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Making Marriages Stronger
By Gerilyn Herold
For over 30 years, the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program has been helping couples strengthen their marriages. A similar program for engaged couples starts them off right.

Q U I C K S C A N

A Process of Discovery
Putting God in the Equation
Helping Each Other
Moving Outward and Upward
Servant-Leadership Approach
A Big Task
Reaching Out to Others
Looking to the Future


Ralph and Ruth Johnson have devoted the past three decades of their lives to working with the Marriage Enrichment Program.
PHOTOS FROM MARRIAGE ENRICHMENT WEEKEND PROGRAM

THIRTY YEARS AGO Tracy and Ernestine Hall of Albuquerque, New Mexico, nearly lost their marriage in very stormy waters. Tracy was an alcoholic. Ernestine wanted out. The relationship was about to crash on the jagged rocks of divorce when Tracy had a nervous breakdown. Though hesitant, Ernestine pledged to help Tracy one last time.

Three months of rehabilitation set Tracy on a healthier path. Family counseling and couple therapy aided the journey. Still, Tracy and Ernestine struggled. It wasn’t until the pair looked toward their parish that they found the missing pieces: a marriage-enhancement program and the support of a loving community.

Within six months, Tracy, a non-Catholic, was baptized. The couple became involved in parish and Catholic ministries. They recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

A Process of Discovery

When the Halls turned toward their Catholic community for support, they found a program called the Marriage Enrichment Weekend (www.tmewpi.org). Three years earlier, the program had just taken root in the Diocese of Santa Fe. First run as a six-week course, the highly effective content soon evolved into a single, parish-based weekend.

Within a year, the Marriage Enrichment Weekend drew attendance from 13 nearby parishes. “That’s with no advertising,” proudly proclaims Ralph Johnson. He and his wife, Ruth, who sit on the board of directors, have watched the program spread like seeds on the wind into seven states and internationally into Mexico.

Over the last three decades, Ralph and Ruth Johnson have literally given their lives to Marriage Enrichment. They were among those first married couples who gave talks at the weekly program. The Johnsons are not surprised by the program’s growth. “It’s always been the work of the Holy Spirit,” they say.

Though the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program seems to have grown effortlessly, Ralph Johnson is quick to refute that notion. “It is literally the product of thousands of people living the married life,” he says.

Ralph, a retired physicist, always understood the importance of careful analysis. In the early years, Ralph scribbled copious notes throughout each weekend. Afterward, Ruth typed them. Next, clergy and Marriage Enrichment leaders evaluated failures and successes. They made changes. They tried again.

The Johnsons estimate that the Marriage Enrichment Weekend took about three years to “gel.” Ralph, who’s published over 100 scientific articles, says: “For me, the Marriage Enrichment Program was a process of discovery. I kept asking myself, What have we got? What is this? Why does it work?

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The main reason the program works, says Father Rubio-Boitel, who has translated many of the program’s materials into Spanish, is because it spotlights God as a third partner in marriage. “Couples are challenged not to exclude Christ from anything, even if it seems minor—that takes the focus away from the conflicts they will undoubtedly experience.”

“What joy couples experience when they know marriage and family are part of God’s plan for them,” says Msgr. Richard Olona, spiritual director for the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program and former vicar general for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. “The program raises marriage to a supernatural level.”

Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe agrees: “I wholeheartedly endorse the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program.”

Back in 1984, after the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program reached a stable form, the Holy See also gave it two thumbs up. The Pontifical Council for the Family studied it and wrote: “The active...participation of the couples is very interesting as is the complete vision given of the human, social and supernatural reality of marriage and the family.”

As opposed to a Marriage Encounter Weekend, where couple discussions are intensely private between themselves, the Marriage Enrichment Weekend is highly communal. Both programs complement each other nicely, say clergy, as well as laity.

Tina Sisneros and her husband, Chris, are frequent faces on leadership teams for Married and Engaged Enrichment programs. Tina says: “Couples bounce ideas off each other. Sometimes you are the hero for someone. Sometimes someone else is for you.”

