What do divorced Catholics need from their friends?

The Catholic Church takes the sacrament of marriage seriously.
Because this is so, it also takes abuse seriously, and never requires
spouses and children to silently endure abuse in the name of the sanctity
of marriage.

But those who do leave marriages, or those who are left, are often treated like second-class citizens by their fellow Catholics. Many separated Catholics say it feels like their faith community cares more about the idea of marriage than they do about actual people. A spouse who leaves is often shamed, even blamed, accused of “breaking up the marriage.”

But in cases of abuse or severe disfunction, the one who left did didn’t break up the marriage. The abuser broke it. The one who leaves is simply dealing with the pieces of something already broken. Separated and divorced Catholics don’t need judgment or condemnation. Here’s what they do need:

SERVICE. Managing a household solo can be a crushing burden.
They’re suddenly drowning in obligations, and will need help doing the work of two.

We can offer help with car maintenance or laundry, home repairs,
cleaning, child care, or carpooling. Some people simply need help learning how to do things their spouses used to handle. If we’re good at budgeting,
managing debt, writing résumés or navigating legal matters, we can
offer our expertise. 

MONEY. Many women, especially, have given up schooling and
careers to raise children, and simply don’t have the means to survive on
their own. Divorce also often brings huge legal expenses, especially if there’s a custody battle.

If we can’t contribute large amounts of money, even small cash
gifts or gift cards can make bright spots amid trauma, especially around
holidays.

THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT. By the time a long-suffering
spouse finally resorts to something so drastic and disruptive as
separation, they have probably been sacrificing and struggling for years
to fix what was wrong, probably in secret, probably blaming themselves.
They may not be ready or willing to share the details of what went
wrong, but that doesn’t mean they have made a frivolous or selfish
decision.

We should never make reflexive glib suggestions like “Have you tried a novena?” or “Every marriage has rough patches.” And no consolation or healing will come from pronouncements like like “God hates divorce” or “Your children will suffer so much.” We’re likely only seeing the tip of the iceberg. It is best to imitate Christ and lead with sympathy and compassion, rather than judgment.

COMPANY. Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave
adult companionship. Many separated people say they feel like they lost
their friends as well as their marriage. We shouldn’t stop inviting people
into our lives or activities just because they are no longer part of a
couple. Because we or others might feel a little awkward at first, is no
reason to withdraw hospitality that is more desired and needed than ever.
Separation is lonely, and single parents, especially, crave adult
companionship.  We should keep inviting and including people, even if
it feels a little awkward.

Similarly, we should never exclude their kids out of some ill-
formed idea that the family is somehow tainted by divorce, or
because we don’t want to have to explain it to our own kids. We can
remember to invite their kids along for Christmas cookie baking, trick-
or- treating or other activities that make childhood fun, and that may be
more but can be more than a struggling single parent can manage. Give
them a chance to feel normal and happy again. 

Separated or divorced people may also want support at court
proceedings, and they may need a companion during custody pick-ups to
prevent an abusive ex-spouse from harassing them. Drop in, check in,
hang out. Don’t let them feel forgotten. 

A LISTENING EAR AND AFFIRMATION. Even if we’re not
comfortable taking sides. when a couple splits up, someone who has suffered a devastating rupture needs to be built up, and needs to know that their friends and family believe they can build a good new life.

Affirming statements like “I know how strong you are” or “You know
better than anyone what really happened” or “You are holding things
together so well” can be very powerful, especially to someone whose
marriage was full of insults, denigration and manipulation. 

TRUST. Separated people may be needy, but they are not threats.
Rotten as it sounds, it’s fairly common for married women to act as if separated women are now gunning for their husbands. In
reality, especially if there has been abuse, the last thing a newly
separated person wants want right now is another man.
They’re trying to survive, not poach. Of course, amid the emotional
vulnerabilities that accompany these circumstances, clear and strong
boundaries must be maintained, but these occasions can also lead to deeper and more meaningful friendships.

GENTLENESS. Even if the marriage was miserable, ending it is
often painful. Someone who’s lost a spouse to divorce may truly be in mourning – if not for the spouse as a person, then for their former life and hopes. Divorce often feels like a personal and spiritual failure, even
when it’s nothing of the kind. We should act with tenderness, as we
would if there had been a death. 

CONFIDENTIALITY. No gossip, no pressure. The ex-spouse is the one who should decide how much information is public. If we’ve been entrusted with inside information about what went on while the marriage fell apart, we must keep that trust and not share the information. If we don’t have inside information, then we have nothing to say to others besides encouraging them to offer their support.  

