The Church, while appreciating the situations of conflict that are part of marriage, cannot fail to speak out on behalf of those who are most vulnerable: the children who often suffer in silence. (Amoris Laetitia)
In his new apostolic exhortation on The Joy of Love, Pope Francis has called the world’s parishes to reach out and minister to families going through divorce.[i] While this support is long overdue, there’s a danger in running groups specifically for the children. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us that “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of the children…”[ii] The best ministry, thus, is one where we accompany parents and help them minister to their children’s needs.
Some years ago, my nine-year-old daughter seemed to be doing okay after our divorce. Her dad had been good about keeping his visitation schedule and we’d try to get past the pain to co-parent as best we could. I attended a weekly support group at church and they also had a group for children of divorce, so I put her in it. A few weeks later I noticed her mood change; she seemed sad and withdrawn—more than usual—and I thought maybe it was just a normal mood swing. Finally I decided to ask her what was wrong. She unexpectedly threw herself in my arms and burst into tears.
“Did Daddy have sex with his secretary? Is he going to jail, Mom?” More tears. Then heaving sobs and I held her close.
My mouth fell open and, trying not to react, I asked calmly, “Oh honey, of course not. Why would you even ask these things? Where did you even hear these things?” When she caught her breath she looked up at me.
“At church. (Then it all came blurting out.) “Jonathan’s dad had sex with his secretary and she got pregnant. And his mom got real mad and screamed at him, so he hit her. Then she called the cops and his dad went to jail. Jonathan can’t even see his dad, now. Dad doesn’t do those things … does he Mom?”
Aye! After I calmed my daughter down and put her to bed, I poured myself a glass of wine and found myself getting really angry that my daughter had to carry these anxieties along with everything else from our divorce. How is someone so young and innocent supposed to process all this? I said a prayer and eventually I had to laugh. My ex-husband does have a secretary but she’s almost seventy and looks like Aunt Bee from Mayberry! I decided that night I would spend more time talking to my little girl about all kinds of things, and not just divorce. I’m not going to leave this important stuff up to other people any more.
Children Need Safety
Can you imagine? Remember Art Linkletter’s Kids Say the Darndest Things? It’s funny on TV but not after a divorce. Church groups, where children of various ages sit around and share feelings about their parents’ divorce, can be an open invitation to deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual damage. And maybe the parent will never know what was said or heard in the group. It’s not the children’s fault that they open up and share scary or dramatic family secrets, but do you want your child exposed to that? Often the facilitator is well meaning but not licensed or trained to handle these remarks when and if they come up. Children—no matter their age—should not be exposed to the sordid details of another family’s divorce.
So how can the Church help these children?
Children Need Their Parents
First, it is the parents’ responsibility to help their child—not the school’s, not the government’s, not even the Church’s. However, just as parents may need the assistance and expertise of medical staff in the healing of bodily wounds, they also need the Church to stand alongside them to help heal family wounds. What does this look like? Encourage and guide parents to fulfill their irreplaceable roles to their children. Help them do what only parents can do: talk deeply to the heart of each of their children in the way they know that each particular child needs. That’s only one of the many ways moms and dads are irreplaceable.
Second, the Church should first help to heal the parents. The Church’s primary role is to educate, encourage, and support the parents to know God, live the faith, teach it to the children, and to help the whole family get to heaven. The supreme duty of the Church is the salvation of persons. Have we forgotten that? Parish programs should first help parents stabilize mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. You know the drill: when the plane experiences a sudden drop in altitude, put the oxygen mask on yourself first. Only then are you able to help any children who are with you.
Third, children can survive divorce with one strong parent. Of course, having a healthy dad and mom is best—and every case is different—but when at least one is emotionally stable, grounded in his or her faith, and closely connected and communicating with the children, the damage can be far less than otherwise.
Children Need to Talk
Children do need to talk (vent, cry, yell) with someone, and if it’s not a parent it can be other trusted relatives like grandparents or godparents. But each of these trusted people should first be able to listen with an open mind and calm spirit. That’s one of the things that we—the Church—can help the adults do better.
