Learning to grieve and forgive my parents' divorce

It’s been about seven years since my Mom sat me and my sister down and told us with tears that Dad was moving out and they were getting a divorce. A lot has happened between now and then, as you could imagine, but nevertheless we still occasionally find ourselves dealing with the aftermath of the divorce. That usually gets brought out in a real way around the holidays. While ritualized time with family provides rest and nourishment, this time of year also adds a certain amount of stress to many people’s lives, especially for people with divorced parents.

Spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in two places is hard if you don’t have the gift of bilocation. It means Dad doesn’t wake up with his kids on Christmas morning and Mom is left at home alone when we drive to our second Christmas celebration.

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So I read with a large sense of empathy an article that America recently published by four children of divorce who feel that refusing the Eucharist to Catholics who have divorced and remarried gives the proper justice owed to the children of divorce. But if I’m honest, I was also unsettled by what I read.

It led me to reflect on some of the lessons I learned while learning to grieve and forgive my own parents—and God—for their divorce.

The church needs to do way more than talk about admitting those who remarried to Communion.

While much of the discussion at and around the Synod on the Family centered on the issue of Communion for divorced Catholics, the commentary certainly fell short. More could have been said about other family issues, but also about the issue of divorce itself.

The annulment process, involving tribunals and testimonies, is an important but legalistic process with pastoral implications. Even if the process is expedited and free of cost, where are the structures in place to accompany those dealing with divorce on a spiritual and pastoral level?

The church should take every opportunity to strengthen and support marriages. And we should give thanks for when it does. But too many of its members are walking around wounded in the shadow of confidentiality and gossip that divorce brings. And to focus all or most pastoral efforts on those currently married or preparing for marriage is to abandon a generation of people who are still reeling from the effects of their divorce.

The church cannot turn a blind eye, applying a ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ approach to divorce—leaving it up to the courts to decide. The first interaction between the Body of Christ and the divorcee should not be at a request for an annulment or a second marriage.

Divorce hurts everyone involved—but children are especially vulnerable.

Children in divorce are faced with a slew of difficult questions. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, divorce deals a heavy blow to a child’s sense of security and can lead to a number of both physical and mental illnesses.

But there are also deep spiritual scars left. Pope Francis, in a Wednesday audience this summer, reflected on the wounds divorce inflicts on the souls of children:

Despite our seemingly evolved sensitivity, and all our refined psychological analyses, I ask myself if we are not just anaesthetizing ourselves to the wounds in children’s souls.... We talk a lot about behavioral problems, mental health, the well-being of the child, about the anxiety of parents and their children.... But do we even know what a spiritual wound is? Do we feel the weight of the mountain that crushes the soul of a child in those families where members mistreat and hurt one another to the point of breaking the bonds of marital fidelity?... And these wounds leave a mark that lasts their whole lives.
 

I would only add that nothing can unravel all the church’s work to build up the sanctity of marriage like a child witnessing the collapse of their parents’ union.

These are questions and issues that priests, youth ministers and religious education teachers need to be equipped to respond to. This—rather than excluding their parents from the sacraments with no path of penitence—is what true pastoral and theological accompaniment should look like.

But—God’s justice isn’t like ours.

It almost goes without argument that children are crushed by divorce. It’s a near universal that crimes against children are those that merit the highest level of scrutiny. So what would be the justice owed to a child of divorce?

We can learn a lesson from the crucifixion. As theologian Mark Heim writes,

Jesus’ death isn’t necessary because God has to have innocent blood to solve the guilt equation. Redemptive violence is our equation. Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours. God used our own sin to save us (emphasis mine).
 

Jesus did not need to die to fulfill a cosmic order of justice. It was our need for punishment, retribution and scapegoating that led to his death. This should teach us something about the huge chasm between what we humans believe about justice and what God does.

And so, does admitting divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, or providing them with a penitential path, deny the justice owed to a child? As Jesus says to Peter, and to us, “You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do” (Matt. 16:23).

