In October 2014, at the behest of Pope Francis, an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops will convene in Rome on the “Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization.”
One issue to be considered is the painful circumstances of divorced Catholics who remarry. I offer the story of my late grandmother, Josephine — beloved “Gram.”
Gram and my then-7-year-old dad were abandoned by my railroader-grandfather in 1931. Granddad’s only exculpation: “No one could live with Josephine.”
At St. Joseph Parish and School, a traditional German-American community, this was doubtless a scandal. Additionally problematic was that, since 1940, Gram lived with Bob (Dad’s Protestant stepfather, “Pap,” to us) a caring, hardened steelworker and outdoorsman.
Of this, as a child, I knew nothing. When we visited Gram and Pap, we received lavish attention: great food and care. For me, the oldest son, there was instruction from Pap in manly arts such as fishing and boating on Lake Erie.
Outside of Gram and Pap’s old storefront home on Main Street in Carnegie, Pa., there was constant action: a saloon across the street, clanging streetcars and a firehouse/police station next door. For a young buckaroo, this was Shangri-La, a cross between Manhattan and the Wild West. I enjoyed Gram’s yummy home cooking (before the era of healthy eating, thank God), toys and that new thing — TV — sans chores. ’Twas doggy heaven for this pup and my four younger siblings.
On Sundays, and many weekdays, I walked a mile with Gram to St. Joseph Church for 6am Mass. This was Gram’s habit. It never occurred to me, until years after my first Communion, to inquire why Gram never went up to receive Communion. Later, I learned from my mother that Pap was Dad’s stepfather, that Dad’s “real father” left decades ago and that Gram’s marriage to Pap precluded the sacrament of Eucharist. Now it all made sense.
Gram made certain we said our prayers and attended Mass and Communion. She never commented upon, editorialized or explained her non-receipt of Communion at Mass or the tacit shame she endured as one of the few adults who remained in the pews as everyone else approached the altar rail.
Using her personal St. Joseph’s Missal, she prayed the Mass and contributed like everyone else. She never criticized the Church, clergy or the doctrine that separated her from the Eucharist. To my knowledge, she never considered avoidance of Sunday Mass or confession.
The message of Josephine’s witness (if I might term it) — this minor mortification — was clear: She respected the truth and order of Church teaching: Sacramental marriage is inviolable and permanent. Any novel nuptial arrangement or cohabitation is out of order. It was also clear that Gram was not regarded as a Church outcast but, rather, an active participant in parish life and a fellow seeker of salvation, though not in full communion with the Body of Christ.
Like all the faithful, she was obviously hopeful of God’s final and Divine Mercy. The beauty of this witness was that it did not confuse or conflate God’s law, nor did it begrudge the Church’s teaching authority. Gram’s acceptance and self-discipline served to avoid compounding scandal (receipt of Communion) and served for us children as a silent object lesson. That is, however irregular, Gram was respectful of the True Presence.
I pray that God values Gram’s faithfulness from which I and four younger siblings learned the consequences of life’s important decisions — she was a catechesis of sorts. I was grateful for Gram’s fortitude, integrity and respect of the Church.
I pray that the upcoming synod will discern some proper way to embrace, in a manner understood by modernity, Catholics in Gram’s difficult circumstances. Perhaps they’ll be invited regularly to receive a blessing from the priest (in the Communion line), arms folded across the chest, as is offered to children and non-Catholics. I pray that such brothers and sisters in faith are re-engaged and re-embraced in the Church without rancor or dissent — preserving our unwavering support for the truth of the sacrament of marriage, while renewing our fellowship and dependence on God’s Divine Mercy for all of us sinners.
Dennis Manning writes from Rochester, Minnesota.