LAND O' LAKES — As if his divorce in 2004 wasn't excruciating enough, Denny Holm had to deal with another heartache relating to his marital split.
“I felt like I was no longer part of my church,” says Holm, 58, a lifelong Catholic.
“I knew how the lepers felt back in Jesus' day. People would look at you like they were afraid they were going to catch something.”
As members of a church that espouses the sanctity of marriage and family life, it's understandable that divorced Catholics feel out of the mainstream after their marriages break up.
Even Pope Francis is aware of the issue called “the divorce dilemma.”
In late July, during an impromptu news conference after World Youth Day festivities, the pope said he would make pastoral response a “high priority” regarding Communion for divorced Catholics who remarry without an annulment.
Though most Catholics are skeptical of any sweeping changes to church practice, that the pope even addressed this concern is reason for optimism.
And it comes at a pivotal time. That feeling of alienation leads many divorced Catholics to just walk away from their faith. That exodus likely is contributing to an alarming statistic released last year by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life: One in 10 Americans is an ex-Catholic.
But Holm didn't want to leave. A member of Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic Church parish in Land O' Lakes, he was determined to make his peace and find his place in the church he considered home.
He did it through a national program tailored to people in his position: The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide. When Our Lady of the Rosary instituted the program a year ago, it became the first church to do so in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg and one of only 10 in Florida.
“There are a lot of programs out there for divorced people, but none that speak specifically to Catholics,” says Holm, 58, a regional director for a pharmaceutical chain. “We have our own spiritual issues; we have the sacraments. This program gets at the heart of what is important to us.”
It's also a myth-buster. Many divorced Catholics think a broken marriage means they can't receive Communion (not true), leads to ex-communication (not true either), and that annulments are outrageously expensive and wipe out the validity of the failed marriage and the children who came from it (also false).
Holm, a parish council member at Our Lady of the Rosary, says the program was an “eye-opener.”
“It even changed my attitude about life after divorce and how I look at dating now,” he says. “It puts you in the mind-set that you date spiritually with humanness involved, not just sexuality.”
The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide, which has the seal of approval from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, was developed a few years ago by a Catholic author and speaker from California with a string of three broken marriages.
“I wasn't doing it right,” admits Rose Sweet in a phone interview. “Let's just say I didn't practice my faith sincerely. I was very motivated to change my attitude and, ultimately, my life, but I couldn't find the guidance I needed that worked within the framework of my Catholicism.”
Using the Protestant-based DivorceCare program as a reference, Sweet set out to create a Catholic version. She handpicked 12 divorced laypeople to tell their personal stories on video, with commentaries by Catholic priests and theologians. That professional leadership on camera is supplemented by a trained group leader at the meetings for a 12-week session.
In less than two years the program expanded to 200 Catholic churches across the country as well as Puerto Rico and Canada. It even helped Sweet, who now is happily married to her fourth husband, “in the eyes of God and doing it right.”
“There was a need, and we filled it,” she says of the program. “I can tell you that priests are grateful because we've taken a load off of their shoulders. Parishioners who unloaded on them now have a place to deal with the pain and the healing.”
The Rev. Ron Aubin, pastor at Our Lady of the Rosary, is one of those grateful priests. As a judge on the diocese'stribunal, which oversees annulment requests, he has heard all the tragic stories associated with divorce and the emotions that go with it.
“Guilt, shame, anger, depression. You name it,” he says. When he went to a national conference and heard a presentation by Sweet on the newly developed Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide, he asked Holm to check it out.
“He got excited about it, and we went with it,” Aubin says. “And all reports tell us this is a positive and worthwhile ministry. We're certainly not the only church with divorced Catholics in this diocese, so I'd like to see other parishes catch the fire and offer this.”
Tennille Vega, a speech and language pathologist for Pasco County schools, looked for a faith-based divorce support group after her four-year marriage ended. All she could find was a DivorceCare program at a Baptist church.
“There were too many unanswered questions for me,” she says. When her church offered The Catholic's Divorce Survival Guide, Vega immediately felt at home with its language, theology and how the program dealt with those unanswered questions. It also boosted her spirits and helped with the healing process.
A “darkness lifted,” she says. “I took the sacrament of marriage seriously,” she says. “And when it didn't work, I felt like a failure and I felt like I had failed God. And no one does guilt better than Catholics.”
Now she's one of the group's leaders, as is Gary Montoute, whose 13-year marriage ended in 2007.
Montoute says he was “so embarrassed and ashamed” about his divorce that he wouldn't let his teenage daughter discuss it with him or her friends. But after attending his first Survival Guide meeting, he came home and apologized to her.
“I learned very quickly that it's not something to hide from and, if anything, you have to deal with it openly and honestly,” says Montoute, 43, a management account representative for a for-profit college. “The starting point has to be getting to that place of forgiveness, first for yourself and then for others.”
He's in the midst of getting an annulment. It's a process that costs $300 and takes nearly a year of filling out paperwork, answering personal questions and securing witnesses. He understands now that it doesn't mean he didn't have a valid, civil marriage; it only means that the marriage did not meet the church's criteria for a sacramental union, the way Christ intended.
His shame has been replaced by optimism. Montoute “absolutely” hopes to be married again someday. He credits the program for giving him back that sense of belonging and worth.
“We have a lot of people out there, lost in the pews or who have gone away completely,” he says. “And if they're looking for a way back, we have that door. They just have to walk through it.”