That answer might frustrate us. It frustrated the brother of the Prodigal Son, too.

Something I look forward to during the holidays is being able to go to Mass with my family. This year I will stand next to my mother (who has not remarried, for the record) and proclaim, with the rest of those who have come to worship the living God, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” Because, after all, who really is worthy?

That word from God is both abundantly clear and confounding to the human heart: “You are. I love you. Yes.”

Amen.

Zac Davis is an editorial assistant at America.

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William Rydberg
1 year 11 months ago
Thanks for sharing. At the risk of sounding maudlin, I personally would have been really traumatized if this ever happened to my parents in my younger days. They have passed now, and I am grateful that they stayed together, because my father was at times a handful. I see that you are an Editorial Assistant at America. If I may be so bold, I suggest that you ask a Jesuit Scholar (not a Scholastic, as they tend to be in training mode) about the Ignition Spiritual Exercises, in particular Week 3. Might be helpful... Grace and peace to all concerned. in Christ,
Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
Jesus made an Apostle of a woman who had five husbands. He did not approve of what she did. But he gave her a path to mercy and commissioned her to proclaim his gospel to her town.
ed gleason
1 year 11 months ago
The Marriage recovery program Retrouvaille helps 65% of couples recover their marriage See America Mg 1992[]It is hardly ever mentioned on the parish/.Diocesan levels . Why? Because the clergy have been educated wrongly that only professionals can help people in trouble. AA the most succesful self help support group ever established proves that these non professional processes work. Ive posted before that I know of no US Catholic bishop ever looked in on any of the thousands of Retrouvaille weekend put on in the last 30 years. Not so in Africa who sent a Retrouvaille couple to the recent Family Synod .. Attention US bishops Save your synod travel money and show up at a Retrouvaille weekend or followup meeting....No need to talk ,just observe.. and it's free/
gloria hunt
1 year 11 months ago
You are misreading the earlier article. These was no "unsettling" call for punishment, retribution, and scapegoating, as you suggest. Let's read this part again: "We are not bitter young people who fear change or want to see parents in irregular unions punished. On the contrary, we love our parents and want them to go to heaven. As the church is the instrument of healing for broken and wounded souls, we pray that by being excluded from the Eucharist they will recognize the gravity of their sins and seek repentance." These four authors have got it exactly. My (and their) generation wants sin to go away, to say that it means nothing (or not enough to make us truly uncomfortable). Let's not forget that it is a spiritual work of mercy to say otherwise.
Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
Gloria, we are not talking about people who divorce for selfish reasons. But those who were abandoned, beaten and made homeless by alcoholic and drug abuse. No one proposes giving up the ideal. But there are mitigating circumstances.
gloria hunt
1 year 11 months ago
But there is always selfishness and sin in divorce, Bill. My sweet, devout, saintly mother divorced my father because he was unfaithful and verbally abusive--the height of selfishness. Believe me, I understand mitigating circumstances, and, as it happens so does the Church, which is why there is an annulment process. This process was set up (according to the USCCB) to identify which of the 5 elements of a valid marriage were missing when they got married. I'm glad my parents went through this process. It helped my mother to understand that it wasn't her fault.
Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
I see, Gloria. But why should your mother go through an elaborate and expensive annulment process if she wanted to remarry? What the present movement is largely looking to do is help those who do not have the means and time to go through the process.
Kathleen Hare
1 year 11 months ago
That is not accurate Bill. If I understand correctly, the internal forum process will be available to all parties. To the one abandoned as well as the one doing the abandoning. Those who have adulterous affairs and who unrepentantly leave their spouses and children will be as entitled to Eucharist as the husband or wife who is forced into a divorce.
Bill Mazzella
1 year 11 months ago
Kathleen, The discussion is evolving. But I do not see anywhere where an unrepentant divorced person is approved of. It is unconditional that the person would make amends to any injured parties. That is a matter of justice.
Anne Chapman
1 year 11 months ago
