Say the word “vegetable” and pretty much everyone knows what you are talking about, don’t they? We all know what a vegetable is. Yet, there are many different kinds of vegetables. Just the single word “vegetable” is hardly precise or sufficient enough to give the clarity we may need to have a meaningful conversation. Now, say the word “divorce” and something similar happens. We all know what a divorce is. Yet, in reality, as with vegetables, there are many various kinds of divorces or, better put, there are many different reasons why a divorce may take place in the life of a married couple. It is not enough to simply speak of divorce as if it is the same at all times and in all cases.
I will never forget a very beloved aunt of mine in our Irish Catholic family. The unthinkable happened. My dear, special aunt was divorced! But hardly does the word give sufficient awareness as to what happened to cause the divorce and why the divorce in my aunt’s case was the best solution to what may have been a very unhappy marriage. Yet, in those days, for a person to be divorced meant that they were seen as having seriously failed and, consequently, were seen by many as no longer being first-class, worthy Catholics.
In our Gospel, we read that Jesus was being tested by the Pharisees who asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause whatever?” Their intent once again was to attempt to trap Jesus by pitting him between the letter and the spirit or intent of the law concerning a man and woman becoming one flesh in marriage. Jesus responds very clearly upholding the sacred nature of marriage and condemning the divorce the Pharisees were speaking of. But what was in Jesus’ heart as he responded to these hypocrites? Was he speaking of divorce as the totally forbidden result of a loveless marriage or was he referring to the hardness of hearts exhibited by the hypocrisy of the Pharisees?
A few years ago, Pope Francis spoke of divorced Catholics, a very large population of good men and women who sit in our pews Sunday after Sunday. In his words, we are perhaps given insight into what was in the heart of Jesus when he encountered the Pharisees. Pope Francis spoke with great love about our divorced brothers and sisters. He said, “People who started a new union after the defeat of their sacramental marriage are not at all excommunicated, and they absolutely must not be treated that way,” the pontiff told pilgrims and tourists at his first general audience after a summer break. “They always belong to the church.” In fact, he went on to say that the Church is a mother who never stops loving her children!
Hopefully, the Gospel encounter in today’s liturgy of the Word between the love of Jesus and the hypocrisy of the Pharisees invites us to reflect on our own attitudes toward those who are divorced and remarried. Ideally, following the heart of Jesus and the compassion of Pope Francis, we will not have hardened hearts like the Pharisees and will try to listen to everyone’s story with compassion and love. Just as there are many different kinds of vegetables, so also are there many different reasons for divorce and, hence, many ways to see those who are divorced and now remarried. They remain our brothers and sisters deserving of our love.
Fr. Pat Brennan, C.P. is the director of Saint Paul of the Cross Passionist Retreat and Conference Center, Detroit, Michigan.