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(Photo by Tom Burke/Catholic San Francisco)

Jesuit Father Al Grosskopf

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Jesuit priest reflects on 40-year ministry to divorced Catholics
February 2nd, 2011
By Tom Burke

Now almost 40 years “in training” as counselor and friend to divorced men and women, Jesuit Father Al Grosskopf is known as a leader in the ministry.

If there is one statement he has heard most often from divorced people since the beginning of those four decades, it may be this: “I thought the church was against divorce.”

He tells them they’re right. And then he tells them something else: “The church is against divorce and divorced people are strongly against divorce, but the church is not against divorced people.”

Father Grosskopf recounted that typical exchange with a ready smile. His easy and knowing manner has brought comfort to probably thousands of people through the years, although he is reticent to guess at an exact number.

The priest established one of the first Catholic divorce support groups in California at a parish in San Jose. The group, New Horizons, continues its work today.

Father Grosskopf said divorce can evoke feelings of isolation and loneliness from those involved and often the notion that the divorced person is the first person ever to go through the experience.

People also may feel excluded from the church, and burdened with a sense of failure and a sense of loss that hinges on “loss of a dream – the dream of a successful marriage,” Father Grosskopf said.

Divorce support groups furnish a means for people to share their painful experiences with others who also know the experience, Father Grosskopf pointed out.

In his work today, at age 80 and a parochial vicar at San Francisco’s St. Ignatius Parish, Father Grosskopf includes ministry with a divorce support group. He assists many couples in preparing petitions for declarations of nullity – known commonly as annulments.

“I prefer declaration of nullity to annulment,” Father Grosskopf said. The idea that children born of subsequently voided marriages are illegitimate is a myth, he said.

“That is not true,” he explained. “There was a legal marriage, although it might have fallen short of being an intimate partnership of married life and love established by God and as taught by Vatican II.”

People seeking nullifications of marriage work their causes through diocesan tribunals. “I find the men and women of our tribunals are very sensitive to the pain of the petitioners,” Father Grosskopf said. “Theirs is a ministry of remarkable compassion and sensitivity.”

The first step for anyone investigating a declaration of nullity is to approach a priest they know and trust. “This can be vital to the journey,” Father Grosskopf said.

Good marriages begin with strong marriage preparation, Father Grosskopf said. “My many years of ministry with divorced people have convinced me of the importance of the church’s insistence on adequate marriage preparation.”

He said a major problem in marriages today is fear both of failure and of a lifetime commitment, especially if the person has not witnessed a healthy and loving marriage in his or her growing-up years.

“Only in an environment of shared trust can love grow and develop, a love that can form the basis for a shared sacramental, covenantal relationship for a lifetime,” Father Grosskopf said.

Father Grosskopf, who was a Jesuit brother for 34 years before his ordination as priest in 1983, is a major collector and restorer of fountain pens, smoking pipes and lighters.

“I love to work with my hands,” he said.

A prize among his pens is a Conklin, a writing instrument popular with Mark Twain. The company went out of business in 1937.

“The design of the pen kept it from rolling off the table,” Father Grosskopf said with a laugh, “and Mark Twain was then saved from shouting profanity if it had.”

Father Grosskopf – – recommends the following divorced ministry websites: North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics,; Faith Journeys for issues facing children of divorce,; Beginning Experience, a weekend of healing for the divorced and widowed,

For information about Divorced and Separated Catholics of the Archdiocese of San Francisco, call Gail at (650) 591-8452 or Joanne at (650) 347-0701.

From February 4, 2011 issue of Catholic San Francisco.



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