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Fall Ministries

Bringing the divorced, separated back to the table

NCR Staff

Among those most often feeling left out at the local parish are divorced and separated Catholics. It’s not a small number of people, said Irene Varley, executive director of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics. Catholic statistics mirror the national numbers for marriage break-up.

One Catholic program with a long, helpful, divorce-aftermath track record, said Varley, is Detroit’s Bethany, offering parishes “peer support” program ideas for just those tragedies. Bethany’s central president, Mary Block, is also the new president of the North American Conference.

The organization has some 700 to 800 members, comprised of individuals and parish and diocesan groups. The organization’s basic purpose, said Varley, is “to get the message across that despite divorce or separation, you are still a holy person. Too often,” said Varley, “people who have experienced the pain of divorce have felt the church was directed only toward families, and that they were no longer family. Indeed they are still family, still holy, still very much a part of active parish participation.”

Her aim, and that of the organization, said Varley, is to reach out to Catholics who are inactive because of divorce to let them know there’s no reason to be inactive. “So many times it’s self-isolation,” she said. “Either it’s what they perceive to be church policy or sometimes they choose to misinterpret and don’t ask questions.” For separated Catholics, the North American Conference encourages involvement in Retrouvaille, a Catholic approach to rebuilding troubled marriages, or in marriage counseling.

For those isolated from the church because of remarriage without annulment, Varley suggests considering the annulment process, “though it can be a tremendously gut-wrenching process, from what I’ve head from people who’ve had negative experiences.” Some dioceses, she said, “have done wonderful things to utilize a pastoral approach to annulments. Trenton, N.J., is one. So it can be how we offer it. Is it in a legalistic terminology and no time for pasturing -- ‘Here’s the paperwork. Go talk to your pastor’? At the Denver convocation last September for Catholic lay ministries, one of the things we heard a lot of was, ‘Do something about this annulment process. Make it more pastoral,’ ” Varley said.

One way into the issue, said Varley, is an inexpensive book published by Dennis and Kay Flowers of the Cleveland diocese, Unlocking the Healing Power of Catholic Annulment. “It’s self-published at about $3.75,” said Varley, “because the author wanted to keep the price down. It has an imprimatur from the Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla.” (Flowers, who suggests including $1.50 mailing, can be reached at P.O. Box 21, Westfield Center, Ohio 44251 or home.att.net/~d.m.flowers).

Back at the parish level, for newly divorced or separated, the Detroit Bethany program “runs a scope of ministry -- from social life to working with newly hurt. It offers a balance that way,” said Varley.

“What we give,” said Bethany’s Mary Block, is “encouragement, support and education -- how to come out not so broken. There’s an eight-week recovery-type program for people going through a divorce. It’s structured -- topics discussed with other people in the same boat. We’re not psychologists or therapists. We’re just people helping people. If people need more help, one-on-one therapy, we recommend that.”

For the children involved, Bethany recommends Rainbows, a program for children who have suffered loss through death or their parents’ divorce or separation.

Block describes Bethany as, essentially, a peer-support group. “After divorce, people feel alone and isolated. Their self-esteem is down the toilet. They’re disillusioned with church. They don’t get from it what they need at the time of divorce.” At Bethany, said Block, they gain the knowledge that they’re not alone.

Bethany started a quarter-century ago as a grassroots organization among several parishes. “We offer spiritual support,” she said, “trying to get them back to the church. Many, when they do become divorced, are disenchanted -- feel alienated because they’ve broken a sacrament. We tell them that God still loves them, that though their marriages didn’t work out, they’re still good people.” There’s an annual Bethany Mass, and an annual Bethany retreat.

Plus Bethany, with six archdiocesan chapters, can throw a good party. A dance can attract upwards of 400 people.

National Catholic Reporter, September 3, 1999