Sunday, March 1, 2015

Love Blooms a Bit More After this Jesuit Retreat for Married Couples



By  Robert R. Schwarz
Note:  You'll also want to read recent
interviews with a marriage-seasoned
deacon and a couple married 47 years,
which appear at the end of this article.

" The idea here is to fall deeply in love . "

            He was a 68-year-old Jesuit priest walking alone down the long approach road to  his  retreat center , one of many places he has called home in his global travels.  He carried a walking stick, and the sun was  coming up on a nippy Saturday morning in late April.   If you saw the doe and her two fawns  nibbling cautiously  in a nearby meadow  and heard the  dove cooing afar ,  you wanted to avoid believing that the 80 acres of  secluded  woodland and grassland  around you was only a two-minute drive  from the sprawling suburb of Barrington, Illinois .
            As the priest and I met,  we paused , smiled and introduced each other.  Aware that this retreat for married couples,  which my wife Mary Alice and I had come to  was a silent retreat ,  I waited for  the priest to speak first.
            "I'm  Chuck Niehaus ," he said . " I'm on staff at Bellarmine  here.   " Who are you?"
            Chuck exuded friendliness ,  and to spark our interaction   he shared some personal matters about his health.  I mentioned why   I had come to Bellarmine.   He showed no intention of wanting to move  on.
            " The idea here, you know, is to fall  deeply  in love, "he  said.   Then he added, as if  he had uttered these same  words hundreds of times to married couples,  " But you don't lose your identity when you get married. "
            He wanted to talk , and so did I—not about anything in particular , just   talk. He told me of his mission work around the world;  a lot of it had been ministering to Hispanics.  I looked closely at him for the first time  and saw a life-weary face. He said "I speak more Spanish than English  ." All those years away from his American  culture was quite a testimony to his faith calling, I thought.      
Man and wife take a break from the retreat's silence
  Walking with Fr. Chuck  back to the retreat center, I paused by a knoll   a few paces off the roadway.  There,  in the shade of a clump of evergreens ,  stood an unadorned  statue of Jesus with outreaching arms . "Mind if I take a picture  of  you standing  by Him ? " I asked.  
            The Jesuit welcomed it.  
            Regretfully,  it would be my last encounter with him during this weekend retreat.    
            I entered through the bright red front door of the retreat house—it is  named after Saint Robert Bellarmine , a distinguished  Jesuit theologian and cardinal who died in 1621—and headed for the chapel to join 14 other couples  gathered for the morning prayer . My wife was waiting for me in a pew. Ten minutes later, all of us were in the dining room filling our plates with a smorgasbord breakfast of pancakes, bacon, fried potatoes , and scrambled eggs. 
As  eight of us ate at our assigned table , not even a whisper was heard ; we said "good morning " and  " how are you " to each other with  facial expressions,  and we improvised our own  sign language for 'please pass the  orange juice "  or  "who needs  their coffee poured ."  I'm sure everyone was wondering what their table companion needed fixed  in his or her marriage and what overall strategy our two retreat masters would be using to help us " fall deeply in love. "  A bit of suspense was palpable.
Retreat master Fr. Michael Sparough chatting with a married
couple during the retreat's  closing lunch  
At our first meal together on Friday night , talking had been allowed  ( as it would be at our last meal at Sunday lunch ).  I had busied myself  asking questions and taking notes after introducing myself as a retired newspaper editor  doing an article for my blog " Exodus Trekkers " ( ) . Mainly, I wanted to know why this individual had come here . Understandably,  the real reasons would be reserved  for   private spiritual direction sessions,  without or without the spouse ,  with either Fr. Michael Sparough or  Mrs. Mary McKeon, who would later emphasize to me, however, that "we are not therapists or marriage counselors  but spiritual directors.  "
            On that Friday night, a woman in her seventies from Chicago's South Side told me,   " We came because we are so grateful for  what God has done for us." Her husband, also in his seventies,  explained: " She's had five surgeries in the last six months, broke one hip , then the other.  We find comfort in being here with fellow Catholics and feeling freer to express opinions about things. "  His wife added, " I just enjoy being out. "
             Frank ,  a retiree and now a fund raiser for a Catholic agency, said he wanted  to "get away from the noise "  and  to hear the talks given by Fr. Michael Sparough, whom he had heard years ago.   
            Harold,  who teaches law at the Dominican University in River Forest, glanced fondly at his wife and commented, "  I just  wanted to get away from it all." 
            David and  his wife,  a couple with four children, one of them adopted , had driven all the way from a small Wisconsin town when the retreat  they had signed up for  on Chambers Island in  Door County, Wisconsin , was cancelled.  He's a chiropractor and also a substitute religion teacher for 8th graders , and he wanted to somehow apply to his class  what he would learn here .  His wife is his office manager. 
            Thirty-year-old Donna and her trucker husband had come  Madison , Wisconsin . " My husband's phone rings all day long and so I'm  glad he's here even if we didn't know this was to be a marriage encounter. But nevertheless  it's a blessing . "  I told her Mary Alice and I also had believed this was just an "ordinary" retreat but were glad it was for married couples because we had a few wrinkles in  our marriage to iron out . 
