By Gordon Nary
Gordon: I have been looking forward to this interview since several of my friends praised your presentation on “Building Unity in our Families Today” at the October 2015 OSSM National Conference in Sierra Madre, CA. I know some other Californians who have attended your and your husband John Yzaguirre’s seminars at several parishes. For our readers who may not be acquainted with your and John's work, please visit Thriving Families:
Based on your mutual work, this must truly be the proverbial match made in heaven. When and how did you and John first meet?
Claire: Yes, we are very blessed and we thank God for everything. We first met at USC in ’83 through a dear mutual friend and quickly realized that God has something special in store for us personally (we married in ’86) and through our lifework with couples. We also realized that we were quite different, coming from different cultural and Christian faith traditions – besides being a woman and a man, in itself two very different “cultures” (listen to our CD’s on this and more topics!).
I was also a California native and an ordained American Baptist minister, headed into ministry after my chaplaincy work at USC to go on staff with one of our churches and John was a native from Barcelona, Spain and a very committed Catholic, coming to USC for his graduate training in Psychology, and then to go into the mental health field. But these very differences both personally, culturally, and from our different faith traditions, and learning how to integrate them with wisdom and respect, led us to the very core of the work we do with couples, for 30+ years now, to help them grow united, resilient and joyful marriages.
Gordon: Could you provide our readers with some background on the factors that influence your conversion to Catholicism?
Claire: I’ve always loved the diversity of our big Christian faith, protestant, catholic, and orthodox, each offering great gifts to our household of faith. I came from a vibrant protestant church and had a great time studying for the ordained protestant ministry at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA) – where I also enjoyed learning more about Catholicism, and then in my year studying in Jerusalem, where I became friends with others from various ecumenical (and inter-faith) backgrounds.
Later, in the ‘90’s, when I transitioned from church ministry to become a Marriage and Family therapist, and then on a personal level, in our own family journey with John and our son, Paul, I discovered God leading me to join the Catholic Church. And it’s such a wonderful journey! I love my rich protestant background and I love growing in my sacramental journey as a catholic, with the richness of our historic faith tradition, seeing how God is ever at work through the centuries through the church, the saints, and the various religious orders and lay movements today, each bringing a tremendous gift to the church and the world. It’s an ongoing discovery of God’s great love and mercy for us all, to work together as Christian faith leaders and therapists in our churches and communities. It’s also given John and I, a deep appreciation for every couple’s journey, and inspires us to continue developing our “Unity” resources and programs for couples.
Gordon: Could you provide our readers with a brief overview of your OSSM presentation on “Building Unity in our Families Today”?
Claire: I’d love to! To build unity in our families today, we need to have certain key skills, so I shared 3 dynamics of unity that are essential to growing unity, not only in our families but also, in our churches and communities.
I’ll give you the 3 bullet points here, but I’d also encourage the readers to get our Thriving Marriages book and our CD’s (available in English and Spanish), because then you can enjoy learning how to live these skills each day. *See the last paragraph for ordering information and for book reviews.
The 1st” dynamic, we call “Welcoming Others”, is about growing our empathy to accept others as they are (not as we think they should be), and finding out what they need and want (overcoming our passivity, or our tendency to be self-absorbed or too busy) and then to love them as they want to be loved (not as we think they should be loved). You can do this by asking the other, “What do you need? What would you like?”- asking each other this question regularly helps us to ‘update our records’ on each other and love each other with ‘intelligent love’ that hits the bulls-eye.
A 2nd dynamic is having “Unconditional Self-giving” where we become the first one to love (not waiting for the other to love us first), and give our love to each other as a free gift, not as payback or as an investment, and where we give joyfully and generously (with a smile, not an obligation).
The 3rd dynamic is “Living in Communion” in which we learn how to improve our communication with each other, sharing more meaningfully with each other, listening more deeply, giving positive feedback to foster dialogue, and learning how to ask for what we need, without complaints or criticisms. Another key part of living in communion is learning how to solve our conflicts by understanding and valuing each other’s needs and thoughts, and making changes that lead to a solution. Finally, we need to forgive and reconcile with each other so we restore our unity, whenever it breaks down, not just when there are big things to forgive. We need to become people who are merciful, not just doing merciful things. That’s why this Year of Mercy, is such a great theme for us all to become Merciful as the Father is Merciful.
*You can order our book, Thriving Marriages, 2nd edition, from Amazon or our New City Press publisher, which is also available in Spanish, Casados y Felices. We’d also love for you to read our book reviews on Amazon, and if you would like to also offer one, please do so! To order our CD’s, in English and Spanish, please order directly (and only) from our website,
Gordon: Today more and more people are leaving all faiths including the Catholic Church, What can our parishes do to reverse this trend?
Claire: We can see that people are really struggling with the everyday stress of their lives and families. We need to help them with this, especially in this Year of Mercy, when Pope Francis encourages all of us, to welcome others with tenderness and mercy and to become ‘missionary disciples’ sharing the Good News with everyone.
We sometimes call ourselves ‘missionaries to the family’ and we’d say that at the TOP OF THE LIST in the Church today is to help people deepen their faith and strengthen their marriage and family life. We address this in our Thriving Marriages programs by teaching people, especially couples, how to deepen their empathy for each other, manage their stress and conflicts more effectively, handle their difficult emotions better and live more united relationships. We teach an inspirational model of Christian unity with a practical roadmap to achieve it in their marriages and families. These resources are also excellent as Faith Formation resources for leaders to use in their churches and ministries.
It’s been a joy to share these marriage and family life talks at our own parish, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, in Irvine, CA, as well as speaking in Southland churches and conferences and retreats in several dioceses and denominations in 50+ cities each year. It’s very exciting to see how the churches are responding to the needs of couples and families, by offering more marital enrichment…and we praise God that our resources are helping them do this!
We hope you are blessed and strengthened by our resources to live greater unity too!
“…that all may be one…” – John 17:21