Planning ways to grow closer as a married couple and in holiness go far beyond dinner and a movie. The Church helps spouses to fulfill God’s plan for marriage.

“In a lot of ways, we’re the last defender of the beauty and meaning of marriage,” said Mike Phelan, director of the diocesan Marriage and Respect Life Office.

He got a peek at television in recent weeks while traveling — his family hasn’t owned one in years — and was appalled at the programming options he found. Media, pop culture and society overall seem to be in agreement that there’s no such thing as marriage, Phelan said.

“Where are people going to hear a positive, clear, uplifting message about the very first institution God created, which is marriage?” Phelan questioned. “If we don’t promote it, it’s not going to get promoted.”

He credited outreaches such as Catholics Come Home and Catholic Vote for pulling their share of the load. He also rattled off programs and apostolates thriving at the parish level and affirmed others throughout the diocese.

For example, Grupo de Parejas, or Couples Group, at Queen of Peace Parish in Mesa draws in so many that 400 kids are in childcare while their parents are in session. Phelan said the childcare option is crucial. Many in the group have their civil marriage convalidated in the Church.

Fr. Carlos Gomez, pastor at St. Augustine Parish, can relate. He has convalidated nearly 40 marriages this year alone. Many seek the blessing because they finally came to understand the importance of treating marriage as a sacrament and having it under God’s blessing, Fr. Gomez said.

Priests at St. Augustine faithfully pray for “the nature, unity and sanctity of marriage” during weekend liturgies and invite Catholics to attend a Couples Retreat or Marriage Encounter weekend. Fr. Gomez has been known to promote — and even prescribe — the marriage apostolates in the confessional too.

“The most important fruits of those weekends are the strengthening of a marriage relationship and the healing among husband and wife,” Fr. Gomez said.

Mary and Marty Willgohs see it happen all the time. They have been involved with Worldwide Marriage Encounter since 1987 and on a presenting team for the last 12 years. They plan to use the tools and strategies they picked up well into their 90s.

“It’s miraculous. We see a lot of wonderful changes in people who open their heart to the Lord over the weekend,” Mary said.

The weekends, which are offered regularly in the diocese in English and Spanish, gather up to 20 couples at a time to focus on loving communication techniques and placing themselves in their spouse’s shoes.

While apostolates such as Retrouvaille are specifically equipped to help marriages in trouble, the Willgohs find that some couples during a Marriage Encounter weekend have a rocky relationship. They were such a couple. Marty said they were “not in a good place with each other” when the weekend began, but by Sunday afternoon had a renewed marriage.

It’s really a matter of making time daily to truly talk, like many couples do during the romance stage, Mary said. The weekend also shows couples how to use prayer to conquer hurdles. Having that common ground and understanding allows them to walk more as a sacramental unit, especially when issues with kids and finances arise.

Phoenix’s Worldwide Marriage Encounter is now seeing a second generation of couples attend. There’s also a cluster of grown children who have examples of solid marriages throughout the Marriage Encounter community.

“Our sons are telling us all the time they admire our marriage,” Mary said. “Strong marital relationships makes strong families and strong families make a strong Church.”

Greg and Julie Alexander are on a quest to strengthen the Church at all three levels. They’re founders of The Alexander House, a Texas-based apostolate with global reach that proclaims the beauty and truth behind marriage. St. Mary Magdalene Parish in Gilbert uses one of its many programs. St. Timothy in Mesa adapted a version of it.

“We were finding that the average Catholic couple was just as ignorant,” Greg admitted — including himself and his wife.

He and Julie were meeting with a priest 10 years into their marriage to discuss divorce when they were challenged to learn about the Church’s teaching on marriage.

“My heart became on fire. I wanted to hear more and more and more and I couldn’t get enough,” Julie said.

She realized the hearts of other Catholic couples became dormant because they weren’t getting the proper nutrition either. Now they are. Of the 1,500 couples The Alexander House has reached, only 30 were at a point where they couldn’t be helped.

“Unless we do it in Christ, it’s not going to work,” Greg said.

Marriage Resources

To sign up for the Sept. 28 diocesan marriage conference, visit the web:


More resources for healthy marriages can also be found on the web: