Louisa Levine went through a divorce after 31 years of Catholic marriage, following the tragic loss of a son. Rather than seek comfort in the culture of divorce, she trusted in God. “We can find happiness and peace in suffering and in what our life has dealt us,” she said.
Levine discovered the writings of Msgr. Cormac Burke, a priest of the Roman Rota, including Covenanted Happiness: Love and Commitment in Marriage: “It is Our Lord who is in effect saying to that person: ‘You can separate from your husband or your wife. But do not separate from me. You may feel you can no longer be happy with your partner. But you can be happy with me. Be faithful to what I ask of you. Try to administer well the talent of fidelity I have entrusted to you. And your reward will be great.’ There is no condemnation to unhappiness here. What there is is a special call to holiness.”
That talent of fidelity rained down unforeseen graces.
After some years apart, Levine and her husband are now reconciling.
The Levines are not alone: Divorce rates among Catholics — though still lower than those of non-Catholics — have climbed alarmingly in the last several decades.
In a summer general audience, Pope Francis addressed such wounds within families, praying: “May Jesus Christ heal every wound present in the life of your families, and may he make you witnesses of his mercy and love.”
In a 2013 interview republished by America magazine, Francis addressed the need to reach out to hurting couples, saying, “In pastoral ministry, we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.”
That’s the real solution: taking responsibility for divorced Catholics.
Lisa Duffy, founder of Journey of Hope, a parish program to prevent or heal after divorce, said of the Pope’s approach, “He’s trying to get Catholics to wake up, get out of their comfortable Catholic worlds, see the suffering people around them and use the gifts, talents and graces God has bestowed upon them to bring the lost sheep home, as he has done for us. He wants us all to go in search of the wounded and bring them back to the field hospital that is the Church.”
Pope Francis has often talked about the Church as “a field hospital after battle,” but he didn’t invent the image. In the fourth century, St. Ambrose echoes Christ in the Parable of the Good Samaritan when he speaks of the Church as an inn. He admonishes Christians who forget that the whole purpose of the inn is to take in sick or wounded people.
A doctor of the Church, St. Ambrose echoes St. Paul in Galatians too, when he lays the responsibility on the rest of us: “For he who endeavors to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off” (On Repentance). For, as Galatians 6:1-2 tells us, “Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Pope Francis is trying to get the same message across today. The Church is a hospital: Come in and be healed.
While divorce sometimes prompts Catholics to leave the Church — even though the Pope said this summer that divorce does not mean excommunication — it helps to know that it can also prompt people to return.
Rose Sweet, creator of The Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide and a presenter at World Meeting of Families, says that the pain of a divorce is often what brings people back to Christ:
“Evangelization is often most successful when people are hurting, empty, lonely and searching for answers. Their restless hearts begin to open up for something more; in fact, their hearts are usually breaking wide open. That’s when God wants to rush in and pour out his abundant love and mercy.”
That is where the rest of us come in. Healthy people are in a hospital for one purpose only: to serve the sick. Some people are there to cut away the evil so that the good can be restored. Some are there to clean up and dispense medication. Others comfort and encourage. Others simply pray.
Sometimes it’s not going to feel good. Sick people can be hard to be around. They complain; they demand; they resent being told what to do. But Sweet points out: “There is also great joy in tending the wounded, in seeing people get stronger and healthier.”
“If we don’t reach out to them,” Duffy said, “they’ve got no place to go but to the ‘culture of divorce.’ That culture is very real and very dangerous.”
Jane Zingelman, a divorced Catholic who came back to the Church after 20 years, says the culture of divorce encouraged her to self-medicate with a new relationship — “as if that could ever be remotely like the healing of Christ and his Church.”
It begins with prayer, Duffy said. “Catholics see these problems, and it causes great moral suffering. Think of the benefit there would be if we had so many people praying: for couples to not divorce, to get through the difficult times.”
Rather than criticize the Church or scold people, Duffy said, “let’s be like St. Monica and pray people back into the Church.”
Samuel Beardslee, from the Diocese of Lincoln, Neb., is studying at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. At the end of this year, he will be ordained to the diaconate.
Beardslee attended Cardinal Robert Sarah’s keynote address at the World Meeting of Families. Afterward, he shared that his parents divorced when he was 7 years old. They subsequently married other people. Despite this, they were very committed to his upbringing. They continued to attend the same parish and to keep him in the Catholic elementary school.
Given Cardinal Sarah’s talk, were there any families in the parish or school that were formative to him, which gave him joy and made him want to keep the faith and be part of that Catholic community?
“One of the difficulties of being in a divorced home is that it actually separated me from that community. Since my parents lived on opposite sides of town, it was hard for me to stay connected. I don’t want to sugarcoat how my situation was. The divorce had its scars.”
How will his personal experience affect his pastoral care once he is a priest?
“One of the things the experience has given me is the ability to listen more to people. You need to be aware of what’s happening in the parish. You have say, a married couple, and they have kids; and, suddenly, you start seeing one coming and not the other. You need to be aware of that, and you need to become involved in that family’s life. You want to approach them with love. Tell them about the youth events that are happening. Get the kids some sort of thing they can get attached to and involved in. You want to focus them on something that will build them up.”
Susie Lloyd writes from
World Meeting of Families
for the Register.