             ( For the record, Mary Alice and I  were both widowed when we married 18 years ago , and are still working—amicably— on her need to retain the independency she had experienced while raising two children after  her husband's death, and on my need to  "be in control " as I had been  when managing a newspaper  staff.  )
            Breakfast now over,  we rolled out linen napkins into a ring on which our  names were written and turned our heads to the retreat house executive  director , Fr. Paul B. Macke,  now standing to explain the events ahead.  Fr. Macke recently celebrated his golden jubilee as a Jesuit , which  had included  an 18-year stint in Alaska. Some would describe him as a ruggedly handsome guy with a soft-edge bearing of  corporate CEO.   (" The special touch at a Jesuit retreat ," he later told  me, " is that we can learn to talk to  God and discern what He might be saying to us."  ). We learned there would be seven "retreat talks",  three  Masses, a healing service,  stations of the cross, time each day for personal prayer and reflection ,  confession  dialogue  with a priest , and  a renewal of marriage vows.  He also mentioned that the $345 individual  retreat fee—or whatever the participant could afford— did not   cover actual expenses and that anything we paid beyond that would be most appreciated.
                        "We ask that you maintain silence in the chapels,  your room and in the corridors, " he added.   "If you speak with your spouse outside, be conscious of the needs of  others. "  A "quiet " conversation with one's spouse in the library and lounges would be allowed.
            Precisely at 8:45  a.m. that Saturday  ,   a buzzer reminiscent of our grammar school  days,  reverberated throughout the entire retreat house. It meant we had exactly five minutes before the next event started;  so we filed into the chapel like obedient children ;  we were   excited about what new dynamic we might discover about love and marriage. Last night we had learned that the agenda of retreat  talks was outlined by the " 5 Languages  of Love ," the title of a widely read book by Dr. Gary Chapman, director of Marriage and  Family Life  Consultants, Inc.  These  languages were: " Words of Affirmation " ( If this is your love language, unsolicited compliments mean the world to you. ) ;  " Quality Time" ( Nothing says 'I love you' like full, undivided attention ) ; "Receiving Gifts" ( If  you speak this language, the perfect gift or gesture shows that your are known, you are cared for, and you are prized above whatever was sacrificed to bring the gift to you. ) ; "Acts of Service: "  (Can vacuuming the floors really be an expression of love ?  Absolutely ! ) ; " Physical Touch":  Hugs, pats on the back, holding hands, and thoughtful touches on the arm, shoulder, or face—they can all be ways to show excitement , concern , care and love. ) .
Mary McKeon  in  a private session 
    Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon are now  seated  to the side of the altar. Their eyes are closed in prayer.  Fr.   Sparough , dressed in priestly black except for a partially concealed  white v-neck sweater , is a slender , five-foot-eleven , 64-year-old Jesuit . He now rises and walks to turn off  the meditation music which has been filling the chapel for the  last ten minutes, and   you notice that his eyes behind his  steel-rimmed glasses   appear constantly focused on a thought that is  demanding expression.  He has a full head of  black hair and his mustache and small beard on his chin  have flecks  of gray. What will become more noticeable through the day is how his drama training is reflected in his movements and voice;  he walks fast and rhythmically, even when approaching you in the confines of a chapel . ( He comes from a family of Catholic dramatists ; I've seen him act on  public television and , at a retreat several years ago, he riveted the attention of  an all-male chapel   audience when talked about sin while  juggling  four balls .  )
Fr. Sparough moves to the speaker's podium and welcomes us. His diction is precise ,  warm and engaging .  As he spells out some of the retreat rubrics of the day, he wants to make sure that even though he has the august title of  "retreat master" ,   he wants you to know you are free to exercise options . He'll often  preface his directions  with phrases like "If  you care to " or  " You might want to "  or " For those of you who have a preference for—."   Here  is a Jesuit , you might  conclude,   with the confidence of a medical school professor  and , more importantly , a man who believes every word he is saying and  badly wants you to believe it.
He introduces  Mary McKeon. Now, if you detect a hint of the academic in Fr. Sparough, you might also see a combination of wife-mother-nun in  her. She is a  veteran of—as she puts it—"the honor , privilege , and joy of bringing people into a greater relationship with God ."  She appears to be in her mid-fifties.
Mary walks to the microphone , folds her hands in  prayer , and remains  silent for a long moment.  She is slender ( not a pound over weight, my wife observed ) , has blondish hair and blue-green eyes.  A colorful scarf accents and gives an extra feminine touch to her brownish tweed  jacket.    
Whenever she  speaks to us—whether about God,  love, or sex— she has an alluring mannerism of bending her elbow down to the rostrum and then resting her chin in the palm of her hand ever so naturally. 
Mrs. McKeon  relates her background ; it  included several years of   caring for  her  ill husband, a prosecuting attorney for the U.S. Justice Dept. , whose frequent   pain eventually goaded him to verbally  abuse his wife . Then there was the "blessed"  death of her mentally challenged  sister , who had been  afflicted with cerebral palsy and epilepsy. 
