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Bishop Lynch optimistic after Vatican meeting on divorced and gay Catholics

ST. PETERSBURG — For more than a year, Susan Portal and her husband, Paul, attended Sunday Mass, but were not allowed to receive communion, the central sacrament of the Catholic Church.

The couple had been waiting for his marriage to be annulled by a church tribunal and they married in a civil ceremony so they could bring his son, Luke, then 9, into their home. But marrying outside the church after a divorce barred them from the sacrament.

"It was hard," she recalled. "That is such an important part of the Mass for us and here we had a son who was able to receive and we were not."

Whether to reform the policy proved to be controversial for the almost 200 cardinals and bishops Pope Francis summoned to Rome earlier this month for a meeting that wrestled with how to minister to modern-day families in a world often at odds with Catholic teaching.

In the end, church leaders departed without a consensus on pastoral care for divorced, remarried and cohabitating couples. And after making what appeared to be a groundbreaking overture to gay members, settled on language that was more muted.

Despite the disagreements, Bishop Robert Lynch of the Diocese of St. Petersburg, a body of almost a half-million Catholics in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Hernando, Citrus and Pasco counties, said the gathering represented "an important moment of honesty and collegiality" in the Catholic Church.

Lynch, who did not attend the meeting that ended last week, is optimistic about the eventual outcome of some discussions.

"To find a way to reconcile divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacraments while still honoring the indissolubility of marriage came very close to passing,'' he said. "By no means is it over on this particular issue.

"I think the U.S. bishops are searching for a way to reconcile the divorced and remarried Catholics. I think it can be done. I think it is closer to reality than it was two weeks ago."

The Portals, who married in a civil ceremony in January 2011, could not have a church wedding until after Paul Portal, 52, had his annulment granted by the Diocese of St. Augustine. A parishioner at St. Raphael's in St. Petersburg, Susan Portal, 46, hopes other couples will benefit from a change in policy.

"If there could be some type of dispensation for people that are going through the (annulment) process and have gotten married civilly for the sake of children, that would obviously be ideal," she said.

David Ridenour, coordinator of the tribunal that handles annulments locally, said the process can take up to 18 months.

"It is a real commitment to wish to return to sacraments," he said of those going through the procedure so as to regain full standing in the church.

The diocese averages about 150 to 175 annulments out of more than 300 petitions a year, he said. Tribunal judges, most of them priests, have canon law degrees. During the process, they examine a marriage by taking written and oral testimony from the couple and witnesses. There are also documents such as baptismal certificates to be gathered. The panel then makes its decision by focusing on whether the relationship conformed to church teachings and expectations, said Ridenour, a lawyer with degrees in theology and canon law.

In their meeting in Rome, a proposal to grant dispensation to divorced and remarried Catholics in some cases — particularly involving children — failed to get the two-thirds majority required.

Writing in his blog this week, Lynch said he knows "my diocese wants to see some form of relief to those who have divorced."

While he wants doctrine to be upheld, Lynch said he thinks there are ways the church can reach out to those "who erred in their first choice of spouse and now find themselves in a loving, caring, mutually trusting and giving relationship."

The Rome meeting, or synod, also did not agree about gays in the church. A section titled "The pastoral care of people with homosexual orientation" dismissed recognition of same-sex unions. "Nevertheless," it said, "men and women with homosexual tendencies must be accepted with respect and sensitivity."

In his blog, Lynch noted that he knows his diocese "wants to see us welcome members of the gay and lesbian community."

He added though, that he "cannot promise them that we will ever be likely to recognize the nature of their unions as sacramental, but if they are willing to accept that reality, then they can be full participants in the life of the Church."

This month's Rome meeting will be followed by another next October, when church leaders will make final recommendations to the pope.

Meanwhile, the debate will continue among Catholics around the world.

"The process didn't end last Saturday," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter.

"I think the most extraordinary thing is we're having a conversation in the Catholic Church on a lot of these issues we couldn't talk about before. . . . This isn't about who wins, but the best pastoral solutions to deal with these issues."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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