Engaged Encounter: Building faithful foundations for 30 years

BOSTON — Engaged Encounter encourages couples to take a break from planning for their “big day” and focus on the rest of their lives.

Somewhere between booking a church, caterer, florist, musicians and a reception hall, engaged couples need to make plans for their marriage, according to Stefane Cahill Farella, one of the organization’s coordinators.

The motto for the weekend retreat is “A wedding is a day… A marriage is a lifetime.” This year the program is celebrating its 30th anniversary of presenting weekends in Boston as well as World Day for Marriage on Feb. 12.

“You need to think seriously about planning your life together and dealing with some of these issues that could be deal-breakers later on,” Cahill Farella said he tells couples. “For instance, how are you going to raise your kids? If you’re interfaith, are you going to raise them in the Catholic Church? Because if you’re getting married in the Catholic Church, you’re committing to that.”

Cahill Farella said he has witnessed friends who ignored pre-existing issues because they did not want to deal with them and ended up in divorce. Couples need to understand that marriage is difficult and that they must choose to love their spouse every day, he added.

“When you get married, that’s when the work begins,” he said.

Although it can be tough at times, marriage is a great gift from God, a sacrament and an important part of society, he added.

“Marriage is the foundation of society. It brings two people together,” said Father Gerald F. Flater, a presenter on some of the weekends.

It is important for children to grow up in loving and solid marriages, he added.

Engaged Encounter, an international non-profit organization, is designed so that engaged couples can enrich their relationship through communication about their shared values and their relationship with God. The program came out of Marriage Encounter during the 1970s.

Couples are invited to spend a weekend with each other listening to presentations from a priest and two married couples — one long married and the other more recently married. The speakers share their experiences and the engaged couples have time to discuss the talks, as well as various topics with each other. They also attend Mass together and have the opportunity to go to confession.

In about two-thirds of the cases, both members of an Engaged Encounter couple are Catholic. However, over the last five years an increasing number are interfaith or non-Catholic couples.

Many of the couples who attend the weekend are Catholics who need to complete a program before they can be married in the Church, Cahill Farella said. A majority of them are apprehensive about the weekend. But, by the end, almost all say they are glad they came and that the experience has deepened their relationship with God.

The world and the Church need strong marriages now more than ever, he added. Half of all first marriages fail and fewer people are seeking Catholic marriage. The program, which held 40 weekends annually in the 1980s, now holds only 10 a year. However, last year an additional two weekend retreats were added for Spanish-speaking couples, and there will be three this year.

“We believe in the value of marriage so strongly,” he said. “Mary’s parents are separated. My parents are divorced. We both experienced the pain of that.”

The Cahill Farellas wanted to use their marriage to give something back. They became involved with Engaged Encounter in 1997, and became a presenting couple the next year. In 2005 they accepted a two year term as the coordinating couple for the program.

Jean Butler, who has been involved with the program for over 20 years, said she and her husband also wanted to help during this difficult time for marriage. Marriage in our culture has been divorced from gender, religion and family, she said.

“I think our society doesn’t know what to make of marriage. It’s pretty hard to be married well when you don’t know what it is that you’re doing,” she said. “This person is God’s gift to them, so the appropriate response is one of love and giving back.”

“What you’ve learned all your life about being a good Christian is part of what it takes to be well-married. It does mean sometimes you have to take up your cross,” she added. “Sometimes you’re the one on the cross and it’s your spouse that’s standing there at the foot of your cross.”

Bulter said she also wants couples to know that they should seek God when they need help.

“We’re not married really well because we are so great at it. We are married really well because we are wise enough to know that we need God’s grace to do it well,” she said.