Her husband had left her and she felt lost. Like many experiencing divorce or separation, Julie Monell-Auzenne wasn’t sure where to turn for help. She was just “fumbling around.”
An item in a parish bulletin caught her attention. A support group was meeting at a parish in nearby Glendora. “I found support there. I was surprised that these people were getting together,” said Monell-Auzenne. “It was kind of comforting.”
This was Monell-Auzenne’s introduction to the L.A. Archdiocese’s Separated, Divorced and Widowed Ministry.
“I got involved as a participant, coming in just like everyone else,” Monell-Auzenne said. Participating in the group helped her realize that she wasn’t alone- and that she wasn’t “crazy.”
“It gave me a source of hope that I could get through this,” she said. The group was a place where she found herself talking about things that she wouldn’t talk about with family and friends. She sensed the spiritual component to healing from her divorce.
“In the beginning I couldn’t grasp it, but I knew it was there; that the Church was there for me and God really hadn’t abandoned me, which I felt had happened,” she said.
Over the years her involvement deepened, first to save her own group when their facilitator left, then as a volunteer with other groups. Eventually, Joan Vienna, the director of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles’ Office of Family Life suggested Monell-Auzenne come on board as a consultant, and in 2000 she did just that.
In addition to maintaining her own group, this nurse and mother was now making the time to assist other parishes to form support groups.
Pope Francis calls upon the Church to reach out to those on the margins of society who feel disenfranchised. His apostolic exhortation “The Joy of Love” speaks to the painful and difficult situations of divorced, separated and widowed Catholics, calling for special discernment for pastoral care, respect for the suffering and inclusion of efforts for reconciliation and mediation.
“The logic of integration is the key to their pastoral care, a care which would allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it,” the pope writes.
“There has for a long time been … a stigma attached to being divorced,” said Msgr. Jim Gehl, pastor of St. Euphrasia in Granada Hills. Msgr. Gehl started the Separated, Divorced and Widowed Ministry in 1987 while serving as director of the Office of Family Life.
“Once you receive a divorce, it doesn’t mean you are condemned by the Church or by God,” Msgr. Gehl said. “Pope Francis has really encouraged us as a Church to reach out to those in more difficult situations and circumstances.”
Msgr. Gehl saw a great need for this ministry.
“I felt very strongly about it, and it really stemmed from what the Church felt strongly about, the need to minister to families of all kinds. That word family applied not only to nuclear families of moms, dads and children, but all of God’s children. That included divorced, separated, widowed. That included single-parent families as well as married.”
Msgr. Gehl faces the grim reality. “Despite all the preparation, despite how seriously the Church takes marriage, the truth is that Catholics are still a part of the same 60 plus percent divorce rate that we have in Los Angeles County. That’s a lot of people. We as a Church need to reach out to them, be there for them as they are going through the trauma of a divorce, encourage them and remind them that their God loves them very much and they are not second-class citizens.”
Monell-Auzenne and Msgr. Gehl are involved with an annual event for the Separated, Divorced and Widowed Ministry that takes place at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Angels in Los Angeles. The day includes a cathedral tour, lunch, Mass and a workshop. At this year’s workshop on July 30, Lorraine Watkins MFT will present “47 Tips and Techniques for Healing After Loss.”
The purpose of the workshop is to help participants learn how to move through separation, divorce or death of a partner toward acceptance and peace via concrete ideas intended to aid their recovery, according to Monell-Auzenne.
The event is a way to expand awareness of the ministry by getting resources and information into people’s hands. “Every one of them gets a resource. I always encourage them to take it back to their parish and if they don’t have a group, to contact us to get something or cluster some parishes together so they can start a group,” she said.
The goal is that people going through trauma or loss spend less time “fumbling around” looking for something and become aware that the Church does care and does have support groups and events for them — a welcome home for healing from brokenness and loss.
Msgr. Gehl pointed to events like this as signs of the Church’s love and concern. He related working with those suffering the trauma of the loss of a loved one to the imagery of the pope’s description of the Church as a field hospital.
“The field hospital implies that you just do the best you can and that you are with those folks right there at the crucial point in their lives,” he said.
“I encourage people to attend days like we are having at the cathedral, or a group meeting in their parish or those kinds of things. It might encourage someone going through this trauma to be in touch with a priest, therapist, spiritual director or others who could walk the journey with them toward healing,” he continued.
“There are all kinds of signposts along the way, and what the signposts are saying is that there is hope, and that God’s agape, God’s unconditional love, is there for every single one of us, no matter what our circumstances are. That’s where I see the hope.”