Through Retrouvaille, Tacoma couple draws closer to each other and to God
Ten years into their marriage, George and Cielito Lane were on the verge of divorce. George was working a lot. Cielito was focused on their three kids, ages 2 to 7.
“We really were like two roommates,” said Cielito. “There was lots of fighting, but not the good kind of fighting. We were ignoring each other, coming home angry [and] leaving angry.”
Things got so bad that George moved out.
The couple, members of St. Patrick Parish in Tacoma, tried counseling, but it was going slowly. “We were both praying a lot, going to church, trying to know what was the right thing to do,” Cielito said.
One day in the parish bulletin, George saw an ad for Retrouvaille — a nonprofit Christian peer ministry with Catholic roots that helps couples work toward healing their marriages. He suggested to Cielito that they try it. She recalled a priest mentioning the program to her, so she agreed to go.
“I was willing to try anything because it hurt so much,” she said.
So on George and Cielito’s 11th wedding anniversary in 2001, they joined 21 other couples to begin the Retrouvaille process, a journey that saved their marriage by teaching them about forgiveness, God’s love and the importance of community.
“We wouldn’t have made it through without these other couples who were working and trying to make their marriages better, too,” George said.
“It was really amazing to feel supported by a huge community of faith-filled people,” Cielito said. “The emphasis on prayer and on God being involved in your marriage really spoke to me.”
Since their Retrouvaille experience nearly two decades ago, George and Cielito have been mentoring other couples on Retrouvaille weekends. “We can help people rediscover that God loves you all through that [difficulty]. God is walking by your side,” George said. “It may not feel like it, but God is with you.”
George and Cielito are “willing to put their faith on the line for others to see,” said Msgr. Robert M. Siler, chancellor of the Diocese of Yakima, who has been a member of the Retrouvaille presentation team since 2011. “It gives the couples hope they will continue to find healing.”
Being honest about their struggles
George and Cielito grew up in devout Catholic families in California, going to church every Sunday (“even on vacation,” George said) and attending Catholic schools.
In grade school, Cielito said, she learned about a “checklist God,” watching over her to make sure she wasn’t making mistakes. But the God she learned about at home was quite different. “The God my parents shared with me was more personal,” she said. “I remember growing up and my mom always telling me, ‘Pray to Jesus. Jesus loves children.’”
As a youngster, George knew all the Catholic prayers, but didn’t know how to say a personal prayer. “I definitely did not think of myself as talking to God,” he said. “That has been the biggest change in my adult life is that I know how to pray, and I’m actually comfortable praying in a group of people.”
George and Cielito both attended Santa Clara University. They met at a party hosted by a mutual friend; after dating more than three years, they were married September 22, 1990, at the university’s Mission Santa Clara.
Back then, George said, their understanding of Catholic marriage just scratched the surface: “a couple who attended church together and raised their kids in the Catholic faith, ensuring they received their sacraments on the appropriate schedule.”
After they began having troubles in their marriage, “they reached out and were open and honest about their struggle,” said longtime friend Kim Ward. “It wasn’t some shameful secret. They fought hard and didn’t isolate themselves from the parish community,” added Ward, pastoral associate for faith formation at St. Patrick’s.
And the faith community “did not abandon them,” said Ward’s husband, Todd.
Looking to Christ for grace
After moving out and leaving his family, George said, he felt like a failure. “You feel so low. It’s hard to believe God could love you in that, so you lose sight,” he said.
Then, at his first Retrouvaille weekend, George said, he received the Holy Spirit. “Now I have an understanding of a God who not just loves me, but wants to be in a relationship with me,” he said.
Faith also helped Cielito through the process of healing their marriage. “Going through the depths of my personal despair, I relied so heavily on my faith. I could not have breathed and lived without it,” she said. “I felt incredibly blessed with God’s love and Jesus’ support.”
Retrouvaille brought positive changes in their relationship. George said he learned to listen to his wife in a new way — offering solutions if asked, “but otherwise I would just listen with the intent to bring understanding and comfort.”
