SAN DIEGO — Remembering what it felt like when his parents divorced, Sam Martin promised himself that he would never put his own children through a similar ordeal.
Yet, 21 years ago, he was preparing to do just that.
“Thankfully, Retrouvaille was there to help us,” he said, referring to the Catholic program for couples in troubled marriages.
Today, Sam and his wife, Debbie, both age 61, are not only still married but also serve as co-coordinators of San Diego’s Retrouvaille community.
Retrouvaille (a French word that could be translated as “Rediscovery”) was founded in Canada in 1977 as an offshoot of Marriage Encounter, a Catholic marriage-enrichment program, to assist marriages so damaged that they needed more than Marriage Encounter could offer. Since then, it has spread internationally.
Retrouvaille is a three-part program that begins with a weekend experience led by a presenting team of three married couples, all of whom are Retrouvaille alumni, and a Catholic priest; after the weekend, participants attend a series of follow-up sessions and then join an ongoing alumni community. Though it is a Catholic program, couples of all faith traditions are welcome.
The first English-language Retrouvaille weekend in San Diego was held in 1992. Spanish-language weekends have been offered here since 2001.
During the weekend, presenters share their personal stories and equip the struggling cou-ples with tools to better communicate with one another — the first step toward solving problems that have led to everything from constant arguments to the actual filing of divorce papers.
About 15 to 30 couples attend the typical Retrouvaille weekend in the Diocese of San Diego, where there are three English-language weekends and two Spanish-language weekends each year.
Sam Martin described it as “a crash course in communication.”
While struggling couples might claim that they “talk all the time,” he said, their conversations are often limited to day-to-day concerns, rarely plumbing the depths of the spouses’ feelings or eliciting frank assessments of the state of their marriage.
Debbie Martin notes that, while many participating couples leave after Mass on Sunday afternoon feeling optimistic about saving their marriage, the weekend isn’t a miracle cure.
“They aren’t walking out, saying, ‘Okay, we’re going to live happily ever after now,’ but … there is hope that they can work through their issues,” she explained.
Father James Boyd, a priest of the Diocese of San Diego whose connection with Retrouvaille goes back 22 years, said the week-ends are significant in that the couples come away prepared to address their problems “as a team rather than as adversaries.”
the lessons from the initial weekend are expanded upon during a series of six post-weekend sessions that are held over the next three months.
That’s where “the problem-solving business” is taken up, Father Boyd said.
At the conclusion of those sessions, the couples are invited to join an ongoing community, called CORE (Continuing Our Retrouvaille Experience), which hosts month-ly two-hour gatherings where the couples find camaraderie as well as friends who will keep them accountable in their efforts to be better spouses. The evenings typically include a potluck, a speaker, and opportunities for reflection and discussion.
In the Diocese of San Diego, there are currently three English-language CORE com-munities and one in Spanish.
Sam Martin said these gatherings represent a “once-a-month shot in the arm” and an acknowledgement that marriage is “a marathon … not a sprint.”
“What may have taken many years to tear down is not going to be rebuilt overnight,” he said, explaining the value of CORE.
The Martins made their Retrouvaille weekend in 1998 and, since the early 2000s, have held many positions in the ministry, both at the regional and international level. They have presented weekends in various locales, includ-ing Las Vegas, Arizona and even Alaska.
Eight years after their own weekend, the couple’s then 16-year-old daughter requested a Retrouvaille brochure for a classmate whose parents were considering divorce. That ended up being another Retrouvaille success story, said Sam Martin, who shared that the classmate’s parents are still married 14 years later.
Sam and Margie Guerra, who serve as co-coordinators with the Martins, have been involved with Retrouvaille for 23 years and have a similar perspective. They said the word “hope” sums up the ministry quite succinctly.
“It was a blessing for me, many years ago, to find a program within my own faith that offered us a place to heal and learn a new way to communicate,” Margie Guerra said.
Since participating in their Retrouvaille weekend, the Guerras have held various leadership positions within the ministry. Sam, now 76, and Margie, 74, remained active with the ministry even while receiving cancer treatments in 2004. And even Margie’s battle with Parkinson’s disease hasn’t stopped the couple from working to save marriages.
Janelle Peregoy, who recently joined the staff of the diocesan Office for Family Life and Spirituality as the new associate director for separated and divorced ministry, is a fan of Retrouvaille’s work. Among the most significant gifts it offers couples, she said, is the chance to explore the dynamics of their families of origin.
“Many of us carry patterns of communication and behavior, both positive and negative, from our childhood, but we are not equipped to change or even reflect on those patterns once we marry,” she explained. “Retrouvaille helps couples explore those patterns together and offers the hope to make the necessary changes.”
Father Boyd, who attended his first Retrouvaille weekend at the invitation of a priest friend and has presented weekends in other states as well as in Canada and Trinidad, said, “There are so many divorces, so much unhappiness, family problems galore. This [program] is such a wonderful blessing from the Holy Spirit because this really works, gets wonderful results.”
He has seen some truly dysfunctional marriages restored in such a way that it was “like a miracle.”
After one weekend, a couple told Father Boyd that they had spent a lot of money on marriage counselors over the years but had gotten much more out of Retrouvaille. Other couples, who already had their divorce papers drawn up, have approached him at the end of a weekend and told him, “I’m tearing the papers up.”
He also recalled attending the ordination of a deacon, who shared that it was the confession he made during a Retrouvaille weekend that inaugurated his return to the Church, which ultimately led him into the diaconate.
as been involved with Retrouvaille since 2014 and has traveled widely as a presenter, told The Southern Cross that he has heard “some powerful confessions” at Retrouvaille weekends.
“People just bare their soul to me and, many a time, I can just sense when they leave there, they feel lighter,” he said.
Father Ravenkamp’s day job is on the Diocese of San Diego’s marriage tribunal, where he examines and evaluates the cases of local Catholics who are seeking annulments.
“Tribunal ministry can be very depressing,” he said. “Reading these cases day after day, it’s like a soap opera that doesn’t end.”
He noted that a lot of couples get married with “the wrong view of marriage,” perhaps considering it just another item to check off their “to-do list” or failing to understand that it is supposed to be a covenant, with both partners giving 100 percent of themselves, like Jesus did on the cross.
Retrouvaille has been a blessing, not only for participating couples, but for Father Ravenkamp as well.
“I can go to one of these weekends,” he said, “and just feel the hope in people … and that inspires me, the people that are working to keep their marriages vibrant and happy.”
When introducing himself at Retrouvaille weekends, he often mentions his work for the tribunal, adding that he has “selfish motives” for being there on the weekend: “I’m working myself out of a job.”
The next Retrouvaille weekends in the Diocese of San Diego will be held Sept. 6-8 (English) and Sept. 13-15 (Spanish). The fees will be discussed with couples when they call to register. No couple is turned away due to financial difficulties.
For more information about Retrouvaille, visit www.helpourmarriage.org or call (800) 470-2230. The San Diego community’s direct telephone number is (951) 259-9474 for English and (619) 423-0182 for Spanish.