Local couples facing tough decisions
By Dan Russo
CEDAR RAPIDS — Kara Zwanziger and Michael Becker’s journey toward their vocation of marriage was years in the making. When Becker finally knelt down in front of his future bride to ask for her hand as they walked on a nature trail in 2019, the couple had no idea that the COVID-19 pandemic would impact their wedding plans.
The Loras College graduates envisioned a large celebration at St. Pius X Parish in Cedar Rapids on June 19, 2020. The wedding date falls on the feast of the Sacred Heart, a day that has special meaning for Becker and his fiancée.
“I was praying the novena to the Sacred Heart just kind of asking for courage to propose and to get married,” reflected Becker. “I got my answer through that novena.”
With government-imposed restrictions in Iowa now limiting social gatherings to 10 people or less and uncertainty about what the status of public health protocols will be in a couple of months, Zwanziger and Becker have had to make some tough decisions.
“Our original plan (was a wedding) with a reception there with about 300 guests,” said Zwanziger. “We decided no matter what, we’ll still get married on that day. Even if it’s just 10 people, we’ll be married and that’s what matters.”
If gathering restrictions are lifted, the couple will move forward with the large wedding. If not, they will adapt.
“The day we envisioned was with everyone surrounding us who we wanted there, and I think we’re still mourning that a little bit, and that’s OK, but we really are now just trying to focus on the sacrament and preparing ourselves for our vocation of marriage,” she said.
Zwanziger and Becker are representative of a lot of couples facing uncertainty worldwide.
“I understand most weddings that I’m aware of that have been scheduled for May have been postponed,” reported Father Greg Bahl, worship director for the archdiocese, who also serves as an associate pastor in Dubuque. “I am aware of some forging ahead with small ceremonies of under 10, and then having plans for a big reception later if/when they are able. … I pray for the couples that are preparing for marriage, that alone can be stressful under normal circumstances!”
Father James Secora, pastor of St. Cecilia Parish in Ames, has also been working with couples affected by the emergency situation.
“I do have a couple that I will be marrying in May in a ‘COVID19’ 10 people or less liturgy at St. Mary in Williams and then did discuss with them doing a ‘Solemnization Marriage Mass’ sometime in the fall,” he said.
The current situation has led to pastoral creativity, not only in adapting weddings, but also marriage preparation programs. Typically, couples getting ready for a Catholic wedding in the archdiocese must attend one of several different programs, such as Pre-Cana or Engaged Encounter retreats. These events are typically held in person. They involve presentations from experienced married couples and clergy on a variety of topics, followed by one-on-one discussions. Since the pandemic restrictions went into effect, some of these in-person options have been canceled and instead conducted online, using the virtual meeting platform called Zoom.
“We had 35 couples participate in the first one (March 28) and 30 couples for the second one (April 4), so 65 couples so far,” said Matt Selby, family life director for the Archdiocese of Dubuque. “The next virtual Pre-Cana is on May 2. I’ve only had to cancel one Engaged Encounter. … The next one is not until June, so we’ll see on that one.”
Virtual marriage prep has become a national trend, with Selby recently being interviewed about the topic for an article on it in the National Catholic Register.
Zwanziger and Becker, who met while serving as Totus Tuus missionaries in 2016, were among the attendees at a recent online program. After listening to a series of lectures, the couple had private talks using a digital discussion guide. The entire process took about six hours.
“All the couples had awesome talks,” said Zwanziger. “They covered a diverse range of content which proved to be useful.”
Although the virtual option has been effective, Selby explained that there are some benefits of in-person events that technology can’t entirely replace.
“One shortcoming with the virtual platform is limitations on interaction amongst the couples,” he said. “Some have expressed disappointment in missing out on getting to know the other engaged couples because these aren’t in person. The virtual format prevents some of the social interaction with other couples that would take place throughout the day at an in-person Pre-Cana.”
Organizers are making an effort to compensate for this.
I’m trying to be intentional about making the virtual Pre-Canas as interactive as possible, especially through the chat feature on Zoom,” said Selby. “Couples can introduce themselves, ask questions, and share comments or insights during the virtual Pre-Cana. One advantage to the virtual format I’ve heard is couples have the chance to discuss the content together more privately, rather than trying to have those conversations in a setting with many other people in the room. As a result, it seems like couples have had more fruitful and in-depth conversations based on the content presented and using the discussion guides provided digitally.”
Selby recommended that couples work on communication and understanding the sacrament as much as they can from home in this unusual time. Based on written feedback from one couple that he received after a recent virtual event, that appears to be happening in some cases.
“We talked about where we are at in life now, and with our wedding more than likely getting postponed due to COVID-19,” wrote one couple. “Our whole wedding plans from multiple parties, to the showers, to the wedding day, to the honeymoon have all been ruined/cancelled/or postponed. Yet, all this make us realize that this elegant traditional wedding we had planned out for a 2-year engagement would be great to have, but it’s really about us becoming one and growing with God! This year will never be forgotten. This whole situation made us ask ourselves where are we now, and where we want to be … .”
Expressing some similar sentiments, Becker and Zwanziger are looking forward to marriage, hoping to have gained some wisdom.
“I think it’s provided us an opportunity to grow in a way that we didn’t anticipate, especially going through uncertain times, relying on each other to provide that peace and comfort that we might miss with the anxiety of a pandemic,” said Becker.
“At first it was a little stressful, mostly because of wedding stuff,” added Zwanziger. “I think Michael’s right that we’ve just relied on each other more, but I also think that it’s been a grace too because we’re focused now on the sacrament and going to God and cultivating that right now rather than getting consumed with the details of the big event … .”
Both Becker, a pastoral associate at St. Pius X Parish, and Zwanziger, a graduate student, are grateful for the support and flexibility they have received from all those involved in the wedding. No matter what happens, the couple plans to have a Mass, with Fathers Kevin Earleywine of Iowa Falls and Michael McAndrew of Marshalltown concelebrating.
“So many of our friends are participating or helping with the wedding itself — the photographer, the DJ, even our priest,” said Becker. “We actually feel very fortunate compared to a lot of couples at this time.”
Michael Becker and Kara Zwanziger of Cedar Rapids are engaged. (Photo by Chelsea Evett Photography)