In a 256-page statement on family life released just yesterday, Pope Francis signaled that it’s time for divorced and remarried couples to be treated differently in the church.
Although the document — titled Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love — covers many topics related to family life, one of the more noteworthy segments of the sweeping piece addresses how the church must open the pathway for divorced and remarried couples to take communion, which is a central sacrament of the Catholic faith. Until yesterday, a divorced person could take communion. but if he or she remarried without obtaining an annulment from the first marriage, the couple would then be barred from taking communion in the future.
Let me say this: I’m not Catholic. I’m a lifelong Protestant, and I know there are significant differences between my faith tradition and Catholicism, including how we understand and participate in communion. To me, though, the pope’s statement is still momentous. There are more than 1 billion Catholics in the world, including many of my friends. The pope’s reach, however, extends beyond his own church and influences the way that Christians from many backgrounds understand the compassion and love of God. So, it’s a big deal when the pope writes, “The church is always called to be the open house of the Father… No closed doors! No closed doors!”
When I was going through my divorce, I dealt with some pretty awful pushback from my church. I don’t think that anyone was intentionally trying to hurt me in the process, but there were a handful of people who didn’t know me well and questioned my decision. Furthermore, church leaders sided with my ex-husband because he was vocal with them about what was going on — even though he didn’t even go to the church until I moved out of the house — and I wanted to deal with the fallout privately. I ended up leaving my church to go to one that felt safer and that my ex-husband didn’t know about.
I remember sitting in a pew one day with the priest’s words going in one ear and directly out the other. My head was full of confusion, fear and sadness. I didn’t want to be divorced. I didn’t want people to think less of me, and I didn’t want to be a failure. I didn’t know what to think anymore about a God who would allow me to go through the present suffering. I certainly hadn’t wanted my former church to know all of my business from the lips of an ex-husband who was controlling, vindictive and occasionally frightening.
The only thing that made sense that morning were the words the priest spoke when he placed communion bread into my outstretched hands. “The Body of Christ, broken for you,” he said. His eyes twinkled a little bit. I ate the bread and knew that whatever suffering I was going through, Christ had gone through it, too. And he knew me.
For this reason, communion was all I could hold onto from my faith for quite some time. It was a lifeline in my pain and confusion. Beyond my own story, communion is a symbol of God’s love for all, no matter the decisions — good or bad — that led them through the church doors.
The pope’s encouragement that local parishes consider offering communion to divorced and remarried couples is an important step toward making the life of faith available to all — including those who are perhaps the most keenly aware that they need the love and compassion of God.