Deepening Formation

New Ministry Accompanies Women and Men in Irregular Marriage Situations Who Long for the Eucharist

As a newly ordained priest in 2020 at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Fr. John Joseph Bourque CJC, of the Diocese of Lafayette, LA, was assigned to hospital ministry. While providing sacramental ministry to nursing home residents, he encountered those who longed to receive Holy Communion but could not do so due to an irregular marriage status. Father observed, “It was so discouraging that I could not offer them the Eucharist. I felt I had to do something about it.” This experience gave rise to a “call within a call” in his priestly ministry: outreach to separated and divorced Catholics who often feel alienated from the Church.

Church Support for Separated, Divorced, and Remarried Catholics

Even faithful Catholics experience the pain of separation and civil divorce, and many misunderstand the consequences of their separated or divorced state. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that sometimes separation or civil divorce might be the only option for safeguarding the spouse, children, or other legal rights; in these cases, divorce can be tolerated (see CCC, no. 2383). The Synod of Bishops in 2014 noted that there are “divorced people who have not remarried, who oftentimes bear witness to their promise of faithfulness in marriage” (no. 50). The synod fathers add that these individuals “ought to be encouraged to find in the Eucharist the nourishment they need to sustain them in their present state of life” (no. 50). Pope Francis affirms the Church’s teaching on the remarriage of divorced persons (see CCC, no. 1665), writing that these individuals are not excommunicated “and they should not be treated as such, since they remain part of the ecclesial community” (Amoris Laetitiae, no. 243).

It's important to note that in cases where the Church has declared null what was once considered a valid marriage (often colloquially called an annulment), individuals who wish to marry again must do so in the Church—or receive convalidation from the Church—for the marriage to be valid and to be in good standing with the Church.

Catholics experiencing separation and divorce need Church support. When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church encourages those who have not remarried to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Holy Eucharist. Those who have remarried before obtaining an annulment can participate in the Eucharistic life of the Church through Eucharistic adoration and Spiritual Communion. Although Spiritual Communion is not the sacramental reception of the Body and Blood of Christ, it is an opportunity to encounter the Real Presence. The practice of spiritual communion can open a person’s heart to seek a regularization of their marriage and resume full communion with the Church. Pope St. John Paul II affirmed that by virtue of Baptism, “the divorced and remarried are and remain her members” (Address to the Pontifical Council for the Family, January 24, 1997).

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Eucharistic-Centered Ministry

Father John Joseph’s congregation, the Community of Jesus Crucified, ministers to the marginalized, sick, dying, nursing home residents, the poor, and those experiencing mental illness. The community is Eucharistic-centered, with clerical and lay members spending an hour each morning and each evening in Eucharistic adoration. Married and lay single members live in their own homes, while the priests, brothers, and servant sisters live a communal life, participating in the daily celebration of the Eucharist, the source of their strength for ministry as contemplative missionaries.

Eucharistic adoration was an integral part of Father John Joseph’s priestly formation. As a student at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans, LA, he instituted nighttime Adoration among his fellow seminarians. Father shared that the Eucharist energizes his priestly ministry. He also related that bringing the Eucharist to the bedside of the dying is a powerful moment of encounter between the communicant and the Eucharistic Lord.

Meeting the Needs of Those Recovering from Divorce

Father commented that while divorce recovery programs existed, they did not meet the needs of those he ministered to. Wanting to bring these men and women back to the Sacrament, he witnessed the transformative effect of Eucharistic adoration in the lives of divorced and separated Catholics. He was introduced to Alison Howard, a divorced mother of a pre-teenager. Alison regularly attended Eucharistic adoration, describing it as “life-changing”. Alison, several other women, and Father John Joseph were instrumental in establishing Woman at the Well of Love Ministries, a non-profit Christian ministry serving separated, divorced, or remarried women. Father shared that “the initial meeting with Alison and the other women was difficult but fruitful, like Jesus encountering the woman at the well. They all felt hurt and rejected by the Church, but we can be the Church reaching out to them just as Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman.”

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Women and men respond differently to separation and divorce. Tim, a divorced father of three adult children, is a member of Just Men, a program for divorced or separated Catholic men organized by Father John Joseph. A cradle Catholic, Tim had considered the possibility of a priestly vocation but ultimately married and had three children. He and his first wife divorced in 2001 after five years of marriage, having had no children together. Tim, now civilly remarried and the father of three young girls, is in the process of obtaining an annulment of his first marriage. Although Tim and his wife are unable to receive the Eucharist due to his irregular marital status, they continue to attend Sunday Mass with their daughters.

Desiring a deeper faith life, Tim sought a spiritual director and encountered Father John Joseph who was forming Just Men. The group meets each Saturday morning for Mass, breakfast, and fellowship. The Eucharist is central, and Tim remarked that developing a relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist has helped him deepen his faith and remain open to the graces he needs to persevere in the annulment process and persevere toward the hoped-for day of having his current marriage convalidated.

Black-and-white close-up of a priest distributing Holy Communion

Hope for Healing

Women at the Well of Love and Just Men ministries incorporate key principles articulated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church for individuals journeying to post-divorce healing: “to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance…” (CCC, no. 1651). These are important spiritual or practical means for any separated or divorced Catholic man or woman to achieve healing and a renewed relationship with Jesus in the Eucharist. Father reflected, “If Jesus chose the woman at the well to be a heroine in John’s Gospel, it will be the divorced and remarried people who will be among the heroes and heroines of the Eucharistic Revival.”