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Healing the Wounds


Shaina Tanguay-Colucci

Recent popes have emphasized the need for the Church to witness to the Gospel of Mercy, which is exemplified in Christ’s parable of the Good Samaritan, depicted here in an 1852 painting by Eugène Delacroix. (V&A Images, London / Art Resource, NY)

My parents’ divorce was finalized the week I graduated from college. I spent the next decade of my life trying to understand what I had lost and feeling as though I had to begin every personal encounter with a disclaimer: I am broken, I am wounded, I am not enough. Gradually, I discovered my true identity through the teachings of the Catholic Church and the love of God that was generously shared with me by and through others. I learned that my wounds did not define me after all; I was defined by love.

In a widely publicized interview last August, Pope Francis described the Church as “a field hospital after battle.” Challenging the faithful, he said, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”

More than 1 million children in the United States alone are affected by divorce every year. With U.S. Catholics divorcing at nearly the same rate as non-Catholics, this includes an alarming proportion of those sitting in our parish pews. In response to the crisis, new pastoral initiatives have been launched, including the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. — the fruit of a 2008 congress on divorce held in Rome and co-sponsored by the Knights of Columbus. These pastoral efforts are a concrete sign that the Church’s “field hospital” is actively at work to heal hearts wounded by what has been called the “divorce revolution.”


In 2007, Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson presented several papers at the Lateran University in Rome on the topics of divorce and abortion. This inspired an international congress the following year titled “Oil on the Wounds: A Contemporary Examination of the Effects of Divorce and Abortion on Children and Their Families.” Co-sponsored by the Knights of Columbus and the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, the event gathered experts from eight countries.

In his address to congress participants, Pope Benedict XVI encouraged the Church to assume the Good Samaritan’s “attitude of merciful love” toward those who have suffered as a result of divorce or abortion. “In the often purely ideological debate, a sort of conspiracy of silence is created in their regard,” he said. “It is in fact inevitable that when the conjugal covenant is broken, those who suffer most are the children who are the living sign of its indissolubility.”

One of the speakers at the congress was Elizabeth Marquardt, author of the landmark book Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce (2005). Marquardt’s principal claim was that even children from amicable divorces suffer tremendously.

“While a ‘good’ divorce is better than a bad divorce, it isn’t good,” Marquardt said. “Even ‘good’ divorces hand children the lonely job of making sense of their parents’ different worlds, a job that formerly belonged first to their parents.”

Marquardt’s work was pivotal in drawing attention to the issue, explained David L. Schindler, one of the founders of the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research. Established following the congress in 2008 and supported by the Order, the CCPR is dedicated to engaging cultural issues that affect the vulnerable.

“We speak of divorce as if it enables healing, but it’s extremely important that we keep in mind the suffering of the children,” said Schindler, dean emeritus of the Washington session of the John Paul II Institute and a member of Potomac Council 433 in Washington, D.C.

The identity of the child, he explained, is intrinsically bound up with the love between a mother and a father.

“The most important thing that parents give to their children is their love for each other. It’s their love for each other that is at the root of the child in the first place,” Schindler said. When that love is fractured, he added, it inflicts a deep wound on the child, whose identity is threatened.

Over the past six years, the CCPR has hosted lecture series and conferences on this and related topics. It also publishes a quarterly review titled Humanum on issues related to family, culture and science.

Dr. Margaret McCarthy, director of the CCPR and a professor at the John Paul II Institute, explained that the center seeks to reach across disciplines by promoting conversations and developing pastoral resources. “The culture often wants some kind of anesthesia as a solution for suffering,” she added, “but Christianity allows people to look at the wound in the face and go through it to see what’s most true.”


In 2012, the CCPR hosted a conference titled “Adult Children of Divorce: Recovering Origins,” which brought together people from various backgrounds and disciplines who shared a common concern — namely, that children of divorce need to be recognized.

After the conference, McCarthy wrote that the “proceedings reveal that the children of divorce are a ‘voice crying in the wilderness’ amid a culture that would cancel out its deepest memory, the memory of God.”

In the years since, CCPR has developed a pastoral initiative called “Recovering Origins,” designed specifically for adult children of divorce. According to McCarthy, “The program seeks to help children of divorce shift their identity and allow the experience to point them to what’s deeper: God the Father’s love.”

