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October 20, 2014

Most attention in preparation for the world synod of bishops on the family has focused on whether ways can be found to allow divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion without having their first marriage annulled. While this is an important topic for discussion, a singular focus on this issue is a symptom of overly legalistic times. When modern Western society has a significant social problem, it habitually seeks a juridical solution.

In preparation for the synod, possible changes in Church law have been described in terms of a search for mercy. Mercy, according to Pope St. John Paul II, is "a superabundance of justice." Mercy is more powerful and more profound than justice, the late pope wrote in his encyclical Rich in Mercy (Dives in Misericordia, 4). It goes beyond changing legal norms and seeks to meet the individual person in his or her pain and points of need.

Many divorced Catholics feel they are stigmatized in the Church and that Church law on remarriage is a personal rejection of them. Many drift away, either to no church or to a church where they find acceptance. Often, their need is for personal acceptance and inclusion more than for a legal solution. They want to know the Church cares about them.

When their brother Lazarus died, Mary and Martha longed for the presence of Jesus. After Jesus' belated arrival, Mary wept at his feet and we read that "he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved" (John 11.33).

At a person's death, the Church and its members participate in Jesus' compassion by providing sacramental, emotional and even material support for those who grieve. Much less often is that the case for those who suffer through divorce. Yet the pain of marital breakdown can be as great as that which follows the death of a close relative.

The synod of bishops does not need to recommend pastoral solutions to this pain for we already know what they are. Parishes need to strive to be compassionate to those who are separated and divorced or who have remarried. At one time in this archdiocese, there were New Beginnings weekends and Reaching Out support groups for the separated and divorced.

Such support groups show the Church is concerned about divorced people and that it will help them overcome their loneliness and provide opportunities for them to share their experiences with those in similar situations. However, the formation of such groups is best sparked by the initiative of concerned individuals and parishes rather than by a fiat from the hierarchy.

The Church also needs to do its best to provide excellent marriage preparation for those planning to marry, and to support movements such as Marriage Encounter, which strengthens already strong marriages, and Retrouvaille, which aids marriages in distress.

Mercy means, in the first place, tangible compassion for those who suffer. It may also mean changes in Church laws and processes. But if we do not make the "superabundance of justice" our top priority, we will still not be meeting the needs of those in our midst who suffer through separation and divorce.