Podcasting Couple Journeys With Engaged and Married, Inspired by John Paul II

Two Become Family ministry launches ‘Pre-Cana With the Pope.’

Renzo and Monica Ortega tackle all things marriage and family life in ‘Pre-Cana With the Pope’ and through their ministry Two Become Family.
Renzo and Monica Ortega tackle all things marriage and family life in ‘Pre-Cana With the Pope’ and through their ministry Two Become Family. (photo: Courtesy of the Ortegas)

“We had to switch roles; I became a stay-at-home dad for a short period of time, and Monica was back at work,” Renzo Ortega said about how he and his wife navigated COVID-19 in 2020. “I don’t think I’m being too dramatic when I say it saved our marriage.”

Two years ago, when marriage preparation became a virtual experience, 32-year-old Monica and 33-year-old Renzo Ortega felt the final push to form their ministry, Two Become Family.  

The goal of their ministry is to offer guidance and support for young couples and families struggling to live out the faith. The two have worked as marriage-preparation coordinators and facilitators for the Diocese of Bridgeport, Connecticut, and are volunteer mentor couples at the Pre-Cana retreats at their home parish. Five months ago, they also created and released a new podcast, Pre-Cana With the Pope.

Renzo and Monica have known one another for more than half their lives. They started dating in high school and got married shortly after Monica graduated from college. Married nine years, with their 10-year anniversary this October, the Ortegas are the parents of five children.

“We were both very involved in our faith, in youth ministry and religious education, being catechists,” Renzo said. “We knew our faith pretty well, but we were very challenged by the first five years of our marriage.”

Though Renzo and Monica knew Catholicism, they didn’t know how to apply it to their day-to-day marriage. 

“We really struggled to live out that Christian married life that we knew about,” Monica said. “We both came from families where marriages ended in divorce, so our mission statement going into marriage was ‘Don’t get divorced.’” 

The Ortegas were grateful to participate in their diocesan marriage prep and quickly learned they weren’t the only imperfect Catholic couple struggling in this transition, they said. But in 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown, their marriage encountered new challenges. Renzo became a stay-at-home-dad, and Monica went back to work. 

“It gave me time for a lot of reflection and a lot of prayer,” Renzo said

During this time, Renzo encountered two pivotal people that would change the outlook of their relationship: St. John Paul II and St. Joseph.

“Through St. John Paul II’s teachings and knowledge of St. Joseph, we were able to really bring it home and bring down to earth a lot of teachings we knew but didn’t know how to live out,” Renzo said.

The idea of a ministry had been in the back of their minds for a while. But when marriage prep in their diocese went virtual as COVID-19 began, the two launched Two Become Family. They began blogging, writing and creating resources from what they had learned. 

“We felt that everything we had learned up to that point, we wanted to be able to share with other people,” Renzo said. “Without reservation, no filter, just letting people that wanted holy marriages know the struggles that you might encounter and what you could do and how you prepare for those things. If you’re engaged, dating, or whatever stage of life you’re in, we wanted to be able to share our experiences.”

Five months ago, three different couples from the Ortegas former youth-group teams became engaged around the same time. The Ortegas wanted to share their experiences with them and offer advice, but the couples were out of state. 

“We would just be talking before we went to bed about all different types of things, whether it be marriage-related or current events, and we would have such long conversations,” Renzo said. “I would joke, ‘We should just put up a microphone. I’m sure other people would want to just sit in’ because we go over everything, and we’re pretty honest with each other.”

What started as long conversations at the kitchen table then transitioned into their podcast, Pre-Cana With the Pope. The two present a question each week and partner with St. John Paul II to tackle hard topics relating to marriage and family life. 

“This is not just Monica and Renzo’ brains, and it’s not a lecture or a deep dive into theology,” Renzo said. “It’s a conversation about real things that are in marriage, and we feel like the Church still has a lot to say and a lot of good wisdom to give.”

Monica said they hope that couples feel like they’re sitting at home with them at the kitchen table as they listen to the podcast. 

“We felt like it was really important to share both the husband and wife perspective,” Monica said. “I do think that there’s a lot of good resources for both individually, but then how does it work in a marriage? How do we wrestle through these circumstances together? It was really important that both of our voices were heard in all the things that we do.” 

Saintly Impact 

“St. John Paul II was the springboard because a lot of his writing changed our marriage,” Renzo said. “We were introduced to him fairly early in our relationship. I think we compartmentalized theology from the practical lived experience of engagement, dating and early marriage life.”

While Renzo was a stay-at-home-dad, he began to dive into St. John Paul II’s encyclicals. He read Familiaris Consortio and Redemptoris Custos and was reintroduced to theology of the body through Love and Responsibility

“The things that he was writing blew my mind because you could see theology of the body in all of his writings. Everything was written through that lens,” Renzo said. “He really lays out very explicitly what the husband needs to do, how the husband should live out his relationship with the kids, and how to be a father.”

