Hope and joy are born of compassion. The compassionate show the face of God to a world in which sadness, doubt and fear afflict so many.
Hope and joy are the promise and gift which the Father holds out to his much loved creation. To be compassionate, to be givers of that hope and joy, is the call of the Lord Jesus to all who follow his way. Because we are convinced of this, and because we want to proclaim our own hope and joy in the risen Jesus, we write to you, the Catholic faithful, concerning those of our fellow Catholics who are suffering the pain and loss of marriage breakdown.
These Catholic brothers and sisters can very easily feel "left out" and even somehow "second class" when their fellow Catholics are hesitant about befriending, maintaining contact and making a place in parish life for them.
This hesitancy, sometimes felt as coldness, may be due to embarrassment or a false sensitivity to the situation. But it may also come about from the mistaken idea that these people have somehow sinned. This need not be so. Marital separation or civil divorce alone do not mean estrangement from the Church.
The Church's teaching on the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage needs to be seen alongside her teaching on the need for compassion and understanding towards those in any kind of difficulty. We want our people to understand this, so that the separated and divorced have a sure sense of belonging, and feel encouraged to participate in the sacramental life of the Catholic community. Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 statement on the Christian Family in the Modern World, placed this two-fold teaching in beautiful perspective, when he wrote:
"As a mutual gift of two persons, this intimate union, as well as the good of children, imposes total fidelity on the spouses and argues for an unbreakable oneness between them... To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time." (para 20).
"I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and with solicitous care to make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church, for as baptised persons they can, and indeed must, share in her life... Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope." (para 84).
We wish to emphasise that, for their part, separated and divorced Catholics are among those who most strongly affirm the Church's teaching on marriage. The breaking of their marriage can serve to emphasise, for them, the quality, dignity and strength that are found only in the permanence and faithfulness of marriage.
With divorce becoming increasingly accepted in our society, there is a danger we may become disinterested in, or insensitive to the effects of divorce on the lives of those caught up in it. We cannot let familiarity minimise the significance of these effects which can be crippling and emotionally destructive. Increased tolerance of the facts of divorce does not lessen its pain for those involved. It is therefore particularly opportune and important that our Church community affirm its commitment to those made more vulnerable by the trauma of marriage breakdown.
Death of a Dream
We must avoid the false idea that divorce is always chosen as an easy way out. Separation and divorce mark the death of a dream, and dreams die when hope no longer holds meaning. The result is grief.
Further, for those whose marriage began as a life commitment, there is the realisation that a solemn promise has been broken. So, inevitably there will be feelings of guilt. Grief and guilt collide in the personality of the separated or divorced person, resulting in a loneliness that some find intolerable.
A person is torn from someone who had been accepted as a life-partner-someone with whom they had hoped and even planned to share all the challenges of living together. Both people still exist, but their life together has died.
This death has been termed "psychological widowhood" -a situation that can, of course, also occur in existing marriages. The stress and sense of loss which accompany and follow psychological widowhood can be compared with the reactions to separation through physical death. This is true also for the children.
Their tragedy is often greater. Their pain, which they cannot easily identify or understand, is submerged in the confusion of being "caught in between" in the chaos of separation. Bereavement-in its literal sense of loss- leaves orphans.
A Time for Grieving…and for Forgiving
We wish now to address ourselves particularly to all of you involved in the heartbreak of marriage death.
We recognise that there is a real grief process that you have to work through. There may also be a deep anger compounding the hurt you feel. Both your grief and your anger should meet a compassionate response within the community of the Church.
The Church is uniquely placed to help you face your anger and find the courage to forgive, for the Church knows that forgiveness-the reconciling love of Jesus Christ-is the foundation of her hope. Anger damages the one who is angry. Like grief it must be enabled to heal. You should not have to apologise for seeking the counsel of the priest. On the contrary you should find in the priest a ready listener and an understanding pastor.
Jesus, the Good Shepherd, speaks through those who have committed their lives to his service, when he says, "Come to me all you who labour and are over burdened, and I will give you rest....for I am gentle and humble in heart." (Matthew 11:28).
