Alice and Jeff Heinzen of Menomonie, Wisconsin have the distinction of being one of 14 married couples invited to participate in the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, to be held in Rome October 5-19. The Heinzens are the only American couple planning to attend the synod, the theme of which is “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”; Americans Steve and Claudia Schulz of International Catholic Engaged Encounter were also invited but are unable to attend.
The Heinzens were both born and raised in Wisconsin. They’ve been married for 34 years, with three adult children and three grandchildren. Jeff currently serves as president of the McDonell Area Catholic School System, which encompasses four schools and early childhood programs in nearby Chippewa Falls. Previously he served as director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of La Crosse, a position his wife now holds. La Crosse spans 19 counties in western Wisconsin, and is home to 175,000 Catholics.
In addition to their work in marriage preparation, the Heinzens have also promoted Natural Family Planning and worked on many other family-life programs and ministries. As they were preparing to leave for the synod, they spoke with CWR.
CWR: What work do you do in the Office for Marriage and Family Life?
Alice Heinzen: We’re responsible for all the ministries related to marriage and family, including remote, proximate, and immediate marriage preparation, as well as the after-care of marriage. We promote family and parenting initiatives, ministries of consolation for the grieving, and men’s and women’s ministries. We also collaborate with other diocesan offices on the sacraments, such as baptism.
CWR: Did you request to be invited to the synod?
Jeff Heinzen: No, it’s not something we applied for, nor were we aware we were being considered for an invitation. We were opening the mail recently, and received a white envelope with a stamp indicating that it was from the Vatican. Both Alice and I received individual letters. When we read them, they said, “Thank you for accepting an invitation” to the synod. We wondered if someone had been playing a practical joke on us.
We contacted our diocesan bishop, William Callahan, and were able to confirm that the invitation was for real. We learned that our names were submitted because of our work in our diocese and with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Our Office for Marriage and Family Life, in fact, is well known in our region because of our practical initiatives regarding marriage and family life. Bishop Callahan was overjoyed we were selected.
Alice Heinzen: Bishop Callahan knows of our work with families, and he knows us personally, and he told us, “You’re the absolute right couple to go.”
CWR: What will you do at the synod?
Alice Heinzen: We’re auditors. We participate as observers in all sessions. We will listen and read the documents presented. We have also been asked to speak at a general session.
We will participate in small group meetings, discussing family life issues and offering our opinions.
CWR: What insights do you plan to share?
Alice Heinzen: We know that the Catholic Church teaches the truth. Our role is not to develop new doctrine, but to effectively present what is already there in such a way that people will understand it and act on it. Our Office for Marriage and Family Life is known for its success in bringing people in, while discussing difficult issues relating to marriage and family.
Key to our success has been developing positive relationships with those to whom we minister. We try to be Christ to them. We listen to them. Once that relationship has been established, give them witness to the truth. With the relationship there first, the message rolls out easier.
CWR: What concerns do you have about family life in the United States?
Jeff Heinzen: The US bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter on marriage touches on some of the things that adversely affect family life, such as contraception, divorce, cohabitation, and same-sex marriage. In my new role as head of a Catholic school system, I’ve really had a chance to see the trial and tribulation of single parenting, and the harm it does children.
Alice Heinzen: I’m concerned about the change in attitude in our country in regards to parenting. Many parents seem to be reluctant to be the primary educators of their children. They’ve lost confidence in their ability to raise children well. They see their role as that of chauffeur, driving their children around to be educated by various “experts.” Such people can be collaborators in children’s education, but in a secondary role. Parents need to regain confidence in their abilities to parent their children.
CWR: How would you define Natural Family Planning, and why do you think it is important to teach to couples?
Alice Heinzen: Natural Family Planning is an umbrella term that goes over the top of any method that helps couples understand their shared fertility, and know when they’re able to conceive a child. NFP is a skill set that every couple should know, so that they can be faithful to their marriage vow of being open to life.
When a couple marries in the Catholic Church, they make a vow to remain open to new life. NFP allows married people to be honest, and live that vow out.
NFP is health-conscious. A woman learns about her body and how it matures, and whether it is in a healthy state or not. It’s not just the woman’s job, but involves the husband as well. We’ve found that NFP leads to greater marital intimacy; if you can discuss the signs and symptoms of fertility, talking about finances is easy!
Jeff Heinzen: We’ve found that NFP becomes a lifestyle for families. Husbands come to appreciate the natural rhythms of their wives. I’ve talked to young men about NFP who return to me a year later and say, “Wow! That’s pretty amazing.”
CWR: Why do you think divorce has become so prevalent in our society?
Alice Heinzen: Because many do not understand marriage. Ask people to explain it, and it would be difficult for them to do so. People often see marriage in sentimental terms, and not self-giving. They think, “I got into this marriage because it felt right. It doesn’t feel right anymore, so I’ll walk away.”
Marriage must return to being the foundation for family life. Many children are born outside of marriage, and our culture today seems to be OK with that.
We have many challenges facing families. However, nothing is impossible with God. We pray that through his grace and mercy, this synod will produce recommendations which will have a positive impact on marriage and family throughout the world.
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