Sister Maximilia Um, vice-chancellor and a canon lawyer for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., has assisted in developing pastoral materials to assist people whose parents have divorced. (Photo by Terry Farmer Photography)

Sister Maximilia Um, vice-chancellor and a canon lawyer for the Diocese of Springfield, Ill., as well as an adjunct professor at the John Paul II Institute, assisted in developing the Recovering Origins curriculum.

“There is a profound need for an education in love,” Sister Um emphasized. “In canon law and tribunal work, we encounter very human problems: people who have not really had a home; people who have never learned how to relate to each other or forgive.”

Sister Um said that the majority of annulment cases that she encounters involve a spouse who comes from a divorced home. She added, “People can’t learn how to love unless they are loved and accompanied, unless someone takes the time to teach them how to sacrifice and give of oneself.”

Lisa Lickona, who holds a licentiate degree from the John Paul II Institute and is now a wife and mother of eight, likewise participated in the Adult Children of Divorce conference in 2012 and has assisted with the pastoral initiative.

While children of divorce may appear to be survivors on the outside, they are wounded on the inside, said Lickona, who is herself a child of divorce.

“The woundedness has to do with the permanence of love,” Lickona explained. “Parents are supposed to witness to the permanence of love, to the fidelity of love and ultimately to God’s love and fidelity.”

Acknowledging the sadness and hurt caused by divorce, she added, is essential to growing in confidence in God’s love.

“When your parents’ marriage breaks down, God’s fidelity has not ended; you have to give it over to God,” Lickona said. “The Church is our Mother and God is our Father. There’s the possibility of forgiveness, of renewal, of being faithful, because God is faithful.”

This message is at the heart of the Recovering Origins curriculum, which has already been piloted in parishes in the D.C. area and has attracted interest from as far away as England.


The work of the CCPR complements other pastoral initiatives that have been developed in recent years, including one that focuses on younger children affected by divorce. In 2002, Lynn Cassella-Kapusinski founded the Faith Journeys Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to supporting children of separated or divorced families.

A school counselor, Cassella-Kapusinski is convinced that ongoing intervention is necessary to help children of divorce. At-risk behaviors often don’t appear right away, she said, since young children tend to repress their pain.

Seeing that there was no literature to reach out to children of divorce from a Catholic perspective, Cassella-Kapusinski wrote three books on the topic and developed a faith-based curriculum for young people. Her most recent book, When Parents Divorce or Separate: I Can Get Through This (A Catholic Guide for Kids), won a first-place award from the Catholic Press Association in 2014.

Speaking at the Oil on the Wounds congress in 2008, Cassella-Kapusinski said, “One of the profound gifts of this ministry is that it gives a direct and immediate way to instill healthy attitudes about moral suffering to children from separated or divorced families as well as their parents.” She added that Jesus can help young people find meaning in their suffering so that it will not triumph over them, but will instead lead them toward good.

Inspired by the work of Cassella-Kapusinski and others, there is a growing recognition of the Church’s need to redirect the gaze of her children — particularly those wounded by divorce — to something more definitive: their identity in God.

One organization that has taken strides to do this is the Ruth Institute, which is dedicated to educating young adults about the truth of marriage. The institute recently adapted its academic approach to a more pastoral emphasis and, in February, hosted the inaugural “Healing the 21st Century Family” conference in San Diego, which sought to affirm and empower those from broken homes.

“It became clear to us that there are so many people walking around wounded,” said Jennifer Roback Morse, the organization’s founder and president.

Supreme Knight Anderson echoed this sentiment during an address in Rome March 20 in which he called attention to the “virtually invisible” children and young adults who have been affected by divorce. “Is it not time,” he asked, “that the millions of children whose childhood has been destroyed by divorce be shown mercy by the pastors of the Church?”

Indeed, the Center for Cultural and Pastoral Research and other like-minded organizations have begun the important task of identifying and assisting those in need of compassion. In undertaking this mission, they are taking seriously the idea of the Church as a “field hospital,” working to heal one marriage, one family, one child at a time.

SHAINA TANGUAY-COLUCCI is a 2010 graduate of the John Paul II Institute for Studies in Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America and currently teaches theology at St. Joseph’s High School in Trumbull, Conn.