[Editor’s Note: Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret are the founders of Witness to Love and the authors of Witness to Love: How to Help the Next Generation Build Marriages that Survive and Thrive. The Civil Marriage Initiative by Witness to Love is a project to equip parishes and dioceses who desire to seek out, support, and inspire couples in civil unions to enter sacramental marriages. They spoke to Charles Camosy via email about their work.]

Camosy: In a nutshell, what is Witness to Love and what is the new project you’re launching this week?

Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret: Witness to Love is a revolutionary, virtues-based, catechumenate model of marriage renewal and preparation that integrates modern principles of psychology and the virtues to help couples facilitate an authentic dialogue about their relationship. What makes Witness to Love unique is both “eyebrow-raising” and critical to evangelization. In Witness to Love the engaged or civilly married couple chooses their own mentor couple. This is a couple they both admire, trust, and have a relationship with.

This is not a “forced-fun” relationship with a total stranger but a two for one evangelization and formation path for both couples. The mentor couple they choose gives them a real connection to their parish community and is a witness, a friend and support to them over the years. The parish supports both couples and continues to provide formation and invitation to discipleship through the early years of their marriage and beyond. The new Witness to Love initiative that we’re launching this week is a program specifically for civilly married couples, which will work to bring civilly married couples back in union with the Church.

What motivated you to start thinking about this kind of project?

As civilly married couples journeyed through the original version of Witness to Love, we soon came to realize the current program content was not specific to the needs of these couples and that there was currently no real resources for them. We were inspired to find a solution and saw that this was one of the most urgent needs in the Catholic Church today. Witness to Love joined forces with diocesan leaders from around the country and over the span of 9 months developed the format and content of what has become a revolutionary program in the history of the Church-  The Civil Marriage Initiative by Witness to Love.

Will your project also reach out to those who are cohabitating? Despite all the evidence which shows how bad it is for relationships, couples continue to choose this arrangement in large numbers.

Mary Rose: This project is intended to reach civilly married Catholics who have a deeper level of commitment than the average cohabitating couple, however this project does impact the wider Catholic population of cohabitating couples. We have found that civilly married couples who go through the Witness to Love process understand that they are truly receiving a sacrament and not just a “pass through blessing” will invite all their friends, many of whom are cohabitating couples or other civilly married couples, to the Sacramental Marriage ceremony. This invitation brings couples to the church community and introduces them, often for the first time, to the beauty of sacramental marriage.

There are all kinds of studies that show this, and there are many reasons why couples choose cohabitation – money, convenience, their parent’s divorce, fear, lack of commitment, etc. When couples get into a situation like this they don’t know how to get back on track, and they can “slide” into marriage which may not be the best outcome for a particular couple. Marriage needs to be a committed decision and the more that cohabitating couples see the incredible fruit of commitment within the Sacrament of Marriage the more they will be drawn to it. Resolving this particular issue has been at the heart of Witness to Love. Sometimes it seems that converting, untwisting, and reorienting the sexual appetites is the most difficult area of Catechesis and Evangelization today. Intellectual formation, church documents and nudging relatives are not enough to combat the apathy or fear of marriage that so many young people face today. The heroic witness of one couple living out the daily grit and joy of marriage can change the world.

Ryan: Conversations guided by Catholic reasoning and doctrine regarding intimate sexual topics are difficult to begin and sustain. This remains an ongoing challenge within a culture which accepts a claim that 98 percent of people use or approve of artificial contraception.[1] The secular redefining of the sexual act that took off so aggressively in the 1960s is obvious to all of us. As a Catholic couple that neither lives in nor surrenders to the 98 percent claim, we have experienced first-hand the joys and great opportunities of personal and relational growth. Tragically, the liberating and transformative invitation revealed by Christ to His own bride, the Catholic Church, has allowed some of us in marriage ministry to use these statistics as a sorting tool to identifying who is a bad Catholic and who is a good one.

It is said oftentimes that “the proof is in the pudding.” The proof and results that we experience and discovered in Witness to Love have transformed, renewed, and changed how we approached instruction regarding NFP and contraception. We also learned that it is a great disservice of evangelization and unnecessary probing into Divine Grace when we think we know who is a “good” or a “bad” Catholic. No one knows this except for God. We must continue to do our best to help set up people to hear and know the full, redeeming, and salvific teachings of the Church. Whether we like it or not, people will discover and make choices in their own way and time. They also have “other” couples that they trust and will go to when they need help… Witness to Love works well because we allow the engaged to bring to the Church these “trusted” married couples who in turn receive from us the faith formation and marriage prep they themselves probably never had.

Younger people seem to be the ones most resistant to marriage, especially the idea of religiously-blessed marriage. Do you have any strategies for reaching out to them in particular?

