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Family Life and Spirituality Office Marks Two-Year Anniversary

Staff celebrates accomplishments, looks toward future

By Denis Grasska

SAN DIEGO — This month, the diocesan Office for Family Life and Spirituality marks its two-year anniversary.

The creation of the office in July 2017 was one of the first fruits of the diocesan synod on the family, which was held the previous October. Among the 15 synod proposals was a call to restructure what had been known as the diocesan Office for Marriage and Family Life.

Laura Martin-Spencer, director of the Office for Family Life and Spirituality, explained that the new office was entrusted with a more expansive mission than its predecessor. This has included implementing a new marriage preparation program, promoting increased outreach to the separated and divorced, and equipping parish leaders to better address the serious challenges that confront contemporary families.

Along with Martin-Spencer, the office’s staff includes Ricardo Marquez, associate director for family spirituality; John Prust, associate director for engaged and newly married couples; Janelle Peregoy, associate director for separated and divorced ministry; and Nora Mendez, administrative assistant, who also spearheads the office’s social media outreach.

Since its inception, the Family Life and Spirituality Office has worked to decentralize the Local Church’s ministry to Catholic couples and families. Newly established family life and spirituality committees are active at 31 of the diocese’s 97 parishes, and much of the office’s programming has been shifted from the diocesan Pastoral Center to various parish locations.

It has been a busy and productive two years, and among the first tasks that the office tackled was the implementation of Witness to Love, a marriage preparation program created by Mary Rose and Ryan Verret of Louisiana, which pairs engaged couples with mentor couples from their parish.

The program adopts a catechumenate model similar to that found in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults process. The mentor couple assists the engaged couple with some coursework, shares personal insights about married life, and serves as a living example of Catholic marriage.

“The creators of the Witness to Love program ensured that this program built a foundation for couples,” said Rachel Hanson, who went through it with her then fiancé prior to their wedding in December 2018. “It covers the importance of open communication, valuing friendship in your relationship, understanding your marriage in the context of growing up in different households/families, and talking about values such as kindness, honesty, and forgiveness and how they will be present in our marriage.”

Her husband, Matt, added that the program made it clear that “our marriage was not a point in time, but a spiritual journey to be undertaken together and filled with prayer, reflection and compassion.”

Juana Arismendez, who formed the family life and spirituality committee at St. Anthony of Padua Parish in National City, said she has already seen how Witness to Love is “forming a community” and creating “a trusting relationship” between the couples and the parish team that is there to support them.

Prust noted that, in less than two years, Witness to Love has been implemented at more parishes in San Diego than in any other U.S. diocese.

The decentralization of marriage and family ministry may have increased the workloads of those ministering at the parish level, but they don’t seem to feel overburdened. Rather, they are grateful for the support they receive from the diocesan office.

“I could not have asked for anything more,” said Deacon Terry Hannify, who received training in Witness to Love and now coordinates family life and spirituality activities at St. Michael Parish in Poway. “Not only were they very responsive to our every need in establishing this new marriage preparation program and assisting us with the establishment of other committees within the scope of family life, but as a new deacon at our parish, they never seem to tire from the hundreds of questions I had, including many repeats.”

“Having someone at the diocese to help support us in our endeavors is invaluable,” concurred Lisa Becerra, wedding director at The Immaculata Parish, which implemented Witness to Love this past February and is also among the parishes that have established ministries to separated and divorced Catholics.

Lucy Mendoza leads Isaias 41:10, a separated and divorced ministry that is based at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Chula Vista, though its 34 participants include members of neighboring parishes. She has been able to rely on diocesan support from the beginning. She noted that Family Life and Spirituality Office staff were present at her group’s first meeting and, since then, have remained “very attentive.”

Other highlights of the office’s first two years have included the “Reaching Out and Ministering to Hurting Families” workshop series, which debuted in January 2018, and “Our Families, Our Future: Creating Cultures of Welcome,” a family conference held last October on the campus of the University of San Diego.

The workshop series has been offered twice in English; the second Spanish-language series will take place on Aug. 5, Sept. 4, Oct. 12 and Nov. 4. Each series includes four workshops devoted to a different topic, such as addiction or depression, and is designed to equip parish leaders to better understand the needs of modern families.

Last year’s conference at USD concluded with a family Mass celebrated by Bishop Robert W. McElroy, a picnic, and a concert featuring Catholic musicians Sarah Hart and Pedro Rubalcava.

This past January, the diocesan office assembled the leaders of parish-level family life and spirituality committees for their first annual gathering.

In June, the office began hosting deanery meetings at which representatives of parishes in the same geographical region could come together in smaller groups to share best practices in marriage and family ministry. The first such meeting was held June 27 at St. Mary Magdalene Parish for the parishes of the Mission Deanery.

Deacon Hannify told The Southern Cross that last year’s conference at USD had succeeded in “bringing us together in our parish mission to help meet families where they are,” and he predicted that the deanery meetings “will help continue this important work.”

The Family Life and Spirituality Office is continuing to develop new programs. Though, for his part, Marquez stresses that it’s “not a matter [of] how many things we do,” but about the quality of the programming the office provides.

Two years in, he is gratified by the feedback he has received. Marquez said participants in the various programs have told him that they feel that “this is a new language, this is a new approach” to Church teaching on marriage and family.

Martin-Spencer said that, on Aug. 22, the office will hold a workshop on ministering to millennials. With Marquez, she is also planning workshops that will equip parents to share with their children the Church’s teaching on human sexuality; the first round of these workshops will take place in September.

She said the office also plans to invite all Catholic families to an “open house” on April 25 at the diocesan Pastoral Center “for a day of faith, fun and fellowship” — a continuation of the welcoming spirit of the family picnic and concert that capped the “Our Families, Our Future” conference.

Meanwhile, Prust is currently working with parishes to establish ongoing ministries for young married couples.

“The amazing part of working for this office is that the sky is the limit,” he said. “Everything that happens in the Church seems to connect back to family life, so we are always throwing around new ideas.”

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