2018 was a key year in the life of Daniela Mazzone. This young New Yorker, of Dominican descent, met at that time the couple composed of Mary-Rose and Ryan Verret, who years earlier had begun the project Witness to LoveA method of pre-matrimonial and family ministry in which engaged couples are accompanied by a solid matrimony - mentors - with whom a relationship of trust and friendship is established that leads them to a real commitment to the Church and to greater participation in parish communities. A novel way of transforming marriage preparation programs into sources of dynamic marriage discipleship.
In addition to the basic premarital preparation program, Witness to Love develops other marriage pastoral projects. Among them is what they call the path of ConvalidationThe program is an accompaniment aimed at forming couples who are married by civil marriage or who have been in a free union for years, for the reception of the Sacrament of Marriage.
Mazzone points out some of the characteristics that, in his opinion, are characteristic of the Hispanic population that, to a large extent, attends this project. Testimony of Lovethe Spanish line of Witness to Love: "Hispanic people who come to get married in the Church really have that desire to receive the Sacrament. Many times it is because they want to be able to participate in the Eucharist and that is why they want to regularize their marriage. But, even so, I see that many times parishes and dioceses do not give adequate formation to couples who come to convalidate their marriage. Many times they say, 'You've been together for fifteen years, you don't need much preparation,' and maybe they do a group wedding and they don't give much support, because they think they already have the experience. But many times these couples, although they do desire the Eucharist, have not solved the difficulties that led them to marry in a civil ceremony.
In some countries in Latin America a civil wedding is required before the religious wedding. Many times they get married civilly and then migrate to the United States and never had the big church wedding. Often they have their relatives far away and that translates to a lack of support, because they want to regularize their marriage, but they don't have their relatives, they have no one to turn to when difficulties come. On this point, the counseling and accompaniment aspect of Testimonio de Amor is very valuable, because it seems more natural for Hispanics to be in community. I think it is a very nice dynamic for our population and it works very well at the parish level".
Healing wounds and building a Christian marriage
One of the most important aspects of the program is that it is Testimonio de Amor / Witness to Love, is the involvement of couples in parish life, in a natural way. From Testimonio de Amor, as Daniela recalls, "we ask couples to choose their own mentors who have been married at least five years in the Church, who are someone they both admire, and who are practicing the faith." Not infrequently, couples do not find marriages that meet these characteristics among their compatriots. "In these cases."says Daniela, "many parishes have what we call model mentors, people that the parish knows are practicing their faith, married in the Church and committed to evangelization. The couples then choose one of these couples as their mentors and, in this dynamic, many times they are more open to the possibility of interacting with people from different cultures because they see in them something different".
This openness avoids ghettoization in the parish communities themselves and creates intercultural communities. Couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage, Daniela points out, "They see something different in them and admire their marriage. That gives the opportunity to create that community that maybe they don't have and create that support that every marriage needs.".
In this sense, as Mazzone points out, the common experience is also key in couples who perform the Validation Pathway: "Even with the best training, if the course is only a week long, if you are not connected to a relationship, if you have not experienced the healthy married life of another couple, those words fall on deaf ears, because we need that lived experience. We often forget that the sacrament of marriage is not just something the couple receives on the wedding day. The sacrament of marriage is a vehicle where we experience God's love through the love of the couple. Mentors also live their sacrament more fully by being that image of God's love, by sharing their love with others they are renewing that sacrament and that grace. It is not only I love you and you love me. It is something that is made to share with others."
In this sharing, Mazzone underscores how many of the Hispanics participating in this project "come with different injuries and situations. That's why choosing your own mentors is so important. If a person has a history of emigration, they may choose someone who has a similar experience, and they feel more comfortable talking about that experience of being an immigrant, or how they feel about coming to a parish where maybe, they only have a Mass in Spanish, with an Anglo priest who has learned the language, but maybe they don't feel comfortable having conversations with him, even in Confession, maybe he can't give them the advice and support they need.... Those are issues that they obviously talk about in the sessions, especially in the chapter dedicated to creating community and addressing how to establish a family, a community, how they're going to use their free time, how they're going to serve their parish..."
A very important chapter for the Hispanic families coming to the Validation Pathway at Testimony of Love is the approach to the past, families of origin, and even past relationships. As Mazzone points outIt's very common for them to come with children from another relationship. There may be wounds that need to be worked through, and if they choose mentors who have a similar experience, it makes it much easier to open up without feeling like they are being judged for having had a past. I think those issues are important for any couple, but specifically for the Hispanic population, they are issues that come up through mentoring."
Help for married couples... and priests
The project of Testimony of Love is not only revitalizing the parishes where it is being carried out, but is also an invaluable help to the priests in these communities. Daniela affirms that "Since there are only a few priests for each parish, they are very isolated and often live alone".
Mazzone recalls a related anecdote: "We had a priest who was having a crisis in his vocation, he wanted to leave the priesthood because he felt very lonely. He had tried various initiatives but they didn't work; shortly after he was transferred to a parish where they were using Witness of Love.
Part of our program is that at the fifth meeting, for the traditional program, or for the third meeting, in the convalidation program, the priest or deacon is invited to the mentors' home to discuss the theology of marriage and sacramental grace. It was very impactful for the priest to go to the mentors' home and have these conversations with them about the Theology of Marriage. He shared his own testimony of how he came to discern the priesthood, comparing priesthood to marriage, etc. He had an experience of community with families, seeing their day to day life, eating homemade food and not from a can... For him, this experience was the answer to his prayer, to his crisis. To be able to have human relationships with families, which is not only to thank them for the function, for their work, but to be able to have that person-to-person relationship that leads them to rediscover their vocation"..