Bob and Chris Laraia made a decision more than three decades ago that they still stand behind.
They promised to love and stay committed to each other no matter what.
The Laraias of Altoona took their marriage vows seriously when they made them 31 years ago, and the Catholic Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown is setting aside a year that began in late April to honor its married couples.
(Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski) Bob and Chris Laraia of Altoona address engaged couples every year about what to expect in marriage during the marriage preparation clesses held by the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament where they are parishioners.
Susan Stith, Family Life Center director for the diocese, said through the Marriage Building Initiative the diocese wants "to nurture couples who are married and let them know that they have our support as a church.
"We want to promote a Catholic vision of marriage. It is so important and sacred," Stith said.
She said the initiative to honor marriage began about eight years ago when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops held focus groups and symposiums on the subject. A pastoral letter, Love and Life in the Divine Plan, was written to all Catholics in 2009.
In the letter, the bishops reiterated Pope John Paul II's words that "the future of humanity depends on marriage and the family."
The bishops also said: "It is troubling that many do no understand what it means to say that marriage - both as a natural institution and Christian sacrament - is a blessing and gift from God."
Stith said the diocese and its parishes are now responding to the bishops appeal by taking it to the grassroots level through the initative and other dioceses nationwide are undertaking similar programs.
"Marriage is the basis of the family. Children who are raised in strong, healthy marriages do better in life and have lower rates of delinquency," she said.
"We are trying to promote marriage and nurture married couples and let them know they have our support as a church."
Stith believes it is harder to be happily married today when there are so many forces working against couples.
"It's the hectic pace of life," she said. Parents are so busy chauffeuring kids to sporting events and play practices that they forget to take time for themselves."
She said couples need a date night, even if it consists of taking a walk or going for coffee.
Stith said children need to see parents who have a strong marriage, who sacrifice for one another and respect one another.
The Laraias believe marriage has enriched their lives. For Bob, marriage provides companionship and someone who is always there on the good days and the bad days.
He said a partner helps to put life in perspective.
For Chris, marriage has enriched her spiritual life and her and Bob's involvement with the church.
Bob said marriage provides security and the blessing of children. He and Chris have a married daughter who has given them a grandson.
"I can't conceive of not being married," he said. "It's made me the person I am. It builds character."
Chris said marriage has made her more giving.
"Before I married, life was about me, what I wanted and about my work. Now there is another person in my life. I don't make decisions by myself."
Chris said marriage has also changed the way she looks at life situations. She said she came from a family where issues were black and white.
"Now I can see a lot of gray in life," she said.
The Laraias serve on the Marriage Preparation Team at the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and speak to engaged couples about marriage issues. Bob said the three sessions focus on communication, sexuality and spirituality. He said he and Chris have served on the panel about seven years and he has noticed in the last few years that more men and women are waiting until they are in the late 20s or 30s before marrying. He said the trend seems to make couples more prepared for the step.
Chris said while all three subjects they discuss are tied together, working on a marriage goes back to communication. She said the class presents a technique where the listener has to paraphrase what the communicator is saying.
"It really works, she said.
Bob said spirituality also is important and God was there for him during life-changing, difficult experiences, such as the deaths of his parents and open-heart surgery.
Stith said the diocese wants Catholics to know that the church is there for them during their troubling times, including divorce or the death of a mate.
She said in 2013, the diocese plans to start a Marriage Care Ministry to help couples work through problems and see that they are worth working out.
Stith said marriage is an emotional investment and if a couple's financial situation was in trouble, they would find ways to fix it. "The don't always think of marriage in the same way," she said.
If a couple divorces, she said the church wants to support them. She also said Catholics have misconceptions about annulments, which are meant to be a healing process and are not expensive.
Among the ways the diocese will honor marriage in the upcoming months include:
n Three homilies on marriage at its 89 parishes in October, December and February. The first homily was given May 13.
n Each parish also will hold a Marriage Building Sunday monthly with prayers for engaged couples, married couples and widows/widowers. Anniversaries will be acknowledged at the Mass.
n General intercessions will include married couples, hurting couples and separated and divorced couples. A marriage prayer will be said each week at the end of the general intercessions.
n Weekly marriage reflections will appear in the parish bulletins.
n Bishop Mark L. Bartchak will celebrate Mass for married couples at 7 p.m. July 29 outdoors at the Basilica of St. Michael the Archangel at Loretto. Couples are to bring lawn chairs.
n Worshops on marriage will be held at the Catholic Life Conference Sept. 22 at Mount Aloysius and the annual anniversary celebrations will be held in Aug. 26 in Bellefonte, Sept. 9 in Altoona and Sept. 16 in Johnstown.