“There is no ‘one size fits all.’”
This is how Fr. Andrew Ricci, rector of the Cathedral of Christ the King, Superior, summarizes the necessary pastoral approach to Catholics faced with the difficult reality of divorce.
“Every story is unique,” Fr. Ricci said. “I’ve learned, above all else, that every single marriage is a unique scenario because it’s built on unique people. And every single divorce is a unique scenario which requires unique tools for healing.”
One tool offered at the Cathedral is DivorceCare, a support group with seminars on a multiple divorce-related topics in a faith-informed setting.
Five years ago, Cathedral parishioner Jim Ronchak began facilitating the program after going through it himself. The series has been offered annually, although one year, and again at the start of 2019, there were not enough interested people to host the class.
Ronchak said the DivorceCare program was one of the best things he’s done since his own divorce 18 years ago, after 36 years of marriage. He approached Fr. Ricci after helping lead the program at other area Christian churches. The pastor was happy to support the program, acknowledging as a priest, he couldn’t know what someone going through a divorce was experiencing, but knowing that people needed to see the Church as a place of accompaniment.
Fr. Ricci described a program like DivorceCare as a means “to help people with the practical issues and common sense reality that comes with the pain of divorce.” He acknowledged it is just “one piece of the healing process,” but by offering it at the Cathedral, they are “making a space available to anybody who wants to be able to start to put together the pieces of their life and to find healing.”
He added it is meant as a support for anyone who is searching and can “open the door for potential evangelization down the road.”
Superior resident Jackie Fanning has joined the program multiple times with Ronchak.
As a divorced Catholic woman, she hasn’t always been “looked at graciously” and has dealt with awkward dynamics with other married women, Fanning said. For her, having the support of others who have gone through or are going through a divorce has been very important.
Each session is comprised of a 30-40 minute thematic video presentation featuring experts (psychologists, counselors, pastors and authors) in divorce and recovery subjects. This is followed by time for discussion. Each participant is also provided with a workbook to accompany each weekly session with something to work on during the week.
Fanning assured there is “no forced sharing,” and it normally takes time for participants to open up, that it takes courage to share personal stories. She believes the information is invaluable, especially given “nobody tells you what to expect” going through divorce, and topics are presented in a way that includes everyone.
“I love it,” she said. “(The presenters) speak to you and everybody in the room – there’s something that’s there for everybody.”
She noted forgiveness is an important topic of the DivorceCare sessions.
“If you cannot get your marriage back on track, a lot of it is about forgiveness … because you really need to forgive in order to move on,” Fanning said. “Because if you cannot forgive what’s happened in your past, you are not going to be a good partner for anybody else in the future.”
Noting that everybody has a different story, Ronchak also mentioned he has learned something new and different each time he has gone through the program.
For him, faith has remained the one constant.
“We all deal with disappointment in relationships – because we’re all human. The one person that you can really depend is your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” he said. “That’s the thing that carried me through and got me through that first year. It’s always been faith for me … what I base everything off of.”
Fr. Ricci affirms the pastoral principal of meeting people where they are at and helping them take the next step. He encourages patient listening to the person in the midst of a divorce, trying to understand before offering a pastoral response or advice.
He noted a person’s circumstances, their own familial and religious upbringing, their formation in and practice of the faith, their conceptualization of marriage (sacrament, covenant or legal arrangement) all factor in.
“You have to meet people where they are and use that opportunity to move them closer in their faith and help them to see that in a greater context,” he iterated.
During each DivorceCare cohort offered at the Cathedral, Fr. Ricci has spent time with the group to speak about annulments, to offer knowledge and perspective on how an annulment relates to the Church’s teaching and understanding of marriage as a sacrament, as well as how the process works within the context of unique circumstances and a person’s life in the Church.
Both Fr. Ricci and Ronchak asserted there is virtually no family that has not been affected by divorce.
Ronchak hopes divorce continues to be seen as something to be real about rather than ashamed of; he would also like to hear the reality of divorce and how it affects individuals and families addressed more directly by priests from the pulpit.
Sisters Cindy Telega and Sandy Stark have expressed interest in the Cathedral’s DivorceCare program.
