Several weeks ago, our parish priest took time during his homily to tell us about a mission trip he had taken to Guatemala. He told many heartwarming stories about how he and the other missionaries helped the homeless in the town they visited, and ended by encouraging us to be generous with those who were suffering.
I wanted so much to stand up and shout: “Wait! You don't have to go to Guatemala-- there are broken families right here, needing help and looking for someone to show them some compassion . . .”
The next week, a wonderful woman beginning a ministry for children with special needs spoke for a few minutes at the ambo. She urged us to be kind to these children during mass, not to give them disdainful looks or make them feel unwelcome. She added that some parents with special-needs children had stopped bringing their families to Mass after such reactions.
Again, I thought: “Please, extend this kindness to those you know who are divorced! They, too, feel judged and embarrassed, even as so many of them are trying to live faithful lives . . ."
Divorce is, indeed, a serious offense against the natural law (CCC 2384)-- and no authority of the Church or state can dissolve a valid sacramental marriage (2382). But the members of our Catholic communities who become separated from their spouses, or even obtain a civil divorce in extreme situations, are greatly in need of compassion. They are truly among our society's “walking wounded.”
There are many sources of suffering in this world, but the breakdown of a family is among the most tragic. The home is the very place that should be an oasis of familial love and tranquility. Our churches, where those suffering should be able to find solace and consolation, can be lonely places. Many of our brothers and sisters in Christ are suffering in silence.
When I went through my own divorce in 1993, the pain I experienced was more than emotional: it was physical, spiritual, moral-- on all levels. It would begin from the first moment of the morning and last until I finally managed to sleep. Just trying to keep back the tears during the work day and act like a normal person was a hearty challenge. And the other challenges of life didn't stop.
When a spouse dies, crowds gather, flowers are sent, condolences offered, meals prepared. But when a divorce occurs, few know how to offer support. Neighbors keep their distances from newly single parents. A husband or wife, left distraught, receives few calls from friends “just checking in.” They are often left alone, expected to "get over it" and get on with life.
When I began planning to launch a site for faithful but divorced Catholics, www.DivorcedCatholic.com, I polled parishes across the nation, asking them what programs they were using to help the separated and divorced people in their parishes. I found that less than 10% of all the parishes in the United States were offering any such support. Of that small percentage, most were offering Protestant programs.
I do not say any of this to criticize Christ's Church, which maintains the fulness of his teaching about the sacrament of matrimony. It is only by following his teaching, through the Church, that we will receive true healing from the tragic rupture of a marriage and home.
Rather, I simply want to encourage three things:
First, to help those who have never experienced a separation or civil divorce, to overcome their tendency to judge those involved, and begin to ask (when it is appropriate): “How can I help?”
Second, to encourage anyone involved in a separation or civil divorce, as they walk down the long road of healing. I believe even these struggles can be “the stuff saints are made of.”
Third, to urge anyone and everyone to do what is possible for those whose marriages and families have broken down. When you feel adequately prepared, go to your pastor and offer to lead a support group, whether it's the Journey of Hope Program or some other curriculum-- just keep the whole truth of the Catholic faith in it.
Most importantly: Don't ever give up hope in the God who can “reconcile all things . . . making peace by the blood of his Cross” (Colossians 1:20). With him, all things are possible.
Photograph by yeenoghu - (CC)