How one ministry helps families live the sacrament of marriage in community

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]

There are certain things you have to accept when you are one of 25 couples getting married during a single ceremony. If you are the bride, for example, you will not be the only woman dressed in white. You also do not choose the readings. And if one of the couples is late to the ceremony, you have to wait.

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“We will begin a little late this afternoon,” the Rev. Thomas Bennett says in Spanish to the congregation gathered on June 1 at Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Mesa, Ariz., explaining that one couple has been delayed. “I’m happy to announce that, this time, it is not my fault.”

The 24 couples roar with laughter. They are sitting next to each other in pews. Some are in their 20s, but others are in their 40s and 50s. Some couples have been living together for years already. Some are in common-law marriages, while others are civilly married. With their families, they easily fill 25 rows of pews on the north side of the sanctuary.

Some couples sit together with their children and other family members. Some even sit with their grandchildren. Some of the children are quiet and some are still, but most of them are neither.

Once the Mass begins, things settle down. Each couple places a rose in a vase that Father Bennett carries down the aisle. The first reading is from Genesis, the second from Ephesians, and the Gospel reading is from Matthew—all about the two becoming one flesh.

“You are not only sanctifying this people, but the body of Christ, the church,” Father Bennett says in his homily. “This is something that can be felt throughout the community. God is blessing us through this sacrament. You are giving your very self to your spouse.”

The couples come up, one at a time, with their sponsoring couple, and make their vows before Father Bennett and the congregation. Before they do this, the priest asks the congregation to pay attention to each of the 25 couples, who step forward in alphabetical order. As they make their vows, each couple holds a large crucifix between them. Later, it will be hung in their house to remind them that Christ should be the center of their relationship. After all the couples have returned to the pews, all 25 of them exchange rings simultaneously.

Queen of Peace has been doing multiple weddings during a single Mass for at least 13 years. In many ways, the ministry reflects the priorities of Pope Francis’ “Amoris Laetitia,” although the group was formed long before the apostolic exhortation. It is an extension of a couples ministry begun by Jaime and Martha Whitford. Mr. Whitford is a deacon and Ms. Whitford is a licensed social worker; both are from Nicaragua. The community weddings offer the couples—most of whom are immigrants—a way into the sacrament of marriage that is free and low-pressure and offers a supportive community for the sacred rite.

"You are giving your very self to your spouse.”

Catholic couples choose community weddings for a variety of reasons. Many of them have been civilly married for years and want to be married in the church to receive Communion. In some cases, they feel unwelcome because of their marital status and have fallen away from the church. Parishes in a number of dioceses, including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago, offer community weddings as a way to bring them back.

“I think one of the great successes of this ministry is that couples do not feel marginalized,” Deacon Whitford says. “Instead, they are received and welcomed. They feel like they are an important part of the church.”

Marriage classes are offered on Sundays, after the morning Mass. That helps a lot for people who work almost every day, including Saturdays. The multiple wedding ceremony is also much more affordable.

“We don’t charge a penny,” Deacon Whitford says.

The same is true of St. Benedict Church in Montebello, Calif., where 30 couples got married during a community wedding on June 8. During the Mass, Rosalinda and Alfonso Padilla, both in their 80s, were sacramentally married after having been civilly married for 60 years. “We had been wanting to go to Communion forever and now we’ll be able to,” Ms. Padilla says.

At Queen of Peace, the multiple-marriage Mass is only one dimension of the Spanish-language couples ministry. Its multifaceted approach aims to welcome couples into the community, enrich their relationships and help them grow together in the faith. Along with the multiple-marriage Mass, the ministry also organizes a monthly movie night in the parish hall, a monthly Saturday morning lecture on themes related to married life, couples retreats twice a year and a blessing of couples, married or not, during a special Mass.

“When we started this group, we had the general goal of offering couples a way to spiritually nourish themselves,” Deacon Whitford says. “Taking that as our starting point, we didn’t care if the couples were married or not, or if they were only civilly married.”

“I think one of the great successes of this ministry is that couples do not feel marginalized."

Deacon Whitford says the group creates an environment in which couples can be involved with the church “without fearing that they would be reprimanded. No one knows what concrete circumstances lead couples to choose not to be married by the church.”

