By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
Mindy Mahon didn’t feel like she belonged to the Catholic Church after her divorce from her first husband. Neither did Jen Brooke after her divorce. “When you go through divorce it’s so personal and you feel so isolated, as if you don’t belong. It’s something we do to ourselves, but it still affects your ability to participate in your church community,” Jen said.
Jen and Mindy each remarried and later had their previous marriages annulled. Like other Catholics who divorce and remarry prior to receiving an annulment, however, they were not permitted to receive the Eucharist — the source and summit of their Catholic faith — until the church granted their annulments.
The recently concluded World Synod of Bishops on the Family addressed the topic of divorced and remarried couples, among other issues, and whether such couples could receive Eucharist on a case-by-case basis. Divorced Catholics, meanwhile, are hurting and longing for acceptance from their church.
Knowing firsthand the challenges of being a divorced Catholic, Jen and Mindy created St. Paul the Apostle Divorce Ministry at the Davenport parish where both are members. Jen is director of religious education at St. Paul’s and Mindy serves on the parish’s Stewardship and Communication Commission. The ministry is modeled on the parish’s intentional discipleship process.
“We are working to create a place for divorced parishioners — and even those outside the parish who have fallen away from their faith – to find fellowship, acceptance and a renewed relationship with Christ,” explains Mindy.
Their pastor fully supports the ministry. “As a pastor, I’m dealing with people in their brokenness, people who want to reconnect with the church,” says Father Tony Herold. “That’s part of the journey. People find themselves in a situation where they’re in a marriage that has ended and they want to reconnect … and we want to help them. Jen and Mindy helped me to understand that sense of not feeling welcome,” he continues. “We’ve expanded the ministry to nontraditional families — that would include anyone in an irregular family situation.”
Divorce ministry gatherings are relaxed and informal, beginning at 4:30 p.m. the second Sunday of the month in the home of one of the hosting couples — Mindy and John Mahon, Jen and Tom Brooke and Sharon and Pat Hunt. Get-togethers — the next one is this Sunday, Nov. 8 — run about 90 minutes to accommodate people’s busy schedules. Snacks and beverages are served and conversation flows before the opening prayer. The group might watch a video on a topic such as vulnerability or forgiveness. Tom recently shared an article featuring comedian Stephen Colbert, a Catholic. Participants talk about their feelings regarding the video or article and how it relates to their personal experiences, Mindy says.
“Through fellowship and the sharing of our stories with each other, we hope to open the door to conversions of the heart and the recognition that we are unconditionally loved and accepted by God,” their ministry flyer reads.
Fellowship, Scripture and prayer are the underpinnings of the divorce ministry, and each of the host couples has embraced those elements in their own journey toward healing and feeling welcome in the Catholic Church.
Sharing their stories
Sharon and her first husband divorced years ago in another diocese. They had been married 19 years and were parents of four children. She sought an annulment of her marriage shortly after her divorce but was turned down. It felt like a rebuke, even though a priest and a Catholic organization’s representatives agreed that she shouldn’t remain in the marriage.
She met Pat, who had never been married, while working at Waterbed Creations in Davenport. He was a customer. They were friends before marrying seven years later in 1990 at Olde St. Ann’s Church in Long Grove. Sharon attempted a second time to obtain an annulment before marrying Pat, but was denied. Again, it was a disappointment. “We’re both Catholics and we wanted to be married in the Catholic Church,” Pat says.
Sharon remained steadfast in her faith. “You build up your life with faith. God has a plan.”
When the couple decided to get more involved at St. Paul the Apostle Parish, they approached Fr. Herold about their need to obtain an annulment. He and the Marriage Tribunal for the Davenport Diocese were a big help. But when a letter from the tribunal arrived in the mail on the day they were leaving on vacation, Sharon didn’t open it immediately. She feared another rejection. The news, however, was good. Her annulment had been granted. “I couldn’t believe it. I felt that finally I could be a total member of the church. I could become a Eucharistic minister in the church.”
“I was surprised and thrilled,” Pat says. “I didn’t have any expectations it would go through.”
Sharon and Pat had their marriage blessed on a Saturday morning in front of family and six or seven couples they felt especially close to. “They had been praying with us through the annulment process,” Pat explains.
“We feel like God was saying ‘yes’ to us when he gave us the annulment,” Sharon says. “Our faith, trust in God and each other is very important to us,” Pat adds.
Both say their parish’s divorce ministry has been very helpful. Prayer and Scripture are vitally important, but just as important is the feeling of community, Pat says. “People can talk with and share what they’re going through.”
Conversations with Jen and Tom, Mindy and John
Jen, a wife and mother of three young children, was divorced from her first husband 15 years ago. It was tough seeing other intact families at church when hers was not, so she stayed away. She met Tom Brooke at Panera Bread, where both of them worked at the time. They were married in 2002, Tom for the first time. His parents had been divorced, “so I can relate to it as a spouse,” he says. Jen and Tom’s first few years of marriage weren’t easy. “You’re not an expert because you made a mistake,” Jen observes. In their marriage, having “faith at the center, and communication, has helped us,” she adds. “It helped us to support each other and to be on the same page as far as parenting. I think faith and prayer go a long way.”
