While the bishops’ synod in Rome continues to discuss issues related to marriage and family, many wonder how the Church can better serve married couples in the trenches—the people who struggle to stay together and make it through another year, month, day—the “poor families,” as Simcha Fisher called them in a recent piece for Aleteia.
Difficult marriages are nothing new, and neither are completely messed-up, on-the-brink-of-divorce marriages. But besides turning to therapy and prayer, most Catholics don’t know about a ministry that’s been helping to repair the most troubled Catholic marriages for more than forty years now: Retrouvaille.
Retrouvaille, a French word meaning “rediscovery” or “the finding again,” traces its roots to a married couple in Quebec named Guy and Jeannine Beland. In 1977 the Belands were a “presenting couple” at a World Wide Marriage Encounter retreat, a program designed to help nurture and strengthen Catholic marriages. They realized something more was needed for couples who were in serious trouble. They presented the first Retrouvaille weekend in Hull, Quebec, that same year, slightly revising the outline used by Marriage Encounter.
Eventually, other couples became involved, and a group of lay couples and priests was formed to deliver the program in English in the Toronto area. News of Retrouvaille’s effectiveness spread quickly, and the ministry began to move south into the United States (and eventually into other parts of the world). It became clear to organizers that Retrouvaille should be its own entity, and by the early 1980s it had its own program. Retrouvaille is now recognized around the world as a leader in marriage ministry. It’s peer run—the presenting couples have all been through Retrouvaille themselves and understand what it means to repair seemingly hopeless marriages.
Pope Benedict XVI granted a private audience to Retrouvaille in September 2008 and told its representatives that those who serve in the ministry are “custodians of a bigger hope for the couples who have lost it.”
Hope and healing are exactly what married couples gain through Retrouvaille, many of whom say they were on their way to divorce court just before they heard about Retrouvaille. Some couples show up at Retrouvaille in their early years of marriage and some make it there much later, after problems have built up over decades.
Mary J. fits into the latter group. She was married to her husband, Harold, for forty-three years before they attended a Retrouvaille weekend in the greater Cincinnati area at the advice of their son and daughter-in-law. They were practicing Catholics but had never heard of the ministry. When problems became so bad that Mary consulted with a divorce lawyer, both agreed to attend the retreat.
“At first, I was apprehensive at the thought of being in a room full of fighting, angry couples like us, but those fears were quickly dispelled when we were cheerfully greeted by our presenting couple and their team. All of them had been to the brink in their own marriages, and with the help of Retrouvaille had built stronger and more loving relationships. They understood where we were coming from,” says Mary. “That gave us the confidence that we too could rise from the ashes and, with God’s help, build a more healthy and loving marriage.”
Mary says the Retrouvaille weekend was a turning point.
“The team and the other couples became our supporters. They provided us with the ideal climate to accept our part in our past failures and the encouragement to do everything possible to grow into the loving couple that we wanted to be. We realized that we all had a stake in one another’s marriage success,” she says.
The couple also began to see a Catholic psychologist weekly who managed to weave Retrouvaille principles, the Catholic faith, and sound psychology into their therapy.
“Our marriage not only survived but was built on a stronger foundation of love, respect, and understanding,” explains Mary. “The most important lesson for us—as self-righteous as we were—was that it’s more important to be loving than to be right. We truly became one and greater than the sum of our parts.”
After attending the initial Retrouvaille weekend, Mary and Harold attended follow-up meetings every week for several years. Mary says it was a long and sometimes difficult journey, but they discovered a lot about their marriage and themselves. She says Retrouvaille taught them to lovingly communicate with each other, to really listen without judgment, and to pray together.
“God became a partner in our marriage,” she says.
Harold died three years ago, and Mary says she often thanks God for giving them Retrouvaille (as well as their therapist).
“Had it not have been so, I would be wracked with guilt and a very sad person. Now, although I’m a widow, I still feel married to Harold; I sense his loving presence. I wear both of our wedding rings on a gold chain around my neck. I’m happy with my life.”
Mary and Harold’s story is just one of Retrouvaille’s many success stories. Given its mission and effectiveness, why don’t more people know about it? Well, for one, it’s not a diocese-directed program. It’s also very “grassroots” in nature: the presenting couples are volunteers, Retrouvaille’s website isn’t fancy, and its mission—being a lifeline to the most troubled marriages—isn’t glamorous. But perhaps it’s partly those things that make the program work so well.
“The [couples who run it] are loving, humble, encouraging, and they share their personal journeys,” says Mary. “The receiving couples share what they’re comfortable sharing. There is ‘homework.’ The atmosphere is positive and encouraging, but the real work is done by the couples themselves—they must be committed to saving and growing their marriage. Most of the couples realize their relationship is worth the time and effort. We certainly felt that ours was.”
Find out more about Retrouvaille and upcoming retreats in your area.
Zoe Romanowsky is Lifestyle Editor and Video Curator for Aleteia.