‘Life-Giving Wounds’ — Healing for the Children of Divorce
An interview with Dr. Dan Meola
I recently had the opportunity to interview Dr. Dan Meola regarding his ministry, Life-Giving Wounds (www.lifegivingwounds.org). The Meolas and the McClains are good friends, beginning when Dan attended The Catholic University of America with my wife, Bernadette. We are now all parishioners at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Bowie, Maryland. So, I am grateful for Dan that we were able to sit down so that I could interview him and he could tell me about his immensely important ministry within the Church. When you learn about Life-Giving Wounds based on Dan’s responses, you will see why this ministerial approach is so vital.
1.) Tell me about your faith journey that led you to found your ministry “Life-Giving Wounds”?
I was raised Catholic, and in the sixth grade, when I was 11, my parents separated. This was the first real crisis in my life and faith. Initially, I responded to the pain by praying a lot, four Rosaries a day often, hoping that my parents would be reconciled. I was also praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I became sort of disillusioned when God didn’t answer my prayer, but in hindsight, my image of God was “off” — “if you do this, I’ll believe in you,” etc., like if I prayed enough I could earn his love and favor. I never stopped going to Mass because I didn’t want to hurt my mom like that, but internally, I stopped fully believing and became distant from God. Really, I was silently struggling with this wound all alone and asking God where he was in all of this suffering I faced.
Fast-forward six years to junior year of high school: I went on a retreat, kind of begrudgingly (truly, my mom forced me to go). Several things happened on that retreat that were life-changing: First, I had my image of God purified. I learned that God doesn’t always take away our suffering, but he always fills our suffering with his presence and love. I went from thinking of God as Santa Claus to someone who shares his suffering love with us, and I experienced that love incarnated in that retreat community.
Second, there was one priest in particular, Father Larry Richards, who shared his testimony that was deeply impactful on me. His father was an alcoholic and abandoned his family, yet he eventually offered mercy to his father and reconciled with him on his deathbed. This was a powerful witness of mercy that inspired me to live that same mercy in my life toward my parents, my future spouse, my friends, and all who offend me. I believe it is this lived mercy that stops the intergenerational transmission of divorce because the tragic reality of divorce is that in the majority of cases, divorce happens because one or both spouses refuse to offer mercy to the other.
Third, this retreat helped me to heal because it gave space for me to grieve my wounds. This was the first time I could talk openly about being a child of divorce in a healing way. I had to seek that out and be vulnerable. That started to change my life, because I started to talk about it more and more and get the healing that I needed. This brought me back to the faith, and I gained a lot of Christian friends who helped me. I got more and more involved in faith communities, such as youth ministry in my Diocese of Erie and later, campus ministry at The Catholic University of America.
So, on the one hand, because of the pain that I had from my own parents’ divorce, my wife Bethany and I founded Life-Giving Wounds. We wanted to give people the community support to talk about this wound in a faith context, like I received. A lot of people report on our retreats that nobody from their parish reached out to them about this wound. We want to stop this trend of isolation with our ministry, and we especially want to reengage young adults who feel forgotten and alone in this terrible suffering. No wonder they are leaving the Church and becoming ‘Nones’! We need to reach them through taking seriously their hidden wounds and helping them heal.
On the other hand, Bethany and I started Life-Giving Wounds because my parents’ broken love led me back to the idea again and again of what love is: What makes love love? What makes it healing? What makes it last? These three questions have always guided my life, my healing, and our ministry.
I earned a B.A. in psychology and a B.A. in theology from The Catholic University of America. For my B.A. in psychology, I had a focus on marriage and family dynamics. But although psychology is really important for healing (for instance, I went to a psychologist while in college), I knew that more was needed to understand love and healing. So, I pursued an M.T.S. and Ph.D. in theology, with a specialization in marriage and the family from the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, DC.
