There has been a lot of discussion about Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Where do they fit into the Church? How do we integrate them into parish life while upholding Church teaching regarding the Eucharist? How do we lovingly explain why the Church teaches what it teaches on the Sacrament of Marriage and the annulment process? No doubt, these are important questions that need to be examined and addressed — in particular during this Year of Mercy.
In the meantime, however, another important group of people within the Church in some ways has been made to feel like the brother of the prodigal son: faithful married couples who have had their share of struggles but, by the grace of God, were able to do their best to grow in love with each other and Jesus. These couples are among the believers who are the bedrock of Catholicism.
Many work hard to put their children in Catholic schools. They do their best to carry on the education of the Faith at home. They support their local parish, and week-in and week-out — sometimes day-in and day-out — grace the doors of the churches for Mass and participate in adoration and Bible studies regularly (not to mention the festivals and fish fries). They, too, also often are overlooked or taken for granted.
It’s not that these families are in need of constant recognition or pats on the back. They do what they do, like the faithful brother in the Gospel passage of the prodigal son, because following the Father is the right thing to do and the only way to real happiness. But Pope Francis believes these faithful couples not only should be recognized but also held up as positive examples for the rest of us. The pope made this point in mid-March during an event at the Vatican sponsored by the Roman Rota, a court within the Vatican that is responsible for dealing with issues mainly related to the Sacrament of Marriage.
“These witnesses to marital fidelity are to be encouraged and held up as examples to follow,” the pope said.
And don’t we need more faithful witnesses today? Their lives are quite the opposite, the pope reminds us, of the worldly messages that insist sacrifices and challenges are viewed as huge exit signs, encouragements to quit and move on to the next item or relationship that the world says will bring personal gratification.
“So many women and men endure heavy and arduous burdens so as not to destroy the family, so as to be faithful in sickness and in health, in hardship and in a life of serenity: that is fidelity. And they are good!”
There is definitely a strong need, the pope stressed, to serve the divorced and civilly remarried who want to participate in the parish community as well as to enrich and encourage those with thriving marriages.
“But while we take care of the wounds of those who request a verification of the truth about their failed marriage, we look with admiration to those who, even in difficult situations, remain faithful to the sacramental bond.”
Pope Francis did not give specifics as to how these needs will be addressed at the local parish level. We may learn more in his soon-to-be-released in exhortation on the family, which follows the 2014 and 2015 family synods. In the meantime, it’s good to know the issues are front and center on the papal radar screen. Maybe the attention these topics are being given will help all of us, regardless of where we find ourselves in terms of marriage, learn from each other and help each other be more merciful.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.