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Catholic Voice writer Jaclyn Twidwell shares her diary of marriage preparation


While much of planning a wedding focuses on the dress, the reception and the invitations, the real focus is preparing for a lifetime together.

The marriage preparation steps, for couples planning a Catholic wedding in the Archdiocese of Omaha, help couples to remember that important lesson.

Jon Twidwell and I met during our undergraduate studies at Creighton University and we had been dating for almost five years when he proposed to me on Good Friday of last year.

Now a second-year student at Creighton University School of Law, Jon was born and raised in Fremont, but about four years ago his family moved to Dakota Dunes, in my home state of South Dakota.

After the proposal, we immediately began to look into the logistics of getting married.

The church I grew up in, Holy Trinity Catholic Parish in Huron, S.D., was the most logical choice for the ceremony, especially because he proposed to me on the steps in front of the altar. We were both really excited to gather our friends and family together for a huge celebration and could not wait to get started.

With that decided, we knew that we had to do some marriage preparation through the church, but we had no idea what that entailed.

We had our first meeting with the priest who was going to preside at our wedding ceremony, Father Joseph Holzhauser, nine months before our wedding. He suggested looking into the marriage prep program offered in Omaha and signed off on having someone in Omaha do our marriage preparation facilitation.

After some Internet searches we came across the Archdiocese of Omaha Family Life Office Web site ( There, we discovered the five steps in the marriage prep process and we began to piece together our journey to the big day and the rest of our lives.

Initial Meeting for Preparation: May 2005

We had already met with our parish priest, but we needed to find someone in Omaha to assist us. Both being graduates of Creighton, we turned to St. John Parish on campus for advice and direction.

We met with Catherine Weiss Pedersen, marriage prep coordinator for Creighton University. She walked us through the process, including costs, requirements and the time frame we had to complete the steps. She also agreed to be our marriage prep facilitator and told us to come for another meeting after we had attended a pre-session.

Leaving that first meeting, Jon and I were both a little nervous about beginning the marriage preparation steps, but we were also excited to get started. We felt that Cathy was a good match for us and that she would lead us in the right direction.

Attend Pre-Session: July 2005

Driving to the St. Cecilia School cafeteria for our July 5 session, both Jon and I were a little apprehensive. We knew nothing about the pre-session other than we had to complete this step eight months to a year before the wedding and take something like a test called FOCCUS.

Although we didn't know anything about the test, Jon and I were trying to talk about possible topics and nail down our answers at the last minute. We always knew that we were a good match, but our biggest fear going into the marriage prep was that someone would tell us we were incompatible and doomed to fail.

Upon arriving in the cafeteria, we were met by two couples who helped us get registered and we paid $85 to cover the cost of FOCCUS and the mandatory educational program.

The evening began with an introduction to FOCCUS (Facilitating Open Couple Communication Understanding and Study). The first thing we learned was that it's not a test, but an inventory to guide discussions for couples preparing for marriage. We also were relieved to discover there were no incorrect answers.

Before the FOCCUS was handed out, Jon and all the other men were asked to move to another part of the room away from their fiancés. We both thought this was a little strange, but it was so that we could each answer the questions on our own without influencing the other.

The inventory itself was about 150 questions and all answers were either agree, disagree or uncertain.

The questions covered a variety of topics, including finances, family, careers and sex, and were given in statement form, "My future spouse is a good listener" or "We have discussed and agreed on ideas about our future home."

During the inventory, I kept looking across the room at Jon and thought back to times we had talked about specific topics. It felt good to know that we had talked about so many of them.

After taking FOCCUS, we all came back together for a presentation on communication skills and a final wrap-up.

We left the pre-session and talked about the questions for the rest of the night. Some of the questions made us laugh, "My future spouse tends to be stubborn and/or inflexible." Other questions made us feel grateful because we were not in a particular situation, "The behavior of my future spouse sometimes frightens me."

After discussing all the questions and the answers we each gave, Jon and I had a very good grasp on things we needed to discuss and the things we had already nailed down. We felt comfortable and confident with each other and our relationship.

Attend Educational Program: August 2005

Neither of us had been to a retreat and did not really know what to expect or what we were getting ourselves into when we decided to do the entire educational step in one weekend with an Engaged Encounter retreat.

The other program offered through the archdiocese is called When Families Marry and is a five weekday night class.

A month before the Aug. 12-14 weekend, I sent in our registration information and $115 for room and board.

The Friday of the retreat, Jon and I bought snacks to share with the other couples and we headed to the Sheehan Retreat Center. Though we were both a little worried and nervous about the weekend, we agreed to give it our best effort.

Upon settling into our rooms we went to the main room to meet the other couples and the facilitators for the weekend, two married couples and a priest. They introduced themselves and gave us a run down on the weekend.

