By EmmaLee Italia | Contributing Editor
When a parish sees a nearly seven-fold increase in couples preparing for marriage in the span of 12 months, something unique is happening.
That something was a Year of Marriage initiative, instituted in Nativity Parish, Fair Haven, by its pastor, Father James Grogan, in December 2017. For the next 12 months, he dedicated homilies, essays and recognition to the vocation of marriage, hoping to support and strengthen the “remote preparation” for marriage.
“In our Church, we teach that there are two major preparation phases for marriage,” Father Grogan explained. “The immediate preparation, 12 to 15 months before the wedding, which includes local preparation for the Sacrament with the priest … and remote preparation, which begins at two years old – from watching parents, grandparents, all married couples in our lives as role models … It forms our view of what marriage is like, and how a husband and wife work together.”
What happened as a result of the initiative was astounding: the parish went from celebrating just three marriages in the Church in the year prior, to preparing about 20 couples to celebrate the Sacrament in 2019-2020.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect such a turnaround,” Father Grogan said. “My intent was not to expect any results immediately, but to change the mindset. I know more people got married that year, just not here [at the parish] … my expectation was that it was contributing to the remote preparation for marriage. I was thinking perhaps people now in high school, in five to six years would benefit.”
Dedicating a Year
The inspiration began when Father Grogan met with Peg Hensler, diocesan associate director of Marriage Ministry and Natural Family Planning, as a member of the Diocese of Trenton’s Marriage Ministry team – a consultative group of priests, deacons and lay leaders that assist Hensler with the full implementation of the diocesan Plan for Strengthening Marriage. The team was attending a training session about mentoring couples, and new ways to approach marriage ministry.
“I was excited about the ideas presented, but the difficulty was, prior to my arrival [as pastor] at Nativity, we had only three marriages that year,” he explained. “I said, ‘We need to have an initiative to encourage people for the resurgence of marriage.’”
“[Father Jim] takes a keen interest in sacramental marriage,” Hensler said, “and he felt that declaring an intentional Year of Marriage would give him the platform to launch various elements of the marriage-strengthening plan at the parish level.”
The program commenced with each Sunday homily relating in some way to marriage and family life, utilizing marriage ministry homiletics materials provided by the Diocese to each priest and deacon.
“In addition to speaking about it, I expanded our parish bulletin to include a full-page essay each week on marriage, relating to that week’s Reading,” said Father Grogan. “I asked people to fill out [and submit] cards with their anniversary dates; usually one write-up per month featured parish anniversaries. One man and wife had the oldest marriage that took place in Nativity Parish, 48 years ago.”
The Year of Marriage also made use of ministries already in place at the parish, including its ministry for the separated and divorced. One of the first pieces of feedback Father Grogan received in the first week of the initiative was from a woman who had suffered through a divorce.
“Am I going to have to listen to 52 weeks of stories about happy smiling couples?” she wanted to know.
“I took the approach of, ‘let’s look at the whole spectrum of what constitutes marriage … and what we can do prayerfully to help and assist people in this spectrum,’” Father Grogan responded. He noted that the parish runs a retreat program and ministry not only for married couples, but also for widows and widowers, as well as a retreat for divorced and separated Catholics.
Part of the Year of Marriage program included developing programs for all phases of marriage, Father Grogan confirmed, and noted that Hensler’s talk at Nativity Parish on convalidation – having one’s marriage recognized by the Church – resulted in four or five couples entering that process.
Making it Personal
Another aspect of the Year of Marriage included the start of a “marriage ring” outside the church building, where commemorative bricks with couples’ names engraved encircle a garden of rose bushes.
“Every time a couple gets married, we give them a brick from the parish in the ring,” Father Grogan said. “Brides and grooms will go out to take photos on their wedding day by their brick. It’s a surprise gift from the parish. One volunteer brought in a couple’s brick and put it on a pedestal in the church for them on their wedding day when the ground was frozen … It’s a place where we as a parish community inscribe their names forever.”
An engagement also took place in Nativity Church, with which Father Grogan assisted.
“It was staged with me, so I knew, and the groom to be knew; he and his fiancée were very faithful people, so he wanted to do it in church,” he recounted. “He was planning to take her out to see the Christmas lights and ‘accidentally’ swing by the church with its lights on and suggest going inside … I had nice music playing and candlelight – he almost didn’t come in because he thought a music rehearsal was going on! Thankfully they did come in, and he knelt down right in the center aisle of the church to propose.”
Nativity parishioner John Hendrick, whose daughter received the aptly-timed marriage proposal, has been married 34 years this year to his wife, Kathleen. He reflected on what the Year of Marriage meant to them, calling it a “very special experience.”
“As a couple who for the last 30-plus years were focused on working together to care and raise three beautiful daughters, we had a strong desire to discover and redefine ourselves as a married couple now that the nest was empty,” Hendrick said. “The Year of Marriage program of daily prayer and parish events helped us rediscover each other, and understand better the things we both wanted and needed to change.”
Hendrick said it also helped them to grow closer to each other, finding a new and deeper intimacy in their marriage and relationship, and to avoid the routine of focusing on the never-ending to-do list of life. The Year of Marriage further assisted them in advising their daughter and future son-in-law about married life, as well as facing retirement together with grace.
“I feel many young people ... often struggle with deciding to marry because one or both are afraid to talk about it, lest they alienate each other,” Hendrick continued. “No one is really talking or listening about this wonderful commitment that everyone secretly desires, and that brings so much everlasting joy!”
Jim and Michele Wilson had their marriage convalidated last year, and were asked to help start marriage ministry at Nativity Parish.
Michele Wilson said marriage is a Sacrament that everyone can relate to. “Allowing this to be the focus in our parish for one year, I believe brought us closer together. By then celebrating other parishioners’ marriages ... we were able to deepen our faith ... While we watch others in their daily quest to make their marriages better, it helps us be introspective about what relationships require to stay healthy.”
Father Grogan said that a wholesome view of marriage has emerged in the parish, with the public examples of its full support of the Sacrament in the Church.
“[They know] we are open to questions people have, their confusion about marrying in the Church,” he said. “It’s a process; we don’t undermine that process – we help it … and it opens the door to mentoring marriage in the newly married.”
Hensler believes that other parishes can learn from the positive outcomes in Nativity Parish when it comes to their own marriage ministry. She also drew attention to the offer of the Nativity Marriage Ministry leadership team to help assist and mentor members of other parish marriage ministry teams.
“[They] can look at the various activities and events that were offered … and incorporate them into a unified marriage-strengthening plan at the parish level,” she said. “For instance, the whole parish can pray for marriage each week, couples involved in the parish can be invited to accompany other couples through difficulties, and parishes can be intentional about identifying and inviting civilly married couples into a conversation about bringing their marriage into the Church.”