Mrs. McKeon has a smile and gentle manner that might remind one— especially a man—of that certain  cute substitute teacher  one had in grammar school, the one whom you thought would let  you could get away with anything.  Her voice has an innocent , soothing  tone of seduction .  Yet—and perhaps to her credit—one would easily believe she definitely would have failed in an acting career.
However, like Fr. Michael,  Mrs.  McKeon's persona has a yin to its  yang.  She puts phrases of speech  together that are seamless,  and her pauses between topics are perfectly timed for impact and ease  of  comprehension .   When she has a private conversation with you ( as my wife and I were to have ) , she is both relaxed and deeply serious.  As for her  yang side,  we were to see her go into serious  high gear when   rushing from a chapel or the  auditorium to a private consultation. She was then all business and logic and order—in a pleasant  Germanic sense.
In her single-occupancy room , a retreatant takes some
free time to read Holy Scripture
Our topic now was how love is  expressed  in " Affirmation."  We opened with Mrs. McKeon leading us in the song  " Come as You Are " and  ending it with her own words , " Jesus loves you just as you are. " She went on to say ," We don't change another adult.  Only we can change ourselves. "   Next , while standing next to our spouses,  we wrote down  on worksheets  our answers  to  questions like :  " When and how do you and your spouse offer words of affirmation to each other ?"  " How do you feel and respond when his/her words are negative , critical, or unkind ?"   " Share   an instance when words had a profound impact on your life/sense of self,  positively or negatively ."
Mrs. McKeon closed   with the loud exhortation,  "KINDNESS ! KINDNESS !  KINDNESS ! "  My  wife had tears.
            Prior  to lunch , my wife and I toured the two-floor  retreat  house that accommodates  79 guests  in  single- bed rooms , each equipped with a sink , desk,  Bible, and linen.  For most  guests ,  bathrooms and showers are in the hallways.   We were told that last year more than 4,000  people came for weekend retreats, including Catholic high school students .   We made a stops  in the library with its enormous collection of  religious books and Catholic magazines , the basement  bookstore, and  an exercise equipment  room .  Along the way, we passed several small conference rooms where retreatants  sign up for 15-  to 20-minute sessions  with  one of the five resident  priests or  with Mrs. McKeon.
 In the lobby, we paused  in front of a large portrait of Saint Ignatius Loyola , the 16th Century Spanish priest and founder of the Jesuit Order.  Bellarmine retreats are built upon two pillars of Jesuit spirituality:  the " spiritual  exercises" of St. Ignatius and silence itself. The heart of the exercises is the daily examination of one's conscience .  Quoting Pope Francis about silence, Fr. Sparough wrote in a Bellarmine brochure, "In silence we learn to listen to God who speaks to us  with  the tenderness of a father and mother. "
             After a lunch as sumptuous as our  dinner and breakfast , Mary Alice and I returned to our rooms for a catnap , relying on that school-like buzzer to wake us in time for the  Chaplet of Divine Mercy and  another retreat talk .  
            " Carefree timelessness that is not agenda-driven  " is  how Fr. Sparough introduced us to the next of the " 5 love languages" : Quality Time.   He encouraged us to commit to spending one hour daily in a one-on-one conversation with God.  Again we filled out a questionnaire and shared  it with our spouse . Two  of the questions were:  "What stands in your way of your having quality time ? "  and " When and how do you and  your spouse share quality time together ? "  There were long moments of silence  during our sharing, followed by whispers and a couple's occasional exclamation of disagreement.
            During " Service, " the next  love talk by Mrs.  McKeon ,  Mary Alice and I looked questioningly at each other when asked ,  "Are there things that your spouse does for you that you take for granted and wish to acknowledge and express your gratitude for  ?"  My wife  smiled and nodded . " Your number  one goal should be to find out what makes her happy—and do it," Mrs. McKeon  told   us  male  spouses .
            When we filed  into the chapel for the talk, Giving Gifts,  while  listening  to  CD music of two Broadway hit musicals—" Do You Love Me" ( from Fiddler on the Roof) and  the equally soul-shaking song—"Thank the Lord " ( from Godspell ) ,  we knew we'd be seeing—or hearing—something  not of the usual  Jesuit tradition. Sure enough, Fr. Sparough opened  with a display of his dramatic talent by reciting  and acting out the poem ," The Creation" by James Weldon Johnson , an author , educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist who died in 1938.  For ten minutes or so,  Fr. Sparough made the book of Genesis come vibrantly alive for us.  He gave us the same religious excitement when he silently dramatized the scene of the apostle Thomas on his knees  before Jesus, surrendering  his doubt about his Savior's resurrection  with , "My Lord and my God ! " 
After he had   made us realize  how a thoughtful gift—no matter its material value—can be a  powerful love language,  Fr. Sparough recited a prayer of St. Ignatius:
Take, Lord,
and receive all by liberty,
my memory, my understanding
and my entire will,
all  that I possess.
You have given all to me ;
to you Lord, I return it.
All is yours;
do with it what you will.
Give me only your love
and your grace,
that is enough for me.

