The Later Years:
A Responding Church Calls the Divorced Person to Leadership
by Kathleen L. Kircher

The efforts of Father Jim Young, Paula Ripple Comin, the NACSDC Board of Directors, and numerous lay and religious leaders in the 1970's brought a dream of a divorcing person in peer-to-peer ministry to reality.  By the early 1980's, support groups were established in most dioceses in the United States, Canada, Guam, and even as far away as Ireland, Australia, England, and New Zealand.

Simultaneously, leaders in the Church, including Bishops, parish staff, religious educators, Family Life personnel, and Tribunal staff were convening to address the needs and concerns of those experiencing separation and divorce.  Nudges from enthused and informed laity prompted Bishops to write pastoral letters about the long overdue and much needed ministry to divorced Catholics, and to participate in special “homecoming” Masses and programs for those who felt “unchurched,” alienated, excommunicated, or unwanted.

During the early 1980's, lay leaders and ministry directors expanded diocesan outreach to the separation and divorced and their children through mini-conferences, clergy awareness days, school programs and the involvement of divorced Catholics in parish life, including liturgy planning, Eucharistic ministry, parish councils, Pre-cana and single-parent programs.  These were the years when Regional Conferences mushroomed and peer leadership training expanded.  In addition to the writings of Father Jim Young and Paula Ripple, new names appeared, including Brother James Greteman, A.J. Hauber, Leon Haverkamp, Suzy Yehl, Father Bill Murphy, Leroy Spaniol, Father Paul Lannon.

As the needs of the leaders and divorced became better known, the annual NACSDC International Conference expanded its offerings and began a track system of workshops to accommodate a more diversified community.  A biannual Leadership Workshop expanded its scope also and extended the faculty to cover topics ranging from the practical nuts and bolts of ministry to theological, biblical, psychological and canonical questions.  Keynote speakers at the International Conference included Catholic Bishops, Jewish psychologists, divorced Catholics, specialists in codependent relationships, accomplished journalists, and Protestant ministers, as well as a solid core of pastorally oriented women and men whose energy and professions influenced the divorced community.

These were the years when support groups, conferences, retreats, training days, and resources were in much demand.  Models of “doing” the ministry were discussed and shared in NACSDC gatherings and within forums such as Catholic Charities and NACFLM (National Association of Family Life Ministry).  In 1982, when I was hired as Executive Director and the Central Office was moved to Rochester, New York, it was determined that the growth of the ministry within the institutional Church warranted attention to developing more diversified resources and services.  In addition to new works published by Father Jim Young and Paula Ripple, NACSDC began to record and sell tapes from its International Conferences and Leadership Workshops as well as publications authored by others.  Divorce magazine became Jacob’s Well and was marketed to anyone involved in this ministry.  Tracey Manning and I were encouraged to develop a Training Trainers workshop so that local areas could increase their pool of instructors for support group leaders.

While many new speakers for local and regional conferences emerged from the roster of NACSDC International Conference faculties, Father Jim Young and I divided a still steady speaking load since these were the years when other organizations and church agencies turned to NACSDC for counsel and strategies about pastoral care to the divorcing family.  Father Young continued to lead Clergy seminars and I focused on the training of school and religious education personnel.  It was our hope that if the parish could become a welcoming and nurturing place for Catholics undergoing divorce, more and more persons would truly become reconciled to the Church.

During the 1980's an Advisory Board of NACSDC grew and took the initiative in promoting a collection of articles and model programs for those pursuing remarriage.  With funding from the Raskob Foundation and the Graymoor Order, Catholic Remarriage was written.

Reaching the grassroots community across North America expanded during the decade of the 1980's.  In 1982, a conference for divorced Catholics in El Paso, Texas was planned and a number of Catholics attended from Juarez, Mexico.  A select number of tapes and pamphlets were distributed by NACSDC for Spanish-speaking people.  By 1985, NACSDC had secured a presence in Region XIII and a Board Member for this region.  Collaboration with lay and professional leaders in Ontario, Canada helped to keep NACSDC’s presence in this region in spite of the fact that another Canadian organization for divorced Catholics had been founded.  About this same time, representatives from Australia, New Zealand, Bermuda and Guam began to attend NACSDC’s annual July programs.

In 1983, NACSDC received the NACFLM award for outstanding service in family ministry, and became a respected voice within the Church.  Through Board members, Father Young, or myself, NACSDC was involved with the drafting of the Papal document on the family (Familiaris Consortio), the pastoral on the role of women in the Church, preparation for the Synod on the vocation and mission of laity in the Church and society, the focus of the Secretariat for Marriage and Family Life, the visitation of Pope John Paul II to the United States, and the design of support group and diocesan programs for those in recovery.

In 1985, the Board developed a new set of Bylaws for the organization and completed work on more detailed procedures for the operation of the Board, the organization, and the International Conference.  In 1986, plans were underway for re-examining the direction and scope of NACSDC conferences, training, and the Advisory Board when NACSDC faced the sudden and sad death of Father Young. This news was received as a tremendous shock by countless people in the NACSDC community as well as in other communities.

In more recent years, NACSDC Board Members and leaders have had to address many issues, including the rotation of the International Conference around the country to make it more accessible to different regions, and the establishment of an Advisory Council which would be composed of those with specific kinds of training and assistance thought helpful to the NACSDC.  Issues on ways to reach and help hurting people who did not feel particularly “outcast” in the Church but still in need of pastoral care were also addressed.  How declining revenue and workers in Family Life offices affected separated and divorced persons, and how to respond to those who remarried, etc., also were dealt with.

Today, NACSDC has gained recognition and respect for its ministry and knowledge about divorcing people, especially Catholics.  It has a long history of names and places to which it has been present.  Some of its past board members and leaders have moved on to interesting new ministries while others such as Father Young, Bill Buckley, Anne Chesney and Frank Thiemann have arrived into life’s fullness.

In the face of competition from numerous self-help groups within the broader church and civic community, and in the face of tightened personal and church-related budgets, NACSDC must be faithful to determining its identity and mission for the people of the 1990's who experience the trauma of relationship loss.  The U.S. Census Bureau continues to predict that more than 40% of first marriages and some 50% of second marriages are expected to end in divorce.  Church demographers note that more than 50% of Catholics marry a non-Catholic, and that numerous Catholics who pursue second marriage, experience re-divorce.  How NACSDC will respond to the challenges and demographics of today constitutes the next phase.  It is within this context that leadership as a Board Member will be stretched and tapped.