Woman to Know: Mary-Rose Verret
Meet “Woman to Know” Mary-Rose Verret, Co-Founder and Director, Witness to Love: Marriage Prep Renewal Ministry
CWF: Mary Rose, I am delighted to have this conversation with you, because I keep hearing, from people in dioceses across the country, about your amazing work in marriage preparation. So I want to know all about it. But first, let’s start with you. –Tell us a bit about your family.
MRV: My husband, Ryan, and I have been married since 2009. We first met in Virginia, in 2006, when I was working for the Diocese of Arlington in the Family Life Office. Ryan was attending the Institute for the Psychological Sciences (now named Divine Mercy University). We were friends for 2 years before we started dating, but all of our friends say they saw it coming! We highly recommend friendship as the best starting point for married life.
Now, nine years later, we have 4 children on earth (and a little one named Jean-Paul in heaven). We’ve written about them here and here. Our children’s names and ages are: Azelie (8), Andre (6), Melodie Rose (4), and Maelle Therese (1). People ask us how we travel so much with young children, and we have to say that the kids are pros and enjoy the adventure! Currently, we do a combination of homeschooling and a virtual charter academy. They are experiencing life to the full!
CWF: Your beautiful family seems to give you a big heart for your marriage ministry! Did you always have a heart for this ministry?
MRV: I have worked in Marriage and Family Life ministry since 2005, spending 6 years in diocesan ministry and then part-time in a parish. I found out that a scary number of Catholic couples were not going to church—and were getting divorced. The parish had done above and beyond the maximum requirements for typical marriage preparation, but it had not impacted the divorce rate at all. As my husband and I tried to figure out how we could help save these couples’ marriages, Witness to Love was born—of both desperation and the Holy Spirit! What started out as an experiment, almost a hobby, at a small country parish in 2012 is now an extremely effective program in 70 dioceses in 4 countries.
CWF: That’s impressive growth, which suggests you have found something new, a way to make a difference in young marriages. Tell us what you found, and how.
MRV: We began by interviewing over 500 engaged and newly married couples, and attempting to understand why they were not integrated into parish life, even after experiencing the best marriage prep programs, presenters and clergy. After tracking couples and discovering that the divorce rate, even with the maximum amount of marriage prep, was no different than the national average (16-20% five years after marriage), we began to envision marriage prep through a more innovative lens.
What seemed to be lacking most was the opportunity to develop trusted relationships with mentor couples, who could then become a bridge of trust into the parish community. From there, we began working with evangelists, Catholic psychologists and pastors to develop what we call a “Marriage Catechumenate,” where couples choose a mentor couple whose marriage they admire.
The focus became formation and evangelization for both couples, and the building of long term friendships and closer connections to the parish. To date, all parishes that have implemented Witness to Love have lowered the divorce rate in their parishes by double digits. Specifically, the Witness to Love parish divorce rate is 0 – 6% five years after the wedding), and participating couples show increased church attendance, and experienced renewal in parish life.
CWF: I don’t think I’m alone in saying that your impact is truly incredible! Did you have any family experiences that influenced how you tackled this mission?
MRV: My parents were divorced. Both sets of grandparents were divorced. Friends and siblings are divorced. I have seen and experienced the pain and isolation that comes with living with divorce. Divorce is what we fight.
CWF: Because you know the pain that results….that’s a powerful motivation, and a lot of personal insight behind your work. Do you consider this work a calling?
MRV: Absolutely! Anyone who works in Marriage Ministry will tell you that it’s a calling. It is very difficult work, but so rewarding! Saint John Paul II said the world needs my witness and it needs your witness. Together, our witness is a healing light, and it is the way that we share Christ’s love with the world. Saint John Paul II said, “The world you are inheriting is a world which desperately needs a new sense of brotherhood and human solidarity. It is a world which needs to be touched and healed by the beauty and richness of God’s love. It needs witnesses to that love. The world needs salt. It needs you — to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
At World Youth Day in Toronto, St. Pope John Paul II said: “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures; we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.”
For me personally, this was a turning point in my life. I had to accept my weaknesses with God’s strength, my fear with God’s love, my emptiness with His fullness, and ultimately, my deep need to know a Father’s Love and his claim to be that perfect Father.
The call to be a “witness” to the Father’s love started at that encounter with St. Pope John Paul II, and ultimately, that is where the name of our ministry comes from.
CWF: You must see some difficult things in the course of your ministry, but I’m willing to bet the deep fruits of those tough times help you persevere. What are some of the good and challenging things you see in the Church today?
MRV: There are so many good things happening in the church today, and incredible people have accepted the challenge to work in our broken world by bringing the good news to everyone.
