SAN DIEGO — As it marks its three-year anniversary, the diocesan Office for Family Life and Spirituality isn’t ready to declare mission accomplished just yet.
“I still feel like we’re just getting started,” admitted John Prust, who joined the office staff in 2017 as associate director for engaged and newly married couples and became the office’s director last August.
Established in July 2017 in response to the previous year’s diocesan synod on the family, the Office for Family Life and Spirituality represented a radical restructuring of what had previously been known as the Office for Marriage and Family Life.
The new office was given a mandate to implement a new marriage preparation program, to promote greater outreach to separated and divorced Catholics and to wounded families, and to foster a deeper sense of spirituality among couples and families.
The office was also tasked with decentralizing family life ministry, forming leaders to carry it out at the parish level rather than having it remain a mostly diocesan enterprise.
This was “a paradigm shift” and the newly established office was not able to “just flip a switch” to make it happen, said Prust, explaining why the office’s mission remains a work in progress.
Still, three years in, the Family Life and Spirituality Office can point to a growing list of accomplishments.
One is the implementation of Witness to Love, a program which pairs an engaged couple with a mentor couple from their own parish to assist them in preparing for marriage and to serve as a model of married life.
Since 2018, the program has been adopted by about one-third of the diocese’s 97 parishes — more parishes than any other diocese in the country, Prust said.
Bishop Robert W. McElroy has been pleased with the effort, telling The Southern Cross that the office has successfully “revamped and renewed the process of marriage preparation along that catechumenal model in ways that I think were enormously beneficial.”
Msgr. Steve Callahan, pastor of St. Brigid Parish in Pacific Beach, said his parish has been “thrilled with the outcome” of Witness to Love.
“I’m seeing engaged couples continue to come to Mass after they’re married,” he said, explaining that the new program connects couples to parish life in a way that the earlier, diocese-based program had not. “Before, they might come and, then, after they’re married, we don’t see them again.”
Positive results have also been reported at The Immaculata Parish, where Lisa Becerra serves as Witness to Love coordinator.
“I see great relationships forming within our parish between the engaged couples and the mentors and their family,” she said. “There have been great conversations taking place to explore areas that might not come up in the few hour-long conversations most couples have with Father.”
Under the aegis of the Family Life and Spirituality Office, ministry to the separated and divorced has also expanded over the past three years.
Janelle Peregoy, associate director for separated and divorced ministry, noted that a position like hers did not exist in the former Marriage and Family Life Office.
One method of addressing the needs of more vulnerable families has been the office’s “Healing Pathways for Families” workshop series, which has tackled suicide, addiction, trauma and other topics, equipping parish leaders and interested parishioners to reach out to families who are facing these challenges.
With the office’s assistance, many parishes also have established their own support groups for the separated and divorced. Those at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Chula Vista and St. Anthony of Padua Parish in National City represent the first Spanish-language groups of their kind in the diocese.
Lucy Mendoza leads Isaiah 41:10, the separated and divorced support group at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish, with her husband, Leo. The group was established in late 2018 and currently has 43 members, including 10 on the leadership team.
Mendoza said the experience of running a ministry for the separated and divorced has been “a great blessing” for her and her husband.
At the parish level, the office’s decentralization of family life ministry has also been well-received. Family life committees have been formed at various parishes, and representatives from each of these meet with their counterparts from other parishes in the same geographical region and share best practices.
In parishes with active committees, said Marquez, “there has been a growing sense of cooperation and coordination of initiatives and activities, a new way to see the services to families as a whole and not pastoral parcels.”
There is no understating the value of such committees.
Prust said that parishes with active committees were among the first to adopt Witness to Love, which in turn laid the foundation for other marriage and family initiatives.
“It’s certainly been more work,” Msgr. Callahan said, acknowledging that this decentralization has increased his workload and that of his parish. “But the fruits of it certainly make it worthwhile.”
And the parishes have not been without help.
Becerra recalled how Peregoy assisted The Immaculata in starting its support group for the separated and divorced, and Marquez offered guidance on developing a marriage enrichment ministry at the parish.
Bishop McElroy notes that much remains to be done in terms of “making parishes, on every level, inviting to young couples,” as well as advancing the concept of mentor couples providing accompaniment to newlyweds.
And, for their part, the staff of the Family Life and Spirituality Office intends to devote more attention in the months and years ahead to marriage enrichment, particularly for younger couples in their early years of marriage, and to promoting the concept of “domestic church,” the idea that every Christian home is a microcosm of the Universal Church.
For Marquez, the Gospel parable of the sower and the seeds is an apt metaphor for the office’s work. The office sows seeds for thriving family life ministries and, when those seeds find fertile ground at parishes with supportive pastors and motivated parishioners, they bear fruit.
Prust agrees and takes that metaphor even further.
“We’re all about planting seeds,” he said, “and I think a lot of what we’re doing right now and what we have been [doing] over the last few years is getting to know the soil as best we can, so we know how to water it.”