Telega, married for 22 years in her third marriage, admitted she was surprised to hear that being a divorced Catholic is still seen as a stigma in some circles.
Over the last few generations, divorce has become more accepted in society, she noted. “I have not once felt like I couldn’t go to church or have the sacraments or talk to the priest … In all those years, I never felt like the Church frowned on me – I felt like God is there for everybody.”
Telega and her sister recounted their wonderful childhood up until their father’s death, after which their mother remarried and “chaos ensued” with an alcoholic stepfather.
“If you come from a dysfunctional family, you really have a warped idea of what a good relationship is,” she acknowledged, and admitted being a child of divorce “is a strike against” someone for their future marriage. Herself included, each of the four siblings have been married three times.
Ronchak shared about his own parents – he didn’t see them express love with each other, but he did see their commitment, based mostly on faith and wanting their family to stay close. He has not remarried, working hard to keep that sense of family with his own children and grandchildren through efforts with his ex-wife and her current husband.
He said he realized “you can’t just plug someone else into your life.” If there is to be a subsequent marriage, there are a lot of issues to work through. The rate of divorce from second marriages is upwards of 70 percent, he said.
Marriage preparation was discussed as a key element, something that has been given more attention in the last couple decades.
Fanning and her first husband married very young, and neither of them were emotionally mature enough to know what they were doing. Both Telega and Stark agreed many “don’t have a clue as to what happens when you get married.”
Telega said, “I myself thought that I could change whatever I didn’t like about him … It was 10 times worse after we got married.”
She added that her own children have learned from her experience, carrying forward the healthy example they have seen in her current marriage, as well as the importance of self-knowledge and functional relationship skills.
It is in this area that Fr. Ricci hopes his intentionality with Confirmation students will pay off.
He is troubled by the misunderstanding that children who were born in a marriage that was later annulled “are illegitimate in some way.” Although this is something he hears a lot, he clarified it as an untruth.
He wants to help these children “understand that your life is a gift. Your life is precious and sacred and the union of your mom and dad brought forth something beautiful in the gift of who you are.”
He encourages them to learn from the difficulties and conflicts that result from divorce, not denying that divorce can be unavoidable and even necessary in certain circumstances. He wants them to be serious about the decisions they will face dating and discerning marriage – affirming that the choice of a spouse “is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.”
As the program facilitator, Ronchak said the impetus for participation in the program is wanting a better life after being faced with the reality of a broken marriage.
In his experience, the group setting allows each person’s unique story to come out. At the same time, he knows a support group might not be right for everyone, or when the classes have been offered, it might not be the right time for everyone.
Fanning commented that after her divorce, she was angry for awhile, didn’t feel like anyone could relate to her situation and wasn’t ready for a group setting. Similarly, some people have signed up for the group, come once or twice and never returned.
Going through a divorce while still raising school-age children can be particularly challenging; managing a new financial situation, custody situations and other obstacles could hinder participation in an ongoing group program.
To those for whom a program like DivorceCare is not a current option, Ronchak, Telega and Fanning suggested counseling or meeting with a local priest to see what resources are available. The expense of counseling can be an obstacle, they observed, and not everyone has a positive experience reaching out to their priest for support.
To family members and friends of someone going through a divorce, their advice is to recognize the pain and the hurt. Be supportive, but be patient; the person likely isn’t sure themselves what they need in the early stages. Especially for women, there can be additional logistics to work through regarding financial independence, property and insurance, legal name change, and single parenting if they have primary custody.
All interviewees concurred there is no wrong way to show your support and encouragement – any way to help loved ones know they are not alone.
Fanning did say, responding to the question of what not to do, “Do not set them up on a date right away.” She added they need help not to feel like a failure as a person because the marriage failed.
Sensitivity, communication and connections were all mentioned as key.
Ronchak agreed and wanted to make clear the DivorceCare group is “not a dating class. It’s a support group for people needing the help.”
He knows it is not the only way to work through, heal from and move forward after a divorce, but “you gotta start some place.” And for Ronchak and those who have completed the program, it has been that and more.
Help for divorced Catholics is available online at Catholicsdivorce.com and Divorcedcatholic.com.