Valentine’s Day was extra special for 25 married couples this year.
They spent the weekend holed up in a retreat house overlooking Canandaigua Lake, where they renewed their marriage vows, enjoyed a wine and cheese reception, and listened to presentations about the graces Catholics receive through the sacraments.
If that last part about the sacraments came as a surprise to you, then you’re probably not familiar with the couples’ retreats offered each year by the staff of Notre Dame Retreat House in Canandaigua. The couples who attend these retreats year after year, however, believe such experiences are among the best things they can do for their marriages and for each other.
“It’s really strengthened our marriage,” noted Kathy Smith, who with her husband, Greg, has attended at least four couples’ retreats at Notre Dame.
The couples’ retreats are an outgrowth of the men’s and women’s retreats the Redemptorist priests have been holding at the retreat house for decades, according to Nancy Lynch, Notre Dame’s office manager. Couples’ retreats began being offered six years ago at the suggestion of a frequent men’s retreat participant who never could convince his wife to sign up for the women’s retreats but believed she’d attend a couples’ retreat if one were offered, Lynch said.
The Smiths found themselves in a similar situation several years ago, noted Kathy Smith, who frequently participated in women’s retreats at Notre Dame. She encouraged her husband to sign up for men’s retreats there, but the prospect of spending the weekend with strangers wasn’t appealing to him, she said. Once they learned about the couples’ retreat Greg Smith agreed to sign up, but he was still apprehensive, worried that the other couples on the retreat would be overly pious or have nothing in common with the Smiths. He soon discovered, however, that the other couples were very down-to-earth, and the other men were just as eager to talk about sports and hunting as they were open about their faith, Kathy Smith said.
“Now he’s the one that signs us up,” she added.
The Smiths are not the only couple that comes back for the couples’ retreat each February, Lynch noted.
“Most of the couples that come are repeats. This is their annual gift to each other, to spend time with each other and the Lord,” she said.
The February retreat became so popular that two years ago, Notre Dame’s staff added another couples’ retreat to its yearly calendar. This year, that retreat will be held June 6-8.
Notre Dame’s retreat staff pick a different theme each year, and all of the couples’, men’s and women’s retreats that year will follow that theme, Lynch explained. The theme for 2014 is “Gifts Beyond Compare,” and the retreat house’s Redemptorist priests and Sister of St. Joseph talk about the gifts of the different sacraments, she said. Presentations during the retreat focus on the history and gifts of the priesthood and the sacraments of reconciliation, anointing of the sick and the Eucharist. Mass is celebrated twice during the retreat, and the Saturday-evening Mass includes anointing of the sick. The Redemptorist priests are available to hear confessions Saturday afternoon before Mass, and retreat participants also have the option of praying the Stations of the Cross Saturday afternoon, Lynch said.
The couples’ retreats are slightly different in that they also include a vow-renewal ceremony during the Saturday-evening Mass, she added. The retreat house also hosts a wine and cheese reception for the couples Friday night before the first session, a special touch that is not included in the schedule for the men’s and women’s retreats because participants often come in parish groups, Lynch explained.
“The couples are coming separately, so we do a little bit more to encourage their mixing and getting to be comfortable with each other,” she said.
Although the content of the couples’ retreat is basically the same as that of the men’s and women’s retreats, the experience is quite different, said MaryBeth Nowak, who attended the February couples’ retreat with her husband, Phil.
“The conversations that we had over meals and snacks with all these other couples were very different than any of the conversations I’ve had at the women’s retreats,” she said. “It was good because we got immediate feedback from each other, and we got the female point of view and the male point of view all mixed together.”
Phil Nowak said he’s participated in more than 30 men’s retreats, but being able to share the experience with his wife made the recent couples’ retreat his favorite retreat so far.
The Smiths said they appreciate the way the couples’ retreats allow them to grow in faith together.
“It’s not really good for a marriage when one person is growing and the other is not. It’s good to grow together,” Kathy Smith said.