Sometimes getting a divorce is the best thing parents can do for their children. Growing up in a household where there is no love left between spouses is not good for the children, even in the absence of overt emotional and/or physical abuse. I speak from experience. I wish my parents had divorced years before they finally did. The church gives priests many years of immersion to "practice" their vocation before they require final vows. A man can leave at any time during those years, with no repercussions from the church. Yet the church demands that couples marry without ever living together, with no real experience of daily life with one another, and demands the most draconian process possible to be able to receive the sacraments if they divorce and wish to remarry. Why so hard on laity and so easy on the clergy? Religous sisters also have many years of formation before final vows. It is only married people who are not permitted to change, to grow in understanding of themselves and their spouse, to understand that a lifetime together would not work and could damage all involved. The church should require that all married couples wait at least 3 years after marriage before having children, as having children changes the impact of divorce. Perhaps then, after undergoing an intense period of self-examination about whether or not they should have children, the couples who believe their decision to marry was still right could take "final" vows. Before that time the church should offer a 'no-fault annulment" if they insist on an annulment - with just paperwork involved. They should applaud those couples who are mature enough to act on the self-understanding and wisdom they achieve in living together as a couple for a few years when they realize that they aren't going to function well as a couple over a lifetime and that they should not bring children into the world together. People often do change as the years go by. They do develop greater maturity and self-understanding, and may eventually realize that the person they thought would be their life-partner is not the "right" person after all. When people have a mature sense of self and understand that staying together would eventually damage both of them, as well as any children they might have, they should be supported in the painful decision to divorce rather than be condemned. Marriage in Jesus' day was a business contract between families. Women were the "property" of their fathers who handed them off to another man without any concern about love or affection. The couple had little or nothing to say about the marriage. But women were not equal in Jesus' time. They could not divorce their husbands. Their husbands could divorce their wives. If the women did not have family or independent wealth, she could be forced into begging or prostitution to support herself. The man had absolute right to keep the children. When Jesus told men not to divorce their wives, he was trying to protect them in a culture and society where they had no rights, and their well-being could be destroyed by their husbands. In an era where many died before 40 years of age, it is unlikely that Jesus' remarks were meant for people 2000 years later who may be married for 50 or 60+ years. I doubt that he would have wanted them to simply co-exist in misery for a lifetime. The sacramental nature of marriage is rooted in the love between the spouses. When love goes, and the marriage has become no more than a business contract, divorce is not always the wrong path. It can often be the right one. It is harder when there are children. But living in a loveless, cold marriage "for the sake of the children" can sometimes be more damaging to the children than divorcing is.
Philip Cyscon
1 year 11 months ago
The closest analogy Catholics have to "no-fault divorce" is the Declaration of Nullity available to a divorced Catholic who married outside the Church. All it requires is the production of some documents (baptism certificate, marriage license, divorce decree, and 2 witness statements attesting that the marriage was never recognized by the Church). So what Anne Chapman suggests is that the Church require couples to marry civilly for 3 years or whatever time frame before the marriage could be blessed by the Church in the Sacrament of Marriage. I suspect that the result of such a rule would be the loss of more young adults who would find other Churches willing to celebrate and recognize their marriages. Far better than such a system would be the development of a "marriage catechumenate," as has been suggested by the family life directors of several dioceses around the United States. Another possibility would be a sort of "marriage mystagogy," which would involve post-wedding spiritual formation for couples. I wish I had the knowledge and experience to suggest what such programs would entail. As for practicing being a priest, I share my experience that nothing can possibly prepare someone for the difference between non-ordained and ordained or the difference between the transitional diaconate and priesthood. Maybe that's why so many priests resign in the first year or two. It's true that a man can leave the seminary at any time, but there are always repercussions in any break-up.
Anne Chapman
1 year 11 months ago
