ST. LOUIS, MO. (CNA/EWTN News) - Alice Heinzen was with her dad and siblings on a ski trip when she froze on top of what looked like a treacherous mountain path. Her dad was waiting at the bottom, and so were her other siblings - who had all fallen down along the way.
After several attempts at coaxing her down, something Alice's dad said finally clicked: "Stop looking at the rocks! Look at the snow!"
Now, Alice and her husband, Jeff, recall that story as an analogy for the way that married couples need to draw strength and courage by focusing on the positives.
"Inspiring confidence in marriage is much like Alice's story on skiing," Jeff said. "A clear, affirmative message on the beauty of matrimony makes us see the snow rather than the rocks surrounding us."
The rocks are plenty - the Supreme Court is expected to rule on whether to redefine marriage later this month, young people are delaying marriage if marrying at all, and gender ideology threatens the idea of men and women as distinct and complimentary.
"Assure us that taking the risk to go against the culture will bring us joy," Jeff said. "Talk with us frankly that marriage is hard but worth the effort."
That's the message Alice and Jeff left with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops at their General Assembly in St. Louis June 11.
The Heinzen family offered insights as auditors at last year's Extraordinary Synod on the Family in Rome, as well as from the experience of 35 years of marriage and three grown children who are now all married themselves.
Preaching about the beauty of marriage was one of three suggestions the Heinzens had for the bishops. They also recommended better formation for couples before and during married life, as well as an increase in the celebration of marriage as a vocation.
Their recommendations resonated with much of what was discussed at the assembly leading up the Synod of Bishops on the family, which will take place in October in Rome. Besides the Heinzens, the bishops heard from two other married couples and examined the general results of the polls on marriage and family that were taken throughout the country at the parish level.
"There was a strong endorsement that we as pastors have much ground to cover in sharing the good news of the Gospel of the family among our people," said Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. bishops' conference, who presented the findings from the polls.
"Specifically, we need to be more effective in our communication of the meaning of marriage as one man and one woman, on married couples' call to be open to life, and on the dignity and responsibility of the vocation of marriage," he added. "That was a common theme; we need to be better at communicating."
Lucia and Ricardo Luzondo help married couples and families through full-time ministry in the apostolate they co-founded, called Renovacion Familiar.
In their insights and suggestions to the bishops on Thursday, the Luzondos asked that there be better formation for priests and seminarians on how to guide married couples and families, and that newly engaged and married couples be encouraged to become more active members of parishes.
They also asked for increased attention to the specific needs of Hispanic couples and families in the Church.
"Many times parishes do not offer many or any resources or events for them. And if they do, oftentimes they are very limited versions of the programs and resources available in English," Ricardo said.
"This is particularly worrisome, because as you well know, Hispanics comprise almost 50 percent of Catholics in the United States," he added, "and studies show that in less than a decade, Hispanics will likely be the majority group of Catholics in our country."
Claire and John Grabowski, Ph.D., are members of the Pontifical Council for the Family. They spoke of the beauty of the complimentary of men and women in marriage, and on the graces that come from the sacrament.
"Marriage is unique as a sacrament because it is a hinge between the orders of nature and grace," John said. "The opening chapters of the book of Genesis bear witness to the integral nature of marriage as part of God's good creation, and the goodness of the sexually differentiated body created in the image likeness of God."
In their work preparing couples for marriage, Claire said she always tries to help the couples understand the graces that they will receive throughout their life through the sacrament of marriage. She also gives them some practical advice.
"There are two things I tell them to remember: the importance of going to Mass together, and making the family dinner a priority," she said. "It is here that we come to know our children and to form them to become children of God."
John explained that their brief reflections on the beauty of marriage are fleshed out much more fully in St. John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" and the Church's catechesis on marriage and family.
"It's important to understand that we cannot supersede a Theology of the Body with a Theology of Love," John said. "The Theology of the Body is already a Theology of Love. To articulate a Theology of Love, we need to articulate the Theology of the Body."
The bishops have a few more months to study and pray about the issues involved in marriage and family life before the Ordinary Synod takes place Oct. 4-25. The theme of the Synod will be: "The vocation and mission of the family in the church and the modern world."
The elected U.S. Bishop delegates to the synod are: Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia, Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles, U.S. bishops' conference president Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, and conference vice president Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston.