Later this month, Pope Francis will be making his first trip to the United States, for the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia. The international, ecumenical gathering is an effort to celebrate the family and discuss its crisis and the challenges facing families today. It will, in part, be an opportunity to highlight what works. And under that category falls a program called Witness to Love, out of rural Louisiana. The founders of the model, husband and wife Ryan and Mary-Rose Verret, are authors of the new book Witness to Love: How to Help the Next Generation Build Marriages that Survive and Thrive. Mary-Rose talks with National Review Online about the witness and the future.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Why is “esteem for marriage at an all-time low”?
Mary-Rose Verret: There are many contributing factors to the faltering esteem for marriage today. The esteem for marriage is at an all-time low not just because the courts, mainstream media, and activists have done their best to gut the word “marriage” of any meaning or dignity but because we who are married do not know the “pearl of great price” that we hold. We do not understand the precious gift we have in our marriage and in our spouse. If we do not treasure, share, and witness to the greatest gift given by God to men and women, who will? If we do not live out our marriages with passion and purpose, we should not be surprised when marriage is gutted of meaning and trampled under the passing parade of “free love.” The good news is there are many opportunities to witness to the value and joy of marriage every day. Witness to Love aims to help with this.
Lopez: Doesn’t same-sex marriage help, then — at least someone wants to get married?
Verret: The word “marriage” comes from the Latin word “matrimonium,” and it has always meant “the state of becoming a mother.” That we can even go back to the Latin suggests how long it’s been around and done well by us. Today, by changing its meaning in the law, we are creating a situation where we are saying that children do not need a mother and a father. We are saying for future generations of children that if they simply have two adults living with them, they will be fine. For the first time in human history, we are creating and purchasing children who will either never have their mother or never have their father.
We are also being asked — even told — by the courts and the media that we must not just tolerate same-sex “marriage” but that we must celebrate it. When no-fault divorce was declared, no one was told to celebrate it. This mandatory celebration of the redefinition of marriage states that “love is whatever I want it to be, therefore I can love whomever I want to however I want to.”
Marriage, especially when understood as a sacrament, says “love means that I want what is best for your flourishing no matter the cost. I know love=sacrifice.” We do not simply want to increase the number of men and women getting marriage licenses as much as we want to ensure that couples understand the gift and the nature of marriage so that they and their children can live that reality.
Lopez: How can Witness to Love help? What’s so special about Witness to Love?
Verret: A short evaluation of our immediate family or community will quickly highlight the dilemma that every young couple faces today, the dilemma of disconnection from authentic witnesses who can show young couples, young adults, and teens what real love looks like. Over the past ten years, we have seen a shift in the dynamic of the couples coming to us for marriage preparation.
In the past five years, we have seen that couples coming for the sacrament of marriage have not only parents who are divorced but also grandparents who are divorced. These couples have no natural place to look for an authentic and practical witness of married life. Witness to Love developed through a recognition of the needs that these couples had for someone to walk with them both before and after the wedding.
Witness to Love asks engaged couples to look at those couples in their community or church whom they admire and then to ask that couple to walk with them. They bring the couple to us, and we coach the married couple to become true mentors. The amazing difference between this mentor model and all other mentor models is that this model relies on the trust and attachment between these two couples. We focus our energy on supporting the mentor couple because ultimately they will be able to support the engaged couple as they begin their married life far better than we will.
Lopez: What’s the difference between a marriage’s surviving and thriving?
Verret: Many, if not most, couples who are married are just surviving. We all go through periods of “survival mode,” but so many couples just settle for comfortable. They do not dig deep and share their very selves with their spouse. They don’t know how to, because they were never shown or because they do not have the support or mentoring to get to the point of thriving in their marriage. Those couples who are thriving do not have “perfect” marriages, but they work hard at their marriages, continue to date each other, give and receive support in their marriages, and live out their wedding vows in their everyday lives.
Lopez: Why is choosing a mentor couple so important?
Mentors can help newly married couples navigate their way through the normal trials of married life.
Verret: Mentors can help newly married couples navigate their way through the normal trials of married life. It is important that every newly married couple has the safety net and support that a mentor can give in a very natural way. The mentor can put things in perspective, encourage them, give them resources, help them to seek counseling, connect them to their church or community, and be a living example of what married love should look like. Ultimately engaged couples choose mentors who model the kind of marriages that they hope to have. Without a guide, it can be very hard to reach the summit of a happy marriage.
