When Pope Francis this past week implored his church to show more forgiveness toward the divorced and remarried, saying even sinners can “grow in the life of grace,” Maria Olsen thought of her father.
Olsen recalled her divorced father dropping her and her brother, then ages 6 and 5, at the curb outside their Kensington, Maryland, parish on Sundays. Her father was so committed to the Catholic Church, she said, that he wanted his children to attend Mass despite the fact that he and his ex-wife were unable to receive the key rite of Communion and no longer felt welcome in the church.
“I felt like we were the only kids without parents,” said Olsen, a mother of two who lives in Fairhaven, Maryland.
As an adult, Olsen has been able to make peace with her faith, remaining heavily involved in her parish while confidently rejecting teachings she considers manmade flaws. But she regrets that her father, like so many other divorced Catholics who have left the church, never received the kind of affirmation offered by Francis in his dramatic call for tolerance toward families the church officially views as nontraditional.
“It’s very conciliatory and groundbreaking, and I think will open the way for lapsed Catholics to rejoin the church,” Olsen said.
‘The Joy of Love’
Francis’ long-awaited document, “Amoris Laetitia” – Latin for “the Joy of Love” – didn’t lift the ban on Communion for Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, but he seemingly has made room for priests and laypeople to make such decisions together on a case-by-case basis.
This measure of outreach, though lacking in specifics, appears to have brought comfort to many among the millions affected by previous Catholic teachings on marriage that have drawn bright lines. The “state and condition of life” of such people, Pope John Paul II wrote in 1981, “objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church.”
But the new compassionate stance also has surfaced painful memories for some who left Catholicism – and often their extended families – over this issue. Some recalled delayed marriages waiting for annulments that sometimes never came, or years attending church but remaining in their seat when Holy Communion was offered.
For others, Pope Francis’ welcome echoed positive experiences they had with involved, kind priests who cared for them through broken relationships and rebuilt ones. Some were happy that Francis had left the annulment process intact, because for them it had been a kind of spiritual therapy that forced them to look at themselves and their relationships. They are grateful that the pontiff hasn’t tossed overboard Catholicism’s opposition to divorce, a rupture that Francis referred to as “evil.”
Meanwhile, as theologians and journalists pored over policy implications of the pope’s teaching, many rank-and-file Catholics who have been touched by divorce and remarriage said Francis’ remarks have validated their experiences.
Marty Luquet said he probably wouldn’t have left the church if he had heard a teaching like this one earlier.
A lifelong Catholic, Luquet, 58, continued to go to Mass every week for the first 17 years of his second marriage. But when it came time for Communion, he and his wife were told to stay in their seats and felt humiliated as others shuffled past them to get out of the pew and head to the altar.
“You get to the point where it’s hard to go to church when you can’t be part of the whole Mass,” he said. “You kind of feel like an outcast in the church.”
He was especially bothered that his wife, whose marriage to him is her first, is barred from Communion because of him.
Luquet’s mother’s priest told him that it would be all right for him to receive Communion even though he is divorced and remarried. But when he asked his own priest, in Norco, La., the answer was no.
Luquet sought an annulment just before Hurricane Katrina struck his tiny waterfront town. Three years later, when he had sorted through the wreckage the storm had left behind, and the archdiocese had confronted the detritus, too, he finally got a response, he said. The archdiocese said no, that the answers he had provided to the deeply personal annulment questionnaire were not sufficient.
Luquet stopped going to church. The rejection seemed to say that the institution didn’t want him.
Luquet said Friday that he was hesitant to seek an annulment in the first place, because he had two children during his first marriage. “You almost feel like by doing that, annulling your marriage in which you had children, I felt like I was doing the same thing to them,” he said.
He said he believes that the pope sided with his mother’s priest on Friday – who told him it might be okay to participate fully without annulling his first marriage. If that had been the stance of the church years ago, he said, he would have stayed.
“I still consider myself a Christian,” he said. “I still feel like I’m a good man, and I do good things, and I’ll deal with that in the afterlife. I would love to go back, but I’m not sure. The damage is too deep.”
The experience left him alienated not just from the Catholic Church but organized faith. Luquet said he tried other churches but could never connect.
Stephen Kerbovac found the costly process of attempting to attain an annulment cold and off-putting. He said the joy he felt about his engagement was quickly quashed when he approached his Chicago parish about an annulment for his fiancee, who had been divorced, so the couple could get married in the Catholic Church.
The priest told him the process might be arduous, lasting a year or more and costing about $1,000. Kerbovac said the encounter left him feeling judged and condemned.
“I just want to get married in the church,” said Kerbovac, 45. “That’s all I want to do.”
The couple ended up finding a loophole: Kerbovac’s fiancee was baptized as a Catholic. So even though her first marriage took place in a Lutheran church, church officials told Kerbovac that it would be considered her first Catholic marriage. That meant she would just need documents proving the end of the first marriage, and not have to go through the complete annulment process. The couple will be able to wed in the Catholic Church, but Kerbovac said the experience tainted their happiness for a time.
While Francis has kept the rules in place, Kerbovac says the new tone the pope has set will spare others the sense they are being judged harshly. “It’s a good first step ... to have a more welcoming attitude,” he said.
Kathy Finley, an author and counselor on Christian marriage in Spokane, Wash., who was asked to speak on the topic at Pope Francis’ World Meeting of Families last fall in Philadelphia, said Friday that the new teaching will be seen as very healing to Catholics whose divorce or remarriage has made them feel apart from their faith.
“This has been a place of pain for a lot of people. ... Often the church is seen to be a rule-maker and not to have the heart of mercy and compassion which Pope Francis so well embodies. They can begin to see, I think in a better way, how the church isn’t about just rules,” Finley said Friday. “I think it really helps people ... get a sense this isn’t the unforgivable sin. You tried your hardest, and this really is a place where you can begin to heal.”
Francis’ document helps Jolie Monasterio make her case that her church is merciful.
Monasterio, 49, had her doubts when she first separated from her husband. A youth minister charged with teaching young people about divorce, she was ashamed initially to tell people what was going on. She said she eventually told her parish priest that she was leaving her husband because of his alcoholism.
“Our priest said to me, ‘Jesus sat and comforted those who are broken and going through broken times. Who of us is not broken in some way?’” she recalled.
But most Catholics don’t experience that welcome, she said.
“If they’re reading it and studying it or hearing about it, they’ll say, ‘Hey, there’s a shift here,’” she said of the new document. “I think it is going to make it easier for people to say, ‘I need help.’”