Q&A with Dr. Sarah Bartel

Dr. Sarah Bartel will be leading a retreat for engaged couples the weekend of January 19-21, 2018. If you are engaged and looking for a marriage preparation retreat, we certainly hope you’ll join the Bartels for a grace-filled and memorable weekend!

Q: Please tell us a little bit about yourself! Where you work, your position and responsibilities. If you’d like to share, tell us about your family life and/or hobbies outside of work.                  

Sarah: My primary vocation, and my joy, is being married to Nathan. This year we celebrate 17 years! We have four daughters between 3 and 13. I homeschool two of them, send two to school, and part-time, I do a variety of theological activities. I’m on call as a Consultant for Marriage and Family Life for the Archdiocese of Seattle. I write the column “Your Family Matters” for Northwest Catholic Magazine, which has won First, Second, and Third Prize from the Catholic Press Awards. I’m co-editing A Catechism of Marriage and Family Life for CUA Press with my academic mentor, and my husband and I are producing an online Introduction to Morality course on my website, www.drsarahbartel.com, where I also blog. I’m teaching an Intro to Morality class in person to the Archdiocese of Seattle’s deacon candidates and their wives. Nathan and I do marriage prep at St. Andrew’s in Sumner, our home parish.

I like to hike, read classic literature, go to museums, and travel. I make kale smoothies. (And my family actually likes them!) I have a deep love of French Catholic culture, and we took our whole family to France last year.

Q: Would you mind sharing yours and Nathan’s vocation story?

After two or three years of considering religious life, I felt God inviting me to open up to the idea of married life. I discovered this was actually the deepest desire of my heart, but there was a bit of fear in opening up to it. I’m so glad I did! During a college study abroad in France, I really started praying to St. Joseph to help me find a great husband at every church, cathedral, and shrine where I found a statue of St. Joseph. I also lived within walking distance of the Chapel of the Miraculous Medal in Paris. While praying there for a good husband, I promised Our Lady that I would come back there with him one day to thank her.

The next fall, back at Gonzaga University, Nathan and I met. We were in social dance class and choir together, and in the same academic program. We started dating the following spring, and his birthday came up on March 19th, the Solemnity of St. Joseph! We quickly fell in love and soon discussed marriage, but it took one last trip to the Nashville Dominicans that summer for me to really be sure religious life was not for me. We both saw marriage as our path to heaven.

Q: When Catholics think of vocations, they often think of the priesthood and religious life. What can parishes and families do to educate and demonstrate the vocation of marriage?

One thing a lot of Catholics might not realize is that we are having a marriage vocation crisis just as much as we are having a crisis in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. In our diocese and throughout the country, numbers of weddings are falling each year. I blame the sexual revolution; we live in a culture with a distorted and impoverished view of sex. Many couples are cohabiting instead of marrying. Anything families and parishes can do to teach children, adolescents, and young adults the authentic meaning of sexuality as a beautiful gift reserved for marriage, where it has the linked purposes of procreation and union (bonding and babies), helps protect against the damage of the sexual revolution.

Theology of the Body study groups and speakers are changing lives in this area. Parents can and should teach chastity; they have a bigger influence than they think! Married moms and dads also need to show that marriage is worth waiting for by living a joyful witness to married life. Parishes can pray for vocations to marriage along with intentions for priestly and religious vocations in their general intercessions at Mass.

Q: Please describe what the engaged couples attending “Betrothed” can expect from your weekend retreat.

We LOVE spending the “Betrothed” weekend with the engaged couples! The core of the retreat is an awesome video series called “Beloved,” which lays out the mystery and meaning of marriage in an engaging documentary style. After each video, Nathan and I share how the topic of that video impacts us personally, drawing on stories from our own experience. He and I each share a talk we’ve written ourselves, and we bring in a guest speaker who’s an expert in NFP. We also have lots of surprises for the couples: a scavenger hunt, a craft (yes!), a dessert social, and some gifts to take home: a book on finances, and Janet Smith’s “Cracking the Contraceptive Myths” CD.

Q: What advice would you give to couples who are discerning engagement or marriage?

I would urge them, first of all, to pray about it and deepen their faith life. Read all you can about what marriage means in the Catholic Church, starting in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Ask yourself: are you ready to give yourself totally to this one man, this one woman, to help get him or her to heaven? Will he make a good husband, a good father? Can you see this woman being a good mother to your children? When we’re dating, sometimes we forget to ask this question.

