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'Any Hope For My Marriage Situation?'
By Father Pat McCloskey, O.F.M.


Q: Reader #1 writes: "I was married in a government office and divorced four years later. My present marriage of 18 years was also conducted in a government office. I am Catholic; however, my husband has no faith association at all. Is there any hope for my marriage situation? Is there a procedure whereby I can become right with the Church?"

Reader #2 writes: "I am interested in finding out how to re-enter the Catholic Church. I was baptized and confirmed as a Catholic. When I married my husband, however, the ceremony was performed by a justice of the peace.

"My husband was baptized and received his First Communion but was never confirmed as a Catholic. We have not attended church for roughly 10 years; our three children have not been baptized. I would like to know the steps I need to take to have my children baptized and for my family to begin attending Mass and receiving the sacraments."

A: Thanks to both of you for writing and for seeking to re-establish yourselves as Catholics. A religious identity that might not seem terribly important at the time of a wedding can later matter greatly to a spouse.

Convalidation is the name for the process by which the Catholic Church officially recognizes a marriage valid only in civil law or recognized there and by some non-Catholic religion. Convalidation is a new act of marriage consent, one now officially recognized by the Catholic Church. The consent must be exchanged before a priest or deacon, with at least two other witnesses.

Reader #1, you probably did not have a sacramental marriage prior to your divorce. As a Catholic, you were bound by "canonical form" (to marry before a priest, deacon or someone previously designated by the Catholic Church to be the official witness of that marriage).

Assuming that you have been married only twice, it should be possible for a diocesan tribunal, which handles marriage cases, to issue a declaration of nullity because of "lack of canonical form." This will require official copies of your baptismal record, your marriage record (not the marriage license) and your divorce decree.

You must arrange for this declaration of nullity through a parish. Once it has been given, then you and your parish priest or deacon can prepare for this convalidation—assuming that the Catholic Church would consider your present husband free to marry. For example, that he has no ex-wife living, is not your first cousin or is prevented by some other marriage impediment.

If your present husband has never been baptized, you will need a dispensation called "disparity of cult." If he was baptized a Christian, you will need a dispensation called "mixed religions." Your parish priest may obtain either one quite easily.

Reader #2, you have a simple case—assuming that neither you nor your husband was ever married before and is prevented by some other impediment from marrying each other.

Both you and your husband were bound by "canonical form" and probably did not have the Church's permission to be married by a justice of the peace. After you approach a parish priest and explain your situation, you need to obtain copies of your respective baptismal records and an official copy of your marriage record. Then you can prepare for a convalidation.

Reader #2, your husband should make arrangements to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. Depending on the ages of your children, they may be baptized immediately or after receiving appropriate instruction.

On this Web site, readers can find our February 2004 article, "How the Church Convalidates Civil Marriages." Sister Victoria Vondenberger's new book, Catholics, Marriage and Divorce: Real People, Real Questions (St. Anthony Messenger Press), explains declarations of nullity and other tribunal processes that may be needed to arrange for a convalidation.

Q: I have three children and think that they should give up their video games for Lent. Can I dictate what my kids give up or should I let them choose?

A: If you impose this penance on them, they may endure it but probably will not believe that it makes any sense beyond making you happy for a few weeks.

If you want to communicate the idea that doing some penance is a good thing, you might be better off trying to link less video (perhaps not giving it up "cold turkey") with something new and generous on their part.

They could, for example, visit sick neighbors or relatives, call them on the phone or do something for them—any action that easily gets left undone because "There simply isn't time."

You might want to identify for them what your own Lenten penance is; this can help mutual accountability and will convey that penance is not simply something that children can be pressured to do.

Penance should help all of us see what is genuinely important in our lives and help us make sure that there is always time and energy for those things.

No matter how old we are, a Lenten penance is a small way of saying that everything that I want does not have to be satisfied immediately. Without such an admission, there can be no self-sacrifice, which is extremely important to discipleship and to love.

Accepted for a short time in a usually small matter, a Lenten penance says that I can engage in self-sacrifice.

Penance is part of our living in the full truth about our relationship to God, to ourselves and to others. Those who cannot deny themselves anything will eventually become extremely selfish—whether they intend that or not. Love and self-sacrifice are companions, not opponents.

Q: At my Confirmation class, I was assigned to find the symbol that represents each Gospel. I cannot find anything. What are these symbols?

A: The symbols for the Gospels are Matthew (human face), Mark (lion), Luke (ox) and John (eagle). These are sometimes placed on the four supports for a dome in a basilica, cathedral or some large church.

How is each symbol linked to that Gospel? The Gospel of Matthew is very clear that Jesus is both fully human and fully divine. Over the centuries, more people have doubted Jesus' humanity than have challenged his divinity.

Quoting Isaiah 40:3, the Gospel of Mark (1:3) speaks of John the Baptist as crying out in the desert, "Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths." When these symbolic links were made, some Christians associated lions with the desert; Psalm 22:14 refers to the roar of a lion.

Luke is the only Gospel writer to speak of Jesus as being born in the place where animals are kept (cave or stable) and then placed in a manger, the feeding trough of animals. An ox could well have been present at the birth of Jesus.

The Gospel of John gives a strong emphasis to the divinity of Jesus and to the preexistence of the Word of God (the Son of God). Because this Gospel's language soars like an eagle, that became its symbol.

These four symbols are present in the inaugural vision of the Prophet Ezekiel (1:5) with its "four living creatures." Each creature had these four faces (Ezekiel 1:10). St. Irenaeus of Lyons (martyred in 220) applied Ezekiel's symbols to the four Gospels.

Q: I have been intermittently going to the Catholic Church for approximately 15 years. My wife, a lifelong Catholic, and I have been married for three years. I am now a catechumen in the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) program.

I still question my faith a great deal. I know that St. Anselm said something about faith and questioning. Does my questioning certain things prevent me from becoming a Catholic?

A: Questions do not destroy faith; indifference destroys faith. God is not fragile and can withstand any questions that we ask. We, however, are not always ready to deal with God's response as it comes to us from Scripture and through the life of the faith community. St. Anselm of Canterbury (died 1109) famously described theology as "faith seeking understanding." Questions are part of the understanding process.

Perhaps you should identify your most serious questions about the Catholic Church. If you cannot accept the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, you are not ready to be baptized. If you question whether violet vestments should be worn on the Sundays of Lent, you can be baptized.

If you have a question for Father Pat, please submit it here. Include your street address for personal replies enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, please. Some answer material must be mailed since it is not available in digital form. You can still send questions to: Ask a Franciscan, 28 W. Liberty Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202.

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