success stories

Posted August 14, 2003

Milwaukee priest uncovers spirituality in divorce

By Julie Mickles
Catholic News Service

"Ordinarily we think divorce is a bad thing ... a sinful thing. That isn't necessarily the case."

So says Salvatorian Father Andre Papineau, chaplain to the separated and divorced in Milwaukee and associate professor of pastoral studies at the Sacred Heart School of Theology there.

"Divorce may in fact be the first step toward reconciliation with the person they have been married to," he added.

Unhealthy relationships are not good for anyone, Father Papineau told The Catholic Commentator, newspaper of the Baton Rouge Diocese, in an interview prior to leading a daylong workshop in the diocese.

Once a couple separates, they can cease being mutually destructive and can create a more peaceful environment for their children, he added.

The idea of spirituality being connected to divorce may seem odd, especially to persons who have experienced a nasty divorce. However, Father Papineau uses three themes -- breaking up, breaking down and breaking through -- to show that divorce can be a time of hope and healing.

The breakup, the physical ending of marriage, is a couple becoming two people, he explained, and the breakdown is the grieving period. Father Papineau calls this stage the "liminal stage," coming from the Latin word meaning threshold.

"You're not in one room or the other. Neither here, nor there. You're not sure who you are at this time," he said. But this period of breakdown can be a period of tremendous self-discovery, a time to act upon potential never realized before, he added.

"Endings make room for new beginnings," he said. Father Papineau said that during the confusion that accompanies the liminal period, it is natural for an individual to draw inward, to cocoon or hibernate. He said the person begins to ask the big questions: "Who am I?" "Where am I headed?" "Where is God when I need him?"

Father Papineau said that any painful transition can make a person question his or her relationship with God. But this can be a good thing, he said.

When people in transition are asked how they are doing, he said, the answer is often, "Oh, I'm hanging in there." The feeling of being unable to do anything but hold on is what he described as a moment of crucifixion.

While on the cross, Jesus couldn't do anything but hang there, he said. And Jesus too had questions, crying, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

But Father Papineau said that in this darkest moment a transformation can begin.

"Dying and rising in Christ is more than something on a banner in church," he said. "You can see in a very real way, over a period of time, how you can die and rise again."

He cautioned that the breakdown time, a period of confusion and sometimes depression, cannot be rushed and is appropriate at certain times like divorce. It's important to mourn the loss of what was and what may have been, he said.

But, when the dying is over, one must allow the resurrection to begin, Father Papineau urged. It is at this time that a person can become whole, can become the person God intends him or her to be, he said.

A bad marriage could have made it impossible for the person to follow God's plan, he said. So although the divorce may have been exceptionally painful, it may also have been exactly what was needed to happen to reach the happiness God has in store for his children, according to the priest.

Once the breakdown has been experienced, the breakthrough begins to happen, he said. Now the person begins to feel hope and healing and can see a bright horizon, and he or she comes out of the cocoon and experiences life in an entirely new way, he said.

Father Papineau is also the author of the book "Breaking Up, Down and Through & Discovering Spiritual and Physical Opportunities in Your Transitions," published by Paulist Press.