The conference, attended by about 400 people, was sponsored by the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics Region III and hosted by the Family Life Bureau of the Diocese of Trenton.
The conference is just one of the functions that members take part in to ease the transition, emotionally and spiritually, from married life to single life.
"We are here because of the need in the church," said Dee Skwara, coordinator of the Burlington County chapter of Separated, Divorced and Remarried Catholics. Skwara, a Willingboro resident who has been divorced for seven years, said about 500 people are on her organization's mailing list and an average of 40 attend meetings. They range in age from the early 20s to the 70s, most with children.
"People come and go. When they need it, they come," Skwara said.
The Burlington County group was founded nine years ago by Skwara, who was in the initial stages of separation at the time. The North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics was started 16 years ago in Boston by a Paulist priest and now is headquartered in Rochester, N.Y.
"We act as a support group. Our function is spiritual, informative and social," Skwara said.
"We are not just like any other singles group," she said. "We originated with the church. Our purpose is to show (the separated and divorced) that they have a place and they are deserving of pastoral care, and we as their peers offer support and understanding and compassion," Skwara said. Members may call each other during difficult periods, as well as take part in meetings and other activities.
The group also provides information on the church's stances on marital issues and offers speakers on such topics as anger, forgiveness, healing, annulment and children.
The chapter offers a variety of social activities, including shopping excursions, picnics, cruises, and videotape and film showings. While there are many things the organization offers, it is not a dating service, said Barbara Keller, coordinator of the Ministry to Separated and Divorced Catholics for the Diocese of Trenton.
"The social is an outgrowth of the ministry," Keller said.
Keller said one of the organization's purposes was "demonstrating the church's concern . . . for the person who is divorced. It's a way of saying you're loved, you're supported, you're accepted, you're as much a part of the church as anyone else." It also seeks to help with the healing process, especially during a separation.
"Basically, their lives are falling apart; they join a support group." Keller said the group works to help members not only to rise to the point where they were at in their lives before the split, but to surpass it.
"As painful as divorce is, it can be a real growth process in someone's life," Keller said.
According to the Rev. John Russo, director of the Family Life Bureau of the Trenton Diocese, there are many ways the church is working with the separated, divorced and remarried.
"We're reaching out more now than ever before to those remarried to really try to sort out their situation," Father Russo said. He said there is a strong emphasis on annulments and to make people feel a part of the church.
Father Russo said, "In many, many parishes now there are support groups composed of people who have been through separation and divorce who heal themselves through healing others."
In the Trenton Diocese, there are 30 groups serving an estimated 600 divorced and separated people in four counties, he said. The church also provides personal counseling, with priests and through the Family Life Bureau, he said.
"In terms of separation and divorce, the church has always, on an individual basis, taken care of people who are victims of this situation," said Father Russo. But about 15 years ago, the church realized that the separated and divorced need the support of each other.
Support was something Michael Vahey, a divorced Burlington Township father of 13, found in the Burlington County chapter.
He joined four years ago, when he was divorced.
"I was in so much pain that I had to do something, and I had to be with people because my thoughts were very destructive," Vahey said.
The Burlington County chapter was the peer group he needed. He said that through talking, healing took place, and that people listening to and understanding the problems helped rebuild self-esteem.
And, in turn, those who are helped listen and talk with new members, passing on the assistance they were given, he said.
"It's astounding to see how they have changed their lives," Vahey said of people who participate in such activities as the chapter's "Beginning Experience" weekend, which emphasizes sharing and talking about participants' experiences.
While members may come and go, asking for help and giving it, growing and possibly remarrying, the Burlington County chapter will remain.
"The group itself will be here as long as people want to work with it," Skwara said.
The Burlington County chapter of Separated, Divorced and Remarried Catholics meets the second Monday of each month, September through June, in the cafeteria of Corpus Christi Roman Catholic Church, Charleston and South Sunset Rds., Willingboro. The group schedules social activities in July and August.