A strong Catholic faith provides answers and spiritual comfort to address the questions, grief and shock of widowhood. But there is more to the role of the Church regarding widows than the solace of last rites and funeral rituals. The status of widows is given thoughtful treatment in the Old and New Testaments of the Bible and has been the subject of papal decrees and ecclesiastical law.
Old Testament Treatment
The Old Testament prescribed remarriage options for widows that may seem archaic and restrictive now but were designed to protect widows from abject poverty and isolation. A widow without children by her deceased husband had to marry the husband's brother. She could not marry a high priest but, if she was the widow of a priest, she could marry another priest. Widows were entitled to the post-harvest yield of corn fields, olive groves and vineyards; were given part of the tithe; and were included in the solemn religious feasts of their nearest neighbors. They were entitled to a portion of the spoils of battle and their possessions could not be claimed for debt resolution or accepted for pawn.
By the Christian era, the Apostles -- the followers of Jesus -- collected alms, or charitable contributions, for widows and accepted the support of impoverished widows as a special responsibility. Widows who were at least 60 and who had been married only once were given work in the Church to help sustain them. They could become deacons -- consecrated women who assisted the priests -- but not priests. Women are not permitted to be ordained as priests in the Catholic Church under any circumstances. Widows are permitted to remarry as their marriage has been terminated by death, but a second marriage is not officially considered quite as honorable as a first marriage and is esteemed less than a permanent state of widowhood. Unofficially, remarriage is perfectly fine as long as both partners meet the injunctions of the Church -- neither is married or divorced and, ideally, both are practicing Catholics.
Widows and Divorce
Remarriage after divorce is forbidden by the Catholic Church, which does not regard the secular dissolution of marriage vows as legitimate or permissible. Remarriage after divorce places both parties outside the protection of the Church and its sacraments. So a widow may not remarry if her new spouse is legally free due to divorce but spiritually encumbered by unbreakable vows given in the sacrament of marriage. For this reason, churches add counseling of widowed members who are ready to socialize and date again to their ministries. In American culture, available older partners may very likely be divorced, and developing a relationship and proceeding to remarriage with a divorcee is a situation of spiritual peril for a practicing Catholic.
The Catholic Church recognizes that socializing after the loss of a spouse presents dilemmas for devout Catholics and that there is a real danger of depression and isolation for grieving partners. As part of its ministry, the Church sponsors grief counseling, weekend retreats, after-work discussions, opportunities to share experiences with others in mourning, volunteer activities, encouragement and special access to sacraments like penance and Communion, and educational seminars. Widows can learn about financial planning, budgeting and tax laws as well as community and apostolic resources for dealing with grief and rebuilding a life. Individual churches may offer social events, days of reflection and special Masses or rituals to honor the deceased partner and receive blessings for necessary life changes, such as moving, that loss of a spouse brings about.
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