That community sharing is what hooked Tracy Hall. At his first weekend retreat, Tracy recognized one of the speakers. “It was a guy I knew from the bars,” he laughs. Through the presentation, Tracy heard his own life recounted—a tragic story about the destructive powers of alcoholism. He also heard the way out. Tracy had come to the weekend planning to skip out. After hearing his friend speak, he nixed the idea, stayed put and decided, “If he can do it, so can I.”

To assist marriages, the Enrichment Program uses the tenet “We are all teachers, we are all learners. The solutions are within us.” Ralph Johnson is sometimes frustrated with skeptics of the program who are wary of peer ministry. He says wryly, “Why pay a counselor $250 an hour to help you find answers that are within yourself? Isn’t that what professional counselors do? Marriage Enrichment is a lot less expensive and a lot more fun.”

Sister Marie Luisa Vasquez, who has been involved with Marriage Enrichment for 34 years, says, “Theology not based on experience is not theology at all. We meet God where we are. God is not up there somewhere floating around. God is in our experiences.”

In the initial hours of the weekend, couples first look within themselves to find God. In fact, they don’t even sit together. The journey of spirituality then ripples from self to spouse to family to community. Participants peel off their own masks before joining their spouses in sharing fidelity, love and understanding. The process enables a married couple to proceed forward and serve as an outward sign of God’s love to their children and their communities.

The Marriage Enrichment Weekend brings much joy as couples learn to look lightly at their own—and others’— foibles. “The weekend is so down-to-earth,” says Ruth Johnson. “We laugh a lot. We have a good time.”

While the weekend rings outward, it also reaches upward. Spirituality builds gently from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon. In fact, on the first evening there’s very little spirituality at all, Ralph Johnson says. “We would never start with ‘Glory, Hallelujah, nice to see you, brother.’ We would scare people away!”

As the hours pass, people open up through talking and sharing. Presentations and group discussions center on practical matters such as finances, children and in-laws, but also cover more challenging ground such as sexuality and communication. And of course, the number-one principle is showcased: how to make God a third partner in marriage.

What surprises new participants most during the weekend, Ralph Johnson says, “is that the couple sitting next to them may get up to give the next talk or to serve lunch.” Servant-Leadership, the approach used by leaders during the weekend, models the life of Jesus, he says. Not only did Jesus lead, but he also washed the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper.

The presence of Christ is most deeply experienced during Saturday night at an “Agape” supper. Tables are set with linens and glowing candles. Guitarists strum music. The kitchen crew sings. A place is literally set for the Lord.

“It’s very moving from the moment you walk in the door,” says Ruth Johnson. As the lovingly prepared dinner progresses, participants break bread and share wine (grape juice can be used in consideration of those with alcohol problems). The dinner concludes with wedding cake, cut by the couple who has been married the longest.

Priests like the Servant-Leadership approach. It’s a “training ground” for lay leadership in the parish, says Msgr. Olona. For him, the proof is at his own parish, Risen Savior, the largest parish in Albuquerque, where Msgr. Olona is the only full-time priest for a parish of over 3,000 families. It runs well, he explains. The parish has over 50 ministries led by laity, most of whom attended the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program.

“Leaders of Enrichment should always be doing themselves out of a job,” Ralph Johnson says. At the end of each weekend, new couples are asked if they will come back and serve. About a third say yes.

“If they don’t want to give a talk,” Ralph Johnson says, “we ask, ‘Well, how about decorations? Or registration? Or kitchen crew?’” New couples literally learn on the job how to run the program. More seasoned couples can stay on the team, which they often do, or move on to other ministries.

Admittedly, one of the downsides of the weekend is that it takes a large team to run—approximately 20 couples. That may not always be possible in parishes whose membership is small. Couples, however, develop deep, warm friendships when they lead together and serve together. The need for a large support team also provides an opportunity to invite youth, singles, widows or widowers to participate.

