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Do you have what it takes to be a marriage advocate?

The following story appeared in the October 21 Idaho Catholic Register.

By Gene Fadness


There’s likely few people in the Diocese who have helped more people navigate the often cumbersome annulment process than Mary Wax, who heads up the religious education program at Holy Apostles Parish in Meridian.

Wax teaches RCIA, which is Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. Because these are adults who are seeking to become Catholic, a sizeable number of them have been previously married. In order to be able to receive the sacraments, a decree of nullity is required.

Even though Wax is busy enough as an RCIA catechist, she decided to become a marriage advocate because of the number of times her students would come to her to determine if an annulment was needed and, if so, what type of case it would be. “They would share their entire story and then I would have to send them to a marriage advocate,” where they would have to share the entire story again. “So I figured, why not help them myself?” Wax took the training to become an advocate and estimates she has helped with more than 100 cases.

Mary Wax

Wax went through the process to have her own previous marriage annulled. “I think the best advocates are people who have had an annulment. I know what they will be going through because I’ve been in it, so this is my story, too. I needed to do a formal case, so I can tell them I’ve been through it and how healing it was for me.”

In faithfulness to Jesus’s teaching, the Church believes that marriage is a lifelong bond (see Matt 19:1-10); therefore, unless one’s spouse has died, the Church requires a divorced person to obtain a declaration of nullity before marrying someone else in the Catholic Church or before actually becoming a Catholic. The tribunal process seeks to determine if something essential was missing at the moment of consent, that is, the time of the wedding. If so, the Church can declare that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day.

The Diocese of Boise will conduct a training session on Wednesday, Nov. 9, at the Diocese on 1501 S. Federal Way for those who are interested. Taking the course does not mean you must become an advocate. Some decide at the end of the day-long training that this ministry is not for them. Those interested in becoming marriage advocates should inform their parish priest who will then contact the Diocese.

Advocates help those seeking an annulment to determine what type of case they have. The length of the case and the documents that must be pre-pared depend on the type of case. A “formal” case typically takes the longest.

“The leveling field is baptism,” Wax says. “If you’re baptized, the Church assumes you know the sacramental value of marriage.” Consequently, the process may be longer for a baptized Catholic or Christian to get a decree of nullity.

“For the non-Catholic partner, this is the hardest to understand,” Wax said. “A non-Catholic may not understand or appreciate the bureaucratic hoops you have to jump through.”

A formal case will include a long questionnaire that must be filled out by the person seeking the annulment as well as the former spouse, if he or she chooses to participate. “I give them permission to take their time and do it slowly if the questions get to be too hard or emotional,” Wax said. “Stop, put it aside and come back to it later.”

Those already in the Church but still in need of an annulment should not let the process become a barrier to their participation in the Church, Wax said. “Don’t let an annulment keep you from the Church, because the Church has so much to offer. While the lack of an annulment can keep a re-married person from communion, it doesn’t keep you from the rest of the treasures of the Church.”

Once the initial forms are filled out, the parties seeking the annulment or their advocate will submit the case to the diocesan tribunal, where case managers will review all the documentation and notify the witnesses provided by those seeking the annulment.

Colleen Cunningham is one of two case managers, along with Tracey Kowalewski, who works full-time at the Diocese. She has been doing so for 22 years.

Both she and Wax agree that the largest misconception that people have about the annulment process is that it is a “Catholic divorce.”

Whereas a divorce is about the end of a marriage, an annulment looks at what happened at the beginning of the marriage, Cunningham said. “If the marriage was valid at the beginning when they exchanged their vows, then its stays valid. We can’t invalidate a valid marriage.”

If, however, there was an impediment at the beginning of the marriage, such as one or both parties did not fully understand the sacred nature of the vows they were about to make, then there is the possibility that the marriage is not valid. “There has to be an impediment at the beginning that prevented the marriage from being a true marriage as the Catholic Church views marriage,” Cunningham said. The annulment process helps to determine what impediments, if any, existed at the beginning of the marriage.

