Some years ago, Francis Cardinal George, now Archbishop Emeritus of the Archdiocese of Chicago, appointed me to be the liaison to the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics. He asked me to do this because it was important to him, and to the Bishops’ Conference, to support this ministry to those who struggle with the loss and pain of divorce, and who at the same time seek to maintain the bonds of family and ecclesial communion. I supposed I was asked to take this on because of my canon law degree, my experience in the Diocesan and Appellate Tribunal, and general experience as a pastor who deals with marriage preparation, weddings, and pastoral care of families. I undertook this specialized ministry while I was still the Bishop of Fort Worth and still have this role for the Bishops’ Conference (along with several others). I have recently returned from spending three mornings with the leaders of this ministry at their annual meeting in St. Louis. Many in this ministry have experienced the tragedy of a broken family (as my own father did), but now walk with others in their time of transition and change. The ministers also help them to process their petitions for declarations of nullity of their previous marriages as Tribunal Advocates. They certainly uphold the sacrament of marriage as they minister to those whose marriages have failed, and to some who seek to be able to maintain the bonds of communion and marry again in the Church. I salute and thank them for their heroic and, at times, demanding ministry.
I reflected with them on the teaching of Saint John Paul II in his document on the family that followed the Synod of l980, titled Familiaris Consortio. In numbers 83 and 84 of this document the Holy Father makes very clear the importance of pastoral care and outreach to those whose marriages have failed. He clearly gives a foundation for this mission, even before the Code of Canon Law was revised in l983, which helped to simplify and streamline the previous process for a declaration of nullity. At the same time, we reflected on the introduction to Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, which, in effect, now sends them (and all of us) on a mission to live our faith with joy. One of the sentences from the apostolic exhortation that I shared with them were the following words, which in their ministry and mission they should take with them: “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI, which takes us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, which gives life a new horizon and decisive direction.’”
To all involved in this pastoral and canonical care of those who have journeyed through separation, divorce and remarriage, thank you, and be assured of our prayers and support. Your ministry has always been important and is especially so now, in the times of these next two synods.