Finding healing for divorced Catholics

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Stephanie Morrison is a religious education teacher at a vibrant and family-focused parish. But sometimes, the number of families around her at Mass makes the divorced woman feel isolated. Instead of being discouraged, she made it her mission to sit in the front of the church.

"I want to make sure people know that if they're single, they don't have to hide in the back," she said.

Morrison is now trying to make divorced and separated Catholics feel welcome by leading a ministry at St. Veronica Church in Chantilly with her friend, Susan McCullough. The two were inspired to start the group in part after attending a Morning of Mercy for Divorced Catholics, sponsored by the diocesan Office of Family Life.

"It was a wonderful experience to take time out from your busy life to refocus and remember how much Jesus loves you and what He did for (you)," said McCullough.

The half-day retreat included Mass, confession, a holy hour and a talk by the vicar general of the diocese, Father Thomas P. Ferguson. Two more Mornings of Mercy will be held this year: Aug. 27 at St. Veronica Church in Chantilly and Nov. 5 at St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception Church in Fredericksburg.

The retreats are a way for the church to accompany those suffering from the anguish of a divorce, said Thérèse Bermpohl, director of the Office of Family Life. "Marriage is meant to be a lifetime, (so) it is gut-wrenching when that union is torn asunder - for everyone," she said.

"What we're doing is offering opportunities for healing in the Lord, because that is ultimately our fulfillment anyway. It's about reminding (the divorced) that they are children of God and that they are still part of our church," she said.

The talk also explains church teaching on divorce, something many people don't understand, said Bermpohl.

Christ in the Gospels establishes marriage as an indissoluble union between a consenting man and woman. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that in cases where living together becomes impossible, separation or even civil divorce is permissible. However, "the spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God, and so are not free to contract a new union," unless they receive an annulment from the church - a recognition that the marriage was invalid.

The sacraments are available to separated or divorced Catholics, though not to Catholics who have remarried outside of the church. The catechism states: "They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic Communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith."

While it can be difficult, Bermpohl hopes the fellowship the participants find with one another can bolster them to fully live church teaching. "Freedom comes from living the truth," she said.

'One soul at a time'

Morrison converted to the faith after marrying into her ex-husband's devoutly Catholic family. Her trust in God became her rock during the divorce.

"If I had not had my faith, I wouldn't have emotionally survived that divorce," she said. "It took me years to get through my anger, rejection and abandonment (and finally to) make peace with God."

Morrison hopes meeting people in similar circumstances and seeing the involvement of the clergy at both the Mornings of Mercy and the St. Veronica ministry will encourage divorced Catholics to stay active in their church and to find their strength in God.

"I think for a lot of Catholics who are divorced, there's a lot of pain, a lot of hurt and feelings of abandonment. When you have the ability for the priest to say, 'It does not make you less of a person, you have not failed, you are still loved by God,' (it makes a big impact)," she said.

During the first meeting of the divorced ministry earlier this summer, Father Dennis W. Kleinmann, pastor of St. Veronica, spoke on the myths and misconceptions about divorce. This fall, the ministry plans to bring a counselor to give "recommendations on how we can rebuild our lives and our vocations (while) keeping faith as the center," said McCullough.

The ministry also offers a chance for single parents to witness to their children, said McCullough, who is the mother of two teenage daughters. "How do I keep them engaged in their faith after the experience they've had with divorce?" she said. "They need to see their mother's commitment no matter what happens in life. They need to see that not only from their parent, but from other parents (in the group, as well)."

After her divorce in 2012, McCullough turned to Morrison as a friend and fellow Catholic. McCullough said that other than the death of her mother, this has been the most difficult time in her life.

Likewise, the two facilitators hope to be present to both recently and longtime divorced Catholics through this ministry. "One of the favorite things that I live by is, 'God saves one soul at a time,' " said McCullough. "You have to meet people where they are and walk with them, and I think this is a wonderful way to do that."

For information on Mornings of Mercy for Divorced Catholics, visit here.

For information on the Separated and Divorced Catholic Ministry at St. Veronica, visit here.

Di Mauro can be reached at or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016