Presentations by the facilitators included topics on self awareness, human sexuality, communications, decision making and Natural Family Planning.

Jon and I enjoyed writing reflections after each presentation and learned a lot about each other when we'd reunite to discuss the topics and read what the other wrote.

We did our best to be as honest as we could with ourselves and each other. We wrote our reflections in letter form to each other, which helped to keep us involved and to see the exercises as part of our relationship. I kept joking that I was writing "Dear Jon" letters.

By the time they dismissed us for the evening, both Jon and I were exhausted.

After breakfast the next morning, the topics continued. By mid-afternoon, it was turning into a long day and it was hard to keep focused, but the facilitators did their best to give us breaks and scheduled time for us to go outside for group activities.

The Engaged Encounter weekend was a nice way for Jon and me to come together and honestly talk about our feelings and plans for the future.

It was almost a relief to turn off the cell phones and to leave everything at the door. I felt a strong connection to Jon, and for us it was a great experience to come together with other couples preparing for marriage and learn from people who have been there.

To be truthful, sometimes Jon and I would slack off on certain topics and goof around, but that was good for us, too. We could come together as a couple and be ourselves and have a good time together. That was one of the best points of the weekend, for a moment, we were able to stop thinking about the wedding plans and focus on us.

Attend FOCCUS Facilitation:

August 2005 to December 2005

At our next meeting with Cathy, she had our results from the FOCCUS inventory and she explained how the facilitation worked.

At the beginning of each meeting, Jon and I sat together to read the questions to ourselves. This was helpful to remind us of the questions before we started talking about the topics.

We then read each question out loud and discussed our thoughts on it, while Cathy sat across from us simply listening. For me, that was the strangest part of the facilitation and it took me two or three meetings before I felt comfortable talking as Cathy sat across the room not looking at us or participating in the discussion.

Sometimes it felt like Jon and I would talk about nothing just to fill the silence and this made each of us feel a little uncomfortable, but with each meeting we became more comfortable with Cathy and the facilitation process.

When Jon and I were finished going through the questions ourselves, Cathy would then go over the questions we answered differently on the inventory and ask us questions to help lead our discussion to why we answered them differently.

Many times it was just that the other misread the question, or that one of us had marked "uncertain" on the inventory. When that was not the case, it felt great to discuss topics and find common ground.

Cathy always reminded us that the FOCCUS is just a snapshot of how each of us felt the day we took the inventory and it is to be used as a jumping off point for discussion. The answers we each gave were not set in stone and it was perfectly OK to change your mind on a certain topic.

Because we had already talked about many of these issues at the Engaged Encounter weekend, our discussions on certain topics were shorter.

We had five additional meetings with Cathy to cover all the sections of the FOCCUS. Each meeting generally ran the same way and in each meeting Jon and I would learn something new about each other and our relationship. We discussed when we wanted to have children, where we wanted to live and even how we wanted to raise our future children.

Plan Wedding Liturgy: February 2006

Although it is recommended that couples begin to plan the wedding liturgy at least three months before the wedding, Jon and I procrastinated and waited until one month before the wedding to start. We soon learned why they recommend starting early.

It is not as simple as it looks and planning the perfect liturgy turned out to be somewhat difficult.

With the help of "Marriage: A Journey for Life," a book given to all couples preparing for marriage in the Archdiocese of Omaha, we stumbled through planning our first draft.

There were so many decisions to make - songs, readings, prayers, communion, who does what, what happens when - the list seemed endless.

I had been collecting programs from other Catholic weddings of friends and family, and these helped us immensely to get ideas and to know what other people did. Armed with these and the book from Cathy, we sat down and started to revise our original draft.

First we decided on readings - Jon's pick was our first reading and mine was second - we then read all the Gospel choices in the marriage book and picked one we both felt strongly about.

All the other pieces seemed to fall into place.

With a draft in hand, we had a meeting with our priest in South Dakota, Father Holzhauser. With his help and advice we tweaked the liturgy, pulled together some loose ends and made up what we felt was a really nice and meaningful ceremony.

March 17, 2006

Now it has been a year since that Good Friday proposal and we can't believe we are husband and wife. Our March 11 wedding was beautiful and everything happened just as we planned, well almost.

Jon's white tie was missing and I tripped over my dress a bit, but the ceremony was beautiful anyway. Having our parents help serve communion was a fantastic way to bring home our everyday faith. Our brothers and sisters stood beside each of us through the ceremony and having them support us was unforgettable.

The preparations we made for the wedding are reflected in the photographs from the day, but the preparations we made for our lives together will remain with us for a lifetime.

The memories of those meetings with Cathy and the lessons learned at the Engaged Encounter will help us to continue to work on our relationship and remain strong in our faith and marriage.

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