The challenge of divorce and remarriage needs a wise, pastoral church

By PEG EKERDT

This reflection appears in the June 2014 issue of Celebration. Peg Eckerdt is a pastoral associate at Visitation Church in Kansas City, Mo. Contact her at peg@church.visitation.org.

She approached me after Mass last Sunday. This faithful young woman is at Mass each week. She is a member of the confirmation team and a leader of Club Vis, the parish young adult group. She started bringing the same date to Club Vis social events over a year ago, and gradually it became clear that he was The One. Then I heard they were engaged. Given her involvement in the parish, I was surprised that she had not yet called to set a date. In the wake of the good news, I had even sensed a certain hesitancy on her part. As she hugged me on this particular morning, I congratulated her and asked about their plans. Her first response was that they were settling on a venue for the reception. Then she looked at me and said, “The thing is Mike has been married before.”

I suddenly understood why she had not contacted me. My heart sank and I cannot print what I wanted to say in response. In the midst of what should have been one of the most joyful moments of her life, she was worried that she could not be married in the Catholic church.

As we stood in the middle of the crowd leaving Mass, I wanted to ask: Is he Catholic? Was his former spouse Catholic? Did they have permission from the Catholic church to marry? But one look at her face told me I needed to find a private place to talk. There is nothing like the privacy of the greeter room (I thought to myself) so I pulled her into that little space, and her words spilled out between sobs: “I want to be married in the church. I have to get married in the Catholic church.”

I wanted to reassure her that all would be well and that they would be married in the Catholic church. But she didn’t know who was baptized, in what tradition or where they were married, and it felt awful to even ask such questions in the fragility of the moment. I could only promise that we would get it done though I did not say when that would be.

On too many days of the year, we who work in ministry in the church have the terrible responsibility of informing hope-filled, faithful Catholics that because there is a prior marriage for one of them, their pending marriages will put them outside of the church. Never mind that in that first marriage, one or both lacked the maturity to make the initial commitment. Never mind that there was an affair, or abuse or addiction. Never mind that it’s the non-Catholic who needs the annulment. Never mind that no matter how compassionately we listen and understand, the message we have to deliver feels like one of judgment and exclusion.

Thus it is that each week in our Sunday assemblies we find remarkably faithful people who patiently await annulments that now take longer than a year, sometimes two, to process. We see others who come to Sunday liturgy every week but who never join the Communion procession because their second marriage is not blessed by the church. Who we don’t see are the thousands who have walked away from a church that deems their second marriages sinful even though their lived experience tells them that it is holy.

Yes, the annulment process that involves writing about a failed marriage is for some, if not most, a source of grace and healing. But there are many faithful people who are too hurt or angry to explore the process. In some instances they cannot bear to rehash painful memories, or they have done so much work in therapy that they don’t understand why they need to do more. At other times, they cannot wait because a biological clock is ticking. There are others who simply feel ready to marry and do not need the church to tell them what they already know: This is the sacramental union that will lead them back to God.

For a long time the rules on this topic appeared to be inflexible and unchanging. Now the Vatican has asked Catholics everywhere to weigh in on marriage and family life, including this matter of divorce and remarriage. There is some thought that the windows may open and breathe new life into a process begging for mercy. Do we dare hope for a day when, at the parish level, we can listen and honor their stories of new life born of pain? That we can listen and then say, “Welcome home”?

We hope, but we do not know. So in this Pentecost season we rise again for another day, intent on being the welcoming and compassionate face of a loving God to all who come to us.

As for my couple? They needed a declaration of nullity of form. Thanks be to God.

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