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Outreach to divorced Catholics
September 20th, 2016
By Christina Gray

Divorced Catholics are loved and “always belong to the church” – those are Pope Francis’ direct words and the message of a special one-day retreat hosted by the Archdiocese of San Francisco Nov. 12.

The retreat to be held at St. Hilary’s Parish in Tiburon, offered in the Year of Mercy, invites divorced Catholics who may be far from the church to return home to a “loving Mother Church and merciful Father God,” according to Ed Hopfner, archdiocesan director of marriage and family life.

“The church, from Pope Francis all the way down to our local archdiocese wants divorced Catholics to know they are loved and appreciated and important members of our parish communities,” Hopfner said.

Pope Francis put a fine point on this in a 2015 Vatican address saying divorced Catholic couples “are not excommunicated and they must absolutely not be treated that way!”

Speakers for the retreat include Father James Sullivan from the Diocese of Oakland, Jesuit Father Al Grosskopf and Father Roger Gustafson, pastor of St. Brendan Parish in San Francisco. The day also includes Mass, confession, a presentation on annulment, group discussion and lunch. Pre-registration is required and child care will be available.

“Divorce is a difficult reality for many Catholics in today’s world,” said Hopfner. There are many misunderstandings about the topic that add to the suffering, he said.

Victoria Parrot, organizer of the retreat with Hopfner and a parishioner at St. Hilary Parish in Tiburon who was divorced nine years ago, said that she and her son did not feel included in many parish events after her divorce.

“I really felt it,” she said. “It’s difficult enough losing your own marriage and family. But the biggest thing in divorce is that sense of separation from God and your church family.” And she is not alone.

“I could feel people actually move away from me after Mass,” said Diana Wild, who went through a divorce decades ago and now facilitates a divorce ministry support group twice a month at St. Dominic Parish in San Francisco. Her marriage was annulled and she remarried in the church.

About one in five Catholic adults have experienced divorce in their lifetimes and about one in 10 currently describe their marital status as divorced in surveys, according to Mark Gray, senior research associate for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at in a Sept. 16, 2013 post. The Catholic divorce rate at 28 percent is lower than the U.S. average of 36 percent, but it is still a “daunting figure” of about 11 million people in 2011.

The church recognizes marriage as a permanent bond between two people and God. Because the church presumes all licit marriages are valid, she does not recognize civil divorce as dissolving the bond of marriage; Catholics who divorce but are otherwise in good standing with the church, and have not remarried, have no barrier to receiving holy Communion. Divorced Catholics who seek to remarry must first obtain a declaration of nullity, or annulment. However, in neither case are divorced Catholics considered excommunicated.

In “Amoris Laetitia,” the pope’s 2016 apostolic exhortation on marriage and family, he stated that Catholics who are “divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities” and “and they always belong to the church.”

Only a handful of parishes in the archdiocese offer a divorce ministry or support group, but Parrot said there is a great need for outreach to divorced Catholics.

Parrot said she sought divorce to protect herself and her young son from an unsafe home environment. But, she said, she felt subtly “chastised” for her decision. Parrot joined a divorce ministry started by St. Hilary’s then-parochial vicar, Father Gustafson. By sharing her story and feelings with a loving and supportive group of people, she began to experience healing.

Now seeking an annulment, Parrot called divorce ministry “really important” work for the church. “The stigma and ostracism of divorce has driven away many Catholics from the church,” she said.

“Many people still erroneously believe that they cannot receive Communion if they have been divorced,” Father Gustafson said. But he said the sense of exclusion and shame can also be an internal one.

“Many divorced Catholics do not feel worthy of God’s love,” he said. They may feel unwelcome at church because they may be afraid to open up to a group of strangers and share pain with people they don’t know.

At St. Hilary’s, Father Gustafson said that people in the divorce support group would often sit with each other at Mass and attend other church events together. “Through this feeling of acceptance in a small group within the church, divorced people can begin to experience a reintegration into the larger community,” he said.

“It’s like a grief ministry in many ways,” said Wild. “We do not offer psychological advice, we do not offer legal advice. We offer a confidential place to share our experiences.”

Jesuit Father Al Grosskopf, now in retirement at St. Ignatius, is running a divorce support group at St. Stephen Parish in San Francisco.

“Most divorced Catholics regret that their marriage wasn’t the sacramental marriage that they had planned,” he said. “They often feel rejected by their former spouse, family, and even the church,” he said. But he repeated what he has been telling divorced Catholics for 45 years. “Yes, the church is against divorce, and divorced people are against divorce, but the church is not against divorced people.”

For more information on the divorce day retreat visit; call (415) 614-5547; (702) 460-3116.

From September 22, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.

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