Office of marriage and family life is finding new ways to meet people’s needs
by Jessica Langdon
Family is a basic and important building block in the church and in the world.
Marriages and families today often face struggles — lack of communication, divorce and attempts to redefine marriage, to name just a few — that threaten to put cracks in their very foundation.
Deacon Tony Zimmerman knows the challenges involved, but he also knows the beauty that comes with marriage and family life.
As the new lead consultant for the office of marriage and family life, he hopes to emphasize the positives and joys and help strengthen families.
The office, which is part of the department of parish ministries, is responsible for a number of archdiocesan programs, including marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, the 50th anniversary Mass, the Mass of the Innocents, Project Genesis (which helps families teach preteens and teens about sexuality), men’s and women’s programs, and many others.
Coming to work for the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas this summer brought a big career change for Deacon Zimmerman.
Previously, he handled national accounts for an industrial chemical company that dealt with food processing plants.
In other respects, though, this is a continuation of work he has been doing for decades.
He has been married to his wife Barbara for 40 years. They have six children and 11 grandchildren.
A pivotal point in their own lives — and in their desire to help other couples — came nine years into their marriage.
“I realized at that point we were not falling apart, but we’d kind of settled into this routine,” said Deacon Zimmerman. “It wasn’t what I thought marriage would be.”
With children and jobs and bills, it can seem as if you’re just running through the day and starting all over the next.
Then one Sunday, a priest came to their church to invite couples to a Marriage Encounter weekend. The priest’s invitation didn’t really draw the couple in, but they saw something in the happiness of the husband and wife who shared information about the program over coffee and doughnuts after Mass.
They decided to give Marriage Encounter a try.
And it was truly a conversion point in their marriage, said Deacon Zimmerman.
“I think the effect on me was realizing how much I was loved,” he said.
The Zimmermans began to understand how their sacrament of marriage was important on a larger scale. They wanted to share what they had learned and accepted when they were asked to be a presenting couple. They have worked with the program and taken on coordinating roles over the years in the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.
Starting in 2000, Deacon Zimmerman went through training for the permanent diaconate with Barbara at his side every step of the way.
He was ordained and serves at St. Therese Parish in Parkville, Mo.
But this past year, said Deacon Zimmerman, he felt called “to really take the time that I had left and the ability to work to go and spend that in a deeper way in the support of marriage and families.”
As luck would have it, the archdiocesan family life office was looking to make a change at the same time.
Jacki Corrigan, who had held the position of archdiocesan consultant for the office for many years, was retiring.
Deacon Zimmerman found in the position a perfect fit for the work he envisioned.
He started July 18.
In the months that have followed, and under the guidance of Father Gary Pennings, vicar general and director of the department of parish ministries, the office has been both expanded and reconfigured.
The office of marriage and family life now incorporates the My House Initiative run by Sam Meier. And Deacon Zimmerman’s arrival was soon followed by the hiring of Brad and Libby DuPont, also consultants for marriage and family life. The entire office relies on the administrative assistance of Mary Anne Kierl.
An important ministry
Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann recognizes the importance of the role of the church in family life — and the church’s special responsibility to families.
“The archbishop has a very genuine concern for the welfare of families,” said Father Pennings. “He knows that healthy families are at the heart of our church and at the heart of our society, so it is very dear to his heart to have programs that strengthen families, strengthen marriage, help people prepare for marriage, help young people discern their vocation.”
He and Deacon Zimmerman emphasize that marriage is a vocation.
So marriage preparation will remain a key component of the office.
“They’re looking at anything we might do to strengthen our marriage preparation for engaged couples,” said Father Pennings, adding that the goal is to reach people before they become engaged or even choose the person they want to marry. The process could begin as early as high school, giving young people a true idea of what Christian marriage is.
“Once you set the date for the wedding, it’s really a little late to begin preparing,” said Father Pennings.
It’s important to continue to be a resource to couples after the wedding day, so enrichment for married couples is another key focus.
Father Pennings compared marriage to the priesthood. Men go through years of intensive formation, but continue to learn about what it really means to be a priest for years after ordination.
Couples have much to learn even after the wedding day, as well.
“When they get into the routine of daily life,” said Deacon Zimmerman, “their love has to switch from what so often is romantic love to the real, true, heroic love, which is concern about the other, which is willing to make sacrifices in the everyday moments of daily life and the routine moments of daily life.”
One way to help young couples in their marriage is to link them with couples who have been married longer.
“I would really encourage married couples who believe they have a good marriage to consider being a lead couple[for the marriage preparation program],” said Father Pennings. “We need good models for engaged couples.”
The lead couples can then walk with newly married couples through those first few years.
This is important work, he said, because in many ways marriage is a relationship that “mirrors God’s love for us.”
