Before last month's cancellation of the pope's visit to Baltimore for health reasons, the Rev. Joseph F. Breighner had already decided to spend yesterday with divorced or separated Roman Catholics instead.
And the recent stern reminder from the Vatican that divorced Catholics who remarry may not receive Holy Communion -- unless they obtain an annulment or refrain from sex -- only reinforced Father Breighner's decision.
"This is my favorite ministry," the Baltimore priest told about 100 men and women with broken marriages at a meeting at Mercy High School.
He was there to give a two-part lecture, "Regaining Self-Esteem -- Rebuilding Relationships," one of a series arranged by Sister of Mercy M. Joannes Clifford.
Father Breighner, who is well-known in the Baltimore Archdiocese for his syndicated radio show, his weekly column in the Catholic Review, his counseling and his retreats, offered a personal reason for close identification with the group.
"My own parents were separated. They were never divorced. If they had been divorced, I would not have been allowed in the seminary," the priest explained, recalling a time of harsher church attitudes toward broken marriages. He was ordained in 1971.
Even when it was thought that Pope John Paul II would be the center of a Mass at Camden Yards, a parade through downtown and several other local appearances yesterday, Father Breighner knew he would have an audience at Mercy High School.
"I knew that if there was one group that would not feel all that excited about the pope coming to town, that feels disenfranchised, it would be separated and divorced Catholics," the priest said to applause.
In his two-hour talk, enlivened with homespun stories, jokes and blackboard outlines, Father Breighner underscored psychological differences between men and women that often lead to misunderstandings and estrangement. He did not dwell on the warning from the Vatican about the need for annulments.
With an obvious lack of enthusiasm for the Oct. 14 letter from a doctrinal watchdog agency, approved by the pope, Father Breighner said, "It was a reaffirmation of an old church teaching -- there was nothing new in it.
"So often, the church's ministry to the separated and divorced seems negative, doesn't it? And that's not what Jesus is all about, is it?"
Speaking of what might have been his own exclusion from seminary studies if his parents had divorced, the priest said, "The Lord wouldn't do that. The Lord doesn't exclude people."
In a brief interview, Father Breighner defended the annulment process as it is practiced in the Baltimore Archdiocese, praising the church professionals who administer it. But he also referred to recent articles in Catholic magazines calling the annulment requirement and procedures antiquated.
One such article, in the November issue of U.S. Catholic, recommends that the Catholic Church treat what amounts to a "dead" marriage the way it treats a marriage actually ended by the death of one of the spouses.
"And so when divorced persons come to remarry," writes the Rev. Richard T. Szafranski, who obtained his doctorate in ministry from St. Mary's Seminary and University in Baltimore, "the Catholic Church doesn't need annulments. The church needs to welcome and celebrate with these persons as they begin to find life again."
The recent nine-page letter from the Vatican was reportedly aimed especially at bishops, priests and theologians in Germany and the United States who have suggested that if Catholics are truly convinced their first marriage was invalid, they may in good conscience exempt themselves from the need for an annulment.
Catholic annulments can be expensive and take a long time, although experiences vary widely from diocese to diocese and from country to country.
Father Breighner's advice yesterday focused on what he said is God's "unconditional love" for people hurting from marital difficulties. Divine forgiveness, healing and hope are "really the way life is," the priest said, if people can be brought to recognize it.
He offered lists of practical suggestions that were specific to the men and women in his audience. To the women, he said, "Ask for what you want, you are worth it." To the men, he said, "One of the most important things you can learn is how to say, 'I'm sorry.' "