Likewise, the parish community should reflect the warmth of a loving family. When the parish opens its arms in welcome and love to touch the disadvantaged, it embraces Jesus (cf. Matthew 25: 31-46). You must know that your burden of loneliness does not have to be carried alone. The Lord who is close to the broken-hearted (Ps 35) wants you to find peace. It is for the community that bears His name to reveal the resting place of peace.
Life Needs Love
Much of what we have shared here also applies to those who, after divorce, have attempted marriage outside the Church. We want to add a special word for you. While it is not possible for you, who have divorced and remarried, to celebrate the sacraments as full members of the worshipping community, that community has an important obligation to support, encourage and nourish your faith. You remain our brothers and sisters. Three years ago, in his first letter to the Church and to all men and women of goodwill, Pope John Paul reminded us that life is impossible without love. If love is not revealed to us, if we do not encounter love, "experience it and participate intimately in it," then living is "senseless" (cf para 10 "Redeemer of Man"). These words have special relevance here. Personal faults invariably contribute to any marriage breakdown. No one denies that persons can fail. But, if we understand that failure does not make a person unlovable in the eyes of God, it will be clear that, whatever their failures, people always have a right to our love. The need for love does not disappear simply because a person may no longer be married. Having known love, the need is even greater. If love is not shown by an accepting, open, humble and spiritually adult Christian community, it may well be sought in a new irregular friendship. We all have a responsibility here.
- We urge you who are remarried to examine your particular circumstances and, if your pastor so advises, seek the help of the diocesan matrimonial tribunal.
- We ask our priests, teachers and lay ministers to study the Church's teaching on marriage, to actively support people who are trying to help, and to be ready to listen to and gently guide those seeking advice.
- Our Catholic Social Services offer professional counselling and guidance. An introduction to these services when a difficulty is first recognised, may help couples avoid later crises.
- Parish pastoral councils should take a special interest in this vital area, looking for ways in which the liturgical, social and educational welfare of those with marriage difficulties can be enriched.
But the separated and divorced are not expected to be mere recipients of support. They themselves have a part to play in the life of the community. Indeed many, from the experience of their own suffering, are already ministering to fellow parishioners trying to cope with their marriage relationships . We applaud this Christ-like concern, itself a sign of faithfulness. We feel sure that you, who have been victims of marriage breakdown, are called to share your courage and faith with those who find themselves on a similar journey.
All of us, sharing in the priesthood of Jesus by reason of our baptism, are to minister to one another in love characterised by mercy. Mercy is the unifying and elevating power that makes compassion possible. Pope John Paul, in his timely letter "Rich in Mercy," writes that this love means "the cordial tenderness and sensitivity so eloquently spoken of in the parable of the prodigal son, and also in the parable of the lost sheep and the lost coin....it is indispensable in pastoral work" (para 149).
Be especially respectful of the conscience and convictions of one another. Be careful not to impose excessive burdens, not to further isolate those already alone, nor to allow our own ignorance or prejudice to block the uplifting, healing power of the Holy Spirit (cf Evangelisation of Peoples, Pope Paul VI, 1975, para 79).
In reaching out to our separated, divorced and remarried Catholics, we offer an assurance that you are loved. If your present difficulties sometimes seem insoluble, we pray that the care with which you are held in your respective parish communities, will be the seed of hope and joy in your own lives, and that you will find peace. The soothing touch of Jesus comes in the spirit of hospitality, which, ideally, enlivens every parish.
Compassion – Not Pity
When Jesus asks his followers to "be compassionate as your Father is compassionate" (Luke 6:36), he asks that we stand alongside the troubled and distressed, to take some of the weight of their burden and to help them again lift up their heads and their hearts.
Compassion has little to do with pity, or simply feeling sorry for the other. It is a freely offered and active sharing in whatever suffering the other is enduring. Such a sharing, which is always careful not to force itself on the privacy of the sufferer, brings hope and joy for it restores a sense of belonging to the person alone and afraid.
Compassion becomes more tangible, and consequently more possible, when each of us acknowledges the need of God's patient, tender and merciful love in our own lives. Then, encouraged by the unspeakable richness of God's own compassion, "with our unrest, uncertainty and even our weakness and sinfulness, with our life and our death," we will encourage one another and so draw nearer to Christ, our lasting hope and joy.