A divorced person doesn’t owe us an explanation or require our
approval of what they chose for their own lives. We can let them know
we’re ready to listen if they want to unload, but that we don’t require them to divulge anything at all.

RESPECT. Not all newly-divorced people are in crisis. Some are ready and eager to begin their new lives on their own, and they find it annoying to be met with pity and condescension at every turn. If a separated person says they’re happy, you can believe them (while still being ready to offer help if it’s needed). 

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This essay was originally published in a slightly different form in Parable magazine in 2019. 

Image by Quinn Dombrowski via Flickr (Creative Commons)

It’s not too late to cancel your wedding

Jennifer’s wedding dress hangs in the closet of her guest bedroom. It’s never been worn. Jennifer (not her real name) called off her wedding two months before the date, and she says it was the hardest thing she’s ever done. Her friends were shocked; her parents were distraught. Her maid of honor stopped speaking to her. Jennifer had made non-refundable deposits, was was surrounded by gifts from her bridal shower when she announced the wedding was off. 

It was very late in the game to change her mind. But it wasn’t too late.  

“I think the hardest part was being honest with myself,” Jennifer said. 

She and her fiancé had been together for six years, engaged for nine months; but it wasn’t until the last minute that she finally acknowledged their relationship just wasn’t healthy. 

She’s not alone. By some estimate, 15 percent or more of engagements don’t end in marriage. But a couples who’s been together for a long time — or a couple who’s blundered quickly toward marriage, without taking time to discern the wisdom of their plans — can feel like they’re locked in one they’ve announced their plans to wed. 

“It’s a difficult situation when there’s the romantic delusion that somehow this marriage is going to beat the odds,” said Father Joe Tonos, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Church in Oxford, Miss. 

“It’s like the Percy Sledge principle: ‘When a man loves a woman, she can do no wrong,’ or vice versa,”  he said. And so they forge ahead, despite all the warning signs. 

Or sometimes, as in the case of Melissa (not her real name), they know very well that something is wrong, but they don’t know how to extricate themselves from what feels like a trap. 

Melissa broke of her engagement to her abusive fiancé well after their wedding plans were underway. 

“If you’ve announced the engagement, the pressure is on to live up to the expectations by following through with the marriage. But the people who might be surprised by the news of the broken engagement do not have to live with a broken relationship, or suffer through a future divorce,” Melissa said. 

With the help of a counselor, she found the courage to call the wedding off, and she was amazed to discover how supportive and gracious her friends and family were. 

Nevertheless, Melissa said her experience was humiliating. “I felt like a failure,” she said. 

“It was also empowering, though, in an odd way. I knew the decision was the right one, and despite the pain of it all, I felt a great deal more peace once I’d called the engagement off than I did while we were still planning to marry,” she said. 

For a Catholic marriage to be valid, the spouses must be free to marry; they must freely consent to the marriage; they must intend to marry for life, to be faithful, and to be open to children; and they must (with some exceptions) marry in front of two witnesses and a priest. 

But this is the bare minimum. A couple looking forward to their wedding day should also be joyfully looking forward to spending a life together. They should experience some peace together. They shouldn’t be working hard to ignore red flag about each other or about their relationship. 

Most of all, they should never feel obligated or trapped by the wedding plans themselves, no matter how much money and time have been poured into crafting the perfect celebration. A wedding is just one day, and it’s possible to recover from cancelling it. It’s much harder to recover from a wedding that goes off perfectly, but which is the first day of years of misery and disaster. 

Father Tonos recalls counseling a friend to break up with his girlfriend who constantly made him unhappy. The friend protested: “What? And throw away the past two years?”

“Don’t count the past investment,” Father Tonos said. Instead, think of the future, and of how it will be to spend the rest of your life with this person. 

Melissa wishes she could tell her former self, “I know that right now, it feels like you’re trapped, like you can’t live without your partner in your life, but you also can’t imagine living with them. Marriage will not make those feelings of doubt and pain go away. By continuing a relationship that is mutually exclusive with your happiness, you might also miss other connections and opportunities that are where you’re meant to be, and who you’re meant to be with.” 

Melissa has since become engaged to another man, and she has “zero doubts.”

“Taking control of my life after this broken engagement was very hard, but it empowered me to really get to know what I needed to be happy in a relationship that would last,” she said.

Jennifer, too, is grateful for her experience, agonizing though it was. 

“I’ve learned so much. I’ve learned that wedding bells do not define my worth. My vocation is no less because I didn’t go through with this,” she said. 

