By Fr Mick Court, Christine and Gerry Bent
In February 2024, Worldwide Marriage Encounter celebrates its 50th Anniversary in Australia and a celebration will be held in Sydney.
In 1974, Sydney couple Ron and Mavis Pirola and Melbourne priest Fr Joe McCann returned to Australia after spending time in the United States, determined to make their shared dream to “change the world” through stronger marriages a reality.
They had experienced a Marriage Encounter weekend the year before and they wanted every couple and priest in Australia to experience joy and growth in their relationships as they had.
The first Australian weekend was held in Sydney in February 1974.
Fr McCann and two couples from the US presented that weekend. Weekends continued in Sydney, presented by passionate American couples and priests, until the first all-Australian teamed weekend in December 1974.
They quickly drew couples and priests in large numbers with Marriage Encounter weekends being held every other week.
Sydney reached out to Melbourne and by 1979 all the states in Australia were holding the weekends. Australia then reached out to New Zealand and the Pacific.
That first dynamic ecclesial team ignited a flame that endures to this day.
Married couples experiencing this weekend of renewal, away from family, home activities and parish commitments, have refreshed their initial love for each other and the church and gained deeper joy and commitment in their relationships.
With this renewed love of each other, the church and of God many couples become involved in different ministries in their parishes.
Engaged Encounter, Retrouvaille and Antioch, which support marriage and family, also grew from passionate couples and priests who wanted to make a difference in the world.
Priests are also encouraged to attend a weekend to re-energise and to gain new insights and perspectives on marriage, as well as their own sacrament of holy orders.
Many priests who have attended a Marriage Encounter weekend say they rekindled the spark they once had when they made their commitment to God on their ordination day.
The Marriage Encounter experience
The Marriage Encounter experience typically consists of weekend retreats beginning on Friday evening and ending on Sunday afternoon.
Couples are encouraged to turn off their mobile phones, tune out of what is happening at work and home, and are guided through various aspects of their relationship through a series of talks by three couples and a priest.
They are also given time to discuss everything they’ve learned privately with their spouses.
This structure makes Marriage Encounter Weekends particularly powerful.
Couples are in a protected setting away from the busyness of the world and are asked to focus just on each other.
The basic message of the weekend hasn’t changed much in 50 years and some couples tell us that the atmosphere of nurturing support and the fact that the Holy Spirit really is with them on that weekend can often provide what they are unable to find in counselling or therapy.
The church highly values lay movements like ours to promote the mission of the wider church in marriage and family.
In a recent affirmation, the current Pacific Worldwide Marriage Encounter leaders were invited to be part of an initiative led by the Vatican’s dicastery for laity, family and life, through the John Paul II Institute in Rome, to foster the role of marriage movements in the church.
Marian and Andrew Julien from Sydney represented the Pacific Secretariate of Worldwide Marriage Encounter, along with five other Marriage Encounter leadership couples from around the world, joining two other movements, Teams of Our Lady and the Emmauel Community (Love and Truth outreach) in the mission of the dicastery.
The world has changed much since 1974.
As the world’s pressures and attacks on marriage and the family get even more pronounced, it is important that couples get as much help as they can.
Just as it is important to attend workshops, professional development or be mentored for our careers, it is important for couples and priests to attend Worldwide Marriage Encounter weekends for their marriage and priesthood, to be encouraged by others who are like-minded and believe in marriage and priesthood.
Today, as we recollect 50 years of Worldwide Marriage Encounter in Australia we recount the many times we rejoiced with the Holy Spirit for the blessings our movement has received. And we look ahead with great hope to the next 50 years.
We ask for your prayers as we continue our vision “To love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12) and mission “To proclaim the value of marriage and holy orders in the church and in the world.”
With assistance from Anne and John Ellis.