Special to The Dialog
Judicial Vicar sees the role of the Tribunal as working sympathetically with those seeking an annulment
When Pope Francis streamlined the Tribunal process through which divorced Catholics may acquire an annulment, many hailed it as a breakthrough in how the Catholic Church works with people whose marriages have failed.
Father Mark Mealey, who heads the Tribunal for the Diocese of Wilmington, believes the new procedures announced in December 2016 have speeded the process — cases within the diocese now are usually resolved within six months — and ensured that the proceedings are not financially prohibitive.
But the Oblate priest also believes that those who thought of the Tribunal as a sort of roadblock for divorced Catholics had misunderstandings about the process, such as you had to know someone to receive an annulment (the word commonly used for what is a “declaration of nullity” of a marriage), or that you had to be rich. Both before and after Pope Francis released the new guidelines, Father Mealey said, the Tribunal has worked sympathetically with those seeking an annulment.
Still, he welcomed the “very, very much needed” December 2015 revisions in Canon Law concerning the process for considering a petition for a declaration of nullity. Among Pope Francis’s key objectives were to make the Tribunal process move more quickly and to make it accessible to everyone, in part by keeping the cost down.
The number of petitions filed in the Diocese of Wilmington more than tripled, from about 30 in 2015 to 97 in 2016, when annulments were granted in 94 of those cases, usually within the six-month time frame. The petitioner pays a $550 fee, which can be paid in installments, reduced, or waived if he or she presents a financial hardship. That is less than half the average expense of $1,200 per case.
Annual Catholic Appeal helps
The rest of the cost relies on diocesan funding, including pledges made to the Annual Catholic Appeal. This weekend is Commitment Weekend for the appeal, during which Catholics in the pews will be asked to make pledges or payments to the campaign that helps fund more than 30 offices and ministries in Delaware and on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
This year’s Annual Catholic Appeal goal is $4,523,000. “Their Eyes Were Opened and They Recognized Him,” taken from Luke 24:31, is the theme of this year’s appeal.
Father Mealey works to make the Tribunal and its process more accessible and better known to Catholics around the diocese. Each spring and fall he travels to different parishes, where he gives a brief overview of its work before taking questions. He works to accommodate everyone who comes into his office, just as he has for 38 years of Tribunal work here and in the Diocese of Arlington, Va. He was judicial vicar, the head of the church court, for 25 years in Arlington before being named to the same position here in 2016.
Being of service
“The Tribunal has to be of service to the people, so [I do] whatever I can to accommodate them,” he said. “A lot of people come in to just tell their story, so to speak. … It’s the whole approach of always being available.”
Part of the reason for his approach is that people who seek an annulment from the church do so because they wish to remain in good standing with church law, including the sanctioning of a new marriage.
The church teaches that a sacramental marriage is a covenant with God, and as such the bonds cannot be broken. However, the church recognizes that some people are not ready, despite their intentions and preparation, to enter such a marriage covenant relationship.
The reasons why one may not be prepared for such a covenant are varied, including a view that marriage is not forever; addictions that may taint their judgment; mental illness, and outside pressures, such as cultural traditions, an unexpected pregnancy, or a decision to hurry a wedding before one of the spouses is sent to a war zone.
A civil divorce is required before a case can be filed with the Tribunal.
Civil and church marriage law have some similar terms – both have petitioners, respondents and judges, for example — but follow sharply different tactics in determining cases. Civil divorce is adversarial and can become bitter as it looks at conditions within a marriage when one or both have decided it is time to end the legal relationship.
Father Mealey described the Tribunal as more collegial in its work and looks not at the relationship at the time the civil marriage ended but when it began. Both petitioner and respondent are provided “advocates” who work with them throughout the process. The Tribunal also has a “Defender of the Bond,” who discusses what appears to be valid about the marriage.
The difference between how civil and church courts work may be seen in one example Father Mealey gave.
The hypothetical couple went through the proper preparation programs, which each agreed helped them to willingly enter the marriage. Each also seemed properly prepared mentally, for the marriage. They had several children, whom they raised within the Catholic faith. After 10 or 15 years of marriage the couple began to drift apart, eventually deciding to divorce because of irreconcilable differences.
Civil court would approve a divorce since both sides agreed their differences were irreconcilable, and would work out agreements on other issues — child custody and support, property distribution, alimony, etc.
The Tribunal would likely turn down the request, noting that all signs, and even the couple themselves, agreed that they were properly prepared and willingly entered into a sacramental marriage, were happy in their early years, and had children as part of that marriage. All signs available to the Tribunal are that the marriage appears valid under church law.
“We don’t cut any corners. We follow the process,” Father Mealey said.
Compassion and concern
Even then, the annulment process is tempered with compassion and concern. When the time comes that a declaration of nullity can’t be granted, we sit down and talk with the people,” he said, showing them the compassion the church has for them.
His office shows the same compassion in all cases, caring for everyone who comes to them. That’s because they’ve already gone through separation and divorce, which was “very disruptive” of their lives and often has caused bitter feelings. “There is a great deal of pain they feel,” Father Mealey said.
A ‘healing presence’
“One of the roles of the Tribunal is to offer these people understanding, [to have] compassion for the people, a willingness to work with them and walk with them through the process,” he said.
His hope is that “they will receive some kind of healing presence from all those they encounter in the Tribunal.”
“It’s the way I’ve done things for 38 years with Tribunal work,” Father Mealey said. “I put people first.”
Special to The Dialog