            Shortly before my wife and  I were to meet with Mary McKeon, we joined the others  to hear an afternoon homily by  Fr. Mackey on the importance of forgiving our spouse when we feel he or she has wronged  us. "Let go of it, "  he told  us .  Have the courage to say what has to be said, even if it risks starting an argument, he added.
Fr. Sparough giving spiritual direction 
    On the bulletin board outside the chapel were signup sheets to meet privately with  Mrs. McKeon  and Fr.  Sparough and two other priests.  At 4:30 p.m. , Mary Alice and I entered  Mrs. McKeon's  very small room and ensconced ourselves  a few feet from her.  " We came here to talk about independence and control in our marriage , " I said , trying to be sufficiently  casual so  she would believe  we were a well behaved couple with no serious problem.  Our spiritual  director leaned  back in her chair , looked warmly at us and smiled as if to say I'm glad you're  here . Let's visit a while , shall we ?    
           "  Bob and Mary Alice, this retreat is not to fix marriages but to help married people develop a deeper intimacy with God. I am a spiritual director , not a therapist or psychologist. I've seen many marriages come together for the first time due to a spiritual bonding. "
            "I know, " my wife said . " I think we've seen some of that here ."  
              Sensing that neither one of the three of us cared to do an autopsy on a marriage issue which had been largely  resolved months ago, we began  small but convivial talk on topics here and there.  
            That night during a dinner of a tossed salad, freshly baked  rolls,  baked chicken,  real mashed potatoes, string beans , and a dessert  of  brownies and  ice cream that we  scooped ourselves  from gallon containers ( some of us had three helpings ),  we listened to a recorded lecture on spirituality by seminary president   Fr. Robert Barron , theologian and    author/ narrator  of  the highly acclaimed "Word on Fire "  DVD.
            At 7:15 we were in the conference center ,  learning—in a compelling way—why  physical touch  was the most important love language for many couples, . Wondering, I'm sure ,  what Mrs. McKeon had to say about sex , we waited now  for her to unfold her praying hands and  begin.  She may have read our thoughts , for within a minute or two she told us that the manner in which we touch our spouse "should be genuine and gentle and what your spouse needs— whether it’s a backrub, foot rub, or sex. "
            The point is, she exclaimed,  is to "  CONNECT ! "  She related how she once went to the bedside of a dying old man who had been so gruff in life that no one liked him . He certainly didn't want anyone to touch him nor he to touch anyone, surmised Mrs. McKeon. But when she  boldly reached out and  grasped his hand, saying "shall we pray," the old man acquiesced . They then  looked into each other's eyes  during the entire prayer.
          Her story stilled the conference center  . Silence was even more prolonged when Mrs. McKeon told of the  time when she , with heartache,  came to console her   three-year-old   grandson lying  ill . Having been born prematurely had permanently afflicted his vision and required him to wear strong  glasses . Mrs. McKeon bent over him, bringing  her face close to his so he could clearly see his grandmother  .  "We looked closely into each other's eyes and all  he said was "I love you. "
            We wrote our answers to several questions about "physical touch , " which we shared with our spouses very quietly, of course. . What gives you the greatest pleasure?  Is there something that does not please you ?   When and how do you experience God's loving touch ? We were also asked to recall some nonsexual "touching times" that enhanced intimacy between  us.  
            By now ,  I believe each of us knew much more about our spouse and ourselves than we did 24 hours ago. Growing a bit impatient with the process of learning so many do's and don’ts about this new "language of love, " I asked Mary Alice if she thought there was any more we really  needed to hear.  She frowned  and turned her attention to Mrs. McKeon and Fr. Sparough , who were in a huddle talking  to each other as if they had asked each other the same question.
Fr. Paul B. Mackey, Bellarmine ,   executive director of
Bellarmine,  at the portrait of St. Ignatius , founder of
the Society of Jesuits 
     Fr. Sparough broke off the huddle like a football quarterback.  He promptly centered himself in front of  us all , and without a word began to reenact Jesus' washing the feet of his disciples during the  Last Supper .   It served as an  introduction to Mrs. McKeon's   announcement  ( which came after a short break) that were going to do something never done at one of these  retreats: Spouses were going to wash each others' feet. A few  gasps and a chuckle or two were audible as we turned around and saw that  towels and basins had been placed on nearby tables. We had the option of washing our mate's feet, which some of us did. Our Jesuit conference center soon resembled a dispensary for podiatry patients. 
       A healing service was conducted at 8:30 that same night.  Fr. Sparough blessed each of us on the forehead with holy water . Prayers were said that addressed our  problems and  afflictions  that we brought in prayer  up to the altar .  Afterwards, Mary Alice went to her room,  and I took a short walk in the cool night air to process out what I had learned  that day.   What had been poured into my heart and mind by the retreat masters , by my wife, and by the  Holy Spirit  was  overwhelming . I would need a few days  to  contemplate all the applications for my marriage and for my day-to-day living. Very  helpful was the meditation  by Blessed Mother  Theresa  given to me earlier that day during my confession session  with Fr. Sparough. (  It is entitled "Thirst " , and I have laid the meditation  on my night table at home and have since read it three times. ) A few lines from it are :  " Imagine Jesus speaking these words to you  tonight"…It is true. I stand at the door of your heart, day and night….I THIRST FOR YOU. Come to Me, and I will fill your heart and heal your wounds.   
Outside, after I had walked more and   taken deep breaths and   said "hello" to the stars, I felt prepared  to renew my marriage vows the next day along with the 13 other couples.  
      Sunday morning: graduation day .  " What we want for you is a transformation in your lives, "   Fr. Mackey told us at breakfast.
In  the conference center for the final retreat talk,  we were immersed deeper in Jesuit spirituality  by praying the "Examen" , a way of praying developed  almost four centuries ago by Saint Ignatius and which today many  Catholics throughout the  world, especially Jesuits ,  might say at any time and place ; it is meant not only as an in-depth, daily review of one's conscience but also  a means to embrace the Jesuit central theology  of FINDING GOD IN ALL THINGS .
            Fr. Sparough and Mrs. McKeon guided us through an adaptation of the Examen. It exhorted us to :  
Ø  Relax and be open to God's presence.
Ø  Pray the following: Father, thank you for t he gift of the light of this day.
o   Open our eyes to see  your grace at work within and around me.
o   Open our ears to hear God's whisper  in the music and noise of our   life.
o   Open our minds and hearts to think and feel, as God  would lead us.  
o   Pray all  this in the name of Jesus, our Brother, our Savior, and our Friend.
Ø   Reflect quietly for a moment  on our  three days here , asking ourselves:
o   What we are most grateful for—and why.
o   How did we experience God in our spouse .  ( We were advised to  "savor  this grace and remember it for the  future." )
o   What we are least grateful for and what do we need to let  go of . 
o   What had been a challenge, calling us to grow stronger.
     We shared our reflections  and then prayed the "Our Father. " Mrs. McKeon  told us how she had   experienced a benefit of the Jesuit way  of examining one's conscience:  Once in conversation with a priest , she asked  him an innocent  question about his training and education. The priest snapped back an unwarranted and  curt reply.   "Later, he came to me, "  Mrs. McKeon recalled,   "and asked  my forgiveness for his behavior . "
            "In a few moments  Mary McKeon and I will be leading you in a renewal of your marriage vows ,"  Fr. Sparough said. " But now, I'm going to ask you to stand and tell everybody what you have learned during this retreat." Then remembering a retreat courtesy, he quickly added,  " If you want."  Several stood , including me, and offered comments like:  " I now know my wife better "; " I now know my husband better";  "We're grateful "; " I've learned a few important things I should have learned a long time ago about love" ;  " We're going to tell our friends about this retreat. "
      I'm sure there was a lot more each of us could have shared—and probably did later at home . But as Mary McKeon told my wife and me ,  this was a spiritual retreat  and not group therapy or an AA meeting.  We were not asked to read out loud the "love letters" we had been asked yesterday  to write to our spouse, telling him or her ( "as best as you're able" )  some of the reasons why we love him or her. 
Whatever those intimate  letters said was now being expressed  by the many  spouses tightly holding hands or draping an arm around one another. It was our body language of love, so unlike that during  Day One or Two of our retreat.
The  chef--a much appreciated  member of the retreat   
    Next, we were asked to stand and look into each other's eyes and repeat the church's formal wedding vows. Voices went low. Hugs and kisses followed . The  lunch buzzer sounded and we all filed into the dining room for a cheerfully talkative lunch.
 Experiences like any Jesuit retreat need a  private debriefing  by the participant…A week  after the retreat, Mary Alice and I  were sitting  down to dinner in our home in Arlington Heights. My  wife cheerfully  asked me:  "Do you think our marriage is better off now?"  I  smiled at her and squeezed her arm. She smiled.  
That night I took a retreat  prayer card off my bedside night table and read the first line from a poem attributed to Fr.  Pedro Arrupe, a former superior general of  the Jesuits.
Nothing is more practical
 than finding God in a quite
absolute final way. 