Jennifer and her ex-fiancé are still friends. He even thanked her, shortly after the cancelled wedding, for being strong enough to do what needed to be done. 

“Running to escape my problems would never have worked,” she said. “Facing them head on has done wonders for my life. I believed in ‘us,’ but now I get to believe in myself. I also know now that the Lord will never abandon me.” 

 

 

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This article was originally published in Parable magazine in spring of 2020. Reprinted with permission. 

Photo by Marko Milivojevic on Pixnio

 

Have you ever thought of being a priest? An interview with Fr. Alan Tremblay

I’ve been interviewing pastors around the state for Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester, for a series called “Have You Ever Thought of Being a Priest?” This article was originally published in Parable. It is reprinted here in extended form.

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Fr. Alan Tremblay grew up in the small, heavily French Canadian town of Biddeford, ME, the third of four children. His family was Catholic, but no one ever talked to him about becoming a priest, and so he never even considered it until he was 19 or 20 years old. Now at 41, six years after his ordination, he’s the pastor of the Parish of the Holy Spirit and Mary, Queen of Peace, which includes churches in Keene, Troy, Winchester, and Hinsdale.

In his rare free time, Fr. Alan likes to take in a baseball game, or, true to his rural upbringing, he will occasionally go hiking, kayaking or skiing. He recently travelled to Northern Quebec to go fly fishing for brook trout with his father and nephew, and he loves to have dinner or a cookout with family or friends. I asked him:

What would be your ideal meal?

I love lamb and lobster. Lamb is definitely a favorite when it’s done well. I cook. I do Blue Apron. I just finished cooking and eating chicken tandoori with cucumber yogurt, with potatoes with poblano peppers.

Who was your hero, when you were growing up?

John Paul II and Mother Teresa were huge in my life when they were alive. I had comic books of both of them. I miss them. I look back with fondness and wish they were still around.

What attracted you to them?

It was their visibility. You could see them, hear them, watch them, get a sense of their holiness. That’s why I fell in love with them. It’s not more deep than that.

When did you first hear the call to become a priest? How did you get from there to here?

I was 19 or 20, and had never thought about it before then. I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 18. I struggled through high school, not academically but motivationally. I didn’t want to be there. I was kind of shy, and wanted to get out. College was not something hot on my list right after high school.

I moved in with my best friend, and that lifestyle was leaving me not just unsatisfied, but kind of unhappy. I never questioned the Church, but I was not as faithful as I wanted to be. This contributed to depression and unhappiness and unease with my place in life.

I was watching Mother Angelica one night, and she was talking about how I was feeling. She said, “It sound like you have to go to confession!”  So I made an appointment with the parish priest. He was talking about the Life In the Spirit seminar. I had never heard of it. It was charismatic, which took some getting used to. But I was open to it. I went through the seminar, and by the end I kept hearing this question in my mind and heart: “Do you think you’re supposed to be a priest?”

It wasn’t earth-shattering; it was just a question, like Elijah and the whisper. I put it away for a while. I went to college, was in a relationship for a while. I started working, and found myself working at Catholic Medical Center [in Manchester, NH]. By then it was seven years later, and the question was still there.

I was loving my faith and practicing, wanting to serve God. The question was stronger than ever, and I couldn’t ignore it anymore. I applied in April, went to seminary in August. Doors flew open once I turned and looked at it seriously.

How did people respond when you told them you were entering the seminary?

It’s a funny story: I hid it from my coworkers. I was relatively new there, and it would have meant leaving. I went through months without knowing if was accepted [to the seminary] yet. Everyone thought I was looking for a new job or had an illness, because I kept missing work to do interviews.

Then there was a computer glitch to print out my bio for the diocese, and I came back to work, and it had printed while I was away. My coworkers read it and found out. They were floored. It was foreign to them, but they were supportive.

 How about your family?

My mother’s old school French Canadian. She would never have asked that of God. She couldn’t imagine something like that happening. It was overwhelming in a good way.

Did anyone respond negatively?

Only a couple of people, both Catholic, both dissenters. One was a woman I worked with who had a crush on me. She said, “What a waste.” That made me angry. The other one was an older woman who had a chip on her shoulder. She said, “Why would you want to do that?” This was post-2005.

What was the most challenging thing you faced as a priest?

Probably something that isn’t unique to the priesthood: Self doubt and insecurity. Am I up to the task? What will people think? These are temptations you have to face. There’s strength and grace that comes through walking through that. Each time, it’s like the cross, and then there’s a resurrection, life after death. It gives me strength to pray through those interior places, when I have to look to God for help.