Tina Sisneros likes to recruit Confirmation students or her own children when she heads the kitchen crew for Marriage Enrichment Weekends. She says, “My kids grew up in this program. They’ve grown up learning to serve.” Sisneros also likes the fact that her children recognize marriage is a vocation.

For churches that are small, do not have the facilities or simply want an introductory weekend, the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program offers a one-day retreat.

Tomm and Fran Nuelle, formerly of St. Joseph, a large parish in Upland, California, found their new parish—Shepherd of the Valley in Central Point, Oregon—was just too small for a three-day weekend retreat. After several years of one-day retreats, there were still not enough team members available for a weekend. Still, the program has been a blessing, emphasizes Tomm.

In the late 1970s, shortly after the weekend program began, Marriage Enrichment leaders recognized the need for a program for the engaged. A one-day program was developed that met diocesan requirements in Santa Fe.

The Engaged Couple Enrichment Program mirrors the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program in the gradual building of community as well as spirituality, says Sister Marie Luisa, program director. Topics are similar. During the course of the retreat, a married couple mentors three engaged couples and guides them through group discussions. The married couple then “walks with” each of the engaged couples in their spiritual journey until their wedding day.

Tina Sisneros says engaged couples enjoy being paired with a married couple for the advice and personal attention they receive. She personally likes the fact that talks are carefully planned, using a leadership guide, to touch on all areas of need. “Engaged couples,” she says, “are very different from only a few decades ago. Many have been living together. Some may even have children together. One partner may not be Catholic.”

Sisneros brings out another point that clergy and laity like to make when speaking about the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program: It’s never too late to meet couples where they are.

New for the future in the Diocese of Santa Fe is a program—Youth Dating and Healthy Relationships—targeted toward 14- to 18-year-olds. Jennifer Murphy-Dye, youth faith formation coordinator at Risen Savior Parish, helped plan and run a pilot program in 2006.

Talks and discussions ranged from safe dating to marriage as a vocation. Murphy-Dye says through her job she’s realized that “this generation is a product of television and the movies. The media will always trump whatever we think we’ve taught our teens.” She stresses the importance of early education which teaches teens Catholic values in dating and engagement, and honoring marriage as a sacrament.

Throughout all phases of life, the Marriage Enrichment Program shows participants how to include God in all their relationships. Materials are well-developed and are updated every two years. Most are available in Spanish. “The program is so well-organized and user-friendly,” says Msgr. Olona. There are not only leadership guides and participant books, but also supporting videos.

Currently, the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program is 100-percent run by volunteers. Pastors like it, says Father Fahnestock, former pastor of St. Joseph Parish in Upland, California, because laypeople take full responsibility for the organization and running of the program. He also likes the logistics of the program. Being parish-based makes it easy to attend and cost-effective for the participants. (Ralph Johnson estimates a weekend costs approximately $45 a couple, including registration.)

For the future, Ralph Johnson hopes the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program will find a publisher. Currently, all materials are professionally duplicated and hand-mailed by Sister Marie Luisa. He would also like to see a full-time paid director, someone who could handle all the logistics of a program that is thriving and growing.

Despite the sometimes daunting management tasks that face him, the board and volunteers, Msgr. Olona says he would like to see the good news of Marriage Enrichment continue to travel. He cites the U.S. bishops’ National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, which began in 2005 and runs through 2011. Through the USCCB (www.usccb.org), the initiative hopes to strengthen marriage “as a human institution and Christian sacrament.” The initiative seeks to “promote more ministries to marriage, especially in parishes.”

Msgr. Olona, with excitement in his voice, says, “The Marriage Enrichment Program is exactly what the bishops are asking us to do. We have a program that’s ready-made!”

For more information, contact the Marriage Enrichment Weekend Program, Inc., P.O. Box 94026, Albuquerque, NM 87199-4026; phone: 505-821-1571 (ext. 305).

Gerilyn Herold is a freelance writer from Alpine, California. She met Ralph and Ruth Johnson two years ago at a Catholic writers’ retreat in Tucson, Arizona. She says, “They are an inspiring couple who have devoted their lives and their marriage to serving the Lord.”


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