Caitlin and John Lawniczak are in their mid-20s and have been married for two years. They are active members of St. Pius Tenth Parish in Chili and have close relationships with many of their fellow parishioners.
Yet a few months ago, they began to feel something was missing.
"We felt that there weren’t really any programs in our parish that existed that offered support to younger (married couples)," Caitlin Lawniczak said.
Around the same time, the members of St. Pius’ Lifelong Faith Formation Ministry Committee were discussing ways for parishioners to build and strengthen their relationships with one another, according to Johan Engstrom, the parish’s director of faith formation. When the Lawniczaks approached Engstrom with the idea of starting a post-Cana program for Catholic newlyweds, he was happy to work with them. Together, they began to brainstorm ways to bring the Lawniczaks’ idea to fruition while building relationships among the parish’s recently married couples.
"We think that newlywed couples who are Catholic can share what’s happening in their marriages so that we can all understand that some struggles are common, and have the chance to talk to each other and support one another," Caitlin Lawniczak explained. "We want to have open discussions about what marriage is like for each couple, to find common ground and support one another. We would like to do this in a prayerful setting that acknowledges the centrality of Jesus in marriage as well as the importance of love."
Engstrom worked with the Lawniczaks to plan a Sept. 24 program that incorporated conversation starters drawn from Pope Francis’ 2016 document, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). The event was not intended to be catechetical in nature, but rather was geared toward faith sharing and relationship building, Engstrom noted.
Although a number of couples initially expressed interest in the evening program, the post-Cana event ended up being poorly attended due to scheduling conflicts. However, Engstrom and the Lawniczaks plan to hold a similar event in the future, perhaps after soliciting interest through a survey specifically targeting the parish’s newly married couples. They believe such a program will fill a need that exists not just at St. Pius Tenth Parish, but at many Catholic parishes.
"We frequently get focused on knowledge, catechesis or sacramental preparation and filling pews, but we do not necessarily start to ask questions (about) how can we help people start to grow in fellowship as well," Engstrom said.
It’s quite common for a newly married couple to fall away from the church or at least lose touch with their parish after the wedding, then resurface again when they have a child that needs to be baptized and fall away again until its time for the child to receive his or her next sacrament, Engstrom said.
Fellowship may be the key to breaking this cycle, noted Colleen Trevisani, director of youth and young-adult ministry at St. Kateri Parish in Irondequoit.
"A key piece to both the post-Cana and post-baptism (ministry) is helping couples form community and connections to other couples and families in the parish before the events so they want to remain connected afterwards," Trevisani said.
Like many parishes, St. Kateri does not have a formal program specifically for newlyweds. Yet the parish does invite families of newly baptized children to special gatherings, and last month held an evening program intended to help couples enrich their marriages. As it turned out, no newlywed couples attended, but the parish is actively trying to reach out to such couples, Trevisani said.
St. Leo Parish in Hilton also is working to engage newly married couples, noted parishioner Neil Combs. Last month the parish began offering a new program called Beloved: Finding Happiness in Marriage. Couples participating in this program meet once a month, using Scripture and the Catholic Church’s teachings and traditions to reflect on the true meaning of a sacramental marriage, said Combs, who with his wife, Mary, coordinates St. Leo’s Beloved program.
"The program would be great for recently married couples, before any bad habits and difficulties set it," he said.
Parishioners and staff at St. Patrick Parish in Victor also are searching for ways to reach out to couples recently married at the parish or who plan to be married there this year, according to Deacon John Payne.
"Our marriage-preparation team is discussing ways that we can remain in touch with the couples this year by inviting them to stay involved in their parishes, and especially by coming to specific church activities," Deacon Payne said. "It is a new adventure for us, and we pray that we can encourage their continued participation in their faith, even those in a mixed-faith relationship."