Elaine and Deacon Greg Ricci, members of St. Anthony’s Parish in Cumberland, will coordinate facilitator training for the FOCCUS marriage preparation inventory tool. The couple also hopes to introduce the use of a REFOCCUS tool geared towards married couples as an ongoing relationship check-up and enrichment. (Submitted photo)

Jenny Snarski
Catholic Herald Staff

“Our diocese needs to promote healthy, holy marriages,” says Dan Blank, director of Administrative Services for the Diocese of Superior.

Blank acknowledges that financial cuts almost 10 years ago left the diocese’s marriage and family life office without dedicated staff and attention, with a “somewhat scattered approach.”

Blank also affirmed that Bishop James P. Powers wants a rejuvenation of the marriage preparation process as part of an effort to “reconnect the people to the sacrament of marriage in the Church.”

“Thank goodness for people that are out there,” Blank said, referring to those who serve married couples and families in parishes and clusters.

While there is not a large quantitative demand for marriage preparation ministry, he is particularly thankful to Deacon Greg and Elaine Ricci, of Cumberland, for stepping in to help coordinate the upcoming trainings for FOCCUS facilitators, the parish members who run marriage preparation programs.

Blank commented, “They’re an awesome couple who see the need.”

Deacon Ricci and Elaine will present trainings for FOCCUS facilitators March 23 at St. Patrick, Hudson, and April 6 at St. Joseph, Rice Lake.

The Riccis, who will celebrate their 40th anniversary in June, first started working with engaged couples in the mid-1990s at their home parish of St. Anthony, Cumberland.

Elaine remembers the marriage preparation classes she and Greg received and how important they have been for their own marriage.
“We wanted to help others get to that point,” she said.

Her husband, joking that stone tablets were used in their preparatory classes, shared that the class format was different, although much of the content was similar.

Although the format for marriage preparation can vary from one parish or cluster based on the preferences and style of the pastor or sacramental minster, the Riccis firmly believe in the benefits of having married couples working with engaged couples.

During their own marriage prep, the couple used an inventory tool similar to what they use to train facilitators. One difference was the predominant facilitation nowadays of couple-to-couple, rather than the priest solely working with the couple.

They said priests attending the diocesan continuing education last fall were very supportive of the Riccis’ desire to coordinate and expand training of facilitators for and use of the FOCCUS program.

An apostolate of the Archdiocese of Omaha, FOCCUS Inc. USA has developed programs on the principle that strong and open couple communication is key to a successful marriage. Since these programs were introduced, more than a million couples have participated in the U.S and in more than 30 other countries.

The organization’s first pre-marriage inventory was developed by marriage and family therapists in 1985; a fourth edition released in 2014 will be the basis of the facilitator trainings. In 1988, a tool for married couples called REFOCCUS was introduced; it was most recently revised in 2014.

As part of the Riccis’ long-range goal for marriage support in the diocese, they hope to broaden the use of FOCCUS and offer the REFOCCUS tool for married couples. Deacon Greg wants to help these couples understand what it is and how to use it.

While it follows a similar inventory format, REFOCCUS does not require a facilitator and can be done by a couple directly through the FOCCUS website. Couples are encouraged to take this reflective time every three to five years as a couple and as their family life circumstances change.

Deacon Greg said, “Life is different when kids are in diapers, versus when they are in third grade, and again as teenagers and going off to college. REFOCCUS provides checkups along the way.”

For the facilitator training in the FOCCUS inventory fourth edition, a major update is the move to a computer-based format. Much of the content is the same, but additions include scenarios couples might face that are increasingly more prevalent – second marriage, existing children for one or both spouses, the role of pets, pornography and cohabitating.

The deacon said even couples who have lived together for a number of years have varying reactions to taking the step of engagement to marry.

“A ring on the finger brings a couple to look at things differently,” he said, and important discussions on commitment are needed.

Finances, children, lifestyle expectations, friendship and interests are just some of the areas the pre-marriage inventory covers for all engaged couples. The inventory format groups answers to the random-order statements (agree, disagree or undecided) and highlights key indicators or areas where the couple might need deeper discussion.

Elaine shared, “The thing that we’ve always held to and found that is needed the most is communication – so that we’re on the same page.”

Deacon Greg affirmed the FOCCUS tool is particularly valuable in that regard. While the facilitator couple working with the engaged couple receives their answers and helpful graphics, they are just that – facilitators.

The Riccis admitted there can be some intense moments meeting with an engaged couple, but their goal is not to be a third-party intermediary, rather to facilitate the couple’s direct, open and respectful communication among themselves.

In this way, the program and process itself become a preparation for marriage and how to address and work through difficulty, as well as an affirmation of the individuality of each couple and their unique relationship.

Facilitators can draw on their own experience as an impetus for the engaged couple, but to lead and not to lecture.

“We’re up front that we are not the judge and jury,” Deacon Greg said. He and his wife acknowledged the fine line they walk at times as facilitators. It is not their place to address what might appear as red flags for the success of the marriage.

“If you do a good job as a facilitator, they will come to that conclusion on their own,” the deacon said. “With good facilitation, when the right questions are asked and the right discussions coached, they’ll find the right answer.”

Facilitators have the privilege of quickly becoming trusted mentors for the engaged couple and the responsibility to continue their support of the couple after the wedding.

“The marriage is continuing to build, and we need to stay in communication,” Elaine affirmed.

She said they are straightforward with couples being trained as facilitators that there needs to be follow-up, and that it should be natural to encourage the engaged/newly married to be involved with their parish and faith life.

Sharing how humbling and rewarding it can be when a couple greets you at church and introduces you to their children, Deacon Greg said, “We underestimate the impact we can have.”

He continued, “Bottom line – it ends up being another opportunity for us to evangelize.”

General information about the program can be found at focusinc.com. To inquire about or register for the FOCCUS facilitator training, contact Grace Geisler at 715-234-5044 or .