Christian and Christine Meert of Denver launched the online CatholicMarriagePrep.com.
Smiles all around and the couple's life is full of plans, love and dreams coming true. They are getting married.
As Catholics being married in a Catholic church, they know they have to go through the marriage preparation course. Trouble is the groom is working at a high-paying job in Fort McMurray and the bride to be is an elementary school teacher in Edmonton.
The answer? Go online. CatholicMarragePrep.com describes itself as "the only one-on-one interactive, mentor-led, on-demand online pre-Cana program."
"It's a distance-based, module-based course," says Peggy Zallas, marriage preparation co-ordinator for Edmonton Archdiocese's Office of Family and Life.
"They do assignments. They send it in. They talk to another couple. They get full feedback. It's not watch a video and answer A, B, C, D," explains Zallas.
She has seen different courses online and knows "this is a very, very heavy program. It's a totally interactive experience."
Zallas recommends the course for "anyone who is engaged where one fiancé is living away, out of the country, working up north, that sort of thing, can't make any of our local programs.
"People are sometimes at different places in their walk and you feel you have to meet them where they are."
The distance problem is resolved by Skype. When a relationship inventory is being conducted with a facilitator, the one fiancé and facilitator meet and they Skype the other fiancé and they have a guided conversation about their relationship.
The topics go through everything from finances to in-depth conversations about their relationship. "This one is very sacramentally forming," says Zallas. She describes it as a guided conversation, not a counselling session.
The diocese has 25 facilitator couples. "They are lay people who have felt a calling and they have come, and they have gone through the training," says Zallas.
If conflicted, bigger issues than can be addressed in an hour come up, the couple are referred perhaps to a priest, certified counsellor or certified psychologist.
"The only way to fail is to not finish it," affirms Zallas.
Marriage prep is meant as a step in the discernment process.
"We have a lot of people in all of our marriage prep courses who have discerned marriage with this particular person at this particular time wasn't meant to be," says Zallas. "They dig into these issues they (find) not this person, not this time."
Even these people give positive feedback to the program.
The reality is 90 per cent of couples don't want to go through marriage prep. "But 90 per cent of couples come out of marriage prep so grateful that they had marriage prep," reports Zallas.
Good marriage prep is so nurturing that there have been people who have gone through marriage prep and then gone through RCIA and come back to their faith, says Zallas. "It changes their life. It changes them."
Christian Meert, the originator of the online program, says he and his wife Christine have been working with the Edmonton Archdiocese for 10 years.
"People spend a lot of time choosing a car that will last just a few years. They will go into debt to buy this car, right?" says Meert. "Marriage is meant to be for life and for your greater happiness, so marriage prep is the best investment in time and money you can make."
Centred in Colorado Springs, Colo., Meert answers the question many ask: "Why should I go to marriage prep when we have been living together for a year now?
PHOTO | MILTON PHOTOGRAPHY
Peggy Zallas oversees online marriage preparation for the Edmonton Archdiocese.
"Oftentimes, nobody wants to 'rock the boat' and the couple will live side by side without creating a deep and lasting intimacy," says Meert. "It (the union) will remain on the surface. Then they may realize they made the wrong choice and go in different directions with all the hurts and heartbreaks it represents.
"The engagement time is a time to help you discover each other's heart and mind, your dreams, your goals. The marriage prep frame will help you discuss the hard stuff and get to the bottom of things."
The major thing a couple must sort though is finances, says Meert. Couples are marrying later in life – 27 years of age for men, 24 for women – and often have their own things from houses to student debt. Until they unite their finances be it student debt to bank accounts, there will be a major crack in the marriage's foundation, says Meert.
So what can a couple expect if they invest in a marriage prep course?
"Time to discover each other's heart and mind, time to sketch a life-project together, with Christ at the centre," answers Meert. "At the same time, it is an opportunity to get to know Christ better and in a more personal way, an opportunity to discover or rediscover your faith, its beauty and strength."
Communication is crucial in any relationship, but especially in a love relationship.
"It (marriage prep) will help you to learn how to communicate better, communicate deeper in order to build a safe place where you can be who you are, where you can make yourselves vulnerable without fear," assures Meert.
"When you build a house, you start by building strong foundations. This is what marriage prep does: it helps you dig the strong foundations of your marriage, and gives you the tools for the 'decorating' as well."
The Agape Catholic Marriage Prep started 15 years ago as a live program for the Archdiocese of Denver. Then, the archdiocese asked the Meerts to help with couples who were too far from any town to participate.
"We started with one couple by email and it was very good," says Meert. "We were surprised by the openness of the couple, the discussions they had, the depth of their answers. Then we had two, three and then a dozen couples so that we started a website to be able to answer in a timely manner to each couple.
"We realized how important it was to mentor each couple individually, as each couple has a different story, different religious background, different family of origin and so on.
"It's just impossible to have a 'one size fits all' program anymore. Today we have couples coming from all over the world, in English, Spanish and French."