Cielito had been putting her children first, something she felt society had taught her. But Retrouvaille taught her that her relationship with George, and with God, should be the priorities. “When we are good, the kids are good, too,” she said.
Going through the weekend and post-weekend sessions (see sidebar), Cielito realized they weren’t the only couple struggling. “I became aware of the other Retrouvaille communities out there, all over the world,” she said. “As George and I continued to work on our marriage, I felt that sense of community lifting us up.”
She also reached awareness that “our faith and our Catholicism is a community. Since Retrouvaille, I understand how we need to be in each other’s lives, and that’s what Jesus was trying to tell me all along.”
Todd Ward said the greatest gift he’s learned from his friends’ example is redemption. “They have shown me the depths God will go to honor a relationship that is honored by the couple,” he said.
George and Cielito, Kim Ward said, are “a stellar example of what it means to be a strong Catholic family. I don’t know a lot of couples who really understood the importance of being in a sacramental marriage, but they do. Many Catholic couples may not really understand that until they go through a struggle and learn they have to look to Christ for grace.”
Seeing the Holy Spirit in action
Today, George and Cielito help with events hosted by the Retrouvaille communities in Seattle, Alaska and British Columbia.
“They are a real gift,” said Jim Anderson, who with his wife Michelle serves as co-coordinator for the Seattle community. “The way they present their story is simple and elemental without all the fluff.”
Although it can be tough finding the time to stay involved with the program, it’s always been worth it, Cielito said. “When we’re there, we just witness miracles, from Friday to Sunday.”
“It does feel like we’re doing God’s work,” George added. “I hesitate to say it like that, because it sounds so arrogant, but you can see the Holy Spirit in action every weekend, and that is so rewarding to witness.”
One thing priests on the Retrouvaille teams emphasize is that the goal of marriage is not happiness, but unity, George said. “You can overcome anything if you’re working together towards the same goal,” he explained.
Since going through Retrouvaille, George and Cielito talk about their faith more openly with each other while on walks or out to dinner. “We share this faith life together and we share it with other people,” including close friends from their parish, George said, “and that has made a big difference for us.”
In a way, George and Cielito feel fortunate that their kids have witnessed the challenges of their marriage. “It’s been a gift for the kids because … they’ve seen the highs and lows, and yet they’re witnessing that unconditional love that people talk about,” Cielito said. “Now the kids know the reality is you have to work at [marriage].”
What started as the couple’s simple desire to “pay it forward” by becoming Retrouvaille mentors has helped their own marriage stay strong.
“What gets reaffirmed to us every time we do a weekend, every time we work with couples,” George said, “is we see how far we’ve come.”
Retrouvaille is a nonprofit, volunteer peer ministry with Catholic origins that is committed to healing marriages with the help of the Holy Spirit. It began more than 40 years ago in Quebec, Canada, and soon spread to the U.S. and beyond.
Retrouvaille has three phases:
- A weekend experience where couples learn tools to help them communicate, forgive and trust. Couples do not share their personal struggles with the group; instead, they are guided by presenter couples (many of them Retrouvaille alums) and a priest.
- A series of two-hour talks over a six-week period to continue developing the skills learned during the weekend experience.
- Monthly support meetings called CORE (Continuing Our Retrouvaille Experience).
The program welcomes people of any faith or no faith background; no effort is made to push religion on participants, said George Lane, who serves as a volunteer mentor. The privacy of couples is respected — for instance, only first names are used and taking photos and videos is prohibited.
In Western Washington, 52 couples have been served by the program in the last 24 months, said Jim Anderson, a community coordinator of Retrouvaille in Seattle.
Anyone struggling in their marriage is encouraged to consider the program. “It’s not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength to ask for help,” said Msgr. Robert M. Siler of the Diocese of Yakima, who is one of the weekend presenters. “Trust that there are others willing to help. That’s what building up a Christian community is all about.”
The next weekend in Western Washington will be held in September. Learn more at www.helpourmarriage.org.
Northwest Catholic - July/August 2019