By SUZANNE HAUGH, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 18, 2007
Calling Retrouvaille “a lifeline” for hurting marriages, Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah reminded married couples and priests at the movement’s 30th anniversary International Council Meeting, held recently in Atlanta, that money cannot eliminate pain from life or marriage.
“Millions upon millions of dollars are spent to alleviate pain and to accentuate physical beauty,” said the bishop who attended Augusta’s first Retrouvaille weekend about 10 years ago. “On no shelf will one find—whether it be capsule, caplet or liquid gel—an item to heal the broken heart, to heal the pain of disillusionment, to restore a sense of inner joy, to remove the sense of despair that frequently accompanies a failed marriage.”
In his keynote address, the bishop spoke frankly and affectionately to close to 250 couples and more than 30 priests who traveled from as far as Italy and South Africa for the meeting Sept. 28-30.
“The wonderment of Retrouvaille is that the ministry is looking for those who are hurting in marriage,” Bishop Boland continued. “This ministry is essentially one of healing, reestablishing trust and restoring joy.”
Those attending the event, themed “Marriage on My Mind in Georgia,” addressed policy issues confronting the 30-year-old Retrouvaille program, attended workshops to enrich their marriages or ordained ministry, enjoyed reunions with past acquaintances, and heard words of encouragement from prelates like Bishop Boland.
Retrouvaille, a French word meaning “a second look” and pronounced “Re-trow-vi,” is a program for married or divorced couples wishing to work through the pain in their marriage or to take another look at their previous marriage. It involves a weekend of presentations with follow-up sessions to support healing and communication in the marriage. While it is a ministry that embraces the church’s teachings on marriage and is led by Catholics, Retrouvaille is open to couples of different denominations.
Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory served as the main celebrant at Friday’s opening Mass. The choir from St. Anthony’s Church in Atlanta provided the music.
In his homily, Archbishop Gregory acknowledged that it is part of being human to look for easy or less painful ways to do things. Even Jesus, on the night before his death, revealed his likeness to mankind as he asked God, if possible, “to let this cup pass from me” but quickly added, “yet, not as I will, but as you will.”
The archbishop affirmed that there are no easy ways to do “the important things, things that matter, things that last.”
“In a very real sense, it is in pursuit of this truth that Retrouvaille was founded,” he said, adding, “there are no easy ways” to achieve, preserve and strengthen the gift of Christian marriage, “but there are some sure ways of doing this important, life-giving activity.”
He further touched on the challenges posed by society to detract from or change marriage such as “the effortless accessibility of divorce,” the option and acceptance by society of cohabitation, and the attempts to redefine marriage to include same-gender unions.
Retrouvaille, he continued, is one of similar programs and movements that “are so important and obviously needed at this moment in human history.”
He continued, “You encourage the church to renew our belief that faithful, loving, and joyful marriages are indeed possible. It’s just that there are no easy ways to achieve them!”
Following the Mass, Bishop Boland spoke of God’s unfolding plan for creation and Adam’s “loneliness,” which God addresses through Eve.
“Every couple that comes to a Retrouvaille weekend is part and parcel of the journey from original solitude to original unity. We make this journey in partnership with God,” Bishop Boland said.
He challenged couples and priests when “behold(ing) the troubled eyes of each couple” as they present Retrouvaille weekends and follow-up sessions. “… (to) be mindful that they represent ‘original solitude’ and they are seeking a new awareness of ‘original unity’—a unity that they are God’s self-giving gift to each other. They long to be healed.”
He continued, “There is nothing shameful in pain, disillusionment and the fear of failure when we realize that building relationships, whether in marriage or with other friends, is a difficult undertaking. There is a miniature Calvary in all of our lives. Retrouvaille helps couples to discover the richness of suffering. It results in a discovery of a new way of living.”
Through Retrouvaille, couples learn to listen to each other’s feelings with understanding and acceptance and to dialogue about topics that were “once off limits,” he said.
“To those in the Retrouvaille movement, your special calling is the call of St. Paul. It is the process of making up for what is wanting in the sufferings of Christ. When you gather as a team with the ‘Friday night couples’ and experience the pain and hurt in their eyes, you are, in fact, embracing the Christ of the cross. In bringing your solace and care to their spiritual needs, you are indeed being Christ to one another.”
For Maria Powell of Atlanta, events Friday night were “the most awesome way” to begin the meeting. “Archbishop Gregory’s homily was profound, and we had the choir from St. Anthony’s, which is the South’s finest and best.”
Her husband, Russ, agreed. “It was very Spirit-filled.”
The Powells have been active in some form of marriage ministry since 1976 when they first attended a Marriage Encounter weekend. They have played a pivotal role in bringing Retrouvaille to parts of Georgia, along with two priests who also attended the council meeting: Glenmary Father Bob Poandl, who currently resides at the community’s headquarters in Fairfield, Ohio, and Father Jim Costigan, pastor of St. Michael Church on Tybee Island.
