Church teachings won’t change

We are grateful for the historic and wonderful trip of Pope Francis to the United States. May the pope’s vision challenge us, our country and the United Nations. Please God his visit will reap many blessings for us. As Church, as a nation, and as members of the human race may we bring about the necessary changes in our values and attitudes to live in peace and harmony with one another and with the planet God has so generously given us.

With the end of the pope’s visit to the United States and Cuba, focus and attention moves to the Synod of Bishops. This synod which began last year continues with a particular focus on the family and the care of God’s people. 

While some may anticipate changes in the teaching of the Church regarding Marriage, birth control, or the reception of Communion by divorced and remarried Catholics, that will not happen. The Church’s teaching will not change but the interpretation of its rules or the simplification of certain rules may be a result of these deliberations.

In the early years of my priesthood I was appointed a notary of the diocesan tribunal. The tribunal assists people in seeking annulments and deals with other matters pertaining to the life of the Church and individual Catholics. 

Among the rooms in the tribunal was a “court room.” The room had a “judges bench” — like on “Judge Judy” — and behind it sat the judges — three of them. To the left I sat with a chair and table. To the right was seated the defender of the bond — another priest with a chair and table. In the center of the room was a chair and table where the petitioner — the person seeking the annulment — sat. How intimidating was that?

In those days copies were not accepted, nor were taped conversations. Everything had to be in person. I recall typing the testimony with carbon paper for four other copies. Imagine having to correct an error in typing five times. No fun. Each paper had to be stamped with a note saying that it was a correct document.

After the new Code of Canon Law, many of these regulations changed to make things a little easier on the tribunal personnel and those seeking judgment for themselves. Thank God these changes were introduced. 

The point is that while the teaching of the Church did not change, the rendering of justice became easier. This is what Pope Francis did recently when he issued some changes to the canonical process for an annulment beginning on December 8.

That is the date for the beginning of the Year of Mercy — a Jubilee Year. The pope has made it easier to get an annulment. He also shortened the time for a judgment by stating that the decision of the local diocese is adequate. It does not have to be reviewed by another diocese. This in itself saves two months of a lengthy process. Those who are experts in canon law will delineate the finer aspects of the recent changes.

This is another indication of the Church’s willingness to assist those in need to receive God’s mercy. It encourages those who are fearful to address their situation in the Church so they can receive Holy Communion. It is an opening again to the great mercy of God in this special Year of Mercy.

An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” It means that a Sacrament was not received at the time of the Marriage ceremony. Something was missing that was needed for a Sacrament. It does not mean that the couple did not love each other, nor does it mean that the children are illegitimate. An annulment has no legal effect, only a Sacramental one.

Aside from the annulment there is a “convalidation” process which is more common. This is used when a “destination wedding” or a Marriage ceremony took place outside the Church and therefore no Sacrament was received. Many of these couples could have been married in the Catholic Church, but for their own reasons sought to be married elsewhere and not by a priest. 

In this case a civil marriage is “validated” by the recitation of vows in the presence of a priest and two witnesses. The Marriage would then be Sacramental and recognized by the Church. The couple would be able to receive the Sacraments and be a sponsor for Baptism or Confirmation. Beforehand their Marriage may have been civil but not recognized as a Sacramental Marriage. 

The Church reaches out to help couples receive the Sacrament of Marriage and thereby attain God’s grace to assist them to live the commitment they made to one another.

Anyone who has questions about their situation should be in contact with their parish priest to assist them in their married life. 

Perhaps the October synod will bring even more graces to the Church and married life.

Anchor columnist Msgr. Oliveira is pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in New Bedford and director of the diocesan Propagation of the Faith and Permanent Diaconate offices.

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