NORTH KINGSTOWN — Four engaged couples sat several feet apart from one another in the St. Francis de Sales Parish Center in North Kingstown, while on a screen, Deacon Ron De Pietro and his wife, Sandra, could be seen speaking about the domestic church from the comfort of their living room.
“Life is an adventure. Your marriage is an adventure,” Deacon De Pietro said as he advised the young couples listening to him in the parish center and on Zoom to “be bold” and “take risks,” like traveling and starting a business, while they still can.
“If you don’t do it, it’s not really going to happen for you later,” he said.
A few minutes later, Edward J. Trendowski, the director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence, which oversees the diocesan Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment, stood in front of the group and spoke a little bit about the universal call to holiness.
“In the sacrament of matrimony, God is calling you to be a saint,” Trendowski said.
The recent Saturday afternoon “marriage prep” gathering at St. Francis was the latest weekend gathering for engaged couples throughout the diocese to come together, in-person and virtually, and hear insights from older, experienced married couples.
Since the novel coronavirus pandemic hit the United States last year, the Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment, like other ministries in the diocese, has had to adjust its programs for couples preparing to be married in the Church.
“I’ve had to learn some technology, but I really appreciate it. It’s a good opportunity,” said Trendowski, who noted that couples have the option to attend the weekend marriage preparation programs in person or online, via Zoom.
“I personally prefer in person, but I think this just gives us an opportunity to continue to offer the marriage preparation,” Trendowski said. “When a lot of things got shut down completely, we were able to continue to offer this ministry.”
After being shut down for three months last year, the marriage preparation ministry resumed last June with an entirely virtual format. Since then, the program — which consists of 10 hours of talks and workbook sessions over two separate weekends — has moved to a hybrid model.
The engaged and the older presenting married couples both have the option to participate in person or via Zoom. Trendowski said the number of couples who participate online and in-person are similar to what the ministry saw before the pandemic. “We’ve had a range, anywhere from 10 engaged couples up to 27 to 30 couples,” Trendowski said.
Gianna Tutalo, 31, and Michael Folco, 41, said they decided to participate in-person at the St. Francis de Sales Parish Center as they felt they would be more engaged that way.
“At home, there’s just too many distractions,” said Folco, a restaurateur who is scheduled to marry Tutalo, a secretary at Rhode Island Hospital, at St. Thomas Church in Providence on Aug. 8.
“I couldn’t see us doing this from the comfort of my living room, with me having sweatpants and a hat on, with my feet up, the game on in the background. I don’t think that’s fair to these folks who are graciously donating their time for our betterment,” Folco said.
Tutalo said she and her fiancé, whom she met in 2011 while they both worked at a restaurant in Providence, went “back and forth” when deciding whether to participate in person or via Zoom.
“But we went in-person because it’s easier to be more attentive and focused,” she said. “We thought we’d get more out of it.”
Except for a few minor technical glitches during some of the Zoom live feeds, the couples in the St. Francis de Sales Parish Center could hear and follow along with what the online married presenters were saying about topics such as finances, communication, temperaments and how families of origin impact spouses.
“The weekend starts by looking at, ‘What is marriage?’” Trendowski said. “We want to start with that because that kind of sets the foundation. We look at what the Church says that marriage is, and then how that affects everything else like communication, finances, looking at your family of origin, etc.
“We want to encourage them off the bat to look at how the Catholic faith influences their choosing to get married in the Catholic Church, what does the Catholic Church have to say about marriage, and we propose to them the Church’s vision for marriage and encourage them to avail themselves of the sacraments, and to pray together and be open to God’s grace for their marriages,” Trendowski said.
Jessica Varrichione, 27, and Andrew Silvia, 34, said the talks from older married couples helped them to think through important issues related to faith and family.
“The workbook exercises teach you a lot of things you don’t really think about sometimes before marriage,” said Silvia, who runs an oil business with his father. He and Varrichione are scheduled to be married June 12 at St. Mary’s Church in Bristol.
Tristen Lewandowski, 23, and Andrea Desilets, 23, are also scheduled to be married this year — Aug. 21 — at St. Mary’s Church in Bristol. They both met as members of the marching band at the University of Notre Dame.
“I personally feel more engaged doing things in person than on Zoom. That’s just me,” said Lewandowski, an electrical engineer at Raytheon. He said the married presenters on Zoom did just as well as those who appeared in person.
“It would have been nice if they were here, to meet them in person, but other than that, I think they did great on Zoom,” Lewandowski said.
Desilets, a law student at Roger Williams University, said she wanted to attend the marriage preparation program in-person after a year of online law classes.
“I find that, personally, it’s a lot easier to be focused in person,” she said. “You can still get the information online, but it’s just not the same.”