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Catholic Update

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Bringing Your Marriage Into the Church

Convalidation of Civil Marriages

There are many people attending Catholic parishes or in Catholic families whose marriage is somehow not fully recognized by the Church. 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 wedding.

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 witnesses present.

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 the marriage.

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 marriagepreparation team.

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 marriageinvestigation 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.

The desire to convalidate an existing marriage is the main reason why people petition for a “declaration of nullity,” more commonly known as an annulment.

Aaron’s encounters with the parish priest who initiated the tribunal process were basically positive experiences. When an affirmative decision was received, 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 their religion.

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.

Msgr. Joseph M. Champlin, an author and speaker, is rector of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Syracuse, New York. His most recent books are The Mystery and Meaning of the Mass (The Crossroad Publishing Company), Should We Marry? (Ave Maria Press) and Slow Down: Five-minute Meditations to De-stress Your Days (Sorin Books). This Update is an adaptation of an article that appeared in the February 2004 issue of St. Anthony Messenger.

  Question Box

1) Why is the Church so concerned about sacramental marriage?

2) Why aren’t children of nullified marriages considered illegitimate?

3) Why should a person celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation before a convalidation ceremony?


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