Renzo had never read Love and Responsibility before. He learned the practical aspects of love, lust and use versus self-gift. Renzo then jumped into the life of St. Joseph and began leaning into his example of fatherhood and masculinity.

“I’m very grateful for St. John Paul’s willingness to be very practical and pragmatic, but also be very philosophical and theological. He really rounded it out for me,” Renzo said. 

The Need for Catholic Mentorship 

Although St. John Paul II and St. Joseph have treasures of wisdom to offer, it can still be hard to apply that advice and example to a relationship as a young couple. 

“There are a lot of Catholic couples with wonderful intentions, and they know a lot of good things, but then life happens and there’s a gap in the lived experience,” Monica said. “They wonder, ‘How do I live a Christian life? How do I live in a Catholic family?’ It’s difficult, and I think some of it is the oversharing.”

Monica said there’s a difficult transition to becoming an adult and then working through the fear of oversharing and overexposing and even the fear of letting children into the weaknesses of your marriage.

“I think that there’s a big gap in mentorship of young adults and having people they can look to that have lived this experience,” Monica said. “People aren’t inviting teens and young adults into that reality.”

In Familiaris Consortio, Renzo pointed out how St. John Paul II talks about why the education of family life should be coming from our families. 

“The entirety of our family life, including sexual education, should be happening and coming from your parents,” Renzo said. “Sons and fathers and daughters and mothers should be able to have open, honest conversations about all the questions they might have. Even into your wedding and into your first year of marriage, we should be able to go to our parents for that.”

Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many faithful Catholics, Renzo said. 

“People would rather go to Google or a search engine to try to figure things out,” Renzo said. “They don’t have the parental mentorship that they ought to have, by design of the family, and they also may not feel like they have other people they can go to to fill those voids for them.”

Even if there are great spiritual resources, such as theology of the body, there’s nothing that can replace others living their faith and sharing their experiences, they said. 

“You can’t substitute anything for authentic relationships and mentorships,” Renzo said. “Most of the struggles we see in holy marriages are because there’s that lack of mentorship.”

While there are numerous marriage-prep programs, ranging from one day long to a weekend long to a whole year long, it’s difficult to make up for a lack of personal, authentic mentorship, they said. 

“I think there are many couples out there that have a lot to give,” Renzo said. “Maybe they just need to say ‘Yes’ to the Holy Spirit and take initiative and start pouring in and investing into the young couples that they see that might have questions.”

Outside of their podcast and ministry, the Ortegas’ goal is to do just that: authentically mentor as many young people entering into marriage as they can. 

“I would encourage any engaged couple to seek out a marriage prep that involves a mentorship couple,” Monica said. “Be vulnerable enough to even ask for that if it’s not offered. I would also encourage married couples to also put themselves out there and invite people into their homes to see the realness of married life and parenthood and things like that.”

The Fruit of Their Mission

Both Monica and Renzo said they have learned a lot from starting their ministry, but, above all, they’ve increased their communication and trust of one another. 

“We are just more willing to be vulnerable and to share the things that are on our hearts without worry of how it’s going to be perceived,” Monica said. “One thing we’ve really learned, deep down in our hearts, is to assume the goodwill of the other. Even when there’s conflict or confrontation and something is difficult, we’re on the same team.”

Rather than immediately assuming the worst-case scenario, Monica said there’s no judgment on either side of the relationship. 

“We’re learning how to work together,” Renzo said. “We’ve really had to just lean into each other and support each other. That then translates to how we parent and how we do everything else. We’ve gotten to tackle a new challenge together, and we’re just better because we’ve been doing it as a team.”

One of the biggest blessings Monica and Renzo receive from their ministry is hearing that their podcast helps other couples have hard conversations. A close friend and listener, Emma St. Hilaire, has also learned to communicate well with her husband. 

“Just the example that they set as a married couple, opening up to one another in this public way, goes to show how connected they are and how well they communicate off the podcast,” St. Hilaire said. “They’ll be the first ones to admit on the podcast or to their friends that their marriage is not perfect. They don’t always communicate perfectly. But they’ve worked through it a lot. And that comes through in every episode because they feed off of each other so well.”

St. Hilaire met the Ortegas five years ago when chaperoning a high-school retreat. They got to know each other more over time, and St. Hilaire even coached volleyball with Monica. St. Hilaire said she especially loves the podcast episode on natural family planning.

“In this episode, I think they hit the nail on the head,” St. Hilaire said. “People don’t understand that the Church gives NFP to us as a tool to use that can really strengthen marriage as well. It’s not just about family planning, either. It’s about your health as a woman and that you don’t have to use NFP because you’re Catholic. They encourage men and women to be advocates for their own health.

Another popular episode is “Rehabilitating Chastity.” The title comes from Love and Responsibility. Renzo and Monica said they go over everything related to chastity and are learning that chastity is still a virtue in marriage. 

“Monica and Renzo are 100% real and authentic, especially in their ministry,” St. Hilaire said. “It’s not coming at all from a place of ‘We know best.’ It’s coming from a place of lived experience. I feel super blessed to not only just be a fan, but to actually know them.”