Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
During this time of COVID-19 lockdowns across the U.S., Catholic husbands and wives are experiencing new and possibly enormous stresses on their marriages and family life, as well as opportunities to grow in grace and love. But for five days starting April 26, and then repeating on May 10, these couples can have the opportunity to reconnect with each other, and reconnect with other Catholic couples going through the same thing, by joining the ‘Be Light’ Marriage Renewal Date Night Series from the Witness to Love marriage ministry.
Witness to Love co-founders Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret however, share with the Register that the “Be Light” Date Nights are just the start for a new phase of the Witness to Love marriage ministry, which began with the marriage catechumenate. The new “marriage mystagogia” they are launching aims to deepen a couple’s growth in the sacrament of matrimony through small groups where they can be accompanied as they grow in love with each other and Jesus Christ.
Witness to Love is launching a 5-Night Date Night Series – can you tell me what you’ve put together for couples?
Mary Rose: So, we put together basically it's five date night videos with discussion questions. The videos are five couples from around the United States, all of whom understand Witness to Love, all of whom understands sort of marriage and family life, and all of whom had a beautiful witness to share, whether it's their own conversion, their growth as a couple, their understanding of domestic church. But they are all five couples who have a missionary heart.
Ryan: And so, basically the idea is built on the witness to love underpinnings that we see as a practice of evangelization. So it's to meet couples where they are and to bring them to understand their marriage as light. The witness to love five part process for understanding evangelization and growth as a couple is, belong. Believe, become, beatitude and be light. So the 5 part series focuses on each of those five things.
Mary Rose: Ryan and I are the host couples of the series, and we explain belonging or believe, or beatitude. We explain it and then we introduce the couple who's going to give a witness. So we’re the launch pad and then at the end, there's three discussion questions.
Where did the idea for this date night come from?
Mary-Rose: So the date night, the idea came from us knowing that couples need marriage enrichment. And there are studies coming out of China saying that the divorce rate jumped by 25% during the first month after the quarantine was lifted. We know that if couples were experiencing difficulties in their marriage that this quarantine, and be isolated from other couples, from their church community, and from their friends wasn't helping the situation. And so, Witness to Love, the origin of it were specifically to fight the isolation that couples experience, even before all of this. But we were trying to figure out how can we support these couples who are struggling and will be struggling.
Ryan: Also this is not just a time to prevent something like divorce from happening or stresses in the family. For a lot of people, the quarantine has actually been not necessarily a bad thing, but also a beautiful time for some couples -- sort of like a relationship accelerator.
So we wanted to provide couples within the Church in the United States an opportunity to examine what this time was like, and make it an opportunity to move forward. So it's definitely an enrichment cycle.
Mary Rose: So we said, well, let's see if we can get in a virtual date night series that will take place before the quarantine lifts, because once it lifts and everybody is kind of in a mad dash to get back to normal life, whatever that is, we just wanted to give people time to connect as a couple, to process, to understand the graces that might have been given during this time.
Witness to Love began with a catechumenate approach to marriage formation. How would you describe this next step of marriage ministry?
Ryan: This is the mystagogia. We saw that with the catechumenate – or our rediscovery of it -- comes from us identifying how people grow. That five point sequence [belong, believe, become, beatitude and be light] has us realizing that we can do better than the narrow view of "behave, believe, belong."
For us, the central piece, obviously rooted in the doctrine of the Incarnation, is to belong first, to be brought into the Church. So this sequence actually connects. It's not just about the Sacrament of Matrimony, because in the documents we're writing, we're referring to the other sacraments of initiation, like Baptism. So we feel this is a whole process to catechize and evangelize.
So this date night is the launch of Witness to Love’s Marriage Mystagogia.
Mary-Rose: It's something that we've been working on for years, but just the timing, the need, and the urgency was now and we didn't want couples to miss this once in a lifetime opportunity really, where the pace of life has been slowed and what's really important has just been highlighted in their lives, to have this time to process that as a couple.
Ryan: We're envisioning a five-year process. The divorce rate peaks in the first five years of marriage, so we want to have a specific roadmap, where the first year is sort of a whole belonging to small group formation, creating the domestic church along with their mentor couples from their catechumenate stage, and then to go for it for each year potentially.
Why are small groups important to the development of good healthy and holy marriages?
Mary-Rose: A phrase we use all the time is that “you only grow in relationships.” You can't grow in isolation. You can only navel gaze, or be introspective, for so long before you need kind of a sounding board, somebody to say “that isn't right.” And so when you're in community, it takes off the pressure from common misconceptions of “we're the only ones that have this problem;” “we're the only ones that think this way,” or “we’re the only ones whose kids are sick all the time,” or things like that. When it comes to small groups, there's a reason Jesus said where two or more are gathered in my name there I am also. And for couples, there's just a greater need to connect with other like-minded couples to grow together, to be on a journey of accompaniment, and just grow in relationship with Christ.
So how can this Date Night series from Witness to Love help parishes start this process of marriage mystagogia?
Mary-Rose: We want to create tools that help parishes reach out to the couples. And so this date night series is not just telling couples, “please register and click play”… We wanted to offer something [for free] that would bring the parish together, bring the community together. And so we're encouraging couples to register to do a number of things. One, to reach out to all of their couple friends and say, “hey, would you like to go through this date night series with us?” And then we give them guidance on how to have a video chat before you start the series and after the series. Or you can even do a video chat every single night: watch the short videos that we put together, have a conversation as a couple, and then jump into a video hangout maybe 30 minutes later with a bunch of couple friends. You can either do it with friends or you can be a leader for your parish, or you can ask your parish to host a group. If your parish hosts the group, the parish can advertise it on social media and say "Hey, everybody we're doing this date night. Email us and let us know you're in and that you've registered. And the parish then invites all those people to a video hangout.
Do you think this can make a big impact on Catholic married couples in parishes?
Mary-Rose: A number of couples have reached out and told me, "I don't really know anyone well at our parish church. We're new there. We don't have couple friends, and you know being in this quarantine has made us so hungry for couple friends at our parish that we would do anything. And we're registering for this date night, because we want this to be the beginning of couple friendships at the parish.” So, we want to let parishes really know the hunger that there is among couples for something like this. And if they hosted this, and introduce other couples from the church community together, this can be the on ramp into real small groups at the parish that meet in person, share meals together, build friendships. And couples have such a hunger for that.
We hope this is going to be the springboard for encouraging parishes to have small group formation. We hope to do this very soon in Spanish as well. We're building out right now, and we'll be slowly releasing five years’ worth of date nights for parishes. And so, this will be resources and date night activities that parishes can use either in small groups or for the whole parish, or that just couples can do with other couples. But the idea is that every married couple will be the marriage will be transformed. They will see their marriage as light for the community and that their homes are missionary outposts of the local church.
You know priests and deacons receive years of formation in trying to understand who they are and whose they are. But couples are often given a weekend or a day of formation. This is to provide couples that solid footing, that foundation, so they can be that light that they're called to be.
Editor's note: The Witness to Love ‘Be Light’ Date Series is restarting May 10 after the success of its April 26 launch. This article has been updated to reflect this development.
The interview is edited for length and content.
Register here for the Witness to Love “Be Light: A Marriage Renewal Date Night Series.”