…and a few words now from  3 marriage 'veterans'
               " Good communication , "  says John Brown,  kept him and his wife Eileen together for almost 46 years –that and a marriage encounter 30 years ago at a Chicago hotel. " Prior to that encounter," John says in our interview with his wife in their Arlington Heights ( Il )  home , " we were not really communicating very well. "
            " We thought we were," chimed in Eileen, "but we were talking about things . We weren't going to the  feelings level. "
            John is a retired information specialist at an office supply  company ;  his wife taught fourth grade for seven years  at the St. James Catholic school .
            Asked for advice for married couples,  John says , " Do whatever you can to enrich your relationship, seminars, books ."  Think of what will benefit your spouse rather than yourself, he adds. " Don't be selfish , like sitting at your computer for hours rather than talking to your  wife . Couples can end up like roommates. "
When expressing anger to your spouse, Eileen cautions,  " Do not say   ' You make me angry ' , rather say ,  ' I  feel angry because--'   . That statement opens the lines of communication more easily. "
John and Eileen Brown and grandson Randy
John  and Eileen are strong believers in marriage encounters where couples share  and discuss their marriage "stories. "   For 15 years, the Browns presented   weekend  encounters. They  now belong to a "community" of married couples that meets monthly at the Our Lady of the Wayside church.  The Browns also suggest husband and wife, if interested in a weekend encounter,   sign into the website of  Worldwide Marriage Encounter    ( for  encounter locations  and dates .  
" Our Encounter Weekend taught us how to communicate at a feelings level ," says Eileen. "Learning that, changed the way we related to each other. We renewed our love for each other that weekend. "
For couples contemplating marriage, John advises ," Get to know each other ." But he quickly adds that surveys show that couples who live together before marriage have a higher divorce rate.  These at-risk  couples refrain from the wisdom of  dealing with conflicts, and do so out of fear that  expressing their feelings will cause  his or partner to leave, he explained. The Browns agreed that without  the sanctity of marriage vows, it becomes "too easy "  to leave a partner when the "going gets rough" as will happen in any marriage. 
" Forgive and Forget " Says the Deacon
Paul Schmidt, a deacon at the Browns' church and a married man for 47 years, sums up his marriage advice this way: " You're never going to be prepared one hundred per cent for marriage. " His advice to couples contemplating marriage is: “ They should meet with the parish priest; as part of the marriage preparation, the priest will ask them to take an online survey called ‘ Couples  Checkup.’ It will show areas of strength and areas for growth. “
Deacon Paul Schmidt and wife Paulette
 Things might "pop out at you which are clear indicators that you're not ready for marriage," he says. "For example, many couples never have talked about how many children they want. " Another question asks how they think they will "fit in" with the family of their intended spouse. " Don't pass over these questions ," the deacon says ."These issues  should be thoroughly discussed. "
The  couple will also be asked to participate in a six-hour pre-marriage session (called "Pre-Cana ") at their church or other local churches.  
Paul and his wife Paulette have participated in and facilitated marriage encounters  during the last fifteen years.
Paul's best advice for married couples is : " Forgive and forget , nothing is perfect. Too many couples are married but live separate lives. Keep communication lines open and don't prejudge. The biggest thing is to listen to what your spouse is really saying.? Many couples don't get to the feeling stage in their communication ."  He encourages married couples to consider making a marriage encounter weekend. It will provide the tools to have real communication and change their lives, he maintains.  

