New retreats for engaged couples ‘joyfully’ blend catechesis, life skills

  • Written by Morningstar Stevenson
  • Published in Local
A couple took time for reflection during a recent “Betrothed” retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades. Offered by the Archdiocese of Seattle, the retreats cover church teaching about marriage and practical topics like finances and family planning. Photo: Fred Janssen A couple took time for reflection during a recent “Betrothed” retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades. Offered by the Archdiocese of Seattle, the retreats cover church teaching about marriage and practical topics like finances and family planning. Photo: Fred Janssen

FEDERAL WAY – Engaged couples attending the Archdiocese of Seattle’s new “Betrothed” retreats can expect a “vibrantly Catholic” experience that blends practical marriage topics with church teaching.

“We see marriage prep as a form of evangelization,” said Sarah Bartel, a marriage and family specialist who developed “Betrothed: A Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage” with her husband, Nathan. The Bartels, members of St. Andrew Parish in Sumner, have four daughters.

The overarching message of the retreats, introduced in 2018, is that “the joy of marriage is the joy of the church.”  

During each retreat, engaged couples hear from married couples about what it takes to have a strong Catholic marriage. They also learn about the sacramental nature and theology of marriage from mentoring couples like the Bartels and Anne and Fred Janssen, parishioners at St. John Vianney Parish in Kirkland. The Janssens, parents of three, have been married 25 years and led marriage retreats for more than 15 years.

“We emphasize the importance of this sacrament to help couples understand their marriage isn’t just about them,” Fred Janssen said of the Betrothed retreat.

“Marriage is important to the whole church, as the love between a husband and wife is the closest thing we have on earth to understanding Christ’s love for the church,” he added. 

When the retreat is over, couples “seem to come out of the weekend a little bit relieved, and excited, to see that people living out a Catholic marriage still love, and even like, each other,” said Megan Pepin, who helps mentor couples along with her husband Steven; they’re members of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland.

The retreats are just one way couples, families and children are being supported through the archdiocesan office of Marriage, Family Life and Formation, said its director, Deacon Eric Paige.

“A number of pastors have made it clear that we need to attend to marriage preparation, starting at a younger age,” Deacon Paige said. “We need to help parents to teach kids about vocations, whether it be to religious life or marriage, and that this is an intentional decision made with God’s guidance.”

Megan and Steven Pepin speak about the sacramental bond and unity in marriage during a recent “Betrothed” engaged couples retreat offered by the Archdiocese of Seattle at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades. Photo: Fred Janssen

Theology, sexuality and finances

The Bartels developed the Betrothed weekend retreat around a series of videos that look at marriage through Scripture, tradition and church teaching. The videos provide a nice balance of teaching and engaging, Janssen said, noting that “the participants are always very responsive to the videos and accompanying presentations.”

Betrothed was also inspired by Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, said Bartel, who holds a doctorate in moral theology and ethics from The Catholic University of America, where she specialized in marriage, family, sexual ethics and bioethics. (Bartel writes a family life column in Northwest Catholic.)

“We care about how love and sexuality in a marriage reveals God’s own inner nature as a loving, self-giving communion of persons,” Bartel said. So the retreat includes a nurse practitioner speaking about natural family planning (NFP).

“With this knowledge of how fertility works, couples really open up to the possibility of using NFP going forward,” Bartel said. 

Nurse practitioner Ashley McCullough introduces engaged couples to natural family planning during a “Betrothed” retreat at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades. Photo: Fred Janssen

Besides theology and sexuality, how couples handle money is another important topic during the retreats.

“Nathan and I give a talk on finances where we encourage radical generosity and stewardship,” Bartel said.

But, Pepin said, “the most important thing we can do during the weekend is give them space and time to focus on their relationship.”

While preaching at some of the retreats, Deacon Paige said, “I was really gratified to see couples enjoying time together [and was] impressed by the mentoring couples.”

‘To the altar and beyond’

The Betrothed retreat fulfills the archdiocese’s marriage preparation requirement, but marriage prep shouldn’t end there, according to Bartel.

“Ideally what I would love to see after retreats is parishes offering a mentoring program such as Witness to Love, in which married couples accompany engaged couples to the altar and beyond,” Bartel said. “So it’s not only pre-Cana, but post-Cana.”

Bryan Frias and Theresa Santos enjoyed reflecting on their upcoming marriage at a “Betrothed” retreat offered by the archdiocese in April 2018. Photo: Sarah Bartel

Many of the couples attending the retreats may not be practicing Catholics. Pepin, who is the archdiocese’s director of young adult ministry, said she hopes it plants a seed for these couples to return to the faith.

“This generation seems to have an antiquated view of what the church believes about marriage,” Pepin said. “Attending the retreat solidifies their understanding of church teaching, and they can then make a decision [about returning to the church] based on that.”

Deacon Paige encourages couples to form relationships with their pastors and pastoral staff. “Couples sometimes don’t realize how eager the parish staff is to support them as a couple,” he said.

And couples should celebrate the Eucharist and reconciliation together, Deacon Paige said. “If a couple is going to reconciliation together, it forms a pattern where it’s easier to say ‘I’m sorry’ to our spouses.”

“Engagement in the sacraments breathes life into our relationships,” he added.

And he advises praying for your spouse five minutes every day. Besides offering the support of prayer, “it reorients your heart to what your spouse might need.”

Attend a Betrothed retreat

Two more “Betrothed: A Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage” retreats for engaged couples are planned in 2019:

May 31 to June 2 with Sarah and Nathan Bartel

October 18-20 with Fred and Anne Janssen

The retreats are held at the Archbishop Brunett Retreat Center at the Palisades in Federal Way.

How can we support families and couples?

Deacon Eric Paige, director of the archdiocese’s Marriage, Family Life and Formation, is seeking suggestions for supporting couples and families. Call Deacon Paige at 206-382-4864 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..