As Pope Francis and other church leaders discern help for Catholics who are divorced, a small, quiet group is celebrating 40 years of outreach to the same growing population.

Beginning Experience has an active Oregon chapter available for those going through one of the most painful emotional experiences.

The association for those grieving divorce, separation or death of a spouse was founded by Sister Josephine Stewart, a Texas Sister of St. Mary of Namur who counseled families and who had worked on a marriage tribunal. Her colleague was Jo Lamia, a Dallas lay woman whose marriage had broken apart. The two devised a weekend retreat program, the first one presented in October 1974.

Beginning Experience spread across the nation and other countries.

Lamia died in 1987 and Sister Josephine in May.  

Beginning Experience of Oregon holds weekends The sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharist are part of the process.

“We hope we can really listen to hurting people and be instruments in the transformation God works in them through us,” says JoAnne Paxton, local coordinator. She says the group has a strong conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work on the weekends.

Experienced leaders like Paxton tell personal stories of pain and healing, often explaining how they felt the presence of Jesus in their trials.

“That’s how we get to people where they are, and get them trusting God again,” says Paxton, explaining that divorce can cause people to lose their faith.  

Beginning Experience is founded on the theology of resurrection. Paxton says many divorced people experience a kind of death, but never get to the transformation and rising. If retreat-goers can in turn tell their stories, that often initiates healing.      

Leaders of Beginning Experience are focusing on reaching more people, aware that many who need it never come. Paxton has become a celebrity of sorts for creating lapel buttons that say, “Ask Me about B.E.” She wears one and when people ask in places like grocery stores, street corners and at church, she gets a chance to explain. Beginning Experience chapters around the world are asking her for the buttons.

Paxton, a member of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Vancouver, Wash., and other Beginning Experience volunteers have been speaking at vicariate meetings and phoning priests in western Oregon to let pastors know they have a place to refer people hurting from divorce.    

After weekends come follow up sessions. New programs will focus on vision, leadership and building long-term happiness. Beginning Experience hopes to organize weekends for children and young adults.

“It’s not a group you join, it’s a movement that helps you move along in your healing process,” Paxton says.

Connecticut-based Beginning Experience has chapters across the U.S.

“I have seen countless individuals come to the weekend on Friday evening broken and suffering and leave on Sunday hopeful and on the road to healing,” says George Rigazzi from the Office of Family Life in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City.
About 20 percent of U.S. Catholics have experienced divorce, according to the General Social Survey at the University of Chicago.

Bethany Meola, assistant director in the U.S. bishops' Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, described the work of the church with divorced, separated and remarried Catholics as accompaniment, a term often cited by Pope Francis.

"It's that sense of making sure that they don't consider themselves separated from the church, that they realize they are baptized Catholics, they are members of the church, they are called to participate with the church, attend Mass, pray, be present with the church," Meola explains.

German Cardinal Walter Kasper, former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, addressed concerns surrounding divorced and remarried Catholics in the Sept. 15 issue of America magazine.

Acknowledging that the indissolubility of marriage is specified in canon law, Cardinal Kasper cited Pope Francis' repeated calls for a more merciful church in making a carefully constructed argument that mercy must be at the heart of the church's outreach efforts, including those to divorced and remarried Catholics. Cardinal Kasper wrote that the Gospel "is against a legalistic understanding of canon law."

Not everyone agrees with the nuances. U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke, whose Vatican office handles declarations of nullity, told the National Catholic Register that the church must maintain the truth about marriage while being compassionate and welcoming.

“The Church holds the person to the truth of that marriage, while at the same time being compassionate, understanding the situation of the person, welcoming them into the parish community in ways that are appropriate and trying to help them to lead as holy a life as they can, but without betraying the truth about their marriage,” Cardinal Burke told the newspaper.

Such questions are being weighed by church leaders at the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, which runs through Oct. 19.