Lopez: The choosing of a mentor couple can be a huge hurdle though, can’t it? The asking for help doesn’t come easy for us?
Verret: Absolutely! For many couples it is an intimidating thing to ask another couple, but we always assure them that the couple they ask will be moved by their request if they are in fact the right mentor couple for them. It is similar to asking someone to be a godparent, but much more practical. We suggest that engaged couples examine the married couples they know, who have been married five years or more, are involved in their church, and have a marriage the engaged couple admires, and see which of these couples they want to ask. Usually they know right away who the right couple is. The mentors always tell us afterwards that they were moved and encouraged in their own marriage by the engaged couple’s request and that a rewarding friendship develops between these two couples.
Lopez: What’s hardest about the Witness to Love program? What’s easiest? What’s most rewarding? What’s scariest?
Verret: Coming to the realization that we cannot continue to run the same models of marriage preparation that worked well 40-plus years ago, but are not meeting the essential needs of engaged couples today. It was a scary decision to make that leap of faith and ask engaged couples to bring mentors to us so that we could focus on forming the mentors.
We were scared that they would bring us couples who would not be good mentors.
The most rewarding thing about Witness to Love is actually seeing the mentors thrive in their ability to mentor. Their marriages are renewed, and they want to find other ways to serve their community.
The easiest thing is that the full weight of marriage prep and follow-up is no longer directly on us. We have the help of a mentor couple that the engaged couple and then newly married couple are friends with, and that makes all the difference! What is needed is a new model: one of accompaniment and mentoring. A model whereby one couple will walk with another couple, centered in the Eucharist, in order to bear witness to marital love, proclaim the joy of the Gospel in word and deed, and begin to experience life-giving community.
Lopez: Is it commonplace for couples to “look at others’ marriage from afar” in “unhealthy and idolizing ways”? Does Facebook make that worse?
Verret: Idolizing something or someone else has always been a problem, but in our disconnected society it is definitely hurting marriages. When you think everyone else has a perfect marriage, then you begin to compare what you have with what you think everyone else has. That is not a good recipe for a thriving marriage. We would not say Facebook has made the idolization of marriage worse. If you are going to idolize what someone else has, you will find a way to do it no matter what. We have noticed that what a couple is going through in real life rarely makes it onto their Facebook page. If anything, we have seen that there are many support groups and articles about healthy relationships that make the circles on social media and make it easy to find resources. What we do need more of in society are couples who share the real challenges of marriage and how to overcome them. Facebook status updates are not the place for this. Some things are really meant for real, live conversations.
Lopez: What on earth does divorce have to do with Scrabble?
Verret: The story you are referring to in our book is one of the questions we are frequently asked. This personal story of being able to give our best only to a game that we have a chance of winning is a great way to describe how we should approach sharing the divorce statistics. We are lamenting that fewer couples than ever before are getting married, and at the same time we tell them that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. This is like telling couples getting on a plane that the plane has a 50 percent chance of crashing and then wringing our hands that so few people are getting on that plane. This 50 percent divorce statistic is not only incorrect, it has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Think about it — are 50 percent of the people at your workplace divorced? Are 50 percent of your friends divorced? Most likely no. Where did this statistic come from? Do your homework or read our book. It is more helpful to look at the specific indicators for divorce and to work to eliminate those red flags in your relationship rather than citing statistics that do not apply to the couple you are speaking with. Their chances of divorce may be 10 percent or 90 percent given their actual circumstances. Focus instead on what we do know and not on poorly researched, generalized, gloomy number-crunching.
Lopez: You have an entire chapter on “who has time for mentoring?” Is that actually the key obstacle to your plan?
Verret: Not really. It is actually the shortest chapter in our book because we did not want to unnecessarily take up anyone’s time. Few couples complain about the time it takes to mentor or be mentored. Why? Because it is rewarding, and they are mentoring a couple they already know, so it is not a huge inconvenience to invite them to attend church with them, pray with them, go on an outdoor adventure with them, and cover the material in our virtues-based workbook for engaged or married couples. The information is so practical and transformational that they enjoy discussing ways to grow in virtue with a couple that they are friends with. We are very respectful of everyone’s time, and we customize each couple’s marriage preparation as much as possible so that there is no wasted time.