As Father Poandl looked out across the crowd of couples and priests during the opening of the council meeting he could not help but recall the last time the event was held in Atlanta in 1988. There were not even 90 participants in all.
“There is a vast difference in the growth and depth (of the ministry) since then, especially since the first weekend (held in Atlanta),” said the priest, who presents both Retrouvaille and Marriage Encounter weekends. “Now how many thousands of couples have been touched (by Retrouvaille)?”
In a phone call following the meeting he remembered, too, the call from a Los Angeles priest that spurred him on to recruit three married couples, including the Powells, to begin the Retrouvaille ministry in Atlanta. His priest friend had recently officiated at the remarriages of 16 couples who had participated in the Retrouvaille program.
“I knew I had to look into that,” recalled the priest, who was then serving as a pastor in Georgia and who will return in December to minister in Claxton.
He described the uncertainty surrounding the Southeast’s first Retrouvaille weekend held in 1985—the newly-trained yet inexperienced presenting team sitting before 17 troubled, angry-looking couples.
“I couldn’t imagine how to help these people,” he mused now. Included on this weekend was a couple he personally knew and had invited—parents of four children planning to divorce. He had called them to “cash in all his chips” that they would agree to go on the Retrouvaille weekend. “I had no idea if it would work.”
With God’s grace guiding them, the couples made breakthroughs, and years later Father Poandl had the opportunity to celebrate his friends’ wedding anniversary.
“I think the most common denominator is despair,” he said of those in hurting marriages, and noted the importance of couples that have gone through the Retrouvaille program and then are trained to take calls from those inquiring about Retrouvaille. “They offer hope by listening to each situation—often in tears—of desperation.”
One of Father Poandl’s highlights from the recent meeting was at the dance Saturday night.
“It was very touching,” he said. “I was sitting there with 400 people in front of me, thinking that they wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for Retrouvaille. They would most likely be divorced.”
And subsequently, Father Poandl added, children and extended families would suffer. “It’s a wonderful ministry for hurting couples.”
About 10 years ago the Retrouvaille program came to the Diocese of Savannah through Father Costigan, who introduced Bishop Boland at the meeting and who shared on the impact Retrouvaille has had on his priesthood.
“Actually writing the talks for Retrouvaille, as I shared on the first conference night, has been the best thing I’ve done as a priest—the reflection and all that’s involved in the process,” Father Costigan said.
He enjoyed the Atlanta meeting, saying, “There’s a great spirit to it. From a priest’s point of view, one of the things—and this is only my third meeting—is the great support the couples have and the admiration that the people had for the priests. … Priests talk of the church being their bride, and we share sometimes in dialogue the experiences of that, the difficulties of that.”
Father Costigan joked that even priests, like good spouses, may at times entertain thoughts of “packing their bags” when the going gets tough. But being in community brings one back.
“It’s powerful, the great support that I felt with the applause for the bishops and priests. It was unbelievable and a tremendous feeling of support all through the weekend, when going to the workshops and gathering for the meals.”
The Powells also have come a long way on their journey with Retrouvaille, from living through the scariest moments of presenting the first Retrouvaille weekend in the South to having the responsibility of organizing the recent meeting’s 25 workshops and ensuring that all had “meat on (their) bones.”
“We know there are things out there, issues out there, that we need to address,” Maria Powell said. “Then we needed to find couples open enough to share on things.”
They realized the need to appeal to those attending on various levels. Workshops ranged from a very popular presentation on the theology of the body to others that were “non-threatening,” such as understanding the importance of fun in a marriage. A few were offered in Spanish and dealt with how couples can pass on the Catholic faith to their children and also how to help children choose good spouses.
Others were important, but attracted only a few couples, such as a session on Natural Family Planning, the effects on a couple of having a person with a disability in the family, as well as another on the effects of sexual abuse on a marriage, which sparked poignant stories and fostered forgiveness and hope for participants.
On Saturday morning couples in leadership positions participated in the business/policy side of Retrouvaille while others attended the various workshops. A banquet took place in the evening followed by entertainment provided by a married couple called “Acts of Renewal” and then dancing. The event culminated in the closing Mass on Sunday with Benedictine Father Julian Gnall, Retrouvaille’s international coordinating priest, as the main celebrant and homilist.
“We worked so very, very hard, and the good Lord brought it all together,” said Maria Powell, adding her appreciation for support from the Atlanta Archdiocese’s Family Life Office, directed by Mary Ellen Hughes. Help also came from many places within the Retrouvaille family under the leadership of Father Gnall and Margie and Armando Martinez, international coordinators for Retrouvaille.
“Goodness gracious!” both Powells remarked when asked about the impact Retrouvaille has had on their relationship.
“Maria and I weren’t too sure what we were getting into,” said Russ Powell about being asked to present a Retrouvaille weekend. “I think we became a real couple when we got involved. I became aware of how I hurt Maria, how we hurt each other. We learned about a lifestyle of healing and forgiveness, and we try to live that every single day.”
For more information about Retrouvaille in Atlanta, visit the Web site www.retrouvailleofatlanta.org or e-mail email@example.com.