If you gave your local parish a report of the kinds of outreach and support they have for people and families, what grade would you give them, and why?
What does your parish do well? What are areas of improvement your parish could do better in?
I’ve worked in lay ministry for over a decade at various parishes. During that time, I’ve gotten a sense of what things parishes can do well and not so well. One area I think the Catholic Church as a whole can do better is having more support and resources for divorced Catholics.
When going through my own divorce, my therapist encouraged me to find some type of support group. Naturally as a Catholic, I hoped to find a local parish offering some kind of group I could regularly attend. However, after doing some research, I discovered there was nothing in my local area. The closest group at a parish was forty-five minutes away.
Feeling a little frustrated, I ended up going to a Christian support group called Divorce Care, which was a very positive experience for me.
While I was thankful to have participated, I was disappointed. Some parishes leave a lot to be desired when it comes to caring for divorced Catholics. I think this is an area of ministry the Catholic Church needs to spend more time, resources, and pastoral care. This especially true when the divorce rate among Catholics is no different from the wider secular culture.
From my own experience and work in ministry, here are some practical suggestions on how our parishes can better support men and women going through a divorce.
Clearly identify pastoral staff trained to help
Have the right people be able to speak on things like divorce, remarriage, and annulments. Make it easy for parishioners to find the right person to talk with if they need counsel or help beginning the annulment process.
I met one Catholic who when he called the parish office to inquire on starting the annulment process, the secretary told him to go online, print off the application, turn it in to the priest, and he would get back to you. This is neither helpful nor pastoral.
Make sure any pastoral or lay staff who will speak to this experience has the proper training (and pastoral wisdom!) to help.
Regularly offer support groups
Currently, there are two support groups developed by lay Catholic women. They are Journey of Hope and Surviving Divorce: Hope and Healing for the Catholic Family.
Offer a support group twice a year, once in the fall and later in the spring. A group like this is just as important as Bible studies and mom groups. Divorced Catholics are a part of your parish! Be intentional in considering and meeting their needs.
Offer presentations on the annulment process
At the parish I work at, I offer a presentation on the annulment process one to two times a year. Part of supporting divorced Catholics is giving them access to clear information on what the Church teaches (and does not teach!) about annulments and divorce and remarriage. A Catholic marriage is presumed valid and sacramental until proven otherwise.
Read more: Is An Annulment Just A Catholic Divorce?
Oftentimes, the catechesis around divorce, annulment, and remarriage is not well explained. It is one of the most misunderstood parts of Catholic Church teaching by Catholics and non-Catholics alike! A presentation like this is also a great way to jumpstart forming a divorce support group in your marriage.
Don’t know where to start? Contact your local tribunal to see if there is a canon lawyer willing and available to come and give such a presentation.
Acknowledge divorced Catholics in homilies
In preaching, it can be helpful for priests and deacons to remember not every family experience looks the same. If a parish is here to minister to all people, it is important to remember not everyone’s story or path looks the same.
There are single families, divorced families, and mixed families from remarriage. There are also single people desiring marriage and family.
Use a homily as an engaging way to speak to and acknowledge the many different experiences of Catholic families attending your parish. It means more than you realize!
This final tip is simple, yet so powerful. The pastoral staff at a parish should be available to listen and hold space for the hurt and pain of divorced Catholics. You can even have lists of recommended therapists if someone would like further support through this difficult time.
Early in his pontificate, Pope Francis spoke about the importance of the Catholic Church as a field hospital on a battlefield tending to the wounded. If we seek to be that, we have to be willing to go through the hurt and pain our brothers and sisters are living in.