Story by S.L. Hansen
(SNR) - One of the most active programs offered by the diocesan Family Life Office is Engaged Encounter. More than 300 couples participate in the program during any given year, laying the groundwork for strong, happy marriages.
Engaged Encounter is required for any couple who wishes to be married in any parish of the diocese.
“Our bishops have felt that it is a highly effective and well-received program, so much so that it is worth making it obligatory,” explained Father Matthew Eickhoff, director of the Family Life Office.
“The Engaged Encounter weekend is a great launching pad for successful marriages and families,” said Jenny and Michael Kearney of St. Mary Parish in Nebraska City.
“So many couples at the end of a weekend will say that they never realized how important it was to include God in their marriage preparation, their relationship and their daily lives,” offered Patrick and Mary Tines of St. Joseph Parish in Lincoln. “For many couples it was also the first time they really prayed together.”
The Kearneys and the Tineses are part of a sizeable community of married couples and priests who work together to make Engaged Encounter a meaningful experience that is well worth taking time out of wedding planning, work, school, etc. Bishop James Conley will meet with the community Jan. 12 in Lincoln to celebrate another year of their service to the Diocese of Lincoln.
“The Engaged Encounter weekend gives engaged couples the opportunity to get away from life’s distractions, friends and family, and focus on themselves, each other and preparing for the sacrament of marriage,” said Mrs. Kearney.
Both couples attended an Engaged Encounter weekend when they were preparing for their own weddings.
“At the weekend, we had the opportunity for conversations on issues that we hadn’t discussed in detail,” Mr. Kearney said. “We learned that marriage isn’t just about the wedding day, but about the sacrament, and how to prepare for the day leading up to the sacrament of marriage.
The Tineses said the message they gained from their Engaged Encounter experience was that, “It really takes three — husband, wife and God — to have a fruitful marriage and to build a family within the home.”
Each presenting couple has something to offer the engaged couples. The Kearneys tend to connect with mixed-faith couples, since Mr. Kearney was raised Catholic, but his wife converted during their engagement.
“I had many questions about the Catholic faith when I first began to consider it,” she said. “Many of the couples who come to Engaged Encounter have the same situation.”
With three boys aged 11 and under at home, and another baby due in May, the Kearneys – like most other married couples with kids – have limited time for Engaged Encounter. The Tineses also have three children with high school and middle school commitments.
Father Eickhoff makes sure the Engaged Encounter community has enough participating couples and priests so that they present only one or two weekends a year.
“Some take a year or two off from presenting for personal reasons but continue to remain active in the community ‘behind the scenes’,” he said.
A great deal of work goes into every weekend. On Father Eickhoff’s roster, there are 24 married couples who divvy up duties such as setting up a weekend, creating resource packets, planning social activities, teaching Natural Family Planning, maintaining a supply of pop, and much more.
The Kearneys are one of the “Enrichment” couples.
“Spiritual Enrichment within the EE community is helping to continue to grow each couple’s faith through praying for each other and for each weekend,” Mrs. Kearney explained.
The Kearneys and another couple spearhead this by sending out suggested prayers to the Engaged Encounter community of presenters and priests. They also plan for other events for the community.
“Last year we had our most highly-attended event ever: a spiritual enrichment day for the couples and priests hosted at the new bishop’s home,” Father Eickhoff recounted. “His Excellency was also the featured presenter.”
Another responsibility is serving on the National Outline Revision Committee, a task taken on by John and Joyce Kastl of St. Wenceslaus Parish in Wahoo. Their role includes making sure the Engaged Encounter materials are relevant for the attending couples.
“The outlines for the talks and activities for the weekends were revised two years ago,” said Father Eickhoff, noting that this “major overhaul” was five years in the making.
Ongoing evaluations and adjustments ensure the team is always offering the best possible experience to those preparing for the sacrament of marriage.
Father Eickhoff is enthusiastic about the program, particularly the longevity of commitment from community members.
“I have been involved for 20 years now, and there are two other priests and two couples who have been at it longer than I,” he said. “Impressive!”
The Kearneys said that they hope engaged couples come away from a weekend understanding that they need to prepare for “a lifelong marriage in union with God.”
Mr. Kearney said, “Hopefully, we can give them the tools to use day to day to fulfill this vocation.”
Mrs. Tines said, “We have a saying in Engaged Encounter that ‘A wedding is a day but a marriage is a lifetime.’”
She continued, “We do this because we value marriage so highly and as a way of returning God’s gift to us. We would appreciate your prayers and also your encouragement for those couples who are looking at an Engaged Encounter weekend.”
There are 14 Engaged Encounter weekends offered annually by the diocese. All are held at Our Lady of Good Counsel Retreat House in Waverly, which has a maximum capacity of 25 couples. For information about signing up, engaged couples should consult their parish priests.
Married couples who feel called to volunteer for Engaged Encounter should contact Father Eickhoff at the Family Life Office: (402) 488-2040.
Engaged Encounter prepares couples for Holy Matrimony
Story by S.L. Hansen