By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
DAVENPORT — Deacon Dan Huber perceives “a deep hunger within the people of God for a holy marriage. Deep down they want and desire the vision the Church proclaims about the vocation of
marriage. They want to love and be loved. They want safety and security when everything around them seems to be in chaos. But a significant number of couples are being formed by opposing forces. They have been harmed by divorce either directly or indirectly.”
Diocesan Marriage and Family Life Coordinator Marianne Agnoli says she and her counterparts in other dioceses and archdioceses face similar challenges regarding the state of marriage. These include “a decreasing number of couples getting married in the Catholic Church, a limited understanding of the vocation of Christian marriage among those couples presenting themselves for marriage, and a growing need to provide opportunities to enrich and support marriages at all stages.”
The steady decline in couples marrying in the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Davenport is consistent with national trends, Agnoli said.
Diocese of Davenport Marriage Statistics:
2022 – 241 couples (both Catholic-159, only one Catholic-82)
2012 – 447 couples (both Catholic-260, only one Catholic-187)
2002 – 631 couples (both Catholic-353, only one Catholic-241)
These concerns inspired a diocesan pilot project with the Alpha Marriage Course, an internationally recognized program to help married couples invest in their relationship and build strong marriages. The Alpha Marriage Course has a proven track record with more than 1 million couples who have participated in the program in more than 127 countries, Agnoli said.
“The Marriage Course was developed to act as a ‘bridge between the church and the local community by recognizing the need to go beyond the social, as well as physical, walls of the church to help couples with their relationships,’” she said. “It is easy to run and can also be offered virtually to couples who are homebound or in remote locations.”
Sacred Heart Cathedral, where Deacon Huber serves as pastoral associate, hosted the seven-session Marriage Course from February through April. Twenty-eight couples, whose marriages ranged from one year to more than 50 years, participated. Each session addressed topics essential to a strong marriage: strengthening connection, the art of communication, resolving conflict, the power of forgiveness, the impact of family, good sex, and love in action.
The setting matters
The Thursday night sessions had the look and feel of a date night. Fairy lights glowed inside vases centered between two lit candles on each table of eight, creating a romantic atmosphere for the married couples seated one per table in the cathedral’s Grand Hall. “The setting matters,” Agnoli said. “I believe the relaxed, comfortable and ‘romantic’ atmosphere helped reduce some of the stresses of the day and allowed a couple to be better able to engage in more meaningful, private conversation.”
“This ‘date’ included a dinner that they didn’t need to go out and purchase, didn’t have to prepare, and didn’t have to clean-up after,” Deacon Huber said. (He and wife, Rachel, took responsibility for the dinner.) “They didn’t have the distraction of other couples or children being at their tables. This later point allowed them time to simply eat and talk about anything they chose to discuss as a couple.”
“This time together allowed them to go back and recall what brought them together and to fall in love in the first place.” The privacy, within a larger group setting, “allowed them to be honest with each other about the personal nature of their relationship,” Deacon Huber said.
During a break in the April 13 session, couples shared with The Catholic Messenger their enthusiasm for the Marriage Course. “There’s a lot to learn. Just because you’ve been married a long time, doesn’t mean you know everything,” said Mary Nelson. She and Terry, her husband of 37 years, looked forward to each week’s session. Members of Sacred Heart Cathedral, they are parents of three grown children, one of whom plans to attend a future Marriage Course with her husband. The Nelsons said they found themselves talking about each week’s topic throughout the week.
Sacred Heart parishioners Brent and Ann Earley, who will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary in September, have been both participants in a marriage enrichment program and sponsors for couples preparing for marriage. They offered to help with the Marriage Course and are glad they did.
“It never goes out of style to keep those topics open,” Brent said, referring to each week’s theme. “The common denominator across all of them is communication,” he added. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re newly married or married 50 years, you still have to work on your marriage,” Ann said. “We’re comfortable in our marriage but we still have room to grow,” Brent said. “We’re human, also.”
Laura Genis and Dan Dillon, married last year in the cathedral, enjoyed the opportunity to learn and to build on their marriage and their role as parents of an infant. “Dan is a cradle Catholic and I am not,” Laura said. “I like how the Catholic Church supports marriages.” Dan appreciated the friendly atmosphere and the program’s Christian approach to marriage. Both appreciated the format. “The structure is amazing,” Laura said. “It creates an opportunity for true conversation.”
Marriage Course volunteers Greg and Sandi Hanson said they benefited from the program, too, particularly listening to the couples in the video presentations sharing their insights. “As a couple married happily for 41 years, we still find it beneficial,” Greg said. The video presentations “make it real,” he added. “I think a lot of people struggle with the same things.” Sandi added, “Anytime you can gain wisdom from others, it’s beautiful.”
Feedback from the couples overall was very positive. Almost every couple said “participation in the course was beneficial to their relationship and that they would recommend the course to others and would be willing to assist in some way when the next course is offered,” Agnoli said.
She hopes “parishes and schools will utilize this resource as an initial means of assisting couples to invest in their marriages and the marriages of others. The long-term goal is to have couples working with other couples using this course and additional marriage enrichment resources to build and support healthy and strong lifelong marriages throughout the diocese and beyond.”
“One critical point this course raised over and over again is that the strategy of avoidance rarely produces a positive outcome in any kind of relationship,” Deacon Huber said. “We need to help provide meaningful tools and experiences that will help relationships within the Church flourish. The deaneries, pastors and parish teams can figure out what approach they are going to place their effort around, but it can no longer be a back-burner issue for a parish, deanery or diocese.”