All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz




Sunday, February 1, 2015

Digging Up Their Family Roots Yielded Joy, a Few Surprises and Lots of Inspiration

By Robert R. Schwarz

            Enlightenment ,  esteem , love, a stronger spiritual faith, more  empathy,  and an exhilarating sense of being linked somehow  to everyone in the world. It's  what several people in and around the St. James Catholic parish in Arlington Heights, Illinois,  say they get from charting their   Family Trees.
            " Exploring my family tree ," says 68-year-old Mrs. Diane Culhane, has taught me the meaning of faith, hope, and love. It's  been a spiritual journey among other things. " She is one of millions of Americans who have used  the online  ( )  to create  more than 60 million family trees that today document over six billion profiles.
            "You might say I have become addicted to genealogy and family tree research ," says Mrs. Annette Winter, a 57-year-old pharmacist who sings in her church choir. She's been working at it for six years , having charted 1, 600 ancestors that include  the 4th king of Scotland and a passenger ( on her father's side ) on the Mayflower. At her computer on the dinning room table, Annette has constructed family trees for several friends and a co-employee,, helping  them to re-connect with long lost relatives.
            "It has been very enlightening to research my family roots in Bavaria , Germany , because many of the records that I have used have been church records  such as baptisms, marriages, and deaths,  that come from the on-line digital archives of the diocese of Passau, Germany, " she says.  " I have spent hours deciphering Latin inscriptions written in old German script in the parish registers in the hopes of finding missing pieces of information on family members. I have also spent many hours traipsing around cemeteries looking for family members and always remembering that I am here because of them. "
Diane Culhane digging up some family roots
     "It's time consuming work but it's fun ," admits Diane Culhane . " It's like reading a novel, a history and a mystery," she tells me during out interview in her home. "It's all those things. It answers the question of why people are the way they are. You better understand your own family . If  they know their immigrant roots, you have more compassion for immigrants today."  She and husband Paul , a retired political science teacher at Northern Illinois University, 
live in a home built in the 1850's built by a Civil War veteran. The Culhane couple still find old coins and artifacts when they dig in  the yard. "History is everywhere! "  exclaims Diane. 
"I've  Enjoyed the Hunt ! "
            " I've enjoyed the hunt," says  Joyce Hennessy , as she shows me one of 23 large notebooks containing 6,000 names of ancestors she's hunted down through the years. Joyce is 80 and is a Eucharistic minister at St. Mary's Catholic church in Buffalo Grove. She and her husband Tom have 6 children, 12 grandchildren, and 5  great-grandchildren. "I love the work, " she says. "It's kind of cool to see the continuity. " She started her family tree  to learn more about  her father's family "even though my folks were married 55 years. "   She believes that  her family roots date back to the Civil War, the War of 1812, and possibly the Revolutionary War. She would love to become a member of Daughters of the American Revolution but she needs a "paper trail" to document this.  "It's harder to find a paper trail for one's American side than the European side. " 
 Joyce has an eye on a DNA test kit (available at for $99)  and feels she "might wind up with some Native American blood.  "  She chuckles and adds, "That would be really cool. "   ( Joyce  also hunted down a "lost" cousin " of  this reporter. )
            When will her "hunt" end ?  "Never, " she replied resolutely . " Because every time you find something it always leads to  more. "

The Story Tellers
Adapted from Tom Dunn (   storytellers/ )

       In each family there is one who seems called to find the ancestors: to put flesh on their bones and make them live again, to tell the family story and to feel that somehow they know and approve.
       Doing genealogy is not a cold gathering of facts, but breathing life into all who have gone before. We are the story tellers of the tribe. All tribes have one. We have been called, as it were, by our genes. Those who have gone before cry out to us: Tell our story. So we do.
       In finding them, we somehow find ourselves. How many graves have I stood before and cried? I have lost count. How many times have I told the ancestors we have survived and you would be proud of us? I do not know. How many times have I walked up to a grave and felt there was love there for me? I cannot say.
       It goes beyond just documenting facts. It goes to who I am and why I do the things I do. It goes to pride in what our ancestors were able to accomplish, and how they contributed to what we are today. It goes to respecting their hardships and losses, their never giving in or giving up, their resoluteness to go on and build a life for their family.
       It goes to deep pride that they fought to make and keep us a Nation. It goes to a deep and immense understanding that they were doing it for us. That we might be who we are. That we might remember them. So we do. With love and caring and scribing each fact of their existence, because we are them and they are us.
       So I tell the story of my family. It is up to the ones called in the next generation to take their place in the long line of family storytellers. That is why I do my family genealogy, and that is what calls those young and old to step up and put flesh on the bones.

