Pope Francis is giving hope to another group historically marginalized by the church. During a recent morning Mass, he made news when he said the divorced should be "accompanied," not "condemned.”
This message will be balm to many divorced Christians—Catholic or not—who have had fellow believers heap shame and judgment on top of the pain that accompanies the loss of a marriage. It’s also a reminder that while the church has caused plenty of pain, it is meant to be a place of incredible healing.
When I was going through my own divorce, I found a church that practiced what the Pope is preaching. There, I met a woman I’ll call Amanda, who became a dear friend. Her story contrasts the two approaches to divorce in the church that Pope Francis highlighted.
At 22, Amanda married a man who began sexually and emotionally abusing her. “It was a daily onslaught,” she recalled to me recently. As a faithful Christian who didn’t believe in divorce, she did everything she could to make the marriage work. Instead, it only got worse.
Six years in, she went to her pastor for help. She told me, “I was desperate. I told him, ‘He is abusing me every single day, what am I supposed to do?’ He said, ‘Since there haven’t been any affairs in your marriage, you have no biblical grounds for divorce.’ I was on the floor of his office sobbing. He told me, ‘You need to pray for strength.’ I remember thinking, ‘What do you think I have been doing for the past six years?’ I left feeling like something was wrong with me.”
She stayed in the marriage as it continued to deteriorate. Two years later, she discovered her husband was cheating on her and told a different pastor at the same church she wanted a divorce. She had previously shared the entire story of abuse with him. Amanda was devastated when he replied coldly, “I am not speaking to you unless it is about reconciliation.”
Amanda then started working remotely for an evangelical Christian organization in Washington, D.C. that rescues people trapped in slavery. A few months after she started her job, Amanda called her boss and blurted out, “I’m being abused. I have to get a divorce.” Her boss replied, “Getting people out of abusive situations is what we do.”
Recognizing the danger Amanda was in, her boss wanted to get her away from her husband as quickly as possible. She immediately made arrangements for Amanda to move in with another employee who lived in a nearby city. When Amanda announced she was leaving her husband, everyone in her church stopped speaking to her. She says, “I felt condemned. There were days that I couldn’t get out bed and just cried and cried. All at once, I lost my friends, community, church and marriage.”
Soon after, says Amanda, “My boss made the decision to move me to D.C. to be surrounded by a real Christian community.” Once in D.C., things started to change. “At work, there was a community that surrounded me to walk me through this really dark period of my life without judgment and shame," she recalled. "These were people who had poured their own resources to move me to D.C. so I wouldn’t be alone. It was the first time I discovered what the church was supposed to be like.”
Even though she was still scarred by her experience with her church back home, a work friend convinced her to give church a second chance. One Sunday, she joined him for a service at his church and liked what she saw. She kept coming back.
She met other people who had gone through—or were in the midst of—painful divorces. She was encouraged. She remembers realizing, “These are people who have been through what I have been through, and people are loving them and accepting them and the church is walking them through this. I was watching people come out of these painful experiences and not just survive, but thrive.”
The church ended up being “an amazing place of healing,” says Amanda. “It was the first time I felt like there was no shame in my story. I had felt a lot of shame at my old church. I realized, ‘God has brought me here and he brought me here to heal me.’”
Amanda became friends with a man who was deeply involved in the church. After a while, they began dating. Still new to the church, she was worried. She says, “I remember thinking our pastor wouldn’t want me to date him because I was damaged goods. But he was so excited for us.”
So excited, that last year he officiated their wedding.
Pope Francis told an interviewer last year that the church should be a, “field hospital after battle.” He added, “The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity.”
Which is why, as he exhorted Christians to support divorced people, he reminded them that, “[W]hen…love fails—because many times it fails—we have to feel the pain of the failure, [we must] accompany those people who have had this failure in their love. [W]alk with them.” Help them heal.