Phillip, To clarify - the couples would be maried in the church not just have a civil marriage. After a certain period of time, at least 3 years, they would undergo an intense self-examination to assess the decision to marry - before they have children. If they have realized that they may have not truly understood either themselves or their spouse as well as they thought at the time they married, or that they did not realize what the intense and intimate day-to-day life would entail, its stresses, strains, personality conflicts, they could then get a civil divorce. If the church insisted on an annulment, there could be some kind of a sort of no-fault annulment, that required filing paperwork only. You write: I share my experience that nothing can possibly prepare someone for the difference between non-ordained and ordained or the difference between the transitional diaconate and priesthood. Maybe that's why so many priests resign in the first year or two. That is true of young couples also. The romance of courtship and engagement do not prepare couples for the post-honeymoon period, no matter how many pre-Cana courses they take. Post-marriage support would certainly be a good idea, but it does not exist in most places. Only living the vocation for a while will bring enough self-realization for couples to know if they made a really good decision in marrying. Generally, the flowers and romance phase begins to fade by the one year mark. By three years, a couple should know whether or not the love and affection is deep enough and solid enough to bring children into the world. If it isn't, they should continue to postpone having children. Once there are children involved, you really want the parents to know themselves and their potential to go the distance together as loving spouses and parents. Many would-be priests drop out long before final vows. Others leave after final vows, as you note, because they finally fully understand what they have promised to do for the rest of their lives. They took these vows even after years of formation, of working in parishes, of being mentored by their teachers and other priests. And yet some still don't make the right decision. The formal process for laicization is probably fairly close to what couples have to endure for an annulment. Yet the priests had years before final vows to test their vocation, an option married couples do not have. I'm sure it is very hard to make the decision to leave the seminary. But if one does, the church does not punish him and deny him the sacraments. Married couples also do not have this option. The flaw in this plan is that very often it is having children that greatly increases marital stress. At least by waiting long enough to really know one another before having children, it might be possible to reduce the divorce rate a bit. The divorce rate begins to rise a year or so after the birth of the first child. In recent years, the divorce rate has been rising among 50+ year olds, married for many years. They are those who wait until the children are grown, but their marital relationship itself has been dead for many years. Many couples are not abusive or selfish or unfaithful or addicts or anything else. It is simply that the decision to marry was misguided. To punish people as "sinners" because they changed in different ways or have realized that neither they nor their spouses are who they thought they were on their wedding day is wrong.
Crystal Watson
1 year 11 months ago
The idea that divorce is always a bad thing and that it always leaves children the worse off is just wrong. My mother was divorced three times while I was growing up. It wasn't the divorces that were so bad, it was the marriages, one of them including a stepfather who was a sex abuser.
David Rudmin
1 year 11 months ago
1.) It's not "Communion," but "HOLY Communion." 2.) We're not restricting it. We're RESERVING it for those NOT in mortal sin. (Why didn't this article deal at all with issues of personal sin?) 3.) You say "Jesus did not need to die."??? The visionary Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich contradicts this: "I saw that it is not right to say that God need not have become man, need not have died for us upon the Cross; that He could, by virtue of His omnipotence, have redeemed us otherwise. I saw that He did what He did in conformity with His own infi­nite perfection, His mercy, and His justice; that there is indeed no necessity in God, He does what He does, He is what He is!"
Alice Smith
1 year 2 months ago
That is a very mature way to think about it. I am currently going through my divorce and the thing I am most afraid of is my children hating me. They are quite young, and some people may say that they don't know what is going on around them but I've read so many posts and forums from children of divorce talking about how it has changed their life completely. I've been trying to avoid showing anything that has to do about divorce to my children to minimize the memories they have of their parents splitting. I'm also trying to get an online divorce so that we dont have to go through the court and make it a huge deal for the kids. I'm wondering, does anyone else here have experience with online divorces? I'm currently looking at Thistoo but i'm not sure if its any good. www.thistoo.co for anyone who's interested. Any help will be apreciated thank you.

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