It all began when we noticed that couples in civil unions were reaching out to us at Witness to Love at a point when they were trying to “save” or strengthen their marriage. We started using the Witness to Love process with those couples. We saw the fruit it was bearing in their conversion, involvement in the parish, and in their marriage.
We realized these couples were a hidden gem in the Church that were being overlooked. These couples could articulate in a special way the radical difference between living without the grace of the sacrament verses living with the grace of the sacrament. They became key evangelists in the church community. Because we saw this fruit, when we would do a Witness to Love training, we told parishes to also invite couples in civil unions to go through Witness to Love when they wanted to get their marriage blessed. We did that for six years. Over the past two years, we’ve received consistent and direct requests from parishes saying, “We see the fruit Witness to Love is having in our civilly married couples. Is there anyway you can customize the Witness to Love process and materials specifically for the civilly married couples? We need something just for them.”
We began a process of interviewing civilly married couples who went through the traditional Witness to Love process in order to have their marriage blessed and got their feedback. We spoke with clergy and marriage prep coordinators at our Witness to Love parishes, and they all agreed that a program for couples in civil unions was a priority and an urgent need for marriage formation and for evangelization in the Church today.
In January 2018, we were independently contacted by diocesan leaders from around the country, each of whom had been tasked by their bishop with finding ways to reach and form civilly married couples for sacramental marriage. Each leader was trying to tackle this need in their own diocese and wanted to collaborate. Ultimately, we decided to work with nine dioceses who were leaders in evangelization and had a desire to reach civilly married couples.
Throughout 2018, we had regular, lengthy meetings with diocesan leaders, canon lawyers, civilly married couples, and clergy, to address a targeted outreach to civilly married couples and develop a unique formation process for them. From these conversations flowed everything we are now doing as part of this Witness to Love: Civil Marriage Initiative.
From these months of research, dialogue, and collaboration a unique process has been created which includes resources, training, materials, and powerful videos specific to couples in civil unions who are seeking sacramental marriage. We interviewed and filmed couples who were civilly married and who went through the Witness to Love process to tell their story and give their witness about how sacramental grace has operated in their lives.
Our Sunday Visitor got wind of the initiative we were undertaking, stepped in, and invited us to apply for a grant to reach unaffiliated millennials. We described to them what we were trying to do, the scope of the project, and the intended impact. They immediately saw this was one of the most urgent needs of the Church today and supported our efforts with a generous grant of $50,000 so that every Church parish in the United States could have the best possible resources for reaching and forming these civilly married couples.
Based on our experience, we saw very early on that couples who were civilly married who came to the Church to have their marriage blessed, needed more than a few conversations and a blessing— they need what all the others needed: formation in virtue, accompaniment by a married couple they trusted and admired, and an invitation to a faith community. Those couples responded. Once we began inviting these couples to go through the Witness to Love process we found them even more responsive than the average engaged couple. They were seeking a sacrament, not just a venue.