[Author’s note: The following “case study,” while pastorally realistic, represents no specific person or case that I have encountered. I have not broken the seal of Confession, nor any expectation of confidentiality.]

“But, Father, can’t I go to communion?”

As we sit in the confessional, Irma, a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic, looks at me with pleading eyes. She is asking me a direct question.

As I respond, I must follow the guidelines that Pope Francis described in Amoris Laetitia, issued after the discussions and discernment of two Synods of Bishops on family life.  I’m called to accompany Irma. I’ll need to exercise prudence throughout what may be a long, gradual process of helping Irma understand, appreciate, and fully carry out what God is asking of her.

Along the way, I must “avoid judgments which do not take into account the complexity” of Irma’s situation. Pastoral discernment is not needed if all I have to do is tell Irma what the rules are and then order her to obey them. I am not allowed to treat the Church’s moral commands as if they were stones that I must hurl at Irma’s life.

In a process of discernment and accompaniment, I must understand that “it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.”

At this point, I have spoken many times, over almost two years, with Irma in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Over the course of our many conversations and prayers, I have come to know a great deal about her life.

Irma is from El Salvador, where she married her high school sweetheart, Francisco, when they were both twenty-one. She has told me what a wonderful person he was: how respectful, how generous, how funny. They were married in the Catholic Church, although Irma now describes herself at that time as really just a “cultural” Catholic.

Neither she nor her boyfriend had ever really thought about their faith seriously. Their families were Catholic. Everyone they knew was Catholic. It was just assumed that when you got married, it would be in the Catholic Church.

She says that the first year of their marriage was “wonderful.” Although it was tough to make ends meet, they were managing. Then Francisco was pressured to do what he had successfully avoided during high school: join the local gang that controlled their neighborhood. After this, Francisco began to stay out late. He began drinking heavily and, she believed, using other drugs.

“He became a completely different person,” she told me.

Eventually when Francisco would drink he would become physically and verbally abusive. He would always apologize the next day, and promise it would never happen again. But, it always happened again.

When drunk, Francisco began to regularly “brag” about his affairs with other women. Some neighbors told Irma that one woman was pregnant and was claiming that the baby was Francisco’s.

Francisco would be gone for days at a time without telling Irma where he was, or when he would return. Eventually he left and didn’t come back. One week…two weeks…one month…six months.

After six months Irma had no idea what to do. Francisco had lost his job a long time ago. Irma couldn’t find work. All her family had moved to the United States.

So, in desperation, Irma divorced Francisco and moved to the U.S. (illegally), where she was able to live with some of her family and find a job.

After about a year in the States, Irma met Tony. They began dating and fell in love. Irma described Tony as kind and gentle and hard-working.

“He is so considerate, always surprising me with little gifts and taking me out.” Eventually Irma and Tony got civilly married. Because of the marriage Irma was able to become a legal resident. Irma got pregnant. About a year after getting married, Irma and Tony gave birth to Araceli.

Irma wanted to baptize Araceli in the Catholic Church. Tony was not Catholic and hadn’t really ever gone to church, but he supported Irma in her decision to raise Araceli as a Catholic.

After the baptism, Irma and Tony began attending Mass. Irma was awakened to her Catholicism. She wanted to be a good Catholic and grow in her relationship with God. She especially wanted to be able to go to communion.

Irma had no idea where Francisco might be. She didn’t really even know if he was still alive. She had no family in El Salvador. She had brought no church or legal documents with her when she came to the States.

She wanted to pursue getting an annulment, although it was almost impossible to get any information or help from her parish in El Salvador.

Although Irma is convinced that they were just too young to get married, it also seems that she wouldn’t have any real grounds for requesting an annulment in that Francisco’s problems seemed to be related to the alcohol (and possibly other drug) addiction that did not develop until after they were married.

“But, Father, can’t I go to communion?”

Irma and I had discussed what the Church teaches concerning communion for the divorced and remarried. I had explained to her that if she and Tony lived as “brother and sister” then she could go to communion.

