, couples who have lost a spouse through death or divorce prepare for “sacramental remarriage” within the Catholic Church, says Urbine, a licensed marriage and family therapist, and co-author of On Life and Love: A Guide to Catholic Teaching on Marriage and Family (Bayard, 1996).

Developed in response to the needs of re-marriage couples, the program covers topics such as communication, parenting, forgiveness and making transitions.

Debra Saraka, a widow from New Jersey, is planning a marriage this summer to Michael Rubin, also widowed. Both have three children. “To Trust Again was very helpful in the area of blending families. That was our big issue,” says Saraka before adding: “People often don’t realize how valuable Catholic marriage-prep programs are.”


Objective: Teaches marriage-saving skills to couples in failing relationships.

Background: Founded in 1977 in Quebec.

Structure: “Live-in” weekend program with 12 follow-up sessions.

Reach: 100 U.S. dioceses, 20 countries, 4,000 couples yearly in North America.

Contact: (800) 470-2230


The name of this program is the French word for rediscovery.

The program — which is Catholic at its core but also open to non-Catholics — focuses on communication techniques. Sam and Debbie Martin, Retrouvaille coordinators in San Diego, are graduates of the program. They say Retrouvaille provides hope through stories shared by couples who speak of their own processes of “struggle, reconciliation and healing.”

Participating couples, say the Martins, “are invited to see how listening, forgiveness and communication are healthy tools for building a new relationship” from the ashes of one that seems burned out.

Catholic Marriage Preparation Online

Objective: Offers scheduling flexibility to couples preparing to marry.

Background: Christian and Christine Meert, founders.

Structure: Five on-line classes.

Reach: 800 couples have participated from the United States, Canada, Australia, England, Ireland and China.

Contact: (719) 471-9702 or (866) 425-7193;


Christian and Christine Meert of Colorado Springs, Colo., certified marriage-preparation counselors, began their online course two years ago when they realized that many couples could not attend live classes because of scheduling difficulties. Often these were caused by one of the pair serving in the military, living far away or working unusual shifts.

“We get a lot of firefighters, doctors and nurses,” says Christine. While the average age of participants is around 30, Christian says they have a couple who are in their 70s. “We can’t put them in a live class with young people,” he adds, “so they are going to prepare for marriage online.”

Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput says the program “allows couples to have quality marriage preparation. The classes… are deeply rooted in the guidance of the Church and John Paul II’s teachings on sexuality, marriage and family life.”


Objective: Prepares engaged couples to receive, and live, the sacrament of marriage.

Background: Joann Heaney-Hunter and Louis H. Primavera, authors.

Structure: Seven sessions covering topics such as the sacramentality of marriage, values, communication, intimacy and spirituality.

Reach: Approximately 17,000 couples since 1998.

Contact: Heaney-Hunter, (718) 990-7497;

As its Latin name implies, Unitas aims to unite the engaged couple with one another, in Christ, as well as with a church community. Marriage-prep instruction, provided by parish clergy and married parishioners, is administered through participating parishes.

Making the engaged couples “visible” to the parish community is important, says Heaney-Hunter. This may be accomplished through introductions at Sunday liturgy, or by placing the couples’ pictures at the back of the church or at parish events. The parish is encouraged to pray for the engaged.

Heaney-Hunter says couples appreciate the support they receive from the parish, but mostly “are happy to be welcomed and want to become more involved.”

U.S. Bishops’ ‘Strengthening Refugee Families and Marriages’ Program

Objective: Supports refugee families and couples in building relationships.

Background: Established on a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Structure: 14 program sites have adapted educational models to meet the needs of refugees from varying cultures.

Reach: 7,600 families speaking 30 languages have been served.

Contact: Kimberly Haynes, (202) 541-3264;


Bosnians, Africans and Vietnamese constitute the largest percentage of refugee populations served by this program funded by the U.S. government and carried out by seven agencies, of which the bishops’ Office of Refugee Programs is one.

“In marriage, you have to deal with the family to deal with the couple,” says Kimberly Haynes of the bishops’ office.

The program teaches “core skills” such as communicating, listening, resolving conflicts and solving problems. These skills, says Haynes, apply to all of life’s relationships — between couples, parents and children, and also with non-family members such as case workers and employers. Haynes says her office is pleased with the outcomes they’ve seen. As a result of the effort, she says, many divorces have been prevented and families have acquired the skills they need to adapt to life in the United States.

Geri Herold writes from

Alpine, California.