When Art and Laraine Bennett became the first couple to get married in the Catholic Church on the campus of the University of California in Santa Barbara, they were self-described “casual Catholics.”
“We got married over spring break when we were in graduate school so that all our friends could come to the wedding,” Laraine said with a laugh. “And we were not really that concerned about our faith.”
It wasn’t until they lived in Germany for four years as a young couple that they started to take their faith seriously. They became part of a tight-knit Catholic community on the American military base where Art worked as a counselor for Army kids who had fallen into drug abuse.
The contrast of the faithful community and on-base chaplain with the very secular German culture that surrounded them was an eye-opening experience for the Bennetts. Whenever they ventured off base for Mass, they found themselves in sparsely populated pews where they were by far the youngest people in attendance.
“There was really dark secularism in Germany, where the faith was very distant and kind of dying and nobody had kids,” Art said. “So it was kind of a combination of being inspired by the army chaplain to get more involved in our faith, and also the awareness that the faith can die. Living in Germany solidified for us not to take the faith for granted.”
Now, the Bennetts attribute the strength of their 38-year, four kids, two grandkids marriage to their Catholic faith that grew and developed in Germany. Authors of several books on topics of faith, the Bennett’s newest book, “Catholic and Married: Leaning into Love,” explores their story and the story of many other Catholics who see their faith as integral to their marriages.
“Catholic marriages are … far from perfect, they have just as many problems as any other marriage,” Art said. “But this book (shows) … they have more resources and strengths to address problems and overcome them, both in terms of the Catholic community and of course faith in God and the wisdom and grace of the sacraments.”
According the Family Life Office for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the challenges modern couples face are different than those couples were facing the last time there was a Synod on the Family in 1980. Among the main challenges they see couples facing today are both parents in the workforce, balancing technology and family time, the prevalence of pornography and divorce.
However, while Catholic couples are facing difficult challenges, there is an encouraging trend among young married Catholics as well.
“Their spirituality, the need and the desire to have a strong spiritual life, these couples are asking for it,” said Candy Metoyer, who works with English-speaking couples preparing for marriage. “They’re saying they want to have their life centered on God, they want to follow his will.”
The Family Life office works with couples to provide practical as well as spiritual ways to approach different aspects of married life.
“One of the things we have them do is when they’re dreaming about the future, we have them actually draw pictures of where they want to be in five years,” Metoyer said. “Then they share those pictures with each other so they can actually see, ‘Oh, that’s what you were talking about,’ so they can make decisions and compromises that support both of them.”
Graciela Villalobos, who works with Spanish-speaking couples preparing for marriage, said she hopes the upcoming Synod addresses the issue of technology, since she sees so many couples struggling to have enough unplugged family time.
“We’re really challenging them to set apart some time in the week, maybe 30 minutes at a time, for them to talk, for them to be together, because that’s big,” Villalobos said.
Couples also need to set aside time to pray together, she added.
“That’s the main one, to have that time with each other to pray together,” she said. “We try to challenge them and to inspire them, that through prayer, they are going to be able to face the challenges that married life has.”
The topic of divorce is one that has especially made headlines surrounding the Synod. The Bennetts said that many people today are hesitant to make the commitment to get married because they have grown up as children of divorce, making the Church’s teaching on the permanence of marriage seem unrealistic.
“A Catholic marriage is not just about two people who are just sticking together, gritting their teeth, and kind of white-knuckling it saying, ‘Ugh, I have to stick with this person for the rest of my life for the sake of the children,’” Laraine said.
When a couple intentionally includes God in their marriage, God has the capacity to constantly transform their love into something great, she said.
“We want to say no, it’s actually transformative,” she said, “where two are better than each one individually, the whole is greater than the individual parts. It’s actually an adventure and it’s transformative love.”
When getting each other to heaven is the goal of a marriage, Metoyer said, it really puts everything else into perspective.
“If God’s the third person in your marriage, you can’t go wrong,” said Metoyer. “If you have a sacramental marriage, you get sanctifying grace, and that grace helps you get through everything.”
Joan Vienna, the Director of the Family Life Office in L.A., agreed.
“I’ve been married 50 years, my husband and I would not have made it without God in our relationship,” she said with a laugh.
The next Synod on the Family is scheduled to take place in Rome in October of this year. Vienna said she is looking forward to the Synod as a chance to renew the Church’s focus and commitment to helping and encouraging married couples and families.
“We’re excited that it’s bringing the spotlight back on marriage and the family,” Vienna said.
A statement released by the Family Life Office of L.A. noted that the last time there was a Synod on the Family, there was a renewed energy in those serving Catholic families.
“The goal must always be on the continuing evangelization and spiritual formation of married couples and families,” the statement reads, “because they are the future of our Church.”