In the upcoming Synod on the Family, one of the prequestions bishops are to survey is “suggestions about the possibility of simplifying the Church annulment process.” With this in mind, I wish to explore how significant the priest–counselor (the parish priest who works with the petitioner) is in seeking a nullity.
After petitioners have been approved by the diocese having jurisdiction, then the Tribunal usually asks the petitioners to seek advice from their parish priest.
This I maintain is a very significant element in counseling and advising the petitioner. From my experience, the need arises in the initial interview to seek the basic reasons for petitioning for the nullity. Here the priest needs to search thoroughly to find elements that would be sufficient to proceed according to Canon Law. This counseling interview needs to be conducted with compassionate sensitivity in probing areas that may still be painful because of looking back to all the pain and problems that ultimately ended in a civil divorce.
The petitioner, of course, will receive documents from the Tribunal which contain a multitude of probing questions that include elements of family life that preceded the marriage: the dating, the wedding, and all other pertinent questions. This definitely can appear overwhelming to the petitioner; the questions ask very personal details which the petitioner must answer honestly and with integrity.
My procedure, emphasizing the above, centers on the petitioner filling out the questionnaire (making a copy) and then bringing that document back to have a counseling session with me. To me, this procedure can produce a much clearer response for the Tribunal. So often, petitioners do not quite understand the questions; sometime they contradict themselves; sometimes petitioners give too little; sometimes they do not probe deeply enough.
Here is where the priest–counselor comes to bear on the situation. Out of genuine care for petitioners, the priest’s desire is to do the best he can to make sure that petitioners have thought about their answers; that they have emphasized clearly what they see as the main issues. The questions are long and sometimes very involved, and petitioners sometimes just give up because of the length of the questionnaire. Before submitting the document to the Tribunal, one more counseling session can help by going over the questions.
Of course, this does not end the priest–advocate’s role in this process. For often the Tribunal lawyers will then call upon the petitioner and priest–advocate to come to the Tribunal office for a session. My experience with this cannot be underestimated; a good Tribunal lawyer probes the questions very carefully; here the priest can add to anything that the lawyer does not understand or to which the petitioner responds poorly, but the main issue centers on the petitioner’s clarification and reflection on the probing questions. At this point, the priest can act as a compassionate friend.
Near the end of the process, the priest–advisor will receive a Votim; therein the priest needs to carefully share with the Tribunal his summary of his experience with the petitioner and his recommendation as to granting the nullity. This response weighs heavily on the decisions of the Tribunal. Thus, knowing the petitioner well can assist in the possibility of granting of a nullity.
I am very happy to share that I have now advised several petitioners who have been granted a nullity after following the above procedures involving the petitioner, the priest–counselor, and the Tribunal.
So often I gather that priests prefer not to have much involvement with nullities because of all the above. The process does take quite a bit of time, energy and compassion in assisting the petitioner. Whatever the outcome, however, that relationship with a pastoral advisor means so much to the petitioner. The Tribunal also shows gratitude for whatever help, advice and care the priest has shown in the process.
Each diocese’s Tribunal will have its own particular processing requirements, but notwithstanding a variation, the idea of petitioner and priest–counselor will be important. For me the entire process comes as a critical element in the priest’s role as a compassionate and caring pastoral guide.
FATHER Beaver, O.S.B., is a Benedictine priest at St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.