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
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 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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