Then I’d ask: Is your boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancé the kind of emotionally mature person who can put his or her preferences aside for others’ good? I’d also urge them to check in with their family and closest friends to see if you are your best self when you’re together with this person. Do they like him? That’s more important than you might think!

If a couple is already actively discerning and even planning marriage, I advise them to start a habit of praying together. Spiritual intimacy is so important. And I’d also recommend they start learning NFP during their engagement. A list of teachers is on the Archdiocese of Seattle’s website at http://www.seattlearchdiocese.org/CFF/FamilyLife/NFP.aspx.

My next piece of advice is much less emotional and romantic: if you’re thinking about marriage, start paying off any debts you have and saving all you can. I’m a big Dave Ramsey fan, and studies show that couples following advice such as his enjoy more stable marriages. It’s important to lay a good foundation spiritually, emotionally, and also financially to give yourselves the best start!

Q: What are the greatest joys and challenges that you’ve experienced in your marriage?

My greatest joys? Seeing Nathan hold our newborn daughters in his arms. Watching them grow and blossom over the years. Our oldest plays the harp, our eleven-year-old blew us away with a talent for drawing at St. James Cathedral’s “Art and Faith” camp this summer, our six-year-old loves twirling around pretending she’s a princess, and our youngest just learned to fold paper airplanes. Things like that just delight me! I love the ordinary things, like looking over the kitchen counter and seeing four heads joyfully gobbling up their afternoon snack. We like to sing as a family, and Nathan and I have sung in various church ensembles, which is a huge joy for us.

We’ve been able to have wonderful adventures together as a family, and Nathan and I manage to get away from time to time to go swing dancing or out to dinner. I’d say, also, that accomplishing really big goals together has been a joy: Nathan and I made it through five degrees together, and we tackled a mountain to pay off our debts and build a six-months’ emergency savings fund. We really enjoy ministry together, speaking and mentoring couples, as well.

The challenges have also ranged from ordinary to major: just learning how to navigate two different personalities, how to run our household together, going through rough seasons due to daily stress or unhelpful patterns of relating. We’ve also faced job loss, and death and divorce affected us through those we love. I came down with postpartum anxiety after the birth of our fourth daughter. That was a hard year, but the healing taught us so much. The grace of the sacrament really does bring strength to weather and grow through these challenges. We’re still singing and dancing!

Q: Do you have any favorite saints, prayers, or devotions? What inspires you as a wife and mother?

I love Sts. Louis and Zélie Martin, the father and mother of St. Thérèse of Lisieux, as well as the Little Flower herself. She inspires me to make the ordinary acts of motherhood and housekeeping a gift of prayer. She also reminds me that it’s okay to not be perfect, it’s the love you put into it that counts most! (Because, truth be told, I am really not much of a housekeeper! I’m much better with abstract ideas than with laundry!)

The rosary is huge for me. We pray it (or at least a portion of it) as a family almost daily, and I really believe it wraps our family up in Our Lady’s mantle, which is right where I want to be! I like the Chaplet of Divine Mercy as well, and offer that for all the needs of the world, for souls, for my shortcomings.

St. Joseph is the faithful friend of our family. Whenever we have needed a job or a home, we have always turned to him for help, and he has always answered us. The house we sold when we moved away from the East Coast closed on March 19th!

I love the fifteen-minute daily meditation practice Fr. Watson teaches through the “40 Weeks” Sacred Story program. Nathan and I pray it together (most) nights using an audio Fr. Watson recorded. I also have been greatly blessed by going through the “Disciples of Jesus and Mary” (DJM) formation program created by Fr. Santan Pinto, SOLT, who died several years ago. I’m consecrated to Our Lady through the MI program created by St. Maximilian Kolbe, and I know that has impacted my life in a huge way.

I have lots of favorite saints, including St. Mary Magdalen, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Most of the saints I’m drawn to teach me about how to be poor in spirit, or how to be “beloved.” That’s a huge concept for me! To know yourself as a beloved son or daughter of God, to know that you are one who is loved.

I find a lot of inspiration and laughs from Catholic mom-bloggers like Danielle Bean, Jennifer Fulwiler, and Simcha Fisher. Right now I’m reading the biography of Chiara Corbello Petrillo, a beautiful and happy young wife and mother who faced three tragedies, the last of which was her own fatal cancer which took her life a few years ago. She lived it all in joy, in gratitude, and in total faith and hope, clinging to Christ. This helps me get perspective when my personal laundry mountain threatens to overwhelm me!


Click here if you would like to register for the “Betrothed: A Preparation for the Sacrament of Marriage” retreat!