Jen and Tom attended a Lutheran church in the early years of their marriage and had an amazing experience there. “Our transition to a healthier relationship took place outside of our church home,” Tom says. “There’s no rule book that says you can’t go somewhere else to seek spiritual growth, a relationship with Christ.”
Their experience at that church – coupled with participation in a Christian Experience Weekend (CEW) – made them receptive to Jen returning to the Catholic Church and Tom converting to Catholicism. Jen says she found respite in the Catholic Church, and would like to help others shorten the gap between feeling estranged from the church and feeling fully included.
“Divorce is so public. Some sins are private, others aren’t,” says Jen. “When you get divorced you can still be a wonderful Christian person but you don’t feel that way. Pope Francis is a wonderful example of mercy.”
She’s glad that Pope Francis has asked all dioceses to lift the fees for the annulment process and to eliminate any unnecessary or unduly burdensome barriers toward obtaining a just and expeditious judgment. She felt the annulment process was overwhelming, but her priest and the Marriage Tribunal staff were very helpful. “I understand that marriage is a sacrament not to be taken lightly. But the annulment process is not easy. So I think Pope Francis’ announcement was helpful.”
Mindy’s parents divorced when she was very young and her dad remarried. Her dad and step-mom “gave me a great example of how to knit together a family with a hodgepodge of people.” After her own divorce, Mindy, a mother of four, had to accept that she wasn’t in control. “In the wake of my divorce, I was away from the church. I felt a lot of failure on my own part. The last thing I wanted to do was go to the Catholic Church and feel rejected for those failures.”
John also avoided going to Mass as his first marriage broke down. His kids were attending St. Paul the Apostle Catholic School, and as a result of their activities he started volunteering. “It was the community people at the parish who sort of drew me in. I started finding myself going to church. I’d come late and leave early. People started asking questions. It was the community support that made a huge difference. That made me do more, as far as participating,” he says. “I found … a place where I could pull myself together, and that was Mass. Mass was the place I could get a sense of peace.”
He met Mindy through an online dating service and convinced her to start going to Mass with him. “There was a big hole in my life. I didn’t know it until I started coming back to church with (John),” Mindy says. John “was encouraging me to go along. The weird thing is that, at that time, in my family everyone was returning to the Catholic Church.”
The couple married in 2012, after both had obtained annulments of their previous marriages. “I didn’t go through the annulment process until probably a year before we got married,” John says. “The process required a lot of waiting and humility … I think you have to approach it as a critical part of the healing process.”
Mindy thinks the Catholic Church should make a concerted effort “to reach out to couples after the annulment, to provide aftercare … creating an opening for people to find their way back to the church. Mass isn’t the first place people might go to find their way back to their faith life, but a small group might be.”
St. Paul the Apostle Divorce Ministry is intended to be that springboard back to a rich faith life.
“When we started this group we wanted everyone to leave our meetings in a better place than when they came,” Mindy says. “We want to provide fellowship, some genuine acceptance of everybody. We definitely want to bring it back to Scripture.”
For more information about St. Paul the Apostle Divorce Ministry, contact: Jen Brooke at firstname.lastname@example.org and Mindy Mahon at email@example.com.
Resources for troubled marriages and divorce
http://www.nacsdc.org (Catholic Divorce Ministry)
http://marriagepreparation.com/page/?pg=15 (resource for troubled marriages)
www.divorcedcatholic.com (resources include programs, books, free online workshops, daily inspirations, blog, etc.)
Diocesan Divorce Support Group — (563) 355-2519 — Nancy Gould
Non-traditional Family Support Group — St. Paul the Apostle, Davenport, Jen Brooke (563) 322-7994
Iowa City Counseling Center, 3030 Northgate Drive, Suite E., Iowa City, Iowa, 52245 (319) 337-6483) telephone; (319) 337-4208 fax
Marriage & Family Counseling Service, Linda Manternach (English); Xochitl Herrera Pannell (Spanish); 1800 3rd Avenue, Suite 512, Rock Island, Illinois (309) 786-4491 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Lutheran Family Service, Kristi Manly, LMHC, Individual, Marriage & Family Counselor, 2550 Middle Road (Northwest Bank Tower) No. 300, Bettendorf, Iowa, 52722 (563) 359-0696.
“Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends,” by Dr. Bruce Fisher.
“After the Affair,” by Janis Abrahms Spring.
“When Parents Divorce or Separate: I Can Get Through This” (Catholic Guide), by Lynn Kapusinski (appropriate for grade school age)
“Now What Do I Do —A Guide to Help Teenagers with Their Parents’ Separation or Divorce,” by Lynn Kapusinski (appropriate for junior and senior high school age)
“Daily Inspirations for Divorced Catholics,” by Vince Frese, Divorced Catholic Publishing, 2015
For more resources:
Contact Marianne Agnoli at email@example.com or (563) 888-4242