When Jody Sorenson-Marra married Chris in 2006, she was eight months pregnant with their son. Both Catholic, they went through marriage preparation and were wed in the Church. The marriage ended in divorce three years later.
She drew closer to the Church for support and found comfort in the Eucharist and faithful friends. However, it was a hard road.
“Transitioning to the vocation of marriage to singlehood, I was lost. Our Church does not do a great job of supporting single people and/or divorced people in that vocation … I think there's a whole group out there that are just kind of walking around lost because they don’t know where to put their time and energy,” she said.
From misunderstanding of Church teaching to old myths like “excommunication” still causing confusion, the divorced and remarried outside of the Church may still feel unwelcome.
Listening to this group is a priority for the Diocese of Little Rock’s “Synod on Synodality,” launched by Pope Francis to hear from marginalized groups. The diocesan theme is “Journeying Together: Communion, Participation and Mission.”
According to 2019 statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, Arkansas had the highest divorce rate in the country at 10.70 percent divorced women per 1,000 married individuals.
Father Greg Luyet, JCL, diocesan judicial vicar and pastor of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, said throughout his 27 years as a priest, he ministers to the divorced “all the time.”
“Different people have different understandings of what divorce does. Some people think that divorce separates them from the Catholic Church, and they're untouchables, in a sense, but that's not what the Church teaches. It never has,” Father Luyet said. “Sometimes divorce is a necessary choice under certain circumstances. For instance, if someone were to be physically abusive toward their spouse, they shouldn't be living in that environment. Or worse yet, if a child is being sexually or physically abused as well.”
A divorced person can participate in all sacraments and the life of the Church. Those who are remarried and have not had their past marriage annulled or dissolved according to Church teaching, cannot receive Communion.
According to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, 25 percent of American Catholics have been divorced and 9 percent remarried. The survey also said 62 percent of Catholics think the Church should allow Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment to receive Communion.
“The issue is a moral issue that basically in the Ten Commandments, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery,’ the presumption is that person is still married to their prior spouse. That bond endures until it's proven that it never was,” Father Luyet said.
While there are marriage ministries like Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille on the diocesan level, parish marriage ministry has been lacking. There is significant sacramental preparation before a couple’s wedding, but parishes rarely offer ministry groups for newlyweds, couples with children, empty nesters and senior married couples.
“Marriage preparation has a short shelf life. So what you use from marriage preparation can go from one and max seven years, that’s what the studies say. And so in those first few years, you use up everything you learned. Now what do you have?” said Elizabeth Reha, director of the diocesan Family Life Office.
If Christ is at the center of marriage and a couple prays together rather than just having individual relationships with Christ, it gives the marriage a better opportunity to last, Reha said.
“When you look at Jesus Christ and all the things that he did when he was in this world, he was constantly working on people and their relationships and how to improve it. He didn't stop,” she said.
For those who are divorced, not enough good information has been shared to understand the Church’s teaching.
“Even to this day, we still have people saying, ‘Well, I'm divorced, so I can't receive Communion.’ That's not the case,” Reha said. “I think we don't have a forum, a place where they can come and ask those kinds of questions and be in community with one another. And one of the things that we've done in the past not well is that we have put singles and divorced people together. And they don't have the same needs.”
While the Diocese of Little Rock has had parish-based divorce support groups or ministries in the past, many are on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Laura Humphries, parish life and stewardship coordinator at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, helped lead three or four groups before 2020. They used Ascension Press’ program “Surviving Divorce: Hope and Healing for the Catholic Family.”
“It’s very difficult to get people to come to it because there’s such a stigma with divorce in the Catholic Church,” Humphries said, adding her parents were divorced.
During the sessions, Humphries said she witnessed “an awful lot of pain in that room,” sometimes even more than what she sees in grief ministry because it’s a different kind of loss.
“I think there was comfort in knowing there were other people feeling the same way you were feeling. ‘Oh, that happened to you? That happened to me,’” she said. “There were people whose husbands left for a younger woman, or the wife left and wouldn’t let the husband see the kids. They could communicate together and get ideas.”
Sorenson-Marra, now 45, is a parishioner at Holy Souls. She admits the wedding to her former husband was rushed and not a Godly union.
“There was some adultery. It was pretty ugly. It was adultery, lots of lying, there was some stealing, and he just left; some abandonment,” Sorenson-Marra said. “And so we were separated a year before the divorce when I finally filed papers.”
Though she did not have to, as she was not yet seeking to remarry, Sorenson-Marra received an annulment a few years after the divorce.
“The annulment really healed my heart. I think going through all of that process, especially with an advocate and bringing up those memories with a friend really helped me put things in perspective,” she said.
However, it does not mean there have not been hardships. One phrase used in the annulment process to characterize the marriage was “a grave error in discernment.”
“Grave error in discernment — that hit me right through the heart that I really screwed up. He and I both really screwed up, so I felt a tremendous amount of guilt about that,” she said. “Of course, I’ve let that go; I’ve been to confession. There’s no reason for me to hold onto that and feel shame.”
Cultures and the size of a parish can dictate how the faith community responds to those going through a divorce.
“I think the Church has a long way to go to respond as Jesus responds. In other words, look what Jesus did to the woman caught in adultery. He didn’t condemn her. He showed her love, compassion and just said, ‘Don't do this sin again,’” Father Luyet said.
Parishes should make an effort to provide divorce support groups or outreach, including child care assistance and letting teachers and catechists know when parents are going through divorce. Not for everyone, Sorenson-Marra said she would not attend a divorce support group, but rather a Bible study or faith-based social group made up of divorced people.
Humphries said the Church could do a better job educating the divorced, particularly on annulments.
“If you get divorced, you’re not excommunicated … talk about what an annulment is; an annulment does not bastardize your children,” she said.
Hearing an invitation of welcome from the pulpit would also make a difference.
“Hearing a homily that says, ‘You are welcome. You are part of us, let me walk with you,’ whatever he might want to say. So that they have the invitation to come and participate more fully,” Reha said.
Sorenson-Marra said she has male, Catholic friends step up as role models for her son Andrew, now 15. A ministry dedicated to helping single parents, whether it be as a mentor for a child or even helping with handiwork around the house, would be life changing. Single fathers can also use assistance.
“I don’t think there’s anything out there like that. That’s a shame. I feel a lot of women are lost and scared, and we should be taking care of our sisters in Christ who have kids who have a hole in their family,” Sorenson-Marra said.
Humphries said at the very least, fellow Catholics should be “supportive and prayerful” and avoid the desire to gossip or try to find out “what happened” to a Catholic couple who has gotten divorced.
“Those in the pew, have you reached out to the fringes yourself? And some things are really obvious. ‘Well, let's go give to the homeless, let's go help the homeless, let's provide for the homeless.’ Very, very important,” Reha said. “But when the person sitting right next to you in the pew is in need, and we're not cognizant of that, then we need to revisit our call as Christians, as priests.”
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