By Fr. Sean Kilcawley, director, diocesan Office of Family Life
When I was a seminarian, my father once shared with me the story about how he went to his pastor after he and my mom divorced.
After sharing with his priest, the priest said, “come back when you are ready for an annulment—it might make you feel better.” The thing is, my dad didn’t want an annulment—he wanted someone to listen to him, walk with him, and provide support for him. In fact, years later when he was dying of cancer, my mom—his ex-wife—stayed by his side and was present to him as he was facing death. That was one of the most powerful examples of marital fidelity I have ever witnessed, and I believe that my father was grateful to be able to say that his “wife” was by his side because they were, in fact, still married in the eyes of the Church at the time of his death.
Their story is not everyone’s story. Many people do experience healing in the process of applying for a declaration of nullity, and I continue to be grateful for the good work that is done by the priests in our marriage tribunal. I have often reflected on my father’s words about how that pastor responded to his pain after divorce. Honestly, I didn’t respond very well, either. I probably told him to pray more.
I didn’t know then what I know now. If I had, I would have told him, “Jesus loves you. Even—maybe especially—now, He is the one who wants to comfort you. I am sorry that this happened to you. It doesn’t make sense, but Our Lord can redeem all things. We can always begin again with Him.”
My father was like many people in the Church who are divorced and perhaps feel ashamed, or like they don’t belong anymore. His scenario often runs through my mind, so two years ago we started the “Catholic Divorce Survival Guide” program. As I listened to the attendees, many of them had stories that were similar to my dad’s: “I feel like a failure,” “It’s like I have a big ‘D’ on my forehead,” “I feel embarrassed or ashamed at Mass or school-family meetings,” “My friends are too busy with their own families to have time for me anymore.”
These are the lies that spin around in our heads after experiencing rejection, betrayal, or loss. Very often one person makes the decision to end the marriage. A slogan among the divorced faithful is, “it takes two to get married but only one to get divorced.” In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of Love, Pope Francis highlights the need for the Church to respond to divorced Catholics. He writes, “Respect needs to be shown especially for the sufferings of those who have unjustly endured separation, divorce or abandonment, or those who have been forced by maltreatment from a husband or a wife to interrupt their life together” (Amoris Laetitia, 242).
We begin to show that respect by providing a space for people to come together in community to share their lives, reflect, and heal. The Catholic Divorce Survival Guide program was put together by Rose Sweet and Ascension Press. Rose has been involved in divorce recovery for many years and felt the need to create a program for Catholics. The program lasts 12 weeks and the format is a video presentation, facilitated discussion, and workbook for each week.
Participants have truly found space to begin again with Jesus at this program. The facilitators are people who have walked in their shoes and have found healing in their own lives.
The program runs three times per year at the John XXIII Center in Lincoln. The next round begins Oct. 3.
St. Cecilia Parish in Hastings also hosts the program and is in the midst of their second year right now. My hope is that this or similar programs can exist across the diocese.