By Tim Johnson
Divorced Catholics of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend are finding hope in their journey through the Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide program. Sessions began in September and are offered in Fort Wayne at St. Vincent de Paul Parish and in the South Bend area at the St. John Paul II Center in Mishawaka.
Lisa Everett, a coordinator of the South Bend program, and the co-director of the Office of Family Life, said when she reviewed the Catholic’s Divorce Survival Guide four years ago, “I was so impressed with how comprehensive and how Catholic it was, and knew that this would be a wonderful resource to offer through our office.”
The Office of Family Life said the St. Vincent de Paul Parish program schedules the sessions twice a month and will offer the program from September through March. The Office of Family Life co-sponsors the program in Fort Wayne and contributed half of the purchase price for the program several years ago when the program began in the fall of 2011.
Everett said the program will likely be offered again at the St. John Paul II Center in Mishawaka in the spring. “Our office schedules the program for 12 consecutive weeks and therefore can offer it twice a year,” she said.
Although the sessions have already begun in both Mishawaka and Fort Wayne, “people are welcome to join either program anytime,” Everett said.
Julia Thill, a coordinator of the Fort Wayne program, has already seen positives in the participants in just a few sessions.
“The program offers an opportunity for those experiencing separation or divorce a relaxing place to receive comfort in their time of change,” she noted. “Feedback is that the topics are relevant and are based on Catholic teachings.”
For divorced Catholics there are many misconceptions about the Church.
“The most common misconception is that the divorced feel alone, and the Church doesn’t care,” Thill said. “The mercy and support of the Church, through pastoral support and the sacramental life is always there for those struggling, and they are not alone.”
Participant Michelle said, “Honestly, I feel very ‘branded’ by the Church, now that I’m divorced — as if I am wearing a scarlet letter ‘D.’”
She added, “Some people have no problem telling you what you should and shouldn’t do, due to the fact that I’m a divorced Catholic.”
Participant Cara also said she felt as if she were walking around with a scarlet letter after her divorce. She felt “judged by everyone for failing to live up to our Church’s teachings about marriage. I was unsure if I was able to take Communion.” She worried if she sought an annulment, her children from her 19-year marriage would become “void” or labeled “illegitimate.”
“The sessions from the support group along with — believe it or not — the divorce has made me the strongest Catholic I have ever been,” Cara said. “Each session taught me about so many misconceptions or things I did not even know about our faith at all.”
She learned her children would not be considered illegitimate if she gained an annulment and the children are her ex-husband’s “gift” of their 19-year marriage.
Furthermore, she said, “The sessions also showed me a way to handle divorce respectfully with all parties involved. The support group also shed light on misconceptions I had about growing up in a divorced family. Each video has a few different characters so that you can find someone to relate to.”
Jane, who is one of the leaders, and who received an annulment, said she was familiar with the Church teaching regarding divorced Catholics.
“The sessions hit home with the stages of grief and healing that are so vital in becoming whole again,” she said. “This is a wonderful ministry that is very much needed in all communities. Our attendees are at all stages of the divorce process and it may take several years for some to heal. The sessions focus on the importance in trusting God and letting Him share our burden and grief.”
Phil had attended a divorce support group at another parish several years ago, and said his divorce brought him into the Catholic Church. He divorced, decided to explore Catholicism, took part of the RCIA program and came into full communion with the Church. His pastor told him about annulments and he decided to sign up for the sessions.
Phil noted, “In the group I learned a lot about Catholic views on family life, on the sacrament of Marriage, on the rationales behind annulments. It was all new to me, and it explained a lot to me about the failed marriage.”
“Had I known all these things at the time,” Phil said, “I think that my marriage — or the decision to marry — might have turned out much better.”
David said he also had misconceptions about whether he should receive the Eucharist, but his pastor “made it clear that I should continue receiving and distributing the Eucharist.”
The sessions have helped him realize that because he is no longer married, he still can put his “whole heart, mind and soul into Jesus.”
“Now,” David said, “I am married to Jesus Christ, going out of my way serving Him.”
Phil noted, “(The sessions) put this whole chapter of my life into a new perspective — made it clear that devotion to Christ had to come first, before any other concerns.”
Julia Thill noted the strength she sees in the sessions as a coordinator: “It is so good to see individuals return weeks in a row and build upon what they have learned from previous sessions. The individuals that attend multiple sessions, grow closer together and walk in more confident each time — they will get through this — they are not alone.”
Session leaders and participants are recommending the program.
Jane said, “I would strongly recommend this program to all separated or divorced Catholics. I only wish I would have had this program when I was going through my divorce. The bottom line is you are not alone and this group offers a safe, loving and non- judgmental haven for all attendees.”
Cara noted, “I believe that persons thinking about divorce, separating or already divorced persons should all come to this group. Yes, it is hard to tell others our story — whether we are the one who left or was left — but you would be quite surprised how much your story may be just like someone else’s. It is amazing how much healing God can bring to your soul when you have an alliance between you, Him and His people. You never know when, what you have to say, no matter how big or small, may change a life.”
And Phil offered this encouragement to divorced Catholics considering attending the sessions: “Do it. Whether you are comfortable with your divorced life or are reeling in the aftermath, do it. It will bring comfort, support, insights and healing.”
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