The Early Years:
The Divorcing Person in a Responding Church
by Paula Ripple Comin

“Good Catholics don’t get divorced.”  This simple statement is, I believe, an accurate description of the spoken words and inner attitudes that were common in our church prior to the establishment and growth of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics.

So great was the power of the above statement that thousands of divorcing Catholics were left with what they believe was their only one alternative — namely to slip quietly out of the Church, convinced that there was no point in turning to what had been once their “home” for support and practical assistance.  While many may have asked themselves why the Christian community did not seem to care about their deep hurts, most were too hurt or too fearful of further rejection to approach those who might have offered pastoral care.

With the growth of many other forms of self-help support groups in the late 60’s and early 70’s, some divorcing men and women throughout the United States and Canada began to ask why such groups were not possible within the Catholic Church.

One of the earliest remembered stories is that of three women at the Paulist Center in Boston.  They approached Father Jim Young with the following challenge: “Father, this center has a group for just about everyone, why can’t we do something for those of us who are going through separation and divorce?  Father Young, with an openness characteristic of him, responded with an answer that might well serve as the basis of today’s ministry.  He said, “if you want such a group and are willing to take responsibility for it, it can happen.”

It was later that same year, 1973, that Time magazine published a full page article reporting the overwhelming response to an invitation on the part of the new Boston group which had organized a day long conference for separated and divorced Catholics in the Boston area.  Hundreds of persons had attended and the story received great notice throughout the Church.  It reflected the public birth of a ministry whose time had long been needed and now had come.

Unknown to each other, small groups such as the one in Boston had begun to spring up around the United States and Canada.  With the publication of the Time article, the Boston group came to be an information center where the other groups could network and share experiences.  Groups in Portland, Seattle, Newark, Baltimore and Minneapolis learned of each other’s existence.

The following year, 1974, at the invitation of the Boston group, representatives from all the known support groups from the United States and Canada were invited to attend the second conference.  At the meeting, under the direction of Father Young and with the help of two able facilitators, the framework for NACSDC was established.  Based on the same Church regions used by both the Canadian and United States Conferences of Bishops, a representative was elected from each of the regions in attendance at the 1974 Boston conference.  These elected representatives formed the first Board of Directors of NACSDC.

At that meeting, it was decided that the next conference would be held at the University of Notre Dame.  The choice of Notre Dame was based on the desire to associate NACSDC with a place that had strong Catholic identity in people’s minds.  When we gathered at Notre Dame in the Fall of 1975, board members met with representatives from their respective regions in order to begin to clarify the basic framework of the organization and to spell out the responsibilities of those who would, in later years, accept the leadership roles for NACSDC.  Enthusiasm was high and heretofore unknown hope for divorcing Catholics spread rapidly on this continent.

Those willing to serve as Board Members through those early years deserve loving and lasting accolades.  Without financial assistance and largely without the support of a well-organized group, they gave their time and energy to travel to board meetings, paying their own expenses.  Financial assistance at any diocesan level was nearly unknown.  At that time, we learned of only two dioceses where a person had been appointed by a Bishop to attend to the needs and hurts of divorcing persons.  Those dioceses were Newark and Baltimore.

As the organization struggled with its own identity and goals, and with the nearly overwhelming possibilities for the growth of a network of support groups, it was recognized that there was a need for a central office staffed by a person who would support and help coordinate the activities of the board.  Simultaneously, a man who had attended the Notre Dame Conference in 1975 contacted Father Young to ask him if the organization needed funding and how those funds would be used.  When it was explained to him that the board wanted to establish an office and hire a person who would serve as Executive Director for NACSDC.  He asked the board to write a proposal for such funding.  The man was Tony Raskob whose family foundation he chaired.

As Tony sought funding through the Foundation, the Board of NACSDC invited me to come to Toronto to be invited for the position of first Executive Director.  This was in the spring of 1977.  Without positive assurance of funding and without the promise of secretarial help, I agreed to move to Boston in the fall of 1977 to set up an office at the Paulist Center on Park Street.  With no promised salary, no office assistance, a magazine called Divorce to write and edit, without even a typewriter, we began.

When a need existed on such a widespread basis, word of help circulated rapidly.  In the mid-70’s, days for the separated and divorced were set up at such a rapid rate that Father Jim Young and I were overwhelmed with invitations to speak and to offer practical suggestions to emerging groups in near and far-flung areas.  The number of support groups already in existence was estimated to be about 25.