While studying at the John Paul II Institute, I was able to assist professors in creating a pastoral ministry program for healing adult children of separation and divorce. This was called “Recovering Origins” and I adapted it into a weekend retreat format, which I then piloted at the Saint John Paul II National Shrine. After leading retreats there for several years, the retreat took on a life of its own and grew well beyond the original program. Leaders across the country were asking for our help to set up their own ministries. These experiences served as inspiration for Bethany and me to found Life-Giving Wounds, to spread the retreats and other ministry help, because we recognized that more was needed and requested by participants and leaders themselves.
In addition to our core offering of the Life-Giving Wounds retreat, Life-Giving Wounds is piloting a model for ongoing support groups, and I am available for talks and online or in-person trainings of leaders, both to do the actual ministry and to help all leaders within their own ministry fields to better accompany children of divorce (youth ministry, young adult ministry, principals and other educators, marriage prep leaders, counselors, etc.). We are also going to be publishing this year our own written resources in addition to our online resources on our website and Facebook page, which is directed and curated by my talented wife. Finally, we have come to recognize that the lessons learned and taught through our ministry can be helpful for the spiritual healing of other wounds, so we offer general parish missions. Click here for videos of a virtual parish mission that is designed to help everyone during the current suffering of the coronavirus pandemic. We hope in this way we contribute in a small way to alleviating the great spiritual needs out there during this COVID-19 situation.
2) What is your hope for those who attend a Life-Giving Wounds retreat and/or support group?
For them to know that they are not alone, that there are other people who have gone through similar experiences and face similar challenges. This can be very comforting. There is a “wound of silence,” where those who have experienced their parents’ divorce or separation often do not feel free to discuss their experience. Finding others with the same wounds is encouraging and uplifting, and having the freedom to address this in a supportive community is healing. For those who have suffered, it’s reassuring to know that you are not alone. The weekend retreats are meant to help lead people to an encounter with Christ’s love through an open discussion about, and grieving of, their wounds. This ministry is not about pointing a finger at your parents, wallowing in self-pity, or playing the blame game, but about moving forward through addressing the past, since the past always filters our present.
There can be different layers to a wound, too. Sometimes people do not even realize that they are hurting until they are given permission to examine the wound or look at how they are acting within a relationship, and they realize that it is because of their experience of being a child of divorce. We know that we cannot take away all the pain, but we hope to help people respond to each layer of their pain with greater faith, hope, love, and joy. The question is, how do you respond to your wound in life-giving ways? That’s why we look to the Resurrected Christ, in which Christ blesses the apostle Thomas with faith through his wounded hands and side, as our model for spiritual healing. As we read in 1 Peter 2:24: “By his wounds, you are healed.” We hope to help people transform their wounds into this life-giving wound of Christ’s love, such that our ministry’s name is our hope for those who suffer.
3) What is your audience of outreach for Life-Giving Wounds?
This is a Catholic ministry, but people of all faith backgrounds have come to the retreats. We have had fallen-away Catholics, current Catholics, Christians from various denominations, Buddhists, and “Nones.” The retreat is really for everyone, as long as you are open toward God. There is also something in our retreats for everyone, no matter when your parents divorced or separated, and no matter how little or how much healing you have already received. In addition, we have had people whose parents received an annulment, dissolved a cohabitation, had one-night stands where they never knew one of their parents, had high-conflict marriages, etc., join us, and people from these situations said they have found it very fruitful.
The Life-Giving Wounds retreat is for anyone over the age of 18 — college students, young adults, adults, Gen X, boomers — but we have a special place in our hearts for college students and young adults, who form the majority of our retreat participants and team members. If conditions permit us to safely do so (in regard to the coronavirus), then we will be hosting retreats and starting ministries in Boise, Idaho (Sept. 18-20), New Orleans (Oct. 2-4), San Francisco (Nov. 6-8), and more!
In sum, Bethany, I, and all of our wonderful collaborators in this ministry have a big heart to reach everyone who shares this wound because that’s the mandate of Christ. He didn’t come to save 99 sheep, but every… single… one. Please pray for our ministry, as we aim to reach adult children of divorce or separation with God’s powerful healing love!