GUILFORD – In a sunny meeting room in the St. George Parish Center, a welcoming table is set with a blue runner, a basket of tulips and forsythia, prayer books and cards, coffee and breakfast treats. Soft music plays in the background, creating an oasis of calm.
It’s here that parishioners have the opportunity to share experiences, reflect and pray in an atmosphere of trust, confidentiality and mutual support. It’s here that a new parish ministry is being offered for divorced and separated Catholics.
The hope is for a spiritual journey that will move participants from a sense of pain and emotional loss to acceptance, forgiveness and healing. Another intent is to make divorced and separated Catholics feel welcome and supported in the life of their parish community.
“We know that there are many parishioners who are going through separation and divorce,” said Father Stephen M. Sledesky, pastor of St. George. “As a parish, we would like them to know they are not excluded from the life of the church simply because they are going through a divorce, and that their church is here for them at this very difficult time.
“There are many misconceptions about divorce and Catholicism,” he added. “It’s important for them to get the correct teaching in this area so they know they are still very much welcome. It’s even more important for the church to provide the compassionate pastoral care of Jesus in a time that is often very painful for the individual.”
Eight parishioners at St. George have signed on for the 10-week program and attended their first group meeting on April 2. Though the ministry is open to men and women, all of the current participants happen to be women, and most have already gone through the civil divorce process, said parishioner Betty Jane Schiller, the facilitator of the program.
Ms. Schiller, who will graduate this month from the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Lay Ministry Formation Program, initiated the parish ministry as an internship project, with Father Sledesky as her internship advisor.
“I was divorced at a time when such support groups for divorced Catholics were non-existent, and the annulment process was complex, intimidating and cost-prohibitive,” Ms. Schiller said.
The curriculum for the new divorced and separated ministry at St. George is based on the book Divorce and Beyond: A Workbook for Recovery and Healing, which has been approved for use by the archdiocese’s Office of Family Life (OFL). Participants reflect on the discussion questions in each chapter of the book and pray.
“Prayer is so healing,” Ms. Schiller said. “I tell them to find their center through prayer, quiet times and reflection.”
One of the meetings has been reserved for a presentation by a representative of the archdiocese on the new annulment process.
Because of people’s challenging schedules, Ms. Schiller initially agreed to meet with participants for the first time one-on-one. “Individual meetings provide a mutual opportunity to meet and greet, establish trust, provide an overview of the program materials, discuss meeting time challenges and do a bit of discernment if this program is of interest to the parishioner,” she explained.
Divorce and separation typically result in confusion, anger and loneliness, she said. “It’s especially painful for couples who are members of the same parish with kids who grew up in the parish. How do they define the new normal?”
“I say, ‘The marriage has failed, but you as an individual have not failed,’” Ms. Schiller said.
Some participants have expressed discomfort in attending Mass and in participating in parish activities, Ms. Schiller said, so she has offered to accompany them. “They’re practicing Catholics looking for that new normal,” she explained.
She believes it’s especially important for people going through difficult times to stay close to the church.
During the program, participants will work their way along the path of acceptance. “It’s all about moving on,” Ms. Schiller said. “It’s like saying, ‘I accept, I don’t agree but I’m going to move on and take a step,’ because acceptance is closure, and I like to look at it as new beginnings.”
Admittance to the spring session is closed, but Ms. Schiller plans to offer another session later in the year. She also hopes to open the ministry to participants from nearby parishes.
Finally, she hopes that lay ministers at other parishes will think about offering a program for divorced and separated Catholics.
For those interested in starting a similar ministry, Ryan Hinton, OFL director, suggests beginning with your parish priest, since support of the parish is imperative to the success of any ministry, he said. He then suggests contacting his office for training opportunities and resources by calling 860-242-5573, ext. 2684.