Marriage prep teams take ‘a spiritual odyssey’


GREENVILLE — The Catholic Engaged Encounter District III Convention, held June 29-July 1 at the Embassy Suites Hotel here, focused on a ministry of giving— giving of men and women to each other in the sacrament of matrimony and of couples who give of their time and talent by sharing their insights on marriage and spirituality to those who are engaged.

The event occurs every other year, and the recent gathering in the Upstate attracted 70 couples and seven priests from throughout the southeast. Participants came from South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

The conference was intended to explore the journey of each couple’s experience as they become attracted through romance, married, tested through disillusionment, and fulfilled through awareness of the sacramental splendor of their marriage.

The program consisted of three presentations focusing on romance, disillusionment, and true joy. Each presentation was followed by an open sharing session among 10 couple groups.

The gathering began with a Friday night banner march from the different chapters, and the weekend featured unit meetings, a sweetheart dinner/dance at the Greenville Racquet and Fitness Club, and national, district and local addresses before the closing liturgy on Sunday morning.

Bishop Robert J. Baker was on vacation in Ohio visiting family and was unable to attend the event. However, in a welcoming letter in the convention program he stated, “You are involved in a vital effort in the church that is paving the way for stable, loving relationships and stable, loving, and faith-filled marriages.”

The conference’s romance presentation was given by Scott and Kim Shuey of Anderson. They have been married for 12 years and have two young daughters. They became involved in Catholic Engaged Encounter in 1992 and have served as local coordinators and finance couple for South Carolina.

Their presentation focused on the key issues of the EE weekend that deal with how couples are attracted to one another, the intensity of that attraction, how they deal with their own self image, and how they learn to risk and trust in a relationship. Various couples shared how they met, their marriage proposal and spiritual preparation.

Bob and Susan Martin from Birmingham, Ala., led the disillusionment presentation. The Martins have been married for 36 years and have three children and six grandchildren. They got involved with Engaged Encounter in 1983 and have twice been local coordinators for their Birmingham community.

The focus of their talk was that couples grow and become more sacramental through struggles in marriage. “Growth comes from passing through the deserts of disillusion to reach the oasis of marriage and the graces that brings,” they emphasized.

The true joy talk was present by Chuck and Colleen Stanton of Baton Rouge, La., who just celebrated their 44th wedding anniversary the week before the convention.

“During our vows, God was with us as we said ‘I do’ together,” said Colleen, who needed a moment to collect herself emotionally before continuing, “Our first meal together was the Eucharist.”

Chuck recounted the couple’s first 20 years of marriage, which featured five different jobs and homes.

The Stanton’s also discussed their struggle with infertility. Colleen said she and Chuck had planned to wait five years before beginning their family, however, three years into their marriage, the couple had already been blessed with two children.

After trying to add to their family, Colleen was informed by doctors that she would be unable to conceive due to a progressive medical condition.

“If we had followed our plan to wait five years into our marriage, we wouldn’t have our two children,” she said.

The Stanton’s then explored adoption, but the family’s application was rejected by a Catholic social service agency for reasons they still do not know. “That hurt even more than being told we were infertile,” said Colleen.

In 1977, the couple attended a Marriage Encounter (ME) weekend, and life in the Stanton household changed forever.

“It was a fundamental change in direction. Because of ME, we were given new life,” said Chuck. “The dead, dormant branches of our marriage were pruned away. Even our teen-age children could tell something good had happened.”

After three years, the Stanton’s were asked to be a presenting team for ME weekends in the fall of 1980. Just weeks after speaking at their first event, on Christmas Eve morning, the couple’s 20-year-old unmarried daughter broke the news that she was pregnant.

“That experience during her pregnancy gave us a chance for growth,” said Colleen, who related that her daughter made the difficult decision to place the baby up for adoption.

Following their grandchild’s birth, the duo said they came to the realization that God was calling them to open their home to girls who were pregnant. In the past two decades, the Stanton’s have hosted five expectant mothers, ages 16 to 30, as well as five foreign exchange students.

“Marriage Encounter and Engaged Encounter have stretched us,” Chuck said. “It’s been life giving.”

Saturday evening Mass was later celebrated by Oratorian Father David Valtierra, who has worked with Engaged Encounter since 1983. His current ministry includes the Center for Spirituality at The Oratory, St. Mary’s in Rock Hill, and campus ministry at Winthrop University.

In his homily, Father Valtierra repeatedly touched on the event’s theme, “2001: A Spiritual Odyssey.”

The Oratorian preacher called on participants to “probe the past to know where we’ve been.”

He said, “We are searching constantly for who we are. In a society and culture that is on the move, the Bible is the map for all of us.”

Since Vatican II, Father Valtierra said, “Engaged Encounter communities have journeyed through a new star map. But we need help along the way: a compass, the risen Christ; maps, our shared memory of stories funny and tragic; and companions, who sustain us and celebrate with us.”

During EE weekends, he explained that couples are asked to expand their spiritual experiences. “It is a network of love and support that never fails. The love of God is imprinted on every weekend.”

The priest presided over a renewal of marriage vows for the couples in attendance. The spouses were also called forward in five-year increments for blessings in front of the altar. Most of the participants had been married for under five years or were in the 30 to 35 year time span.

One couple was recognized for over 50 years of marriage, and the duo was given a standing ovation by all of the Massgoers.