If I could offer one piece of advice to a Catholic couple preparing for marriage it would be this: Sign up for a Catholic Engaged Encounter weekend right now.
Engaged Encounter is an intense weekend where you and your fiancé have the opportunity to question, examine and deepen your relationship with each other and with God. If a successful marriage is built on communication, the experience of Engaged Encounter weekend will be the cornerstone.
You think you know everything about the one you love? This weekend will take you to a whole new level. The workshop is divided into sections— Openness in Communication, Signs of a Closed Relationship, Decisions in Marriage, Married Sexual Intimacy and Forgiveness in Marriage, among others. Each section follows the same general schedule: The two married couples leading the weekend, both volunteers, talk about their personal experiences and how they overcame challenges within their relationships. Then each couple separates for 10 or 15 minutes to write answers to the suggested questions for that section in the CEE notebooks provided at the start of the weekend. When the bell rings, the couples meet up in a private room to exchange notebooks and discuss their responses for 15 minutes.
Yes, it’s intense. It’s 44 hours of talking, sharing and not a whole lot of sleep. You start on Friday night and get in a few hours before bed, continue on for 14 hours on Saturday, and keep at it until a prayer service closes out the weekend around 4 or 5 p.m. on Sunday. But to have that time with no cell phones ringing, no emails popping in, no chores, no distractions, creates a sacred space that is so rare.
When Peter and I did our CEE weekend in January, we grew in our love for each other, we strengthened our communication skills, and by the end of the weekend, I wrote in my journal, “I’d run down the aisle right now to take my vows if I could.”
Catholic Engaged Encounter is one of several marriage options offered to couples who wish to get married in the Catholic Church (often called Pre-Cana classes) so you should talk to your priest about which one is right for you: There are wonderful ministries in individual parishes that pair workshops and one-on-one meetings over a period of time with a priest. There are even new online marriage preparation courses for couples that are separated by great distances during their engagement.
Catholic Engaged Encounter, founded in 1975, is an independent volunteer organization funded totally by donations. It started with a few dozen couples and priests and has evolved into several thousand volunteers working with the pre-marriage ministries in almost all U.S. dioceses. Nearly 15,900 couples participated in an Engaged Encounter weekend in 2006. While it can cost up to $300 per couple for the weekend to cover lodgings and food, financial assistance is available and no couple will be turned away. And, at least at the weekend we attended, the food is quite good, too!
Because of its success in the U.S., CEE has gone international, too, and other faiths have adapted the materials for their own engaged couples as well. There’s also a program for married couples—to continue to grow and strengthen your vows, your relationship with each other, with your family and with God.
According to a recent survey from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, 93% of the participants said Engaged Encounter was a good opportunity to learn about marriage. The study found that the weekend is made up of young Catholics who have been dating, and even living together, before choosing to get married: The average age of the participants on the weekend is 27, couples have been in their relationship for an average of 36 months before attending Engaged Encounter, and 44% of the couples attending CEE weekends were cohabitating before marriage.
It’s a private weekend journey for you and your fiancé. No one else reads your notebooks, and aside from chatting over meals, you don’t really have any interactions with the other couples, either. CEE is aware that a sizeable percentage of couples cohabit and while they don’t encourage cohabitation, they don’t turn couples away from the retreat either. Rather, they encourage couples to try to create a longing for sexual intimacy in the months leading up to their marriage by moving apart until their wedding day, and in doing so they create a non-judgmental environment.
“The living together thing is very difficult” says John Saxman, of the CEE National Executive Team. “There is a fine line between our sharing our own stories, and relationships, and ‘teaching’ the couples. We teach as our Lord Jesus did, by telling stories, not by preaching.”
This privacy makes the weekend all the more intense, because it allows you to discuss things that you wouldn’t be comfortable sharing more publicly, but it also means that you’ll only get what you give: If you goof off or don’t share your true feelings, no one is going to know except you and your fiancé.
Peter and I treasure our CEE notebooks. Whenever I’m feeling low, I pull out his book and read the wonderful things he wrote to me. It’s like reading a long love letter, full of sincere emotion and hope for the future. I encourage all of you to consider Catholic Engaged Encounter for your marriage preparation course.
Have you done a marriage preparation course that you’ve really enjoyed? What’s your advice to engaged couples? Share your experiences with me at firstname.lastname@example.org