An annulment is different than a divorce, which the Church views as a civil contract that states the marriage has ended. “A civil divorce does not address the sacramental nature of the bond and that is what the Catholic Church looks at if a party comes back to us wanting to re-marry after having had a previous marriage,” Cunningham said.

Divorced Catholics are not barred from communion. It is only when they seek to re-marry that an annulment must be granted if they want to continue to receive the Eucharist.

A second misconception is than an annulment

“bastardizes” children, Cunningham said. “You can’t delegitimize a child in civil or ecclesiastical law, that’s impossible. We don’t erase a marriage. A marriage existed, and that can be celebrated, but it may not be valid in the eyes of the Church.”

Cunningham said those thinking about becoming an advocate should remember some key points:

1) While serving as an advocate is a ministry that very often brings healing to those who have had marriages end, the advocate must be firm in his or her resolve to act as an official representative of the Church. “They need to represent the process as being the right way to go about things,” and not be apologetic about the process or seek to cut corners.

2) This is not the time or place to actively evangelize, but help them through the process. “Very often you will be working with someone who is not Catholic and does not intend to become Catholic. They are cooperating only because they are doing this as a gift to their Catholic spouse.”

3) Advocates are not professional counselors. “If individuals are asking for pastoral counseling and if they haven’t been trained in that, like a priest or a deacon, they should go to someone trained in marriage counseling.”

4) Advocates need to be thorough and attentive to detail.

5) Advocates must take confidentiality seriously. “They need to be strong enough to say ‘no’ to those who ask them about the case, even if the priest asks them how the case is progressing. The advocate signs an oath of confidentiality and can speak about the case only to the petitioner. An advocate can’t discuss it with other parties, their spouse or fiancé, and that can get awkward. The advocate can’t even tell his or her spouse that they met with that person.”

6) Advocates need to be kind. “This is an emotional and frustrating issue, so kindness is very important. However, you walk a fine line between kindness and being firm in telling them what they need to do. Patience is also important. Nobody wants to go through the process. I’ve never met anyone who jumped for joy at the process. But, at the end of it, most of them get to marry the person they love and have a second chance for a permanent marriage.” Others may not be seeking re-marriage, but want an annulment for closure. “They may not plan to ever marry again or they want to enter the priesthood or become a nun,” she said. However, for those seeking to re-marry, they need to remember that a formal case takes about a year, so couples should not wait until they are engaged unless they are planning on a very long engagement.

7) Advocates should remember that while the work can be rewarding, it can also be sad at times, Cunningham said. “I find some of the cases heartbreaking, even terrifying what some people have been through.”

For Cunningham, the benefits far outweigh some of the drawbacks. “I like helping people. I like making the red tape and the bureaucracy that comes with a large organization and the law easier to navigate. I like the research and like helping people make a fresh start.”

When Cunningham started working for the Diocese 22 years ago, the office was handling about 400 cases a year. “We were taking care of a backlog,” caused by a conversion to a more automated system. Now, the office handles about 250 to 300 cases a year, except for during COVID.

The tiny office of just two case managers is down from five case managers when she started. It’s not impossible to keep up, but “you have to stick with it,” she said.

Cunningham estimates she’s helped with 4,000 cases.

Most rewarding for her, she said, is “when we do a case with someone who starts out angry or broken and wants to fight the process all the way through, only to come to the end and find it actually helped them. Perhaps they found some insights to themselves, or found some closure so they can move forward free of this weight they have been carrying.”

She remembers one particularly rewarding day when a couple they had helped with their annulments where married in the chapel at the Diocese. “They came up here, picked up their decrees and they had their three children with them, and we got to be witnesses to the convalidation,” of their marriage.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it, please consider buying a subscription to the Idaho Catholic Register. Your $20 yearly subscription also supports the work of the Diocese of Boise Communications Department, which includes not only the newspaper, but this website, social media posts and videos. You can subscribe here, or through your parish, or send a check to 1501 S. Federal Way, Boise, ID, 83705: or call 208-350-7554 to leave a credit card payment. Thank you, and God bless you.

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