Program leads couples to Church marriage

LAWRENCE -- A man and a woman committing themselves to God and to each other in sacramental marriage is a great joy for any parish.

Recently, St. Patrick Parish in Lawrence experienced that joy eight times over -- and all in one wedding Mass.

On April 18, eight couples who had been civilly-married or cohabitating were married in the Church in a ceremony celebrated by Father Paul McManus.

The ceremony marked the culmination of a yearlong marriage initiative led by Hosffman and Guadalupe Ospino called Project Marriage.

The Project Marriage evolved from a longstanding marriage ministry outreach program at St. Patrick’s to Hispanic couples.

The Ospinos, who also lead the parish’s Hispanic ministry, said the inspiration for the program came as a natural extension of their usual ministry. They envisioned it as a way to extend an invitation and educate the parish’s civilly-married and cohabitating couples on the virtue of marriage in life and family; and to ultimately motivate them “to gain full initiation into the life of the Church,” said Hosffman Ospino.

“For many people in our community who wanted to participate in the sacraments of the Eucharist and Reconciliation, they could not--they were not married,” said Ospino.

Father McManus and the Ospinos worked with the couples over the past year to invite them to consider sacramental marriage. Their preparation included attending workshops on couple and family spirituality, natural family planning, the sacrament of marriage and on educating children in a Christian way.

In addition, the parish assumed the costs of the wedding ceremony and reception to eliminate one of the barriers couples often cite for not having a Church ceremony: cost.

While joint weddings are an unusual occurrence in the United States, it is a common practice in other parts of the world, said Ospino. In Latin America, joint wedding celebrations are occasions for communal joy. Father McManus said, as well, that he had married up to 35 couples at once during his five years of service in Ecuador.

For one of the brides, Ana Valdez, the ability to celebrate her marriage alongside her fellow parishioners, and in the company of the Hispanic community, was a source of excitement.

“To have all the group together is part of my happiness,” she said. “Because, according to the Bible, we have to celebrate together with my other sisters and brothers.”

The sacrament of marriage has seen a decline throughout the country in recent years. Here in the Archdiocese of Boston, the number of couples married in the Church has dropped more than 50 percent during this decade. There were only 3,727 marriages in the Church last year, compared to 8,343 in 2000.

According to Kari Colella, coordinator of Marriage Ministries for the Archdiocese of Boston, the decline requires parish leaders to do everything they can to “help couples more fully understand what marriage is--in the eyes of God--as well as the benefit of marrying in the Church,” she said.

The success of St. Patrick’s initiative, she said, “is not only making a significant difference in the lives of the eight couples involved, but also for their families and the entire parish community as a beautiful witness.”

For Ana Valdez and her husband, Rafael, Project Marriage gave them the opportunity to fulfill a commitment they made to themselves 25 years ago when they were married civilly, instead of in the Church--a decision motivated by the financial struggles of raising two sons and the closing of Rafael’s small company.

“It is a once in a lifetime event,” she said adding, “[Rafael’s] dream was always to see me at the altar, and it has come true.”

After the recent birth of her grandson, Nasir, to her eldest son who is not married, Ana said that the ceremony became especially pertinent in motivating her sons to marry in the Church and to continue practicing their faith.

At the center of the Project Marriage initiative was the preservation of marriage as a sacred institution, but also one of community and family.

In one ceremony, Project Marriage led to 40 percent of all marriages celebrated at the parish in 2008, in a triumph that affirms the continued vitality of the sacred sacrament, said Colella.

“It demonstrates the incredible impact of invitation; and it demonstrates that marriage in the Church, despite the recent decline, is good news and possible,” she said.