            Any rude surprises hanging in her family tree ?  Joyce smiles as she confesses that   one of her ancestor who lived in our Wild West  married a sister of one the notorious  Younger brothers  outlaws. "And, of course," she adds , "you find the usual baby who came a little sooner that the nine  months. "
            Annette, upon finding her mother's marriage record in a diocese in Passau, Germany , read that her great-grandmother had been married in February and had to ask  herself: Who gets married in that part of Germany—it's way up in the hills and with bad weather ? She than looked at records of  children and learned that her great-grandmother's first baby had actually been  born in April.  Then , as  Joyce did, Annette  laughed .  " My grandmother used to say: ' The first one can come any time, the rest all take nine months. ' "   Nevertheless,  Annette says that as a wife and mother, she  has been well influenced from learning how her ancestor  "families clung together and supported one another. "
A church record and prayer card are very
helpful for family tree charting 
            Diane learned that you  can't blame one's DNA on the bad stuff  that our ancestors do.   Three of her distant Irish cousins "turned to lives of crime" while three of their related cousins became either  Chicago policemen or firemen.  She believes  it's all right to include facts like this in a family tree because "that's part of the whole story." This particular bit of history  "shows me  the importance of having a mother who will tell her children ' you will  be home for dinner or you'll answer to me. ' "  
            According to research of  Rebecca Taylor, a specialist in molecular biology whose article  " Shut Up, and Be Grateful for Your Life "  appeared in  the Dec. 14-27, 2014 edition of the "National Catholic Register " newspaper ( ),  The more children know about their family history, the stronger their "sense of control over their lives and the higher their self-esteem."
Family Trees Strengthen Their  Faith in God
            Everyone whom this reporter interviewed  indicated how learning about their ancestors  somehow strengthen their  faith in God. For Diane it was Thomas,  the younger brother  of her great-grandmother ,who was killed  in 1856 when he accidentally died at his father's mill.   "Her  faith was battered but unbroken  ,"  she says,  " because a few months later my great-grandmother, though still grieving, gave birth to another son and named him Thomas. "  And during a "genealogical " trip to Ireland , Diane says she   sensed the presence of the Holy Spirit when she looked up into a narrow , rocky cove inhabited by doves whose eating habits kept the fields clean for a nearby monastery.
She describes how she learned the virtue of "hope" from her great- grandfather Edward, 

 who left County Mayo to begin work in 1880's  in Chicago.  " His  wife and their parents , 

meanwhile, kept the farm going and the children safe. When the last of  my great-great-

grandparents died in 1903, Kitty , my great-grandmother,  sold most of the family's 

possessions and bought boat tickets for herself and her  youngest children . 

Love,  she says, she learned from her grandmother's  ( on her mother's side   )   faith in her

 husband who immigrated to Chicago and needed a job upon arrival.  His wife suggested he 

apply for a blacksmith opening at the Peoples' Gas Company, which he thought was  

ridiculous advice.   " But Grandma knew he was smart and hard-working and could figure 

out how to make or fix anything. Grandma was right, and Grandpa worked for Peoples' Gas 