To give you some idea of the growth of the organization and the response of the Church through the years since the early 70’s, I cite the example of a study done by Father Don Conroy through the Unites States Conference of Catholic Bishops.  In a 1981 survey done through the dioceses of the United States, 65% of the responding diocese said they had some visible form of ministry to the separated and divorced.  That “visible form” of ministry was explained to mean either a person appointed directly to work with divorce ministry or a person working through an already existing Family Life Office.

It must also be noted here that, from the earliest beginnings of NACSDC, one group that has consistently offered support for this ministry is the Canon Law Society.  These men and women, working within Tribunals had the earliest contact though their work with annulments to listen to the stories of divorcing men and women and to recognize the pain involved in the dissolution of a marriage.

When the Central Office for divorce ministry was established at the Paulist Center in the fall of 1977, the coordination of the Board through four meetings per year continued.  While the International Conference continued to be held at the University of Notre Dame, the time for the annual meetings was changed to early July in order to utilize the college facilities in an effort to keep costs as low as possible.  The number in attendance at the Notre Dame Conference grew from 200 to more than 500.  In addition, diocesan days were being held in major cities throughout the United States and Canada.

The board continued its work with establishing a statement of purpose, organizational goals and responsibilities.  Though not included in the NACSDC title, the work of the organization has always encompassed the remarried and persons of all religious affiliation.  The ministry has always been far wider than divorcing Catholics.

As the cooperation that was hoped for early on grew, many board members worked with diocesan persons in the establishing of regional boards and diocesan days.  With that came as easing of some of the financial burdens board members experienced with self-funded travel to NACSDC Board meetings and the sharing of responsibility through diocesan and regional boards.  Leadership training for those in ministry became more common as divorcing persons took greater pride in their own grassroots movement.

Two years after the initial $10,000 grant from the Raskob Foundation, we applied for and received a second grant of $6500 to assist with the procurement of needed office equipment and some secretarial help.  Though the financial struggles were still real, the emergence of a well-established ministry was a source of great gratitude and joy for all who were involved from the beginning.

Through the earliest years of NACSDC the focal point was largely the divorcing person.  It was not that the needs of children, parents, and other family members and friends were not recognized, it was rather that we chose the healing of the divorcing person as a beginning place.  The work of Beginning Experience under the early direction of Sister Josephine Stewart had the same goal, namely, the support and healing of the divorcing person.

As leadership among divorcing Catholics increased in both scope and strength, some conference days included parallel programs for children.  Some schools began to ask questions about the establishment of groups for children whose needs were not being met.  Conference and retreat days gradually began to offer weekends where divorcing persons could come to share their stories and feel greater reassurance of God’s ever-present love.

The need for printed material was recognized.  When my own book, The Pain and the Possibility: Divorce and Separation among Catholics was published in 1978 it was the first and only book that addressed the questions that were in the hearts of divorcing Catholics.  Now the number of helpful resources continues to grow.

The journey of this once fledging organization has been richly blessed by God and has received widespread support in a Church that once allowed the stereotype “you can’t be divorced and Catholic.”  Without the creative leadership of Father Jim Young, the dream might never have come to reality.  Without the collective energy of faith-filled persons who refused to be turned away from a Church they had called “home,” the movement could never have realized its strong existence throughout the United States and Canada.

The growth of NACSDC was facilitated by investing time and money in the development of its board.  Persons of expertise in some needed areas were invited to assist with the four annual meetings.  Early it was recognized that a strong and active board was a vital key to the ongoing life and strength of the ministry.

It was mainly out of my own desire to see the board of NACSDC continue to develop in its desire and ability to assume responsibility for divorce ministry that my resignation was offered in 1981.  It seemed important to me that the divorcing persons who serve on the board could become the primary spokespersons for the organization.

At the time of my resignation in 1981 and today in 1991, I believe that the role of professional ministerial persons in the life of NACSDC should be that of background support and assistance.  My experience tells me that this is possible as we continue to share in the life of an organization which greatly enriches the Church and can continue to call the Church to accountability in its offer of care and compassion to all hurting people.  I believe in the words of Job as they relate to the meaning of divorce ministry.

For there is hope for a tree
if it be cut down, that it will sprout again
and that its roots will not cease.
Though its roots grow old in the ground
yet at the scent of water, it will bud,
and put forth branches like a young plant.
(Job 14: 7-9).