Faith-centered training offers healing and renewal for marriages under stress

January 23, 2024

A couple are seen walking along Gillson Beach holding hands as the sun sets in Wilmette, Ill. As studies show Catholic marriage vocations are way down amid a wider crisis in dating culture, deacons in the Archdiocese are collaborating with SmartLoving in a new course to help married couples navigate challenges in their relationship. (OSV News photo)

HOUSTON — In response to the increasing number of married couples in distressed relationships reaching out for help in parishes across the Archdiocese, the Family Life Ministry is launching a faith-centered program to train ministers who can provide them with essential support, prayer and guidance.

Ricardo Medina, director of Family Life Ministry, said unexpected challenges, such as sickness, unemployment, issues with children, midlife crises, and other unforeseen circumstances, impact one-third of marriages, often leading to marital distress.

In response to this pressing need, clergy and lay individuals in parishes are invited to undergo training as ministers of reencounter through SmartLoving’s BreakThrough program. This initiative equips these ministers to provide accompaniment to distressed spouses facing challenging times with a prayerful companion who offers essential support and prayer.

Laura Cain, who handles community engagement at SmartLoving, emphasized the pivotal role of the BreakThrough program for both the Church and society. According to Cain, when a husband and wife are united, actively demonstrating God’s love to one another to the best of their abilities, they become a powerful sign and witness of God’s love to others. This unity transforms them into a living example of the domestic Church, showcasing the divine love that can be mirrored in broader society.

“When a Catholic husband and wife are in good standing with one another, they become spiritually fruitful, even becoming missionary disciples,” Cain said. “What happens next is incredible: the couple’s home becomes the nearest ‘field hospital,’ for example, caring for elderly relatives, offering hospitality to the lonely neighbor, hosting events for young adults, and raising their children in a calm, caring and loving environment. This not only benefits the Church but also has a positive impact on the wider community.”

Deacon Phillip Jackson, director of the Office of the Permanent Diaconate, said the training is ideal for permanent deacons who are serving spouses encountering difficulties in their marriage.

“As the men go through formation towards ordination to be deacons, we try to provide them with opportunities, training, and formation in many areas,” Deacon Jackson said. “One area of importance is in pastoral counseling and guidance, in which we give basic instruction. I believe that the ministers of reencounter BreakThrough training will build on the fundamentals that they received to better support marriages and families.”

According to Francine Pirola, director of SmartLoving, BreakThrough is not marriage counseling or therapy. She said the main distinction lies in the source of wisdom sought for resolving the participant’s difficulties. While a counselor or therapist relies on training and models, a minister of reencounter offers prayerful peer support in the role of a brother or sister in the faith who guides and encourages distressed spouses during the BreakThrough experience.

“As a short-term intervention distinct from traditional marriage counseling, BreakThrough offers a structured approach,” Pirola said. “It establishes goals for attentive and empathetic support provided by ministers of reencounter, who accompany individual spouses, leading them to encounter the Lord within their specific situations. These spiritual guides aim to deepen the participant’s connection with God, rejuvenate faith and renew the commitment to make loving decisions — an outcome deemed more significant than salvaging every marriage.”

Cain said those who attend the training and are married will find their own spousal relationships strengthened in the process, along with additional opportunities for evangelizing and establishing new missions and apostolates as disciples of Christ.

“The key factor for participants of the ministers of reencounter BreakThrough training is their disposition,” said Pirola. “We’re looking for adults who are welcoming, understanding and supportive. They will value participants as unique sons or daughters of God and, therefore, of the most significant worth to him.”

Pirola said these ministers may be married, single, religious or clergy, working in pairs or individually. With both female and male ministers available, they provide a diverse perspective and may offer a sacramental witness to their ministry. Ideal attributes include empathy, unbiased care, listening skills, and a mature Catholic faith, with a particular emphasis on a desire to deepen one’s spiritual journey.

“Being Christ-centered and faith-filled is foundational,” Cain said. “A good listener with a sincere desire to enrich married couples, a minister of reencounter should follow the BreakThrough program and be ready to seek support if necessary. This involves meeting at least three times, praying together, and guiding the participant through discussion questions.”

The first ministers of reencounter BreakThrough training for both clergy and lay people in the Archdiocese will be held on Saturday, March 9, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at St. Dominic Chancery, located at 2403 Holcombe Blvd., in room 140. The cost is $120 per participant and includes materials, food and a certificate of completion. An information session will also be held on Tuesday, Feb. 6, at 6 p.m.

To register for the information session or the training, go to For questions about the program, contact Andrea Aranda from the Family Life Office at 713-741-8710 or