Cecilia Hull gives a personal view of an organisation which aims to bring Catholics with broken marriages back into the fold.
THE sacred immutability of marriage and the family stands at the very foundation of Catholic life. Christ performed his first public miracle to toast a young couple on their wedding day; He is recognised as the Bridegroom of His Church.
Karl Rahner says towards the end of his Foundations of Christian Faith (pp 419 421) marriage. . . "is the Church becoming present in the world .. . the smallest community of the redeemed and sanctified . . . truly the smallest individual church". Their knowledge of this stupendous fact compounds the sense of desolate catastrophe, doubles the sense of failure felt by Catholics whose marriages fail.
"How could something entered into so solemnly before God, family and friends, descend to being 'dissolved' by some bored Registrar with no personal interest in the often, trivial excuses set out in the petition, for its breakdown? And yet it does happen, and whats more it happens to ME, a Catholic, who does not 'believe' in divorce!"
The reasons behind the present high divorce rate ... one in three; the same sad proportion among Catholics we are told . . . have been analysed too well and too often for me to repeat them here. But it is important to emphasise, in the interest of greater compassion being shown among Catholic parishioners in this "area of such delicacy and pain, as to be in the forefront of the church's pastoral concern" (to quote Mgr Ralph Brown of Westminster Marriage Tribunal) that the breakup of a marriage and family is always always a harrowing and destructive experience. (Divorced Catholics readily concede they themselves once showed little concern in this area).
It is never the "easy way out" imagined by some, who mercifully having overcome problems of their own, occasionally accuse their less fortunate brethren for taking. Even those, who generally with the support of their spiritual advisers, after much heart searching, regretfully use the law to protect themselves or their children suffer grievously in the process.
Pride makes the divorcee wear a bright confident front, concealing the doubt and misery within, and possibly cementing the impression among unperceptive parishioners that they are "hardened sinners".
Until five years ago the Church had no organised help for those whose strong belief in Christ meant they had an increased need for the consolation and grace of the Church, the sacraments and the understanding of their fellow believers, when their marriages fell apart.
As one self styled "vintage divorcee" put it "I wore the yoke of obedience of what I saw as a harsh church". Alone, she "worked so hard at parenting as a dual parent" that her children saw her "without weakness". Deprived of sharing in mixed company she was "deprived from living a normal adult social life". To "avoid pity I denied others the right to comfort me".
Unsupported by the Church, she "lacked the courage to make decisions in the knowledge that there was only one judge in her life". She became in her own words a "disabled person". She was denied some of the ways open to Catholics to adjust to life after divorce..
The Association for Separated and Divorced was born in 1981 out of mounting resolve of a group of Mancunian Catholics to gain public recognition of their intention of remaining practising members of the Church that was so dear to them although they were civilly divorced, so that they could reach out to the multitude of fellow Catholics in the same predicament.
Its birth fulfilled the prophetic words in Vatican II ("The Church Today" 52) "the family is a kind of school of deeper humanity" . . . members of broken families meet in the extended family of ASDC. By deep Christian understanding, through shared suffering and mutual concern, they exercise what Cardinal Hume so perceptively described as "the comfort of God being completed in each of you by the others around you . . . and that as I understand it is the Soul of your association".
Speaking at the fourth London conference at Westminster Conference Centre he had previously said: "The counsel of God is direct to those who open themselves up to see it, and the comfort of God that He gives to those who can't do that, is the support and understanding that you give each other".
ASDC allows those dismembered from their other halves an opportunity to recognise and relieve their feelings of denial, anger, bitterness and loneliness. With renewed faith in Christ they come to see God's guiding hand even in the apparent destruction of all their ideals, hopes and plans, to realise that their suffering is not all a gigantic waste but can be turned to constructive good, in helping themselves through others to escape from stultifying bitterness, to find forgiveness for part injuries, received, and given, and to adjust to a new life.
An observer from the National Council for the Divorced and Separated said of the conference she had never in 15 years attended one in which deep concern for one another was the overriding consideration; all discussion of law, rights, and protocol fell into insignificance before this one essential factor. A nun retrieving a lost umbrella was struck by the feeling of love redolent throughout the meeting.
Although the bishop's conference had, the cardinal said: "had no hesitation in giving whatever blessing was required of them," in the
original formation of the association; formally placed under the protection of the Bishop of Salford; "as being entirely in line with Familiaris consortio"; it has had to fight off prejudice as to its objectives and aims.
There are still those who suspect it of being a pressure group threatening the sanctity of marriage by trying to change the Church's law on divorce. I myself felt such doubts as I went to my first meeting, only to be reassured by the views expressed by others there. I discovered I was not the only person from my parish hiding away from erstwhile activities. To hear Mass and receive communion together with other wounded Catholics was one of the most rewarding moments in my slow recovery . . . still not, and perhaps never to be complete.
Some readers may be shocked by this simple statement it is still a common fallacy to believe that being divorced even passively automatically excommunicates. "How do you deal with the guilt?" they ask, implying you should believe the same. The Church has never held this view, only new relationships poses problems in receiving the sacraments. Indeed as Eileen O'Brien chairman of ASDC National Co-ordinating Committee said: "One of the major tasks of ASDC is to clarify and con ect conflicting and erroneous advice given even by parish priests in this and other matters.
Fr Philip Sheldrake Si Chaplain of the Central London group said "so deeprouted does the conviction received in error become, that he once had to refer someone to the Vicar General because his own word as a Jesuit was not enough to. convince this person that he had received fallacious advice. There could be a case for re-training on these matters?"
Many eminent priests and canon lawyers now feel the way to resolve the dilemma of withholding the sacrament from those who unable to face a long life of celibacy after divorce, make new commitments in civil marriage, and bear children they wish to bring up in the Church, is to remember Christ was accused during His lifetime of preferring the company of publicans and sinners: to stop thinking of communion as a reward for the worthy, which none of us have anyway, see that those struggling to rescue a life from part failure should be allowed to receive Christ in order that He might bring them the solace and help He brought those when He was alive.
I see ASDC as pushing the divorced Catholic out of purdah, and with the brightening prospect of trained counsellors being drawn from the ranks of recovered divorcees, they are coming to be seen as staunch believers wanting to join the rest of the parish and its caring agencies (UCM, SVDP etc) in providing better preparation for marriage, greater support for existing ones, and fall back careers for those that still fail.
The parish priest may grow to see them as helpers rather than an embarrassment, so that one day we pray this period of high divorce rate may come to be seen as a dark age in the church's history.
Cecilia Hull is chairman of the Central London Branch of the Association for Separated and Divorced Catholics.