If there are significantly difficult issues, children may often need a good, licensed therapist—preferably Catholic! A faithful Catholic worldview is one that brings God, his love, mercy, and the healing of the Sacraments into the psychological discussions. Most of our relationship problems begin when we leave God out; any healing program should gently lead the person more deeply into the basic truth of who we are and why we are here; we’re beloved sons and daughters of God whose deepest desires will ultimately only be satisfied by him.
Many faithful Catholic therapists offer distance counseling (telephone or online) which can help with a local shortage of family and psychological experts.[iii] At one parish in California, the local pastor has invited the Catholic therapists to donate several hours a week to the families of divorce.
Children Need God
The safety, well-being, and love in the home is what should point us to heaven. Parents are the first “gods” we know and if they fail us, we will often struggle with how we see, understand, and trust God. As a result, many children experiencing divorce have life-long trust issues in all their relationships—especially with God—and some even doubt that God really exists. That’s where Mother Church can step in and reveal the truth, beauty, and goodness of the Father to all her children.
Children will be wounded by divorce—there’s no stopping it—but God is in the business of healing. The somewhat surprising joy out of all this is that he also promises to bring great good from the evils of divorce, if we will but open our minds and hearts to cooperate with him. The wounds can heal and even the scars—like those Christ still had when he rose—can be beacons of hope for many. By having a place at the parish, they can find love, mercy, and healing. Many have come back to their faith after years and returned to the sacraments after decades. All this from my own, small, painful divorce and the promise that if I would give God my ashes he would bring great beauty back into the world from them.
So, do you want a parish program to help children heal through divorce? Don’t focus on the divorce. Instead show them the God who longs for them. Avail yourself of the many beautiful Catholic resources, the Catechism, Scriptures, stories, movies, music, social and other media to:
- Teach them the story of God’s love for mankind.
- Help them understand the difference between emotions and will.
- Remind them of his goodness and abundant promises.
- Show them his rich mercy.
- Delight them with beautiful Catholic art.
- Tell them of God’s mighty and mysterious works.
- Show them movies of his life and passion.
- Intrigue them with the lives of fascinating saints.
- Point them to the deepest desires of their heart.
- Have discussions about where God can be found in the darkness.
- Surprise them with his many miracles.
- Blow them away with Eucharistic miracles and the Incorruptibles.
- Set their hearts ablaze with love for the King of Kings.
- Help them from any of life’s hurts to real Hope. Help them see past the pain of divorce to the LOVE THAT NEVER FAILS.
Helpful Parish Resource for Families
The Catholic’s Divorce SURVIVAL DVD program with online support at CatholicsDivorce.com encourages parents to use what they learn in the weekly group meetings as age-appropriate, dinner table discussions at home. The program’s “Personal Survival Guide” includes sixty short topics they can share with their children in the privacy of their home or with the family therapist. These can be deeply bonding times—something every family needs. Parents and their kids are often surprised at the fun, lively, and meaningful talks that ensue.
For the tough topics CatholicsDivorce.com offers a wide range of articles to help parents understand and explain complex Church teachings in a way most children can easily understand.
In the DVD series, which begins with the specifics of divorce but moves quickly into the big picture of eternity, the parents learn from Church teachings:
- Why bad things sometimes happen to good people.
- What God says about (and how to handle) the normal emotions of shock, anger, guilt, grief, depression, loneliness, fear, desire, forgiveness, and more.
- That God is with us even when we don’t feel his presence.
- That God can be trusted even when we can’t trust anyone else.
- To distinguish between what we feel today versus what we know to be true.
- How to come to forgiveness.
- How to find freedom in detachment from possessions and more.
- That divorce—as bad as it is—will not kill them. That the antidote to their pain and confusion is having an intimate, trusting relationship with God before any other relationships.
- How to put their faith into their relationships—especially the broken ones.
And these are exactly the same things the children suffering through divorce need to know.
Rose Sweet is the author of ten books on “Putting Religion in Relationships” including topics of divorce healing and annulment (www.rosesweet.com). She’s worked in divorce ministry for over twenty years, is creator of “The Catholic’s Divorce SURVIVAL” DVD program, and spoke on divorce healing at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, PA.
[i] See especially, Francis, Amoris Laetitia, arts. 241-246.
[ii] CCC, par. 2223.
This article originally appeared on pages 26-28 of the original printed edition.
Art credit: Public domain image from Pixabay.com