Photo by Gene Plaisted, O.S.C./The Crosiers
Catholic Church law
ordinarily requires baptized Roman Catholics to marry before a priest or deacon.
Unless they requested and received a “dispensation from canonical form,” Catholics
who exchange marriage vows in the presence of only ministers from other religious
traditions or authorized civic officials are not considered validly married
in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
Later, those couples may seek to have their union officially recognized
by the Church. In technical Church terms, this is known as convalidation
of a marriage.
In 1981, Pope John Paul II issued an apostolic exhortation called
On the Family. Among other items in this groundbreaking document, he
outlined practical suggestions for pastors and pastoral leaders when dealing
with couples not married “in the Church.”
The pope cautioned that each situation should be examined case by
case. He instructed pastors and pastoral leaders to make “tactful and respectful
contact with the couples concerned and enlighten them patiently, correct them
charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life in such a way
as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation.”
The following are stories of two couples whose marriages were recognized
by the Church. (Their names and details have been changed for sake of privacy.)
I will explain why they did not marry before a priest or deacon, what led them
later to seek a convalidation and how that occurs.
A Change of Plans
Tony and Maria began dating when he was a senior
in college and she was a senior in high school. When Maria finished
her education, they became engaged and started to plan their wedding.
Both are from large Italian families. Their planned nuptials would
reflect the extensive and involved traditions of that ethnic culture.
But some factors began to complicate matters. Tony,
an incredibly energetic and successful businessperson, was spending
the entire workweek in a city several hundred miles from home. As
a result, he and Maria had only brief moments together on weekends.
In addition, Tony’s mother suffered a severe heart attack,
leaving her in a very weakened condition. Her family was concerned
about the added stress she would endure planning a massive Italian
Another problem was the fact that Tony’s employer provided
only one week annually for vacation: the seven days between Christmas
and the New Year. Maria and Tony went to Florida for that week.
While they were there, they decided to elope and eliminate the challenge
of planning a big wedding. They obtained a wedding license and immediately
married at the city clerk’s office, with only the necessary legal
When Tony called his parents to tell them of this unexpected
development, his father hung up but later called back with his blessing.
Maria’s parents, on the other hand, expressed their delight with
For nearly 10 years following these nuptials, Tony and
Maria faithfully attended Mass. He also served as a lector, and
they both frequently socialized with their parish priest.
When a new pastor came to the parish, Tony and Maria
invited him to bless their elegantly restored house. A few weeks
earlier, the priest had asked them to join a couple-to-couple marriage-preparation
After the priest blessed the house, the couple awkwardly
told him that they were uneasy to join the marriage-preparation
team because of their elopement. Then Tony and Maria expressed their
desire to have their marriage recognized by the Church.
A Simple Remedy
Originally, Maria and Tony married in a swift civil
ceremony not because of any burdensome Church restrictions but because
of other factors. Their wish to have their marriage convalidated
a decade later surfaced because of several reasons: a visit from
their parish priest, their uncomfortable feeling in preparing others
for marriage when they had not yet been married in the Church and
their decision to start a family.
The remedy of their situation was relatively simple. Both obtained
baptismal records and completed a standard marriage-investigation
prenuptial form. The actual exchange of vows before a priest took
place at the main altar after a Saturday night Mass, with only members
of their immediate family attending. Maria and Tony dressed in the
same outfits they had worn for the Florida ceremony.
With considerable abbreviation and adaptation, the priest
used the basic “Rite for Celebrating Marriage Outside Mass.” The
service took about 10 minutes. Afterward, the family celebrated
at a local restaurant.
Several years later, Tony and Maria are the parents
of three young boys, actively participate at Sunday Mass, generously
donate to charities and fulfill leadership roles in parish activities.
Needing an Annulment
Aaron and Kelly also had their marriage convalidated. Aaron
was a young Jewish man who saw his first marriage crumble almost as soon as
it started. Divorced after about one year, he found employment in the athletic
department of a major university.
On the campus, he became friends with Kelly, a young Catholic woman
who was a student cheerleader. After her graduation, they started dating seriously.
Eventually, she became pregnant.
When Kelly was expecting their second child, they decided to marry.
In a relatively small ceremony with only family and a few close friends present,
Aaron and Kelly married before a justice of the peace.
Kelly’s Catholic mother, troubled by these events, kept urging
the couple to have their babies baptized and their marriage convalidated
by the Church. The Baptisms were not a problem. But because of Aaron’s
previous marriage, convalidating the marriage became a challenge.
Eventually, Aaron spoke with a parish priest and began the tribunal
process, a procedure which usually requires up to a year for completion.
(See The Tribunal Process.)
The desire to convalidate an existing marriage is the main reason
why people petition for a “declaration of nullity” (annulment).
Aaron’s encounters with the parish priest who initiated the tribunal
process were basically positive experiences. When an affirmative decision was
re-ceived, Aaron and Kelly set the date for a large Church wedding and reception.
They selected the date of their earlier wedding ceremony. Their two children
were part of the Church celebration.
Some people expressed confusion and asked, “Aren’t they already
married?” But most in attendance either did not know of the previous nuptials
or seemed delighted with this solemn ceremony.
A Personal Invitation
One parish priest who often encounters couples
whose marriages are not recognized by the Church is Father Tom Zedar.
He shepherds San Antonio Roman Catholic Church in Port Charlotte,
on the west coast of Florida, a large flock of nearly 2,000 households.
Although most parishioners are older, there are many young families,
including parents seeking to have their children baptized.
Father Zedar personally interviews those fathers and
mothers about Baptism. One of the questions he asks the parents
is, “Were you married in the Catholic Church?”
When couples respond negatively, he offers them an opportunity
to have their marriage convalidated by the Church. Each year, about
six couples accept his invitation.
Their reasons for not marrying before a Catholic priest
or deacon vary. Many couples judged either that it was impossible
to wed in the Church because of their circumstances or that the
tribunal process would be too costly or lengthy. Other couples indicated
that they simply were in a hurry or felt stressed by various factors.
Marriage in the Catholic Church seemed to be an additional complication.
Some couples commented that they had not been active
and practicing Catholics when they married outside the Church. A
Church marriage was not, therefore, a significant priority for them.
Some dreaded a scolding by a priest because they had not been practicing
For any couple who completes the necessary preparations
for convalidation, Father Zedar tailors the celebration to the couple’s
wishes. Most people opt for a simple ceremony.
Regardless of why couples marry outside the Church and later seek
a Church wedding, the benefits of convalidation are enormous: peace
of heart, oneness with the Church, reception of the Sacrament of
Matrimony and God’s special blessing upon the marriage.