The Whitfords were quick to entrust lay couples with the task of coordinating the group. “They have to understand, especially we Hispanics, who have the tendency to follow priests and deacons, that the laity need to take a leadership role,” the deacon said. “This group has to exist, with or without a priest or deacon.”

Cultivating Grace

At the marriage Mass on June 1, there are more than a dozen other couples sitting together in a few rows of pews. They are all wearing light purple polo shirts with the ministry’s logo, “Grupo de Parejas Reina de La Paz,” (“Queen of Peace Couples Group”). Lilian and Nelson Fuentes are among them. They were married at Queen of Peace in 2011 and were coordinators of the couples ministry from 2014 to 2018.

In a way, leading comes naturally to both of them. Ms. Fuentes heads a housecleaning business and Mr. Fuentes runs a painting business. But as far as their relationship goes, marriage took a while.

The couple met after they came separately to the United States from Mexico. They had lived together for years and had three children before getting married. Nelson comes from a Protestant family and had not been baptized. “Lilian always dreamed of being married,” Nelson says. “But I guess I was coming into it a little confused.”

Lilian brought their children to catechism classes during the week and noticed they offered an adult Bible study group at the same time. Rather than go back home, she stayed for it. She was filled with a desire to receive the Eucharist, she says, and confided to the woman leading the Bible study that she was ready to leave her husband in order to receive Communion.

“She told me, ‘God does not want separated families. He wants them together,’” Ms. Fuentes recalls during an interview in the front room of their two-story home in Mesa. Their walls are a little bare because Mr. Fuentes is having their large family photos reframed. Near the front door, a Bible sits open on a stand next to a poster-size image of the Blessed Mother.

“The grace of God was poured out in us, and we have continually tried to cultivate that."

“God had a plan,” Mr. Fuentes laughs, explaining that thanks to Ms. Fuentes, he eventually started attending classes as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “I started learning about how the church was founded and other things, and my doubts just started falling behind.”

The R.C.I.A. process and the couples group led Mr. and Ms. Fuentes into the sacrament of marriage. During their wedding Mass, Mr. Fuentes was baptized and confirmed, and he received first Communion. (At the time, Father Bennett joked that it was a shame Mr. Fuentes was not ill, or he could have also received one more sacrament, the anointing of the sick.)

“The grace of God was poured out in us, and we have continually tried to cultivate that,” Ms. Fuentes says of being sacramentally married. But the sacrament was only the beginning.

“We really used to hurt each other,” Mr. Fuentes says. “It was a marriage in which many things have had to heal, little by little. Being a part of the couples group really helped us learn to forgive each other.”

“There were times when we would go weeks without speaking to each other,” Ms. Fuentes says. “We slept in different beds at times. The couples group helped us learn to tolerate each other, to work through mistakes, to talk. We learned how to simply say, ‘I don’t like it when you do this.’”

Over time, they took on different leadership roles within the group. Eventually, the Whitfords invited the couple to become the group coordinators. They accepted, and then learned that Ms. Fuentes was pregnant with their fourth child.

“We don’t have the perfect marriage, but God helps.”

A short time afterward, they also learned Mr. Fuentes had a serious skin disease. He was bedridden for seven months. But the community pulled together to support them, both at work and in their new roles as coordinators of the group.

Ms. Fuentes now says, “We don’t have the perfect marriage, but God helps.”

Acting as a Couple

Couples begin filling into Queen of Peace’s Madonna Hall on a Friday in July for the monthly couples ministry movie night. Some of the couples who come to the group do so because they are having problems. Others come because they are preparing to get married. Later they will watch “Love Comes Softly,” a Hallmark movie made in 2003, dubbed in Spanish. The plot involves the relationship between a widow and a widower living in the territory that would eventually become the western United States during the 1800s. Each month, a couple selects a movie—usually something inspirational—and leads the discussion for the group.

After a brief introduction, around 20 couples reflect as a group on 1 Corinthians 13, a passage often read at weddings. They take turns sharing what word or verse stood out for them. One man notes the verse that says love “does not brood over injury.” The facilitators ask the group how they will act in everyday life, now that they have meditated on the passage. Among the responses, one woman says she will be more patient with her husband.

The couples make their way to the back of the hall, near the kitchen area, for pizza and coffee. They mingle for a little while before they are called back to their seats for the movie. Child care is always provided during couples ministry events, but some couples keep their babies with them. No one seems bothered when the babies fuss during the film.

