John and Louise Vos, members of St. James Parish, Menomonee Falls, have devoted much of their married life to helping other couples strengthen their marriages. The couple, who will celebrate 44 years of marriage later this year, will lead a Catholic Engaged Encounter commuter weekend, Aug. 6-8 at St. James in August. (Catholic Herald photo by Juan C. Medina)

Before wedding bells ring, brides and grooms spend hours planning invitations, attire, a reception dinner, photography and decorations for the biggest day of their life. While couples might approach the altar ready for a perfect wedding day, are they ready for a lifetime of marriage commitment?

For 34 years, John and Louise Vos, members of St. James Parish, Menomonee Falls, have devoted their married life’s ministry to preparing couples for marriage, especially through National Catholic Engaged Encounter, whose motto is “A Wedding is a Day. A Marriage is a Lifetime.”

That motto will be the theme of the first Catholic Engaged Encounter commuter weekend in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee this Aug. 6-8, at St. James Parish. The commuter weekend is for all engaged couples, to help them discover authentic love in a Christ-centered relationship.

“We believe that when you want a career, you attend college; when you want a car, you take instruction behind the wheel. But what is there for marriage?” asked Louise.

John and Louise, who will celebrate their 44th wedding anniversary in October, have worked with engaged couples for most of their married life in Wisconsin and California. They are passionate witnesses about Engaged Encounter because of their gratefulness for what it’s done in their marriage.

Communication problems surfaced

John and Louise met in December of 1964 on a blind date arranged by John’s roommate at Marquette University and Louise’s friend from St. Mary’s School of Nursing, Milwaukee. They attended a house party, where John recalled, “We felt a real connection” and Louise remembered “how comfortable we felt and how much fun it was.”

They were engaged in April 1965 and married Oct. 29, 1966, at St. Mary Church in Burlington. They were told that the likelihood of conception was impossible, so they adopted a child.

Recalling the first years of their marriage, Louise said, “We were noticing a lot of communication problems. We were discussing the same things over and over again without resolution. We weren’t focusing on each other. I was not focusing on our marriage.”

In January 1974, they attended a Marriage Encounter weekend at Holy Hill, Hubertus. From John’s perspective, “We went because we knew we needed a ‘shot in the arm’ for our marriage.”

The retreat was cut short though, when on Saturday night they received a call that Louise’s dad had suffered a heart attack and died.

“We never finished,” said John.

The death of Louise’s father and her mother’s grief added strain on their marriage. Tensions increased. Louise had also become pregnant.

The Holy Spirit’s answer

In 1976, Louise received a call from a hometown friend and fellow nursing student who explained that her brother was involved in a Day for the Engaged. Louise’s friend knew they had never finished the Marriage Encounter weekend and wondered if they would like to be in this ministry as a couple. Louise sees that invitation as a work of the Holy Spirit.

The Day for the Engaged was led by two married couples and Fr. Leonard Barbian, who became a mentor to them. In recalling their first encounter with Fr. Barbian, they both laughed.

“Fr. Leonard came in wearing a Hawaiian T-shirt, and we knew we wanted to be part of this ministry,” Louise recalled.

Fr. Barbian made clear the need for a more robust marriage preparation program. And after some time of putting on more days for the engaged, they formed a team of married couples and spent a year developing a marriage preparation program with talks. The program was headed by the Catholic Family Life Center on Lloyd Street in Milwaukee. Talks centered on self-awareness, communication, intimacy, and marriage as a sacrament.

“It was our way to enrich our marriage,” said John, explaining that by now Louise was pregnant with their third child.

Days for the engaged turned into overnight weekends that featured four main talks, workshops, a skit, and Mass, held at St. Francis Monastery, Burlington. This was around 1979.

Sharing their experience with others

The weekends and day events continued for several years in parishes and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, even after their family moved to California in 1991.

Before they left, they became involved in premarital inventory, which they have been doing for more than 30 years in Wisconsin and California. John and Louise met with engaged couples in their home to evaluate the inventories and discuss the results, “using our experience to share with them,” added Louise. Sometimes that experience was their four children running about the house to show couples a healthy glimpse of family life.

It wasn’t until 1997 that they became involved in marriage preparation in their Diocese of Sacramento. The premarital inventories were revamped into the program known as FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication, Understanding, & Study).

