PHILADELPHIA — Cathy and Tony Witczak of St. Isaac Jogues Parish, in Wayne, Pennsylvania, were taken by surprise when they were notified Pope Francis had invited them to participate as observers at the Synod of Bishops on the family meeting in Rome through Oct. 26.
It was not explained to them why they were chosen, but they assume it is because participated in meetings of the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Council for the Laity while they were the international lay leaders of Worldwide Marriage Encounter from 2009 to 2014.
Other than Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, who will be one of 45 voting members of the synod, the Witczaks are the only other participants from the Philadelphia Archdiocese. They are joined by only two other lay persons from the United States as nonvoting auditors or experts.
Exactly what the role of observers is, the Witczaks are not sure, although they did talk to a couple who were invited to a similar synod in the past.
They can give advice to the synod but only if asked, and they also may participate in English-language group discussions.
In addition, at some point they might be invited to give a three-minute testimony.
"We are trying to figure out how to condense what we have to say into three minutes," Cathy said before departing for Rome. "It is a great adventure and responsibility because it is such an important synod."
Their work for many years with Worldwide Marriage Encounter gives them a definite perspective.
Marriage Encounter, they explained, is not to heal troubled marriages but rather to give support to stable marriages. "It's like taking your car in for a tune up. You take your marriage for a tuneup," Tony explained.
"When we got involved in Worldwide Marriage Encounter, we were married for about 13 years and were certainly in for the long haul, but the luster had kind of worn off. It put God back into our marriage; we learned we were a sacrament, not just a married couple," he said.
If given the opportunity, that is what they want to share at the synod.
"The church needs to be more exciting and alive when providing pre-Cana sessions or counseling newly married couples, otherwise the church will lose these couples to the modern world and contemporary values," Tony said.
Parish priests should invite married parishioners to participate on committees or in services together as a team rather than as individuals, Tony suggested.
"We are two capable individuals, but if you put us together there is another element there," he said. "It is more attractive and a better sign of what marriage should be."
This sense of family goes beyond husband and wives, the Witczaks believe.
"Seminarians should be challenged not to function simply as priests after they are ordained, but as part of a family," Tony said. "They need to see the parish as their family."
In its structure, Worldwide Marriage Encounter consists of a leadership team composed of a priest and a lay couple. Although they are no longer head of the international leadership team, in the Philadelphia area they are in a leadership team with Msgr. Kenneth McAteer, pastor of St. Ephrem Parish in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.
"They really live the values of the Gospel," Msgr. McAteer said of the Witczaks. "They are incredible in their energy, reaching out to others. They recruit tirelessly and they are very knowledgeable about the theology of marriage. We are so proud that they have been selected to participate in the synod. They are excellent experts."