From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Marriage Preparation weekends stress communication, family life

by Bonita Lawhead, Inland Register staff

(From the March 21, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

"Marriage is great! I had no idea it would be this great.”

These seldom-heard sentiments on marriage were expressed by Ann Thomas at a recent Marriage Prep weekend. After eight years of marriage, she and her husband, Don, made their debut as one of the three team couples on the weekend held Feb. 22-24.

Marriage Prep is the diocesan program that helps engaged couples get ready for marriage. When they participate in Marriage Prep, engaged couples explore their ideas, experiences and differences about Catholic/Christian marriage and how they communicate those differences.

Father John McGrann started Marriage Prep in the Spokane Diocese in 1972. He recruited about a dozen married couples and together, they guided a series of talks on marriage. In those days, Marriage Prep was held monthly on a Sunday afternoon, usually in a parish.

Among the recruited couples were Hans and Mallene Herzog of Spokane and Jerry and Judie Van Pevenage, then of Spokane and now of Davenport. Both couples are still involved with Marriage Prep. The Herzogs are program coordinators and the Van Pevenages attend as a team couple when their schedule permits. Both couples have now been married 39 years.

Redemptorist Father Gordon Lester took over the program from Father McGrann. Under Father Lester’s guidance the Sunday afternoon talks were expanded to weekend presentations. For the next 10 years Marriage Prep weekends took place at Mater Cleri Center in Colbert. It was during Father Lester’s time that the Herzogs became the program’s coordinators.

In 1992 the Herzogs were awarded the Bishop’s Medal for outstanding service to the diocesan church.

Marriage Prep’s format is simple and straightforward. Team couples give presentations on various topics, drawing from their own experiences. Among the topics are love, communication, sexuality and finances

Couples are grouped by age for small group discussions facilitated by the team couples. The couples have time alone as well, working through various questions, keeping a notebook of their discussions.

Priests attend the weekend, too, for reconciliation and liturgy and for education. Hans and Mallene said the program has been “very blessed” in the priests who have attended.

A ceremony of blessing for the engaged couples ends the weekend.

The Spokane Diocese’s new marriage policy states that “pastors are responsible to insure that engaged couples are provided adequate marriage preparation.” Marriage Prep, administered through the Parish Services Office, is one resource available to them. Engaged Encounter is another option, and some parishes have their own programs.

In its 30-year history, about 2,500 couples have participated in Marriage Prep.

Four weekends are offered each year: two at Immaculate Heart Retreat Center and two at Gonzaga University’s Bozarth Retreat Center. Both are in Spokane. The weekends start Friday evening and end Sunday afternoon.

Like many programs, Marriage Prep has changed over the years. While the format remains the same, Hans Herzog said the talks are more sophisticated. “People are more prepared (when they come) and they’re more cautious,” he said.

Another noticeable change is that the engaged couples who attend are older. The average age “used to be about 20 and now it’s about 26 or so,” Hans said. “We have very few couples under 20.” Some couples are in their 50s or older.

Also, fewer couples make a Marriage Prep these days. Reasons for the change might include couples’ decision not to marry, or to marry somewhere rather than in the church.

Choosing not to marry is more common. Some couples may have had a relationship for years before deciding to marry. Hans said it used to be “rare to have couples who were living together. We’d have maybe one or two. Now it’s about half” the couples.

Other couples may have been married before. The previously-married couples get a special workbook titled “To Trust Again.” Particular attention is paid to the topic of blending families.

Provision is made during the weekend for interfaith couples. They are split into two groups: Catholic and non-Catholic, to spend about half an hour or so talking about issues unique to them, such as attending church and raising the children. “This is the most emotional part of the weekend,” said Hans.

All the couples who come to a Marriage Prep can bring their children. By their presence, the children teach about family life. That was one of the attractions for the Van Pevenages when they first became involved with Marriage Prep. “The weekends were something we could do as a whole family,” Judie said.

All the Herzog and the Van Pevenage children were part of Marriage Prep during their growing up years. Now as adults, the children and their spouses assist as team couples and they bring their own children along.

Teaching about family life has become an important part of a Marriage Prep. On Sunday mornings, Mallene, who is an educator, gives a presentation on family life and raising children. One thing she tells couples is “ to practice on other people’s children before they have their own.”

The diocese’s Marriage Prep program helps couples look at many different issues, but the important part of each one is communication.

Susie and Craig Savage made their Marriage Prep weekend in 1992. During that weekend, “We learned to talk about things,” said Susie, “and not hold everything inside. It’s a good way for couples to learn about each other before marriage.” The weekend was a gift to them from Craig’s parents, John and Barbara Savage, who had also made a Marriage Prep.

The benefits of Marriage Prep extend beyond its obvious purpose. The engaged couples often form long-lasting friendships with other couples on their weekend, who in turn become a support system in the vocation of marriage and a place to “share ideas of faith and family,” said the Herzogs.

Many couples who have made a weekend, such as the Thomases, come back as team couples, which helps strengthen their own relationships. Even preparing their talks can be a time of growth.

The team couples have more responsibility for the weekend, but one of the values of their presence is their example of married life. “The couples who assist at the weekends are powerful models of living their faith and serving their church,” Hans said.

The Van Pevenages try to assist at one weekend a year. Judie said their communication skills deepen with each weekend they attend, which may seem surprising for a long-time married couple. “Every time there are ‘aha!’ moments,” she said. “It comes from being exposed to so much different thinking.”

In his introductory statement to the diocese’s marriage policy, published in the Inland Register Feb. 28, Bishop William Skylstad writes, “Well-lived, marriage is a powerful sign within the Church and culture at large.”

Hans and Mallene share that thought. Hans commented on “how important it is to recognize that being permanent in a throw-away society” is not easy. “Love is not easy. Sometimes we don’t feel like loving. But we go on because that’s what we promised.”

Marriage Preparation Program loses long-time suppporter
Jesuit Father Tony Lehmann, who died of leukemia March 8, was a staunch supporter of Marriage Prep. He was chaplain for Gonzaga University alumni and celebrated over 1,000 weddings. Marriage Prep coordinator Hans Herzog said Father Lehmann required the couples he was to marry to participate in one of the weekends. One couple from California came to the recent February weekend, knowing that Father Lehmann would be unable to officiate at their wedding.

“He would call to wish the team well from anywhere in the world,” Herzog said. “There will be a void without Father Tony.”

Two Marriage Preparation Weekends presently are scheduled for 2002: April 26-28, and May 17-19. Both are set for Bozarth Retreat Center.

Inland Register archives

© The Roman Catholic Diocese of Spokane. All Rights Reserved