What is the most rewarding? What’s your favorite part of being a priest?

When someone who has been hungry or longed for something for a long time breaks open and you’re there to offer that to them, or walk with them through it. People melting, and finally receiving. It’s always happening in one form or another. You walk through it with lots of people, counsel them, direct them. I’m always walking with someone, always looking for it.

When’s the last time something about the priesthood really surprised you?

Every day. People are predictable and surprising at the same time. About my priesthood: I’m noting, especially within the last couple of years, losing myself in it more and more, and finding myself. It’s so who I am, but there’s still so much to discover. It’s a mystery. The closer we get to Christ, the greater the awareness of that mystery.

What advice do you have for those contemplating the priesthood today? 

Talk to people about it. Find someone you trust, and talk about it. Because it seems so strange and foreign, we don’t necessarily see ourselves that way. There’s the obvious answers, like prayer, but I think I went through it alone a lot; and no on in my life, no priest, no family member, no one ever approached me and told me they thought I should do this. It wasn’t until I came forward.

What advice do you have for their family and friends?

It’s about being supportive without expectations. Let the person figure it out on their own, but let them know you’re there with them.

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This article was originally published in Parable, the magazine of the Diocese of Manchester. It is reprinted here in extended form.

 

If You Haven’t Read Humanae Vitae, What Are You Waiting For?

You may imagine it’s a stern and solemn doctrinal harangue, fusty with misogyny, larded with theological jargon, cluttered with impractical, abstract ideals. In short, something you’d write if you’ve never had sex and have no idea what marriage is really like.

But Humanae Vitae is not like that.

Humanae Vitae, which is Latin for “On Human Life,” doesn’t bring the authoritarian fist of the Church crashing down on individual, authentic human lives. Instead, it invites us to recall two things . . .

Read the rest of my latest for Parable Magazine.

 

Image via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Does Your Child Need Professional Help? You Can Do This.

All parents, sooner or later, come up against a problem they can’t solve. This is where we recall that parenting is about self-sacrifice, and sometimes it’s our pride that needs sacrificing. Your child is more important than your self-image. Your job is to fight for him or her, and that includes enlisting help.

Read the rest of my latest for Parable magazine.

Image by Alon via Flickr  (Creative Commons)

What does Pope Francis mean by “embrace?”

The new book A Pope Francis Lexicon (Liturgical Press, 2018) includes a chapter by me, titled, “Embrace.” A version of this essay is now in Parable, the NH diocesan magazine for which I am a columnist. Here’s an excerpt:

Pope Francis is often chastised for what some see as a folksy, imprecise, emotional brand of faith that winks at the law. All those hugs! Who was ever saved because of a hug? Our savior redeemed us by fulfilling the law on a cross, not by giving us a big hug!

Indeed. Francis knows as well as anyone that an embrace is not a miracle. When he tenderly embraced the tumor-ridden head of the unfortunate pilgrim Vinicio Riva, he did not expect the man to be instantly healed. When we enter into an embrace—either a physical one offered by our fellow Catholics or a spiritual one offered by the Church—we are not automatically reconciled to each other or to God, nor do we automatically understand and accept our obligations.

And yet Pope Francis continues to insist on coming together, accompanying, seeking union, and—yes—embracing each other. Is this just naiveté? Does he really think huggy togetherness is an adequate substitute for orthodoxy? Let’s look at how he uses that word “embrace.”

Read the rest of “Embracing His People” here.

Image by Long Thiên via Flickr (public domain)

Helping our children see paradise

In New Hampshire, the incessant cycle of birth and death and rebirth is inescapable. You cannot ignore the ancient story of desolation and consolation, the ever-present hope of new life. No matter how cold, how dark, how hard, how closed-off the world becomes, there is always reason to hope, deep down. Every twig bears witness to this hope. Trim off a branch of the lilac in the deepest day of winter, and you’ll see it: a tiny shaft of green. It’s hard to wait in the middle of February, but by God and his Grace, it’s better than having nothing to wait for.

Read the rest of my latest column for Parable Magazine.

You can get a dolphin picture anywhere

Do we let them know we see and delight in them as they are, for who they are? Or do we hustle past their actual selves in favor of a generic family photo op? God gave us specific children for a reason. One of our primary jobs as parents is to identify and encourage what is good in them – not what we wish they were like, but what is good in them right now. Our job is to find something delightful in them.

Read the rest of my latest in my new marriage and family life column for Parable Magazine.

Image by HAMID ELBAZ via Pexels (Creative Commons)