for almost 40 years and sent his sons to college. "  
Joyce Hennessy : "I felt so connected "
  Joyce related her experience of visiting a cemetery in Ireland on a day the Irish honor like our Memorial Day.  " I just felt so connected,  especially when I looked at the time difference; it was 3:30 p.m. there and 9:30 in Buffalo  Grove, and I realized people were going to Mass the same time we were in Ireland.  "  In that moment, she says,   she had a sense  of being in the " Body of Christ " .
            A long Catholic heritage in Annette's  family tree prompts her to say, "Catholicism   has been filtered down to me.  My children have grown up seeing my mother and grandmother as very strong Catholics." She describes what it was like for her ancestors growing up in Bavaria : "It was relatively untouched by Protestantism . To this day, it  is almost 99% Catholic. There were customs associated with every season of the church year and often with the feast days of different saints like St. Nicholas, St. Martin, St. Barbara and St. Sylvester. So,  I grew up with these Bavarian Catholic traditions .
            " My paternal grandmother Catherine Strohmeyer Schmid has been a real inspiration to me, " she continued. "Although she died many years before I was born and I never knew her, the stories I have heard of her have been amazing. She raised a family of 16 children with no modern conveniences , yet she was always at daily Mass. She carefully passed on her Catholic faith to all her children. Her daughter Irene became Sr. Mary Concelia, OSF  [ order of St. Francis ]  who served more than 40 years in and around the Chicago area. Of all the relatives that I have met through this search process, Catherine is clearly the person that I wish that I had a chance to meet and get to know before she died , before I  was born.  But  I admire her from a distance because she left  home and family and came to this country and started a new life , which was hard and without any of the domestic amenities we have today like indoor plumbing  and electricity ".
            Annette is most proud of her grandparents who, on her father's side, sailed to America in 1890 and settled in the  northern Wisconsin town of Park Falls. He mother 's family left Bavaria in  the 1920's  and settled in Chicago. " They all worked hard at making a new life here after leaving behind their families in Bavaria. I am grateful that they did  because I was able to grow up in this country and have what I have."
Enter the  Family Tree Expert at the Public Library
            Perhaps no one is more in love  with family trees than the 67-year-old author and retiree  who sits  at his volunteer's  desk every Friday afternoon at  the genealogy room of the  Arlington Heights Public Library.  Stephen Szabados  ( ) has authored several books about family trees ( all available on ) , including " Find Your Family History: Steps to Get Started" ( which I  highly recommend ). 
            "All my life I had an overpowering desire to find out where my ancestors came from, to learn more about them," he says.  His ancestors led  "simple lives" in Poland and struggled to emigrate to America to build a better life.  Their lives have motivated him to "do better."  Stephen, a former project manager in the retail industry  ,  lives in nearby Palatine with his wife and attends  St. Teresa's   Catholic Church there. He has a master'  degree in business administration from Northern Illinois University and has labored on family trees for 15 years. 
            People, most of them seniors, come to Stephen for help in selecting one or more of the
Genealogist Stephen Szabados helping a couple find
ancestors at the Arlington Heights Public Library 
8,000 genealogy books and data records near him .  Some records date back to the 16th Century.  He, too, believes family tree stuff is an addiction. " But  once you get into it, you can spend as much time with it as you want, " he says.  " The real challenge is to capture all the oral history, all that stories that have been passed down and to obtain this from  the people before they  die.  I wish I had my grandfather here today to verify all that I have found. " He advises everyone to add personal touches, such as finding out if "your immigrant grandfather got on a train or a boat?...Make your family tree come alive."

Some Family Tree Tips from Stephen Szabados ( abridged )

1. Know for whom you are doing this.
2. Focus on the research , not the narrative . Record it.
3. For your readers, write  summaries of family members .
4. As your research grows, organize  it in a ring-binder
5. Put it all together  into one large document with a table of contents .

     If you want to start working on your family tree, Joyce has this advice: " I found it best to take a class at a library or with an  high school  adult education  course.  There is so much out there that you have to learn where it is. You need patience." Annette advises:  " First of all, if you have an interest, don't ever hesitate. Then keep plugging away at it. Sometimes, it takes a little time to find the little nuggets you need.  Some funeral prayer cards are gold mines of information."
Are We 'One Body ' ?
          As  I continued to hear these four people express their passion for their family trees, I vaguely sensed another dimension to this passion not yet expressed. I sensed it in Joyce's comments  about feeling "so connected" as she stood in that  Irish cemetery, aware that in that same moment her fellow Catholics were also going to Mass  in Buffalo Grove—and likely in other countries .  And later I sensed it when Diane told me about one of her four visits to Ireland : One of her cousins , upon meeting her for the first time, kept hugging her and
Diane Culhane at the grave of her great-great
grandparents in west Galway, Ireland...
exclaiming, " You're the first one to come back !"    The cousin then pointed to  a nearby tree and , with moistened eyes, said:  " When your grandmother was a little girl, she was the first one to climb that tree. "
            This same sense teased when, shortly before I wrote this report,  a family friend   emailed me to say she had  located
...and the tree her grandmother
"would have climbed  ."
a "third" cousin of mine in Poland named  Kazik. With the help of " Google Translate" ( )  ,  Kazik and I exchanged several emails with family photographs and heart-felt  words as if we had  known each other since childhood.  
On the website " Family Tree Builder ,"  ( ) ,  the author , using scholarly language and mathematics,  postulates that "everybody is your 16th cousin."  But , he says,  while one may be linked to a  true family member as far back as 2,ooo years, this linkage beyond that can only be expressed , or shown, by mathematic equations.
            Another statistic I came across ( How Many People… )  excites one's  imagination. Carl Haub, senior visiting scholar at the Population Reference Bureau, presents a cogent argument as to the number of people who have ever lived on earth: since 2011, he reports, 107,602, 707, 791 humans have lived or been born since  8,000 B.C.
            I talked with Stephen Szabados about the television program " Finding Your  Roots" ( .
Annette Winter discovered a second cousin who served
in the German army in World War II as was killed. 
I had watched the episode where the moderator, Henry Louis Gate, Jr., a professor at Harvard University ,  documented  his own family tree.  Gates, an Afro-American,  traced some of his ancestry to a small community and was  surprised to see that some of  his  "kinfolk"  is Caucasian!  At the end of the episode, he expressed  amazement over "how we are all linked to just about everybody. I continue to be amazed at how connected members of the human family are. "   
            My interviewees might likely want to expand this analogy and cite what is widely cited in much of Christian theology, that a Christian has a role,  a function in this one body to which all true Christian belong, alive and dead—with Jesus Christ as the head . accepted in  Christendom . We being many are one bread, one body ; for we all partake of the one bread. ( 1 Corinthians 10:17 ).
            Regardless, Annette, Diane, Joyce, and Stephen will surely tell you that , whether their family tree is made of spirit or kinship or both, it can be a delightful blessing for whomever digs for its roots.

All comments are welcome.
© 2015 Robert R. Schwarz