Pope Francis has been called a miracle worker. And for good reason. In his short term as 'Top Dog' in the Catholic Church, he's embraced unwed mothers, ushered in a new era in U.S.-Cuban relations, become the first pontiff to address the dangers of global warming and other environmental concerns.
But to me, the most amazing -- and decidedly Christian -- thing Francis has done since ascending to the papacy is his not-so-subtle attempt last week to welcome divorcees back to the church's fold. In asking the church to reconsider the treatment of those who've divorced, in encouraging churches to make it easier for those who've divorced to be granted an annulment, it's clear he wants to reposition divorcees as something other than the horrible sinners many hardline Catholics have regarded them as.
The move not only shows signs of a warmer, gentler Church, it also embraces and (literally) legitimizes people like me: Catholic children of divorce many clerics and parishoners have long viewed as illegitimate, or lesser Catholics.
When my parents divorced in 1982, it dealt a difficult blow to my mother, a devout Catholic. If also dealt a significant blow to my brother and me. Make no mistake: divorce in the Church affects not only the once-married couple. It affects the whole family. Including small children. When a Catholic marriage unravels, everyone is made to feel as if there's been a colossal failure. At least when the Catholic is as otherwise devout as ours was. We took our faith seriously. We attended Mass every week as a family, sometimes twice a week. We said our daily prayers, even prayed the rosary.
So when divorce hits a family like mine, it's the equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off in the living room. Everyone is made to feel what it seems many Catholic hardliners want families of divorce to feel: like second-class citizens inferior to those Catholic families in which Mom and Dad remain legally wed.
Catholic divorcees in the small town in which I was raised were more often than not made to feel like, 'the fallen.' For me and my brother, the implication was clear -- that our parents hadn't prayed hard enough, tried hard enough, sucked it up enough in the eyes of the narrow-minded church parish councils when it came to their marriages. It didn't matter that my father had turned out to be gay and had moved on to a new life and requested the divorce. Marriage was sacred. And to walk out of one for any reason was deemed a sin. That made my parents sinners. That made us kids the product of sin.
My mother failed to mask from my brother and me the shame she felt -- and was made by the church to feel -- as a result of divorce. Before the divorce, we used to sit with my mother proudly in the front pew of the church every Sunday at the 10:15 a.m. mass -- the most well-attended of our small town's masses. My mother sang hymns loudly, took great care in dressing me in fine dresses. We weren't just a Catholic family -- we were a Good Catholic Family. After the divorce, and my father completely disappeared, came the change. My mother slumped her shoulders, and surprised us by leading us at the beginning of Mass to a less prominent pew. First, it was the second pew. Then the third. Then increasingly we regressed to the anonymity of the middle section of the church where the downward tilt of my mother's head reflected the humiliation she felt.
Church members didn't help the situation. Many parishioners -- all very much married -- stopped inviting her to the informal gatherings and prayer groups she's been invited to when she was a married woman. She was a second class citizen. It was as if she had a big Scarlett letter -- a capital 'D' for divorce -- emblazoned upon her chest. And there was one emblazoned upon the chests of us kids as well. We were whispered about, openly asked by religion teachers if we understood the sanctity of marriage.
To reclaim some footing in the church, my mother sought and was granted an annulment. But that brought with it its own set of headaches -- and, for me, confusion. An annulment, particularly at the time in which my parents were granted one, in the 1980s, was not so easy to get. My mother later told me that while it was important for her to be granted one, so that she could continue to receive Communion, she felt like she had to grovel to receive it. And when she did receive it -- it opened a can of worms for my brother and me.
I distinctly remember the day a high school teacher learned that my parents had their marriage annulled.
"You know what that means about you, don't you, if your parents had their marriage annulled?" he asked.
"No," I said shaking my head, afraid of what he might say next.
"It means that their marriage never existed. And if that's the case, that means you're illegitimate."
I tried to keep a straight face, but later in the day, I ran to the bathroom to cry. I was a bastard. At least in the eyes of some, including a high school teacher I had otherwise adored. How, I wondered, could that be? I'd seen the wedding photos of my parents on their wedding day -- which took place a full four years prior to my birth. And now, in the eyes of at least some, I was illegitimate.
To be clear: clerics say that when a marriage is annulled in the church, the children are not affected by the annulment. But the messages the church sends are clearly mixed. If your parents aren't together, many just don't view members of the family as serious Catholics. It doesn't jibe with the rigid belief that marriage is forever. No matter what.
Later in college, when I tried to date young men I met in an on-campus group for young Catholics, I was surprised by the frosty reception I received when I informed them that my parents were divorced.
"Oh, so your family isn't really serious about its faith," one young man told me, before proceeding to turn his attention to women he deemed more serious Catholics.
The issue of divorce in the Catholic church is obviously a thorny one. But the hardliners in the Church have held court for too long.
Pope Francis is at last, in saying it's time to reconsider how hard the Church has come down on divorcees, that the parishioners that make up his flock aren't black and white. Instead, he's recognizing in his actions and in his words that his flock is made up of many complicated shades of grey. He's saying that, in keeping with the mission of Christ, it's time to forgive those who, for whatever reason, made human mistakes in either their decisions to wed, or in their inability to maintain a commitment. He's saying it's time to stop throwing out the baby with the bathwater -- that in the vast majority of cases, divorce doesn't make a person a bad Catholic or someone the Church should feel justified in shunning.
Francis still has much work to do. Asking churches to work harder with divorcees, and making it a less humiliating process to be granted an annulment, is a step in the right direction. But the next step is the harder one: convincing parishes and local priests to bear in mind that Catholic families involved in divorce need compassion, not judgment -- hugs, not icy stares.
To be clear: Francis isn't saying (nor am I) that marriage should be taken lightly. What he is saying is that being divorced shouldn't make one a vilified Catholic, nor should the simple act of staying married make one feel entitled to hold oneself superior to other Catholics. Pope Francis is effectively recognizing the humanity of his flock and the complexities of relationships and the changing nature of 21st century families.
So, Pope Francis, allow me to say on behalf of Catholic children of divorce everywhere: thank you for leading the way. What you're doing, for me any way, makes all the difference in the world.