Mary Rose and Ryan: Yes, great question. The answer and the strategy builds on the previous question and answer. By extension, when we have an engaged couple bring to us a sacramentally married couple they admire, who regularly attend Mass, and have been married five years we (marriage champions within the Church), actually find another treasure in our parishes. They may not be within our 2 percent comfort zone of friends. These mentor couples may not have ever heard of Humanae Vitae or the Church’s teaching regarding sex and contraception. But they have heard and lived out commitment, dedication, and relational virtue that is primed for catechesis and grace. Grace builds upon nature and if a couple can bring out into the open today and in our culture the human qualities that are the essential matter of the Sacrament of Matrimony, we are moving in the right direction.

These couples for the most part are not ready for (what we refer to here as) 2 percent Catechesis but they are ready and deeply desiring to see ordinary couples, like themselves, active in the Church and help them to see that committed marriages are possible and alleviate their fear of divorce as well as skepticism of God and His Divine and Natural Laws. Our best example (and strategy) though remains that of Jesus Christ himself as Pope Saint Paul VI explains in his pastoral guidelines from Humanae Vitae: “The Church, in fact, cannot act differently toward men than did the Redeemer. She knows their weaknesses, she has compassion on the multitude, she welcomes sinners.”

A specific call to have a marriage sacramentally recognized by the Catholic Church faces some significant headwinds, doesn’t it? Especially given that the overwhelming majority of contemporary Catholic headlines come from a generally hostile media.

Mary Rose – There is such a lack of understanding of the sacrament of marriage in today’s culture, even among Catholics, that the starting point for understanding the sacrament of marriage has a different starting point in today’s media. As practicing Catholics we know that the grace of the sacraments are crucial to living a full and happy life. Especially the sacrament of marriage! Without the grace of the sacrament of marriage it is virtually impossible. People know that marriage is work and they know that it’s hard but they don’t understand the importance of the sacrament of marriage, but we’re trying to change that… in the public square, in communities, and even with the media.

The focus of much of our work has been the Catholic Church and Catholic media, but more and more we have found that non-Catholics and people of no religious affiliation at all understand the critical urgency of what we are doing. There is such isolation in today’s culture and a lack of virtue that there is a breakdown in real relationships. The focus of Witness to Love material is on relational virtue, the building up of community life, leaning on the witness of a married couple we admire, and doing so as Disciples of Christ. Statistics show that church involvement, couple prayer, being surrounded by other married friends and kindness to one’s spouse are key indicators of marital success.

We have been asked numerous times to create a non-denominational version of Witness to Love that can be used by any religious background. We have begun work on that exciting endeavor and look forward to sharing the beautiful fruits of this apostolate with couples of every background.

Ryan: Yes, we would surely agree with this point. Sacramental marriage rates are half of what they were in the 1990s and this drop does not seem to be plateauing at all. However, many are still feeling a calling to Sacramental Marriage. For our part at this time, commitment and obedience to objective truth is the foundation of authentic pastoral care. However, for most people, truth remains something that must be seen, as well as heard. Within a relationship where trust and openness to conversion and renewal is welcomed, one encounters many opportunities to offer to the next generation of Catholics what was missing from their own family of origin.

In Witness to Love, we remain committed to never closing the doors of our own parish or domestic Church to anyone who comes to us today. We trust in the transforming and redeeming opportunities that mysteriously draw all men and women to know and reverence Jesus Christ. We know no better way to encourage each other than in echoing the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI’s in his own challenge to priests in Humanae Vitae:

So speak with full confidence, beloved sons, convinced that while the Holy Spirit of God is present to the magisterium proclaiming sound doctrine, He also illumines from within the hearts of the faithful and invites their assent. Teach married couples the necessary way of prayer and prepare them to approach more often with great faith the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Penance. Let them never lose heart because of their weakness.

How might people who are interested in Witness to Love learn more about it?

Mary Rose and Ryan: Our website is the best place to start: witnesstolove.org and for our new civil marriage initiative, please visit: witnesstolove.org/civilmarriage

We have resources here for dioceses, parishes, pastors and for marriage champions around the world, who want to strengthen marriages and renew Parish life. There are review materials and starter kits for this initiative that you can order and/or donate to your Parish, and/or share with someone who does marriage formation. You can follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can sign up for our newsletter and you can donate to this initiative.

There is no more important and urgent evangelization need than inviting civilly married Catholics to receive formation for sacramental marriage! To date there has never been a collaborative grassroots effort to reach civilly married couples. This national, highly-researched initiative has been guided by diocesan leaders who sense the urgency of this outreach. Churches who participate in this revolutionary outreach receive comprehensive training and marketing materials to invite couples in civil unions to receive sacramental marriage formation.