By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special Contributor | Published October 19, 2006
Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes, but each has a gift, a special power to help in times of need. The Atlanta Archdiocese is fortunate to have trained staff dedicated specifically to tending to the nuts and bolts of what drives society—namely, the family. These professionals work to mend what is broken. They shore up what is in danger of being washed away. They celebrate the victories and the moments of new beginnings. These defenders and promoters of the family work in the Family Life Office of the Archdiocese of Atlanta, powered by their faith and their mission to strengthen families and marriages through various programs and outreach efforts.
Patty and Perry Peiffer had a marriage that was hurting.
“We saw the church bulletin with a small ad for the upcoming Retrouvaille weekend. After failing with traditional marriage counseling and not knowing where else to turn, we signed up,” Perry Peiffer confided.
While they lived in Rockford, Ill., when they were first introduced to Retrouvaille—a program developed and offered through the Catholic Church for couples in troubled marriages—the Peiffers now coordinate this ministry for couples within the Archdiocese of Atlanta.
“Marriage is in such danger nowadays and on so many fronts. … Getting the word out for ministries like Retrouvaille is difficult.”
The Retrouvaille program is independent of the Family Life Office but benefits greatly from its association with it.
“(The Family Life Office) facilitates mailings to the parishes and priests, educational programs for the clergy and networking with other organizations that foster Christian marriages,” according to Perry Peiffer. “Much of our success—Atlanta has the third largest Retrouvaille community in numbers of couples that attend the program—would not have been without the support of the archdiocese.”
While many married couples find a lifeline through difficult times with the help of programs like Retrouvaille, sadly, other marriages end in divorce. With 11 years as a deacon in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, Deacon Bill McCarthy of Holy Spirit Church in Atlanta has learned how to help Catholics in the aftermath of divorce through the help of the archdiocesan Family Life Office. He spoke on the need to support the important work of the Family Life Office by participating in the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
“Without money, it’s just talk. … With money we can put our faith into action.”
Deacon McCarthy shared how his parish’s desire to establish a support group for divorced Catholics became possible with help from the Family Life Office.
“Divorce always has two problems,” Deacon McCarthy said. “The first is alienation from the church. The second is emotional damage. … It is our job always to let people know they are loved by God and by the church.”
About two years ago Deacon McCarthy and his “team” learned how to address both of these needs through the “clear direction” of the archdiocesan Family Life Office.
“I was checking out what the archdiocese had and found that it put on workshops basically dealing with many family issues.”
Deacon McCarthy found one that focused on developing a divorce support group.
“It was absolutely a wonderful workshop,” he said, and described the training as “very comprehensive.”
“We’ve had lots of people (come to the support group). It’s a funny sort of thing—they’re not just parishioners but people from neighboring parishes. Some people are embarrassed to admit they’re going through a divorce and want to create more space. … So we found that it’s good for the whole community.”
Deacon McCarthy’s interaction with the Family Life Office did not end after the workshop.
“The list of resources (from the workshop) was very helpful. Speaking of resources, Linda Sweeney (of the Family Life Office) is my first and best resource whenever I have a problem or a question.”
A program coordinator for the Family Life Office, Sweeney, a licensed clinical social worker, came to the Catholic Center in 2000, excited to focus on education and prevention measures that would help families. She is one of five core staff members of the Family Life Office working to support families and fighting the good fight for the sake of wholesome and holy marriages.
“A social worker’s training includes a strong emphasis on the importance of family to all of us as individuals and as a society,” Sweeney said. “If a child is raised by those who love him, he will know how to love others, and knowing he is loved will carry him through much of what life can throw at him.”
Through families, she added, people first meet God.
“For those that didn’t have that experience or lost family, it is important to build a support system, a family if you will. The church community can provide that kind of support, and God will work the miracles, as needed.”
Having strong Catholic roots, Sweeney spent many years in mental health settings in the secular world and welcomed the opportunity to work for the archdiocese.
“It really has made my work easier because everyone is open to the importance of developing spiritually as well as in other ways. For example, sacrifice, forgiveness, reconciliation and commitment are all essential to family relationships but don’t get talked about as easily in a secular setting.”
The Family Life Office offers a full spectrum of programs and training that covers areas such as marriage preparation, Natural Family Planning, marriage enrichment, help for hurting marriages and ministry to divorced Catholics.
“Our office works as a team for most things we do—pretty much like a family,” Sweeney added.
Last year 1,384 people came to the Catholic Center to attend just the Pre-Cana workshops alone. As well, Sweeney is one of two therapists who present the Remarriage workshop and she trains clergy and volunteers to be presenters, also working with parishes to set up their own Pre-Cana programs. Her past projects have also included writing and disseminating information about domestic violence.
“Our office is heavily involved in helping clergy prepare couples for marriage. We do this directly through 31 Pre-Cana and Remarriage workshops offered every year here at the Catholic Center and indirectly through training activities as well as coordinating and networking with all the movements, organizations and parishes within the archdiocese that offer different types of marriage preparation activities.”
For Mary Ellen Hughes, LCSW, director of the Family Life Office, an area of her work that she holds dear is helping couples prepare for marriage.
“The family is the first school of social learning, the beginning of our formation,” she said. “It is a privilege and an honor to work with engaged couples who are just beginning to form a new family. It is also a prayerful experience because I am blessed to catch glimmers of the ways in which God has called them to marriage.”
A special event for Hughes earlier this year honored couples celebrating their 50th and 60th anniversaries at a jubilee Mass with Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory serving as the main celebrant.
Hughes, who has a background in family systems therapy and theology, said it was “an amazing experience” to see these jubilarian couples and their families fill the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, where the Mass was celebrated.
“These families sustaining marriage in a culture that is struggling so much with it were a visible sign of grace, humor, and perseverance. I know some of these families. I know the legacy they leave us.”
She was also moved by the presence of the many clergy present.
“To look and see priests and deacons who have given so much to marriage ministry standing alongside the seminarians who will be the next generation was awe-inspiring.”
Archbishop Gregory has established the anniversary Mass as an annual event.
“He has such respect for couples celebrating 50 and 60 years of marriage. He wanted the best for them. From the Mass, to the flowers, to the champagne, to the holy cards and certificates, Archbishop Gregory was actively involved. It was a delight!”
With 17 years of experience with the Family Life Office, Lynn Crutchfield, a program coordinator, says the most important aspect of education for her position is her 36 years of marriage to husband Larry. Crutchfield coordinates the Pre-Cana workshops and Natural Family Planning programs, and is trained to administer the FOCCUS inventory engaged couples are encouraged to take to discern areas in their relationship that may need further discussion. She and her husband also train other couples in the Sponsor Couple program as well as other marriage enrichment programs.
“The workshops we present are interactive and also educational as well as (having) team couples and clergy sharing from their own life and marriage.”
There are many important issues to cover as one prepares for marriage, but Crutchfield believes the two of greatest importance are “family of origin” and spirituality.
“Our marriage preparation programs today encourage engaged couples to share with each other what it was like growing up in their family. Why? Because we will never fully understand our own selves and our own behaviors until we understand our family of origin.”
Many couples preparing for marriage are often at different places in their lives regarding religion, faith and spirituality, Crutchfield said. “Many couples attending the workshops will ask how do you get through the tough times in marriage? Every couple that presents on this workshop, including my husband and I, respond by saying, ‘having God in our relationship.’”
This became evident in her marriage. “Once we invited God into our own marriage, we found a strength that was not there before. … I believe it is in the sharing of our stories about everyday life that helps the engaged couple connect with what we are saying. We don’t preach or pretend to be religious—we just share our struggles and our joys and how our faith has helped us.”
Being able to nurture those preparing for the sacrament of marriage is what drives Crutchfield. “I know that I am at least planting a seed as couples begin their lives together.”
Silvia Maldonado, program registrar, has served the archdiocese for 17 years, working first with the Hispanic ministry and now for the Family Life Office. She understands the mission of the office in addressing family issues from a Catholic perspective. One of her challenges involves sometimes having to inform couples of Catholic teaching regarding seeking an annulment of a previous marriage, even if it was celebrated only as a civil ceremony.
“People get disappointed that they have arrangements for a wedding, then they find out that the process will take awhile before a Catholic wedding (can be celebrated).”
Still, she finds fulfillment in working with couples, particularly when she can accommodate late registrants “and ‘by chance’ there’s a cancellation.”
Maldonado joins Ivonne Vreeland as the other bilingual member of the office. Vreeland, the administrative assistant, fields calls from couples and families with questions about interfaith marriages, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment and repair and also family counseling. In her 16 years of working for the archdiocese, she has seen its growth and the expansion of various programs offered by the Family Life Office, especially those offered in Spanish.
“I can recall our first attempt at having a Spanish FOCCUS training in 1995 and having to cancel it because we only received one or two registrations. Over the last few years it has really grown and we have had full workshops, having people attend from the Diocese of Knoxville and from Hilton Head Island, S.C.”
But these offerings require funding.
“It is very important that the people of the Archdiocese of Atlanta give to the Annual Appeal because without their support we would not be able to have these programs and reach as many people as we do,” Vreeland said. “It is with the generosity of the parishioners throughout the archdiocese that all the ministries that are offered in this office are possible.”
For information on programs of the Family Life Office, visit www.archatl.com and click on the Family Life Office under offices and ministries or call (404) 888-7819.