After the movie is over, Mr. and Ms. Fuentes lead another discussion. Couples take turns coming forward to share which of the film’s messages they can apply to their family. The film, which deals with the death of loved ones, leads one woman to share about praying to the Sacred Heart of Jesus for her dying mother. One man shares how his father used to beat him but says he has vowed to be gentle with his children, like the male protagonist in the film.

“Then she told me, ‘No, that’s enough. Either we get married or it’s over.’”

The evening wraps before 9 p.m., with Deacon Whitford announcing he has tickets for an upcoming couples celebration with the bishop of the diocese. “No one has cheaper tickets than I do!” he quips. The celebration—$30 per couple—includes a special Mass with the bishop, including the couples blessing, dinner and a dance with live music.

Samuel Rojas, who has been sitting by the door with his wife, Catalina, laughs. The couple have helped coordinate the group since Mr. and Ms. Fuentes stepped down a couple of years ago. The Rojas often drive more than an hour to get to couples ministry events. They are from the same town in the Mexican state of Durango, but they did not start dating until decades after Mr. Rojas moved to the United States.

Mr. Rojas studied civil engineering in Mexico but he says he was not paid well there. In 1984, he migrated to Arizona. It was difficult at first, learning the language and the culture.

“I could not accomplish what I wanted to [in Mexico]. But I could make it work here,” Mr. Rojas says during an interview in their home in Phoenix. “Here, it was up to me and no one else. You can create your own destiny rather than depend on others.”

In his experience, success in Mexico is often dependent on who you know. It is easier to earn money in the United States, Mr. Rojas says, but it is also easier to spend it. “I had to change my habits, from going to parties, dances, drinking...lots of things,” he says.

Mr. Rojas began building a reputation at work. He joined a major construction company and was involved in building spring training stadiums and in the construction of freeways in Arizona. Construction is hard work, especially in the hot desert, he says, so he always had his workers do the most strenuous work in the morning and left the lighter work for the afternoon. Not all of his employers appreciated it, Mr. Rojas says, but he never asked his workers to do more than they could.

“I told him, ‘No, I didn’t get married to get divorced.’”

Over the years, he would continue to travel to his hometown to visit family and friends. He had known Ms. Rojas’s sister from school. “During a visit, she saw me and said to herself, ‘I like him,’” Mr. Rojas says. Ms. Rojas, sitting next to him on their living room couch, smiles.

They began a long-distance relationship, with Mr. Rojas visiting at least twice a year. Ms. Rojas had a good job in Durango and had two children—now adults—from a previous relationship. For nine years, they went back and forth about whether to get married.

“Then she told me, ‘No, that’s enough. Either we get married or it’s over,’” Mr. Rojas, who is far more talkative than his wife, says. “I was interested in her, I was just not making the right decisions. I didn’t want to get married. I liked being alone.”

Mr. Rojas came around, though, and with the help of Catalina’s daughter, he planned a surprise proposal in Mexico. They were both Catholic, so getting married in the church was a given. They would have to do their marriage preparation separately, however, and that presented a problem for Mr. Rojas. He first approached parishes where he attended Mass near his home, but they would not let him attend marriage preparation alone.

Eventually, he talked to Deacon Whitford and they worked it out. But Mr. Rojas had to drive to the other side of town for marriage preparation classes. Ms. Rojas took her classes in Durango, where they were married a few years ago. Ms. Rojas agreed to move to the United States and is currently taking English classes at a local college while Samuel is a work. But after the long distance relationship, they started to have a lot of trouble.

“At first, I told her I wanted a divorce,” Mr. Rojas says. “I didn’t want to live like that, fighting all the time. No, not me.”

"We see God working in us as a couple.”

“I told him, ‘No, I didn’t get married to get divorced,’” Ms. Rojas says. “I took that promise seriously. We had to fight for it, to keep moving forward. That’s when he really started trying.”

They sat down with Deacon Whitford for counseling and that helped a lot. But being part of the group helped even more. They also began to attend Al-Anon meetings, which helped them with a family member who was struggling with substance abuse.

“We continue to work on it and we center ourselves in God,” Ms. Rojas says. “In my experience, I have seen that we find God among us in the group. That’s what we communicate to other couples, to stay connected to God. I know that God is everywhere, but these groups help us come to know God, hear God’s voice. I have to go where they speak of God and where we as a couple can come to know God. We see God working in us as a couple.”

