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Finding Their Way Back
Divorced Catholics discover they are not alone 

By Amelia Eudy

Choosing to end a marriage can be one of the toughest decisions a Catholic couple faces, but the sadness is compounded when divorced Catholics feel they are alone and can no longer participate in the life of the church.

Mike Cirino, 56, was 13 years into his second marriage when things started to unravel. He had a 10-year-old daughter at the time and his first concern was for her. “It was pretty traumatic, but it was kind of agreed by both parties that we couldn’t get along any longer. There was a lot of fighting going on. Our splitting up was affecting her, (his daughter) as well. She would say, ‘I don’t care if you’re fighting as long as you’re together.’ That didn’t help me at all,” Mike says. “It wasn’t my first divorce and that just made things worse.”

At first, the feeling of being free from a troubled marriage was a relief for Mike. “I was feeling pretty good at the beginning. But that didn’t last long. I started to get depressed over the fact that I was divorced. All of a sudden I started spiraling down into anger, frustration, and disappointment in myself. I was angry about being in this situation again; I was 53-years-old, divorced, away from my family, and feeling like a failure. I threw myself into my work and, as always, I continued to be productive in my business life, but my personal life was another issue.” He was especially frustrated with the lack of control of being able to raise his daughter.

The emotions Mike experienced are all too familiar for many individuals who suffer the pain of divorce.

Fifty-one-year-old, Sandy Clark (not her real name), was married in 1981, divorced in 1996 and remembers clearly the emotional toll her divorce took on her. “It’s a very hard subject to talk about,” Sandy says. “In the beginning you’re scared, unsure of what the future holds. You just go from day to day.” Her children were five-years-old and seven-years-old at the time of her divorce. “My focus was on my children. I needed to be strong for them. It would have been easier to wallow in self-pity.”

She had been brought up to believe that “divorce was not accepted in the Catholic religion” and after divorcing she decided to seek out the help of a support group so she wouldn’t feel so alone in her new life. “When you are going through a divorce, you have a lot of difficult, confusing feelings to process,” Sandy admits. You are careful about who you open up to. I didn’t know anyone personally who had been divorced - I didn’t have anyone to confide in.”

After a call to her parish and a series of leads, Sandy found a support group, Father Tony Palazzolo and REBUILD (Rebuilding When Your Relationship Ends), a structured 11-week educational seminar for separated, divorced and widowed persons. It is a closed group, which studies and prays together in confidentiality with compassionate support. The sessions are facilitated by experienced and professional leaders.

For Mike Cirino, his divorce brought him back to his Catholic faith. “I gravitated back toward the church. I wasn’t doing a real good job with my own personal life. That’s when I met Father Tony. He’s my guardian angel now,” Mike says of the priest who introduced him to the REBUILD program, where he began the healing process.

He remembers attending the first session, sitting with his legs and arms crossed and a frown on his face. “I had this attitude that, I don’t need to be here and this isn’t for me.”

Through REBUILD, Mike and Sandy found the courage to deal with their feelings of depression, anger and disappointment. “Once you get that out - you can start rebuilding,” Mike says.

“It took a lot of digging deep to get motivated to go,” Sandy says. “There were a lot of emotions there.” Participating in REBUILD led her toward deepening her spiritual life as well. She later became a facilitator. “I believe God always provides a window of opportunity somewhere. You need to have your radar tuned into that.”

“REBUILD helped me regain confidence in myself . . . and in building relationships with other people,” Mike adds. Because REBUILD was so effective for him, Mike has also started facilitating classes. “Being a facilitator doesn’t mean that I’m an expert,” he admits, “but I am a support for new people. I can be more open now and that helps the new people to open up.”

According to statistics from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the National Marriage Project, the divorce rate still stands at about 50 percent. Approximately 60-67 percent of second marriages end in divorce, and the percent for third marriages is even higher at 74 percent. The highest percentage of divorces occurs within the first three years of marriage.

“There are many rules and regulations in the Catholic Church that are not found in other religions,” Sandy observes. “A lot of people are asking, ‘I’m divorced now; where do I fit within the guidelines of the church?’” The Catholic teaching on divorce can be found in detail in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. (#2382-2386)

“The most frequent error among divorced Catholics is the belief that they can no longer receive the sacraments,” says Father Tony, chaplain of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics and a consultant for the Separated and Divorced for the Diocese of Saint Augustine. “This is simply not true.”

While the complexity of divorce and separation are things the church is still struggling to understand, the attitude of the church has “softened” some over the last 30 years, Father Tony believes. But “there still remains a presumed stigma for those who have gone through a divorce,” he says.

Other misconceptions such as “divorced Catholics are excommunicated” or that their “children are considered illegitimate” after an annulment are all falsehoods that simple guidance can remedy.

Alienation from the church, loneliness, hurt and rejection are all emotions Mike remembers feeling during and after his divorce, but “they were all self-imposed as a result of my Catholic upbringing from 40 years ago,” he says. “The church, I feel, has changed over time - it has transitioned. If you haven’t been to church [since a divorce] consider coming back. You would feel more accepted than you have been in past years.”

Mike is currently engaged and planning an October wedding presided by Father Tony. He and his fianc have attended Engaged Encounter classes and several follow-up sessions with Father Tony.

“I wish I would have done this the first time around,” Mike says of the marriage preparation provided by the diocese. “I remember thinking, I don’t need all of this. I’m an adult, smart and successful. I can handle this myself. If I would have done all of this before, I would have known that my previous spouses were not compatible with me.”

Sandy is also engaged and hopes to be married in the church early next year, but she is still waiting for her annulment to be finalized. Because it can take up to a year or longer before the process is finalized, she recommends that people wishing to proceed with the annulment process consider doing so after their divorce is finalized.

“Your relationship with God is your own,” Sandy says. “I have grown in faith throughout this journey. I have watched myself mature and realize I am not the same person I was when this whole process started.”

Mike says his relationship with the church has grown much stronger as a result of his divorce and journey through REBUILD. “I was going to church every Sunday, yes, but that doesn’t mean you are close to the church. Finding new organizations such as, “It’s Just Fun” opens up doors for singles and the divorced to come back to the church. You can be a martyr if you choose to. There are plenty of opportunities in the church to get closer to it.”

As a church community, “We need to reach out,” Father Tony says. “We should try to look at (the divorced) through Christian eyes of compassion rather than judgment - embrace them in their woundedness, and help them understand, ‘I am not alone. God is in control. Something good will come out of this.’”