How to Accompany Separated and Divorced Catholics

In the lead-up to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to the U.S., we are launching #FrancisontheFamily, a Diocesan-wide campaign that focuses on the catechesis of #PopeFrancis pertaining to family life. We have chosen to highlight some of Francis’ most repeated challenges to us – encounter, accompany, witness, and welcome – as a way of sharing the joy of family life.

By: Rev. Tom Ferguson

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Walking into a parochial school classroom room, I expect to know some of the people at the meeting I’m leading and anticipate meeting others for the first time tonight.

The room is arranged with a number of small tables that seat approximately eight people. Some are talking in pairs, appearing to know one another; others are sitting alone – heads buried in cell phones or in some cases looking to make eye contact and be recognized by another.

There are men and women, of differing ages, and of ethnic and cultural backgrounds reflective of all of God’s People – very typical of a meeting at church.

These people are like everyone else – it would appear – but soon I realize, like everyone else, they are all unique.

I am walking into a meeting of separated and divorced Catholics who seek from the Church gifts of healing, peace and, perhaps most of all, the assurance that people know they exist and that they long to belong.

For a number of years, the Office for Family Life has offered a program to foster healing for those who are separated and divorced. Each year, the program has been offered in a different parish so as to be more accessible to people in different parts of the Diocese of Arlington.

While the faces change each year, and the specifics of each person’s story are unique, there are some experiences that are consistent.

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The first is gratitude: participants in the program are grateful for the basic fact that Church recognizes their existence. This may seem a “no brainer” to some, but divorced persons consistently share their experience of doubting others’ awareness of their existence as they take their places as apparently anonymous members of large assemblies in cavernous church buildings each Sunday.

Add to this mix the Church’s special concern to promote the beauty and holiness of marriage, while at the same time promoting vocations to the priesthood and the consecrated life, and one can see why a person who is separated and divorced may feel left out.

Even when the vocation to the single life is spoken of, a separated or divorced person sees their condition as one not always freely chosen, but one more or less accepted or possibly even only reluctantly to be endured.

A second common experience is the desire of separated and divorced persons to share with others their spiritual needs.

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The process of healing the spiritual and emotional wounds that result from separation and divorce requires at times the unique gifts of confessors, spiritual directors and counselors. But as individual members of the Body of Christ and as a community of believers, we all have a role to play in accompanying our separated and divorced brothers and sisters on their journeys toward healing and peace.

Perhaps three examples may indicate first steps we all might take in this effort at spiritual accompaniment:

1

Prayer
This is always the starting point in every aspect of our life in Christ and in the Church! In our personal prayer and in our parish prayers of intercession, we need to remember and pray for the healing and peace of those who are separated and divorced.

2

Encounter
This is a favorite theme of Pope Francis! Nothing dramatic here – the simple gesture of sitting in church next to a now-single person who used to be accompanied by  a spouse can be a very powerful way of communicating (without a word being spoken) the all-important message: you are not alone!

3

Integration
Ours is not the task of taking what is broken and making it whole – only God’s grace can be the source of such beautiful healing! By acknowledging the existence of separated and divorced persons and extending to them an invitation to be a part of our lives in our parishes, in our social groups, even within our family homes, we become the channels whereby God’s grace can flow and God’s healing can be accomplished.

I pray that all who are separated and divorced in our Church will experience in our community of faith the confident assurance of our awareness of their presence among us, the strength that comes from our commitment of prayer and the warmth of God’s love in our desire to be companions on the journey to healing and peace!

For more information on Divorce Ministry in the Diocese of Arlington, please contact the Office for Family Life at (703) 841-2550 or familylife@arlingtondiocese.org.


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