Divorced Catholics cheer Pope Francis' views on modern family

Story highlights

  • "He's shining a light in this darkness, and that's a wonderful thing," a divorced Catholic says of Pope Francis
  • Francis urges priests to be more accepting of divorced Catholics
  • Pope is trying to influence pastoral behavior without changing doctrine, he says

(CNN)Pope Francis' call for mercy toward divorced Catholics arrived as "a breath of fresh air," Vince Frese says.

As a conservative Catholic, he's endured it all: married, divorced, secured an annulment and remarried.
    For so long, the Catholic Church offered nothing to its divorced faithful such as Frese, who became a single parent after winning custody of his three daughters. Divorced parishioners felt excommunicated by the church, which has long disdained divorce. Many just went to another Christian denomination, but not Frese.
    "They don't feel welcomed and they don't feel understood and they're hurting and they need help," Frese said.
    Vince Frese appeared on his Twitter account beside wife Monica on their way to attend a retreat for divorced Catholics for the Diocese of Toledo.
    But the Pope on Friday spotlighted this "underserved" flock by issuing a sweeping statement instructing priests to be more welcoming to divorced Catholics.
    The declaration promises a new era for Frese, 55, a software firm owner who lives with his family outside Atlanta. He and wife Monica, who also went through a divorce with children and an annulment, now have seven children together.
    "He's shining a light in this darkness, and that's a wonderful thing," Frese said. "The Pope is saying we need to help these people, and that's why ultimately I think it's going to help."

    Don't 'pigeonhole' those who divorce

    The Pope calls on pastors not to "pigeonhole" divorced Catholics but to use their own judgment about how to integrate them into the church.
    Divorced Catholics, which Francis described as living in an "irregular situation," must be integrated into the church.
    "The divorced who have entered a new union should be made to feel part of the Church," the Pope wrote. "Christian communities must not abandon divorced parents who have entered a new union."
    Francis added: "It can no longer simply be said that all those living in any 'irregular situation' are living in a state of mortal sin."
    The Pope also urged individual parishes to interpret doctrine in accordance with their community's culture.

    'Everybody has a shot here'

    Under church teaching, remarried Catholics without an annulment of the prior marriage are considered adulterers and cannot receive Holy Communion.
    The Rev. Edward Beck, a CNN religion commentator, interpreted Francis's new statement as providing a way to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion. Francis has already moved to make it easier to get an annulment.
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    "What he's saying is if you are divorced and you have remarried and haven't been able to get an annulment for some reason, that maybe for you, you can enter into this process, and communion can be possible," Beck said.
    But the parishioners must speak with their pastor about the matter, Beck said.
    "It is saying everybody has a shot here, but not everybody reaches it perfectly all at once," Beck said of the Pope's pronouncement.
    The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and writer, called the Pope's paper a "groundbreaking new document."
    But Candida Moss, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said "there were no bombshells" in the Pope's statement, which she described as "toothless, even if it is pastorally sensitive," she wrote for CNN Opinion.
    Some Catholics took exception with the Pope.
    "We can't make changes. It's not like it's a democratic thing, where Jesus gives us a vote," Phil Adargo, a Denver Catholic attending Mass on Friday evening, told CNN affiliate KMGH. "It's been the same for 2,000 years."
    Francis's statement is called an apostolic exhortation, in which a pope urges Catholics to behave in a particular way. Friday's statement is called "On Love in the Family" in English and "Amoris Laetitia" in Latin.
    According to Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, of 30 million married Catholics in the United States, 4.5 million are divorced and remarried without an annulment.

    'Let God work out the details'

    For his part, Frese took the initiative to help divorced Catholics.
    He developed a program to help them heal, now writes a blog at VinceFrese.com, founded a divorced Catholic ministry at his parish, and co-wrote the book "Divorced. Catholic. Now What?"
    Vince Frese speaks to divorced Catholics at a retreat held by the Diocese of Toledo.
    "Right now, on average, less than 15% of parishes have any support for divorced Catholics," Frese said.
    The Pope is seeking to influence pastoral behavior without changing doctrine that he cannot change, Frese said.
    "What he is trying to say is, 'Don't get all focused on the rules, let's be merciful to them and let God work out the details,' " he said.
    About a quarter of American Catholics have experienced divorce, according to the Pew Research Center, a think tank in Washington. That's slightly lower than the national average of 30% as of last year.

    Sitting in the back row

    Other Catholics also found hope in the Pope's declaration.
    Annette was 31, living more than 6,000 miles from home with three young children, when she decided she had to leave her husband.
    "I experienced great violence and the doctors asked me how many times they were going to have to patch me up," she recalled Friday, nearly 50 years later.
    Back home in Glasgow, Scotland, as a single mother in the late 1960s, she had difficulty supporting herself, getting a mortgage -- and going to church. (CNN chose not to use Annette's last name because she says she was a victim of domestic violence.)
    "All I did really was confuse the community," she said. "It would have been easier for them to accept me as the mother of three illegitimate children than as the divorced mother of three children."
    She doubts the bishops in her day had "true understanding of what human relationships were," accusing them of "draconian" decisions, she said.
    Today, she hopes that era is relegated to bygones under Francis's new announcement, she said.
    Annette, now 80, never had her marriage annulled, but she attends church and participates in confession and Holy Communion.
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    She doesn't know whether her priest is aware that she's divorced.
    "I don't care anymore," she said with a laugh.
    But she said she hopes the Pope's statement will help others.
    "I have been in touch with over 400 divorced Catholics. Many have accepted that the church has nothing more to say to them. Many sit in the back rows of their churches, contritely, for some reason," she said.
    Neither option is good enough, she said.
    "If someone is looking for ... a community of welcome and comfort and understanding, it shouldn't be an exclusive community," she said. "None of us are perfect. Even bishops."