Couple has witnessed the strength of the church
Brad and Libby DuPont are passionate about marriage and family.
“The best decision I ever made was to marry my wife Libby,” said Brad.
The couple came to the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas late this summer.
Brad is originally from St. Louis, and Libby hails from New Jersey. Both hold master’s degrees in theology from Ave Maria University in Florida.
The two met working on National Evangelization Teams, or NET, ministry.
They married in 2003 and began working together as youth ministers at a parish in Minnesota.
They are parents to four children, “two in heaven and two on earth,” said Brad.
Their oldest, Isaac, is a first-grader.
In 2006, their infant son Peter died of a rare genetic condition. In 2008, their daughter Gianna, who was also only a few months old, died of the same condition.
Their youngest is Magdalene, who is one.
The DuPonts witnessed firsthand the strength of the church in the people who rallied around them during their times of crisis, offering friendship, food and even financial help.
After working with youth and young adults for years, the DuPonts grew interested in doing more work with adults and in the area of family life.
The more they learned about the openings in the archdiocese, the more excited they grew about the possibility of working to strengthen marriages and families.
“It’s such an important issue in society,” said Brad.
The opportunity to “bring Christ to engaged and married couples was very appealing,” said Brad.
And the projected new emphasis on Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body teachings meant they were bringing added value to the table.
The couple had used the late pope’s teaching on sexuality in their work with teens during immersion retreats, which opened up several avenues for frank discussions.
“What they’d heard from their friends in society is the church is full of rules and it wants to spoil your happiness,” said Libby, stressing that’s not the case. “When they understood what the church really taught — and why — they were just so excited.”
The DuPonts look forward to being part of marriage preparation for couples and to doing some “remote preparation” — working to help parishes reach out to much younger groups in hopes of instilling a sense of who they truly are.
“People are very excited about the opportunity, really introducing theology of the body on a wider scale,” said Brad. “It’s such a vision for what it means to be human.”
“Everyone is interested in happiness,” he said. “This is really a way to evangelize the culture and to build a culture based on life, based on love, and that really supports human dignity, which is what we’re really about.”
People will always fall short if their definition of marriage depends on what the other person can do for them, he said.
Consultant sees anti-porn initiative grow
The sense Sam Meier gets when he talks to some people in archdiocesan schools and parishes about pornography is: “Our good Catholic kids, they don’t really do this.”
He has a statistic, though — a “denial breaker,” he calls it — that suggests otherwise.
A 2008 study at a Catholic high school showed 48 percent of senior boys used pornography every week, and 29 percent of freshman boys reported using it.
Archdiocesan leaders refer to pornography as a scourge that threatens marriage and families.
Meier, who has been working with the My House Initiative for the past four years, is excited to now be part of the marriage and family life office.
“It’s been good to have the collaboration,” said Meier.
One of the chief tasks for this year is reworking the 80-page My House manual for parishes and also updating the My House video. Many parishioners remember seeing the 12-minute video during a homily in 2007, said Meier. It included information about awareness, a man’s testimony, quotes about theology of the body and a call to action by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann.
Meier is working on fund-raising for the professional update, which can cost $20,000-$30,000.
Several other dioceses have picked up the program already, and others have expressed interest.
Meier believes that many people who are dabbling with Internet pornography are really seeking love.
“If people understood the beauty of their bodies and sexuality, I think we’d have a lot more happiness,” he said.
Meier works with parishes and also with hundreds of men who are seeking encouragement and support to break out of their struggles.
Meier and his wife Beth work together on this initiative, and they speak together about it once a month, from the local level to the national stage.
The couple recorded an interview recently for EWTN’s Life on the Rock. The show is scheduled to air Nov. 3.
Beth is one of only a handful of Catholic women who speak on this topic. She also coordinates a spousal support group that has seen many positive results.
Sam and Beth have a son Samuel, who will be two in December, and the couple is expecting another baby boy in December.
(For more information on the My House Initiative, go to the website at: www.My HouseKansas.org.)
Administrative assistant ‘a real gift’
Mary Anne Kierl will mark nine years with the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas at the end of this year.
It has been like family, she said.
She is the administrative assistant for the office of marriage and family life.
She enjoys all the programs the office works with. One of the most touching is the celebration of 50th wedding anniversaries each June. She loves to see the children watching their parents mark this occasion and to see couples renew their vows.
Kierl is often the person priests and parish staff talk with first when they call the office looking for resources to assist couples and families. She connects them with the materials that can help them.
“She is a real gift,” said Deacon Tony Zimmerman, lead consultant for the office of marriage and family life. She has a wealth of knowledge about the office and the programs it offers.”
“She is such a servant,” he added. “She does so many things.”