John said, “The first year we had 25 couples come for FOCCUS. We met with the couples three or four times. You do the math. That’s a big time commitment.”

In California John and Louise received the invitation to become involved in National Catholic Engaged Encounter. They set up the first weekend overnight for Engaged Encounter in Sacramento and soon began managing all marriage preparation for their church.

Couple moves back to Wisconsin

When John and Louise returned to Wisconsin in 2008, they began working with Fr. Art Heinze to initiate the upcoming Engaged Encounter weekend in August.

National Catholic Engaged Encounter encompasses the U.S. with local units feeding into districts. It incorporates 15 talks, a Saturday night prayer service and Sunday Mass. The talks, led by two couples and a priest, cover “Who am I, who are we together, and how do we live out our sacrament of marriage as a couple – both to each other and more globally in the community.” Couples come from parishes throughout the diocese to participate in the weekend.

“Christ is the focus of it!” stressed Louise. She explained that in order to benefit from the weekend, couples should come willing to apply themselves and give themselves to each other as a gift.

Louise said, “Couples learn the tools of what it takes. We teach them how to reach out to parents and role models and what they can do in the community, all under a Christ-centered relationship. It’s not just about giving talks but the tools to build their relationship.”

One of the tools they give to couples is a manual called the “Operator’s Guide to Life” with guidelines on just about everything – from planning a relationship to fair fighting.

Couples also get challenged. They are told to avoid co-habitation – and if they are living together prior to marriage to refrain from sexual intimacy.

“Intimacy can be achieved through many ways [besides sex],” said Louise.

One of the talks explores new ways to foster intimacy.

Couples also learn about Natural Family Planning through the witness of a couple that practices it, and they are encouraged to attend NFP sessions in the archdiocese.

By the end, John and Louise see a transformation in couples. Some comment, “We wanted more time to talk or dialogue,” to which John reminds them: “You have the rest of your life.”

John said, “It’s a fairly intense weekend. Hopefully they leave tired.”

“And more deeply in love,” added Louise.

Ministry changed their marriage

As they plan for the commuter weekend this August, they have high hopes for the future. “We’re very committed to this ministry,” said John. “Our goal is to establish National Engaged Encounter in southeastern Wisconsin, establishing a local unit here in Milwaukee.”

The ministry has changed their marriage for the better.

“We’re more in love now than we were 43 years ago, but it’s a different love,” said Louise. “We do this: a) to let engaged couples know what marriage can become, and b) to continue our own relationship.”

John noted, “If we’re fighting, we can’t give talks to couples. It’s brought us closer over the years.”

In answer to their early marriage struggles, the ministry has united them in a single purpose. Gone are the days of focusing on several things apart from each other; now they focus on one ministry together. Commitment to each other has grown into commitment to others. Along the way, they have made best friends with married couples who share their values.

“We do a lot of personal sharing of our own struggles,” said John. “People will come up to us and say, ‘We’ve had the same struggles.’ We welcome couples to contact us for the rest of their lives. It’s a lifelong commitment to these couples.”

While some hire a wedding consultant to plan their wedding day, John and Louise hand out their phone number and e-mail address to couples who attend Engaged Encounter. They are willing to be there for them as a lifetime support.

Fitting into the archdiocese

The Archdiocese of Milwaukee welcomes Catholic Engaged Encounter, even though it is not a substitute for one of the marriage preparation programs offered by the archdiocese.

“When couples ask me why all of this is necessary, I respond that the Catholic Church cares about married couples,” said Jenni Oliva, associate director of the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation. “The church values marriage to such an extent that we want our engaged couples to be prepared for the life-changing, life-giving, sacramental marriage they are about to enter. That’s why the church puts such an emphasis on marriage preparation.”

In Wisconsin, engaged couples are required to contact their parish at least six months before the intended wedding date. They meet with the pastor, deacon, or pastoral minister of their parish, who will walk with the couple through their journey to marriage.

In that six months or more, they will take a premarital inventory (most parishes use FOCCUS) that explores every aspect of married life and meet two-on-two with a couple at their parish to discuss their responses. They will attend an Archdiocesan Engaged Enrichment Conference or Parish Day that covers topics such as theology of marriage, spirituality of marriage, commitment, communication, Natural Family Planning, conflict resolution, finances, family of origin, and parenting. Couples also receive an engaged blessing and go through liturgical preparation before the rehearsal and ceremony.