The Synod: What About Divorced Catholics Who Don't Remarry?

My friend didn't want to find a new husband, she still loved the one who left her.

Media stories about the Synod on the Family highlight the deep alienation experienced by Catholics who cannot receive Eucharist because they have divorced and remarried. But what about the men and women committed to living out their marriage vows, after their spouse has departed? It is a tale that makes a lot of people uncomfortable — in and out of the Church,  but that’s the story I want to share now.  I haven't heard their story, though Cardinal Raymond Burke discusses their plight in an EWTN interview broadcast on Oct. 9.

My story is about a dear friend. I'll call her, "Mary." Her husband left her behind for another woman, and that placed her in a difficult predicament, because she believed in her marriage vows, and she also wanted her son to know they mattered. Her journey of faith is remarkable, in part,  because she was joyful and brave, and never criticized her husband. But her story is also striking because her most desperate prayers were answered in an unexpected and mysterious way before she died this summer, following a third and final recurrence of cancer.

When I  first met Mary, she was still in her early 50s. A year had passed since her husband had sent an email, confirming his intention to divorce her. She was raising her son on her own, and busy with a successful career in the arts. We were both members of a study group that examined St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

She was fascinated with John Paul’s teaching, which offers a vision of life, inspired by the Genesis account of the creation of man and woman and their "one-flesh union." She pondered, too, the way the serpent drove a wedge between Adam and Eve. And she saw, better than those of us who were blessed with faithful spouses, how Christ, in Matthew 19 3-9, offered both a healing grace for the hard-hearted — those righteous men who made no apologies for divorcing their spouses, and a respite for their wives, who no longer feared displacement.

Over time, I learned more of Mary’s story. Her husband’s father had also abandoned his wife, and she feared the familial pattern would continue after her son reached adulthood.  But she also expressed regret for her own limitations, and her failure to find a way to reach him and prevent the breakup.

I saw that Mary still loved her husband. One day, she arrived for our study group with a spring in her step, her hair beautifully coiffed. Her husband had asked her to meet him, and we could see the invitation thrilled her.  But then he called to suggest that they meet at a Starbuck’s parking lot. A parking lot? He wanted her to sign some tax papers, that was all.  

Over the years, there were moments of personal crisis. Mary had been a breast cancer survivor and the cancer came back. Her professional work lost steam, and she was forced to move in with her widowed father. 

Then she learned that her husband was planning to remarry, and that her son had tried to hide it from her, hoping to spare her further disappointment. That moment was so hard, because she saw that her personal struggles made it difficult for her son to have a relationship with his father. She knew that if the cancer returned, he would need his father more than ever. She let go.

Throughout this time, she drove an  hour and a half each way to our study group. It wasn’t just about the Theology of the Body.  I sensed that she depended on the friendships  fostered by our time together. So many of the friends that she and her husband once shared could not understand why she had not found a new partner. They were friends with her husband’s new love, and they pressed her to get out and find someone too.  

Years passed, and the friendships formed through our weekly meetings deepened. Then the cancer came back for the final time. Mary spent eight weeks in the hospital after her surgery. Our group canceled plans to go to Rome for the canonization of John Paul II. Instead, on the day of the canonization, we spent a few hours at  Mary’s bedside, laughing, talking and praying together.

I saw her one more time, just before she died in a suburban hospital near her home. She looked old and gaunt, as if she had aged 20 years. She lay quietly, trying to keep herself as still as possible to minimize the pain and nausea she felt as her body slowly shut down. Tentatively, I patted her on the shoulder, but she motioned me to give her a real hug.  

I was sure  that her thoughts had turned to her husband, who was living his life elsewhere, far from her hospital bed. He would not be there to say goodbye and mourn her departure.

But I was wrong. He did, finally, come to her. Shortly after I saw her, after our prayer group began a novena to St. Joseph for Mary and her family, a four-page letter arrived for Mary from her husband. Then he came to the hospital. She did not share the details of their time together,  but a friend who came into the room afterward saw her face glowing with joy,  the pain and nausea forgotten. As Mary saw it,  he had finally acknowledged that the three of them -- husband, wife and child — were a family. And she was relieved that he had promised to offer spiritual support to their grownup child.  Maybe her son  would make a different choice than his grandfather and father, and cling to his own wife. Then she was gone.

Before Mary left for her last cancer surgery, I had an image of her dressed in a white gown. She was receiving the crown of martyrdom from Christ. I still don’t know where the image or vision came from, or even whether I was awake or asleep when I saw it.

Of course, Mary wasn’t a martyr, if that term is understood to mean someone who died or was  persecuted for their faith. But there is another understanding of martyrdom that, in my view, applies to my dear friend. Martyrs witness to Christ, no matter what. Mary experienced many humiliations and a profound lomeliness as she witnessed to her marriage vows. She was called to do this, and did not criticize those who took other paths.

In the years leading up to her death, I saw the "Refiner’s fire" burning through Mary. She lost everything but her son: her husband, a successful career, and her good  health. But the Spirit, the Consoler, guided her path, drawing many of her friends and family members into the mystery of her challenging, radiant life. Many months after her death, those who mourn her are still trying to understand what we saw and what we learned.

"Love is patient," says St. Paul, in 1 Corinthians13:4-7. "It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all tings, endures all things."