Lopez: What does marriage mentoring do for a parish?
Verret: Marriage mentoring of any kind can help to strengthen community and get families involved in their parishes. The trust-based mentoring that we do has an even deeper effect on strengthening the community of the parish because we are asking couples to attend church together. It is very powerful and beautiful to watch how many of these couples continue to go to church on Sundays with their mentors long after the wedding day. Why? Because they know a friend is waiting for them at church every Sunday morning, so why not go?
Lopez: Do you expect that Pope Francis’s coming to the U.S. for the World Meeting of Families will help? Does a fair reading of his recent encyclical on creation help?
Verret: Pope Francis has a constant message of the importance of ministering to your community, giving back to your community, and reflecting upon what you have to offer even if it is not perfect. So often, as individuals and as a Church, we think that only the perfectly polished have anything to offer. My favorite paragraph of the official Catechesis for the World Meeting of Families — Love Is Our Mission — says we all have a mission to witness to the love of Christ: “This mission is not reserved for the few or for the extraordinary. Nor does it mean that families somehow have to stop being themselves or seek after some impossible perfection in order to witness to the Gospel. The Christian family is called to deepen, reflect upon, and witness to the love and life that are already basic to being a family.”
So many good families are on the sidelines, and we all need to be missionaries and witnesses of God’s love.
Lopez: Are you worried about the synod meeting on the family in Rome this fall?
Verret: The synod itself is not something that we are concerned about — the swirl of politics around it has muddied the water, but still we are excited and hopeful after reading the Instrumentum Laboris (the “working document” for the synod), which states in paragraph 59 that, after surveying almost every diocese in the world about the challenges involved in marriage preparation, they found that: “All the responses agree that a key point in fostering an authentic, incisive pastoral programme for the family seems ultimately to rest on a couple’s witness of life, a witness which is consistent with not only Christian teaching on the family but also the beauty and joy which permits the Gospel message to be embraced in marriage and lived as a family.”
That something is suggested or talked about does not mean that it will become part of the Church’s guidelines for marriage preparation, but we do hope that more weight will be given to the witness value of married life.
Lopez: “Marriage has borne the brunt of every sordid sitcom satire, and has unwillingly become a hot political pawn.” Do you blame culture and politics for what you describe as a marriage state of “dis-union”?
Verret: Not at all. The only person we have to blame is ourselves. The old axiom, “What parents allow in moderation, children will excuse in excess,” is on point here. Ever since we tried to make sexual fulfillment the focal point and the right of marriage and then of individuals, we gutted marriage of its original meaning. When you can have sex without marriage or marriage without children, then it is the culture or politicians that give you permission to kick marriage to the side — but we did not need that permission. We already forgot what the word marriage means.
Lopez: After the Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage, is there really a point to continuing on as if marriage is between a man and a woman? Or is the Catholic Church’s getting its act together in the most practical of ways needed now more than ever?
Verret: To be honest, we have never before seen married couples of every denomination unite so quickly and strongly to find practical ways of helping the average man or woman to understand the gift of sacramental marriage. We have had the privilege of being part of some amazing conversations with married couples who are trying to understand for the first time what a gift they have been given in their marriage.
Lopez: “The heart of our marriage is the commitment to live out our wedding vows every day of our lives. Each day we are called to be more loveable and more loving.” What happens on the days you feel like neither one?
Verret: Thank goodness our wedding vows did not include the word “feeling.” If we were going to be making vows on how we felt, then we would have had to think twice about getting married. Our vows are actually impossible to keep on our own, but with God’s grace, in the sacrament of marriage, the impossible becomes possible.
Lopez: You begin with a quote from John Paul II: “Man cannot live without love . . . his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.” Why do you begin there? What do you say to anyone reading that right now who is feeling quite a bit like his life is senseless?
Verret: There is nothing like wholeheartedly giving yourself in service to others, either in ministry or volunteering, to help you to encounter Christ. For us it was in service to each other, to other couples, and to our family that we encountered Love Himself. Please know that you are not alone, but that you are made in the image and likeness of God. More of us, together, need to show people this with our witness to love.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is a co-author of the new revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice.