Helping divorced Catholics find healing

By Catholic New World
Sunday, August 14, 2011

Editor’s note: This is the first half of a two-part interview. The second part appeared in the Aug. 28-Sept. 10 issue.

Divorce is a reality of our day. It is never an easy thing and often the pain left over from a divorce lasts a long time and hurts more than just the couple involved.

In the Archdiocese of Chicago, the Office for Family Ministries reaches out to divorced Catholics on a daily basis and offers opportunities for healing. For more than 15 years, Elsie Radtke has drawn from her own experience of divorce to provide support to many hurting Catholics. Radtke, who is associate director of the office and the divorce and annulment support ministries coordinator, sat down with editor Joyce Duriga to discuss the work of divorce ministry in the archdiocese.

This is a two-part interview. The second part will appear in the Aug. 28-Sept. 10 issue.

Catholic New World: Divorce ministry has been around for a while in the archdiocese.

Elsie Radtke: Divorce ministry started in the archdiocese with Cardinal John Cody. A group of women in Boston were devastated after their divorces and thought the church wouldn’t recognize them anymore. Under the direction of Father Jim Young, a Paulist priest, divorce ministry began.

So the Catholic Church in Chicago created Phoenix ministry. It thrived. It was in over 150 parishes here in the Archdiocese of Chicago. They came to have annual conferences. Thousands of people would go to these events.

That was pretty active in the 1980s and then it started to peter out. I don’t know why. I think needs were being met and that it was becoming more common in the culture to see divorce and so people were getting help from other areas. The Catholic Church didn’t have to be the only place.

A lot of other Christian denominations started having support groups. Many Catholics were embarrassed and would attend support groups far away from their home parish. Some wanted to be less identified in their Catholic community because it is so awkward.

When I was hired 15 years ago I was asked to retire the name Phoenix because it needed to be updated. It had become a social forum instead of a spiritual forum or a healing forum. Then we started calling it Ministry to Separated and Divorced.

In short order I recognized that if you are separated you have no business coming to a divorce support group because all people are doing there is trying to save themselves. If you are separated you have a responsibility to get help to restore the marriage. Whether that’s therapy, whether that’s a Retrouvaille weekend, whether that’s forgiveness and reconciliation — whatever you needed to do that’s what you needed to be working on rather than talking to people who have made the decision to divorce. So we dropped separated from the title.

I then came to realize — because I had been through the annulment process myself and was resistant to that process — that a lot of people had misconceptions about the annulment process and that we needed to have an earlier conversation to educate them on what the process means. For example, your children wouldn’t be illegitimate and it won’t cost $20,000.

We knew there were pastoral ways we could help people enter this process because 70 percent of the people who divorce will remarry and less than 10 percent of them are doing so in the Catholic Church. We have a whole lot of people sitting in the pews who are lifetime Catholics but not married in the church. They are sitting in the back pews not receiving Eucharist, not participating in the family life of faith.

CNW: How does a parish ministry begin?

Radtke: Divorce ministry in parishes usually happens when a pastor or a deacon sees a need either through parishioners or because they’ve had the experience in their own family of origin. They generally will contact this office.

The program that we recommend is Divorce and Beyond, which is a 10-week process. People come in and stay for the whole 10 weeks. It’s not something that you come in and out of.

In the final class we encourage the group to have an annulment information evening at the parish to educate all of the parishioners about the annulment process, which, is properly called a declaration of nullity. The tribunal is very insistent — and right — that we call it a declaration of nullity.

I see the two hand in hand. Divorce ministry and the annulment support ministry I see as a uniquely Catholic outreach. The two need to work together. Healing will come through being with people who are going through divorce in the support groups. They then enter into the church process of “Why did you marry this person in the first place?” That’s the question and people don’t like to go there, so we have to help them.

CNW: Why does it matter that we call it a declaration of nullity?

Radtke: Because that’s what it is. An annulment doesn’t mean the same thing. A declaration of nullity means that the marriage lacked some essential component. The church is not saying “This never existed,” which is what annulment implies.

An annulment is kind of like erasing something. A declaration of nullity is a truth that existed when the couple said, “I do.”

When the couple said “I do,” they meant for it to be “I do,” they intended it to be “I do” on the surface. But underneath, when the marriage breaks down, we often find some essential element was missing. Perhaps she was pregnant and they were getting married because they felt that was the right thing to do. That’s not freedom to marry. That has a pre-existing condition. They can try and do the right thing but it may not have enough of the elements of what a sacramental marriage is.

Another example is when people marry “as long as we both shall love.” Then they fall out of love because somebody or something else comes along and grabs their attention and they don’t love the person they married anymore. That’s not what commitment is. Commitment is when you are there forever.

CNW: Some people feel that an annulment makes the children illegitimate.

Radtke: The children are legal because of the state. We are a respect life church. We respect life whenever it comes. The protection of the children and the legitimacy of the children is determined by the state. It’s that simple. The church doesn’t get into that conversation at all.

The children are a result of the love of the parents. The children have to be nurtured, educated and cared for. That’s a requirement of marriage.