There are bright spots and blind spots. The bright spots are the passion so many are bringing to the area of Marriage Ministry in particular. There are incredible videos and books. There are testimonies and resources. There are self-help programs and online programs. There is no shortage of beautiful theology or life skills content out there.
However, there are significant blind spots and unrealistic expectations when it comes to the impact that all of these resources will have in someone’s life. Young people today do not trust the church or institutions. Many have significant addictions, especially to pornography. Most young people today do not have a solid witness in their life of what marriage really is. Their expectations are unrealistic.
Recently a young and very enthusiastic person in the field of marriage preparation called me. He was certain that we had somehow discovered a silver bullet, and that we are now pulling rabbits out of the hat when it comes to getting engaged couples to use Fertility Awareness Methods/Natural Family Planning.
I explained to him that it wasn’t magic and there was no Silver Bullet. It was simply hard work, relationships, and then some more hard work and more relationships. Ultimately, Jesus is the only “silver bullet”. Couples today need to be introduced to Christ in a relational way. It’s very simple and very much referring back to the way that Jesus interacts with people. Friends brought friends to meet Him. They ate together and talked together
The goals of Witness to Love are to connect young couples to Christ, to His Church, and to a mentor couple who will be a “lifeline” for their marriage. This couple will be there with them before the wedding day, and also will be friends who will accompany them long after they walk down the aisle. Ultimately, we seek to renew the church through relationships!
CWF: You are a busy woman, having a huge impact within the Church. But how do you keep perspective, and fulfill the primary commitments in your life—especially to your children.
MRV: I often receive phone calls and emails from moms who work from home, or from mothers who work at an office but would like to work from home. Honestly, I don’t know how we did it in the beginning. Our first book, which was published in 2015, was written between 9 p.m. and 3 a.m. At the time, we had three children under the age of four. There’s definitely a need for discernment as to what God really wants you to be doing. Sometimes, we have great ideas, but we are not the person that should be doing it. Sometimes, God has great ideas and we are the person to do it, but we just don’t know it yet. Prayer. Prayer. Prayer.
My spiritual director once told me that where there is peace and joy you can proceed. However, if there’s no peace, and there’s no joy, you are in the wrong place. For Ryan and me, as a couple, we are constantly discerning which new challenges and opportunities we should accept in this ministry. God is always first, then our marriage, our children, and then Witness to Love. We wouldn’t have it any other way. This doesn’t mean it is easy, but it does mean that even at the end of the craziest day, we can have peace and joy.
CWF: You said “God is always first.” What does that mean, practically? How do you nurture your relationship with the Lord and draw on His strength?
MRV: Great question! The Stations of the Cross and the lives of the saints have been my inspiration over the years. Most recently, my favorite book that I am reading for Lent is “I AM: Rewrite Your Name, Rewrite Your Life” by Chris Stefanick. It is so good! I think we all go through times in our life that we need to be reminded of how precious we are to God.
Sometimes, the best thing to do is to just sit in His presence, think about one Bible verse, and let Him love you. Then, you can go out and share that love. God has called us to be reservoirs, spilling over into the hearts of others, and not just a channel that dries up. Stay full of His grace, and you will spill over His love into the lives of others!
CWF: What has been your favorite gift from the Lord in this ministry?
MRV: One of the most exciting aspects of our ministry is that we get to work with the most amazing couples, pastors, deacons, priests and leaders in the Church today. We have been so blessed by the witness of the countless priests that we have met who quietly fast for the married couples in their parish, couples who lift each other up in prayer, and couples who open their homes to these young engaged couples who need to know the love of their Father in heaven. We traveled to 17 states last year, and we were so blessed to meet hundreds of wonderful people who are powerfully and beautifully changing the future of the Catholic Church in the United States and Canada. They give us hope and joy as we know that the grace of the Sacrament of Matrimony is just as potent as it was 100, 1,000 or 2,000 years ago!
CWF: Any advice for our readers?
MRV: To those of you who are married and are reading this – tap into the grace of your sacrament! The grace is there. Just ask for it!
CWF: Let’s end with something fun… what are some things most people don’t know about you?
MRV: I have solo backpacked across Europe three times and Costa Rica once. During that time I had some amazing conversations and experiences. I love to paint and garden. I attended community college for 4 years in high school and studied landscaping. Between landscaping, painting, babysitting and house cleaning, I paid for college. My conversion came when I was 18 and had an unexpected meeting with Pope John Paul II. That short conversation changed my life forever.
CWF: Thanks so much for this conversation, Mary Rose, and thank you for your “witness to love”! Maybe one day we’ll get to hear more about that short conversation with Pope John Paul II. But that’s another conversation!