“You have to talk about it as a couple first,” Mr. Rojas says. “Then you can start to learn more. We found we could not solve our problems by ourselves. We had to find someone who could give us an orientation. But we had to be the ones that asked for assistance. If someone truly wants to get out of a crisis situation, they ask for help.”

Mr. and Ms. Rojas got involved with the group’s committee in charge of promotions. Ms. Rojas is in charge of flyers, WhatsApp messages and social media, while Mr. Rojas calls those couples who prefer communication over the phone.

They are co-coordinators of the group with another couple. They have surveyed the group and want to find ways to make closer connections with couples who attend. Mr. Rojas believes it may be useful to meet one-on-one, or couple-to-couple. He gets frustrated when couples seem to be slow to open up. A more intimate setting might help couples open up more, Ms. Rojas says. But Deacon Whitford tells both of them it takes time. The couples could be struggling with a range of issues, including alcoholism and domestic violence.

“We have many taboos that we bring from our towns in Latin America. ‘Women cannot get angry’ or ‘The man is the one who speaks and not the woman,’” Mr. Rojas says. “But you have to move past that if you truly want to have a good relationship with your partner. That relationship isn’t just about communication, but about being and living together as members of this couples group. We come as a couple, we listen as a couple, and we act as a couple.”

"We come as a couple, we listen as a couple, and we act as a couple.”

That dependence on the community runs counter to the individualistic culture that is prevalent in the United States, Mr. Rojas says. But, he added, opening up about difficulties within the marriage relationship is also hard because it is not part of the culture of most Latin American immigrants.

“It’s not as much about helping couples as it is about allowing them to be integrated with the group,” Mr. Rojas says. “It’s creating a space where they are not afraid of asking questions, where they know no one will laugh at their questions.”

That starts with not setting up barriers to couples who are not married in the church, Deacon Whitford says. “You certainly don’t have to be sacramentally married to be on the [couples group’s] decorating committee,” he says. He adds that the group is far from perfect and there have been disagreements among members.

While the couples ministry may reflect the values of “Amoris Laetitia,” Deacon Whitford suspects most members have not heard of the papal exhortation. “And if they have heard of it, they probably haven’t read it. They certainly don’t know anything about the famous footnote,” he says, referring to language that some interpret as allowing divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion. Yet the sense of accompaniment called for by Pope Francis is at the center of the lived reality at the parish.

“When a couple approaches the church, it’s a moment of joy,” Deacon Whitford says. “Around here, we don’t start by asking if they’re registered or if they’re putting the [donation] envelope in the basket. What you have to communicate is welcome. It’s about opening the door, letting people know you need their help, letting them get involved. For Hispanic Catholics, faith is experienced in the heart. The church has to walk with them in their daily lives.”

[Editors’ note: This is part of America’s 2019 family issue. Click here to find our other stories on faith and today’s families.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Jones
2 months 3 weeks ago

Gorgeous article, gorgeous ministry.

Ray Temmerman
2 months 3 weeks ago

This strikes me as a worthwhile endeavour.
How does the parish welcome couples who are from two different Christian traditions? What happens if the person who is not Catholic chooses to remain faithful to God in his/her own Christian tradition, while encouraging and supporting his/her Catholic spouse in the Catholic tradition? Do you recommend RCIA (which isn't really an appropriate vehicle, given that it's a Rite of Christian Initiation, and these people are already Christians)? Or do you somehow encourage and enable these couples to share with each other the 'pearl of great price' that is their own faith tradition, hand that on to their spouse and together to their children - given that in so doing, they are forming the ground in which ecclesial unity may come about?
I hope this parish may continue its good work, and include mixed-religion couples within that work.

Vincent Gaglione
2 months 3 weeks ago

Were that every Catholic church in the USA as demonstrably open to people as these parish communities and clergy!

Mary Lynch
2 months 3 weeks ago

The pastor of our twin parish in Haiti (1 church and 10 chapels) celebrated the sacrament of marriage for those who had never been married. He had religious instruction and several ceremonies throughout the region so that everyone could participate. Now these people are a good example for their children!

Alan Johnstone
2 months 3 weeks ago

Interesting prophetic ministry in a community with a specific need at a specific time under specific circumstances.
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