Consequently, many couples are "falling between the cracks," Verret said, and when they encounter marital difficulties they were not prepared for, they may have no one in their parish to turn to. Through interviewing hundreds of couples before they began their ministry, Verret and her husband Ryan realized that many Catholic couples who were even receiving marriage prep saw their marriages fall apart.
"Amoris Laetitia" instructs Catholics to "find the right language" and "invite" couples "to take up the challenge (of marriage) with enthusiasm and courage." So the Verrets realized that friendship is the answer so many couples need when preparing for marriage.
A couple, at the beginning of Witness to Love marriage prep, is asked to pick a "mentor couple," a married couple they admire and look up to, to accompany them as friends not only through the engagement but into their own marriage. The mentor couple is then trained by parish staff or volunteers to ensure they are up to the task.
By friendship with this married couple, an engaged couple has both a good example and a mentor they can confide in.
"The only way we're going to be able to offer true accompaniment," Verret said, "is if there's someone already involved in the process before the wedding."
Someone "who's been formed, who's been coached, who's been growing in virtue with (the couple), who's been connecting them to the parish, and then prior to the wedding there's an invitation to parish life, invitation to small groups, a follow-up after the wedding where both of those couples are invited into small groups together."
Many couples who otherwise might have faded away from active participation in the church after their wedding now have a connection to the Church through their new friends. And, Verret noted, they have someone experienced to talk to when they encounter difficulties early in their marriage.
"Amoris Laetitia" affirms the very practice of mentor couples: "With the help of missionary families, the couple's own families and a variety of pastoral resources, ways should also be found to offer a remote preparation that, by example and good advice, can help their love to grow and mature."
It is "equally beneficial" for both parties, Verret said. The engaged couples like to spend time with mentors they admire, and the mentors are awed that they would be chosen for the task, and take their responsibility seriously.
Many couples who otherwise might have faded away from active participation in the Church after their wedding now have a connection.
This friendship is a critical component of the marriage prep program; priests are then able to focus more on catechesis, and the program becomes more than just a conference or series of classes which provide a brief "shot in the arm" for couples that fades in time.
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"A gradual process where you do tell them the truth in love and within the context of a relationship is more likely to be successful," the Verrets noted in their program training outline.
"You can't really witness without a relationship," Verret told CNA. "Conversion happens in a relationship."
Dr. Peter Martin is a psychologist who works at Catholic Social Services in Southern Nebraska. The Verrets relied on his input for their ministry. In an interview published in the training program, he explained why a mentor couple is so important to marriage prep.
Engaged couples, once they marry, undergo serious role changes from man and woman to husband and wife, and to father and mother, he noted. This can intensify existing insecurities and bring about new ones, he said. The guidance and advice of a parish and a married couple can bring significant support to a newly-married couple's struggles, he said.
Yet for a friendship to even exist, there must be trust, Verret said. This is hampered by a wide gulf that currently separates many engaged couples from living in accordance with Church teaching.
The mentor couple is there to bridge this gap between an engaged couple's situation and Church teaching which can seem daunting at first glance, Verret said. The friendship and witness of the mentors makes the Christian life more livable and concrete.