She told me that Tony thought that idea was crazy. As they were only 26 years old, Irma was afraid of what might happen to their relationship if they were no longer able to grow in their love through physical intimacy.

She didn’t think Tony could handle the prospect of committing to complete celibacy for the next 70 years. Plus, both she and Tony wanted to have “at least two or three more children.”

Irma told me that every Sunday after she gets home from Mass with Tony and little Araceli, she cries all day. She is so heartbroken that she cannot make her communion with the Lord and receive his grace in the sacrament.

Her despair is so great that as a pastor who also has a counseling degree, I am concerned that her spiritual and psychological health is being harmed by her attending Mass and not being able to receive communion. Although I have not said so to Irma, I have wondered if it would be better for her to attend a non-Catholic church.

She has told me that Tony has begun refusing to attend Mass because he can’t bear to be a part of what is causing her so much anguish. Even little Araceli wants to know why mommy always cries after Mass.

“But, Father, can’t I go to communion?”

After more than a year of accompanying her, how do I answer her direct question? If she were to just come up for communion, I couldn’t deny her. First of all, everything I know about her relationship has come from within the sacrament of Confession. Outside of the sacrament, I can’t “use” that information in any way, certainly not by publicly denying her communion.

Even if I did know of Irma’s circumstances apart from Confession, no one else in the parish does. It is not a situation of manifest public sin. There is no danger of scandal. I would also not know on any given Sunday if she and Tony had decided to begin living as “brother and sister.”

Irma certainly does not have an attitude of defiance or lack of love for the Church and its teaching. Given these circumstances, if she were to come forward at communion, I would not be allowed by the Church to publicly refuse her.

But I am not dealing with whether I will deny her communion. I am dealing with one of the faithful who is asking me a direct question, and she deserves a direct answer.

Irma certainly has the true “humility, discretion, and love for the Church and her teaching” that Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia has said is necessary before someone in this situation might be able to go to communion. She is in a “sincere search for God’s will” and has a “desire to make a more perfect response to it.”

Amoris Laetitia has described a number of things that I must consider as I offer pastoral care to Irma.

First of all, I can see no real guilt on Irma’s part for the failure of her marriage. While she is sad that she and Tony are not married in the Church, she also believes that God has put Tony in her life for her well-being.

Despite not being married in the Church, their relationship in every other respect appears to be a spiritually, psychologically, and emotionally healthy relationship. They have a strong relationship and a beautiful child. They are faithful, generous, and self-giving.

Irma’s Christian commitment is evident, and according to Irma, before becoming so upset about Irma’s anguish, Tony voiced an interest in learning more about Mass and the Catholic Church.

I share Irma’s concern that attempting life-long celibacy might endanger the faithfulness and the continuance of their relationship which would certainly not be for the good of their child. I believe the end of their relationship would harm all three of them.

In this case, I have come strongly to believe that Irma would be greatly aided by the grace of the sacrament of Communion. Without it, I fear that they all will stop coming to Mass, and perhaps should. I have a reasonable hope that Tony might eventually become Catholic.

I believe it may be possible that someday in the future, perhaps after another two or three children, that Irma and Tony may be able to embrace a life as “brother and sister.”

“But, Father, can’t I go to communion?”

Based on everything I know as a priest concerning sin, conscience, hope, Jesus, the teaching of the Church, and particularly the instruction the Church has received from Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia, I tell Irma, “If you sincerely believe in your conscience that this is how Christ can aid your growth in holiness, then, yes. You may go to communion.”

After Mass the following Sunday, Irma greets me with tears in her eyes – this time tears of joy. Even Tony’s eyes seem moist as he holds a particularly playful Araceli.

Irma tells me, “For all these years at every Mass when it was time for communion, I have felt as if Jesus turned his back to me. Today, for the first time, I felt as if Jesus embraced me and told me that he loved me!”

Father Paul Keller, C.M.F. is a Catholic priest and a Claretian Missionary. He writes an online blog, “Smells like sheep,” hosted by U.S. Catholic Magazine that focuses on the places where pastoral ministry, public policy, theology, and ethics converge. You can like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter @keller_cmf.