Archdiocese of Milan: from being the 'object' to becoming the 'subject' of pastoral care
To find answers that respond to the depth of people’s experiences, requires the right fundamentals beyond an appropriate language, beyond what is needed in terms of time, maturity, awareness, and solid relationships. This is the experience of Fr. Natale. He is the person responsible of a pastoral community in one of the largest diocese of the Catholic Church where all the variants of the family life today are vividly present. He has been working for years with a group of separated couples, re-building with them continuously the vital fabric of the Christian community. ‘Listening’, ‘validity of marriage’, ‘forgiveness’; these are terms that sometimes are hard to digest. However, they can also indicate paths of serenity and to journey forward no longer "for” those who are separated but “with” those who are separated.
About 15 years ago I had the opportunity to accompany a group of separated couples from my cluster of parishes who had expressed the desire to come together to hear the Word of God. Some of them were separated, others were divorced, and still others were in new relationships. So much good came of that experience that I was asked to accompany other groups. Currently I am responsible, along with a married couple, for ministering to separated couples and divorced couples who are either living alone or remarried in the Varese area, one of the seven pastoral regions of the diocese of Milan. I considered this to be a gift of Providence that enriches my ministry. It gives me the opportunity to walk together with people who have a wounded heart, yet are so generous in loving others.
A shared and attentive listening
Whoever has undergone a separation needs first of all a suitable framework to be able, eventually, to share his or her pain. Finding oneself with other people who have gone through the same experience makes it easier to open one's heart and to share one’s story. This often results in unstoppable streams of words that contain and express all the suffering caused by the shattering of an ideal reality in which one had once strongly believed in. We must listen patiently, because the person, at that moment, just needs to feel accepted.
Through these stories I have noted, especially in people connected with their ecclesial community, the bitterness they feel when they separate from their spouse and then experience a certain distancing on the part of people with whom they had shared an ecclesial service, and sometimes even on the part of the priest himself. They no longer feel welcome by their community, and this adds further suffering to the already deep pain of separation.
In our diocese, the pastoral letter "The Lord is near to the broken-hearted" by Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, then archbishop of Milan, marked a turning point. This text has had great resonance even outside the Lombardy dioceses, for its soft-spoken, tender, and understanding style. It says for example: "If you found on your way men and women of the Christian community who have hurt you in some way with their attitude and their words, I want to tell you my sorrow and I entrust each and every one to the judgment and mercy of the Lord." And further: "As Christians we have a special affection for you, like that of a parent who looks with more attention and care after the child who is in trouble and is suffering, or like that of brothers who support one another with greater delicacy and depth, after having long struggled to understand and to talk openly to each other."
Although the letter reaffirms the Church's position about the spousal bond which remains indissoluble and the inability to admit to the Eucharistic communion spouses who live permanently in a second relationship, the language that is used does reveal a moving closeness and understanding of the situation. Many, reading this letter, have again felt the embrace of the Church and have found themselves back within the community.
Other interventions of the Magisterium have followed in recent years. I think of the words of Benedict XVI at the conclusion of the World Meeting of Families held in Milan in June 2012: "Be sure - he said, addressing the faithful who are going through the painful experiences of separation - that the Pope and the Church support you in your effort. I encourage you to remain united to your communities, and I hope that the dioceses offer you appropriate welcome and closeness."
I think, finally, at the attention Pope Francis has given to the family and marriage at his Wednesday catechesis and in the Lineamenta, the result of the October 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops, entrusted to the people of God for careful reflection in preparation for the Ordinary Synod.
They, a gift for the Church —
and the Church, a gift for them
I can easily see that in all the recent interventions of the Magisterium there is a constant affirmation that separated and divorced couples, alone or in a new union, are part of the Church. And, regarding this reality, I often wonder what it means to "be part of the Church" in a time when she is reforming herself. If the ongoing transformation is to move increasingly from a Church conceived as a "perfect society" and hierarchically structured like a pyramid to a "cenacle like" Church, home and school of communion, this means that every person who is part of it contributes to communion and does so to the extent that he or she considers himself or herself a gift for others and, in turn, is welcomed as such.
Hence the question: what gift can those who live through the breakdown of their family project be for the Church, be they alone or in a new union?
Having lived with them and listened to their stories, I could immediately grasp the accumulation of suffering that is part of their experience, often without the ability to get rid of it permanently. It is a wound that remains and the recurrence of certain situations reopens it and makes it bleed again. I am convinced that it is precisely all this pain, re-entrusted to the Love of God, that is the specific contribution of these people, like a great legacy for the Church that can be used effectively for her evangelizing work.
Communion with Jesus
The situations in the group that I follow are diverse: there is Roberta who intends to remain faithful to the sacrament of marriage without thinking of establishing a new union; sticking to the original choice without being able to live the married life that goes with it, is a particular witness to the gratuitousness of love. But there are also Simona, Rosanna, Carlo, Claudia… all in new unions, who satisfy their desire for communion with Jesus by nurturing themselves with the Word and approaching the altar during Holy Mass with the other faithful who receive communion, happy to receive just a blessing. While accepting the current request of the Catholic Church not to approach the Eucharistic table, they know they are united with the Risen One, because they are part of His Body which is the Church, and they learn to communicate with Jesus who, in addition to being present in his Word, is really present in every brother and sister.
With this awareness and the life that goes with it, the separated persons contribute in their own way to building communion within the Church. Just as in communion the gift is mutual, they themselves consider the Church a gift for them, even when she demands from them radical choices, or requires, in the search for a greater good, some sacrifice. They do not intend to break away from the Church because they found in her the welcoming face of a mother.
The path to forgiveness
In time I realized that one of their frequently asked questions is about forgiving their partner. Can we forgive? Is it fair to forgive even when the injustice suffered involves other people, children in particular? By itself, the answer is simple, because Jesus is explicit about the need to forgive always.
However, we must be convinced that forgiveness is not a single act that is accomplished once and for all, but it is a journey that needs more or less time and can only be verified when a relationship between the one who forgives and the one who asks for forgiveness has been established. Before this stage, though, we can prepare ourselves to forgive by trying to live "compassion", or by making the effort in every circumstance of life to forget about one's pain in order to enter into the other's pain. That's how Daniela, after a journey of several years, has managed to send a message to her former husband with these words: "Perhaps you do not know what day it is ... It's six years since we signed our divorce papers and now I feel like sincerely writing ‘thank you’ to you for the person I've become through this bitter experience."
In several cases it is useful to consider the possibility offered by the Church to undertake the process of annulment. In the preparation document for the Synod of Bishops in October this year, the intention to facilitate the procedures is clear. The intent is that the validity or invalidity of the marriage in each case should be established quickly and without economic burden. It should be the responsibility of the diocesan bishop to "commission duly trained counselors who can advise the parties free of charge on the validity of their marriage" (see n. 48).
The current Archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Angelo Scola, at the beginning of May, this year, has issued a decree for the establishment of such a group of counselors who will work in the diocese experimentally for the next three years.
From being object to being subject of the ministry
I would like to conclude by highlighting a significant shift that has occurred in recent years in the field of pastoral care in this area. While initially it was mostly a ministry "for" separated, and divorced couples, alone or in a new union, it has become a ministry "with" them. They feel they are the subject of attention by the Church that cares for their brothers and sisters who are in the same condition. That's how even people living through separation become part, after proper preparation, of the teams that have been formed in these years. The contribution of their experience is very valuable in the animation of the meetings that welcome newcomers; they feel they are a part of the evangelizing mission of the Church not in spite of their condition, but because of it, through a greater love which is based on the Gospel.