Catholics in America are preparing to welcome Pope Francis, a pontiff who has quickly distinguished himself from his predecessors with his compassionate tone on divorce - a thorny subject that has driven many faithful Catholics away from the Church. Pavithra George reports.
(UPSOUND "It was hard for me to be forced to sit down and write about things that were extraordinarily painful to relive.") The memories of a traumatic annulment process 40 years ago are still fresh for Beverly Hawkins, a Catholic with a devout upbringing. (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARYLAND RESIDENT BEVERLY HAWKINS, SAYING : "I didn't chafe under the authority because I was so used to, today I don't think I couldn't go through it because of that forced intrusion into my personal life, if today I had to sit down and write that, I would find it very painful for that reason." Hawkins' story resonates with many who feel alienated by a Catholic Church where marriage is an indissoluble act and divorce remains unrecognized. Divorced Catholics looking to re-marry must get an annulment - whereby the Church decides that the first marriage was not valid. Those who skip the annulment and re-marry outside the Church are seen as adulterers and barred from receiving Communion - an integral Catholic ritual. Faced with large numbers of divorced Catholics turning away from the Church, Pope Francis has made headlines by re-opening a debate on how to welcome them back into the fold. SOUNDBITE) (English) FATHER JOHN BEAL, PROFESSOR OF CANON LAW AT THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA, SAYING: "That has always been the problem that the Catholic Church has tried to deal with --- How do you remain faithful to the fairly clear teaching of Jesus in the Gospel but on the other hand reach out with compassion and understanding to people who fall short, and we are again in the midst of a discussion about how do we do those two things, balance those two." And Francis is doing that with baby steps...telling priests, in August, that the divorced and civilly remarried were still welcome in the Church, and were never excommunicated. A month later he simplified the annulment process - the most radical such reform in 250 years. Church observers say what sets Francis apart from his predecessors is his gentle tone and his ability to be inclusive while staying true to traditional Church doctrine. SOUNDBITE) (English) JON O'BRIEN, PRESIDENT, CATHOLICS FOR CHOICE, SAYING: "People who are gay no longer feel pushed away, people who are divorced and remarried feel there's a possibility they can join us again at the Communion table. For those women who have abortions, for those women who use contraception, there's a certain sense that they are not being judged on that in the way that I think they felt they were being by other members of the hierarchy. Francis has said let's all come together be you perfect or not." That's the message many American Catholics hope Pope Francis will bring on his first visit to the United States - home to at least 11 million divorced Catholics - (SOUNDBITE) (English) MARYLAND RESIDENT BEVERLY HAWKINS, SAYING : "Many, many Catholics today feel that they don't need the authority of the Catholic Church to tell them that they have a holy marriage or they don't have a holy marriage. I think we have learnt to grow up and respect our own judgment, our relationship with God and we know what is loving, compassionate and needed for ourselves," The delicate subject of how the 1.2-billion-member Church should treat divorced Catholics will be a major issue at October's Synod of Bishops at the Vatican that will bring together Catholics bishops from around the world. And watching that closely will be millions of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics who are looking to some day fully participate in church life.