Annulment do’s and don’ts in the RCIA

RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIALouise, the RCIA coordinator, was leading a reflection on the third scrutiny with the elect after they had been dismissed. John, one of the elect, began to tear up. Haltingly, he spoke about how Lazarus coming out of the tomb was like when he fell in love with Linda, his wife. “My divorce,” said John, “ was like a death. Meeting Linda gave me new life.”

At that moment, Louise had a near-death experience herself. She didn’t know John had been previously married, and they were now two weeks away from the Easter Vigil.

Previous marriage and annulment issues can be one of the thorniest aspects of RCIA ministry. There are often no easy solutions. But here are a few tips to help the process go as smoothly as it can.

Solutions to common RCIA problems

Do discover prior marriages as soon as possible. This seems obvious, but we get questions every year from teams that didn’t take this first step. I’m not a fan of doing a detailed interview with an information form on the first meeting with an inquirer, but an interview does have to happen early in the process. Be sure your information form asks about previous marriages (and how many) for both the inquirer and his or her spouse.

Don’t become a canon lawyer. You do not need to know the complex rules and multiple conditions that make the annulment process such a thicket. You only need to know the church’s basic teaching on marriage, which you can find in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraphs 1638-1642. For any questions about the annulment process, set up a meeting with the seeker and your pastor.

Don’t talk about your own annulment. Every annulment case is different. If you or someone on your team has gone through the process, it was either “wonderful” or “horrible.” Whatever happened with you is almost surely not what will happen with your seeker. Don’t preset his expectations.

Don’t make any promises. Don’t even imply what might happen. Every diocese seems to have a common wisdom about how long annulments take. Let’s say that in your diocese, folks believe an annulment process usually takes 18 months. Don’t be tempted to say to the inquirer, “Well, nothing is certain, and I can’t make any promises, but the last three annulment cases we had here at St. Dysmas took about a year and a half.” Don’t say that. I promise, all the inquirer will hear is “a year and a half.” And then if there is something complex or unusual about that inquirer’s case, it could take longer—or maybe not even be granted. If the inquirer asks for a timeframe, refer them to your pastor.

Do celebrate the Rite of Acceptance. If all the other criteria for celebrating the Rite of Acceptance are in place, then a previous marriage issue should not prevent an inquirer from becoming a catechumen. (Double check with your diocesan office, however. Your bishop may have decided differently on this issue.) Similarly, for a baptized candidate, there is no reason not to celebrate the Rite of Welcome.

Don’t celebrate the Rite of Election. If the annulment has not been granted before the First Sunday Lent, the catechumen should not be sent to the Rite of Election. Similarly, a baptized candidate should not be sent to the Call to Continuing Conversion.

Exceptions and options for RCIA initiation

So what do you do if the annulment comes through a month after the Easter Vigil? Do you have to wait another year to celebrate the sacraments?

In the case of a baptized candidate, no. If the candidate is not Catholic, you can celebrate Reception into the Full Communion of the Catholic Church at any Sunday Mass. In fact, that is the preferred option, even if there had been no annulment issues. The National Statutes for the Catechumenate tell us: “It is preferable that reception into full communion not take place at the Easter Vigil” (33). If the candidate is Catholic, you can send him to the next diocesan celebration of confirmation, or your pastor can request permission from the bishop to confirm the candidate locally in the parish.

In the case of an unbaptized person, you have the option of celebrating the initiation sacraments outside of the Easter Vigil. However, it is not as simple as the case with baptized candidates. (See RCIA 26-30.) You still need to celebrate the Rite of Election and all three scrutinies—with the same time intervals. So, in effect, you are redoing Lent. If you take seriously the RCIA’s exhortation that initiation is the responsibility of all the baptized (see RCIA 9), then you would ideally be celebrating these rites at a Sunday Mass. That means you would be asking the parish to go through Lent a second time that year. So it’s possible to celebrate the sacraments before the next Easter Vigil, but it will require a lot of planning and a lot of catechesis for the parish.

What are your RCIA annulment issues?

Have you had to deal with any thorny annulment issue? Tell us your story and offer your suggestions.
RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) image posted by TeamRCIACheck out this webinar recording: “RCIA’s most vexing problems—and some creative solutions.”Click here for more information.

See also these related articles:
  1. Annulment do’s and don’ts in the RCIA
  2. Why you should stop trying to solve the mystagogy problem
  3. Four ways the RCIA dismissal teaches faith

“Broken Egg” by digitalart |

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  1. Hello Nick – we are dealing with a situation this year in our parish where we have been told that a non baptized individual who was married and divorced 12 years ago with another non baptized person in a third world country cannot proceed under any circumstances to Baptism. This is even though this individual is not married, in any sort of a relationship with a woman. He is simply single and at the moment intends to stay that way.

    He has been told he must provide proof that his former spouse was never baptized. He has no contact with her since he immigrated here.

    This does not seem right. Can he be refused baptism? Thanks for your input. God Bless. Jessie.

  2. Hi Jessie. I’m not a canon lawyer so I can’t give you any definitive advice about this. Your best bet is to contact your diocesan tribunal office or someone who has studied canon law.

  3. The question to which I have never received a pastoral, compassionate answer is this. Why does a person who honestly seeks Jesus and possibly his Church as a means to following him more intimately need the annulment? If a person has no immediate or even remote intention of a second marriage, why is he prevented from receiving the Sacraments of Initiation? If that person down the road seeks a second marriage, then deal with the canonical issues. How can we call ourselves a Church of Welcome with all the beautiful rhetoric of hospitality and then turn people away who are often non-Christians. Jesus would not act as we do!

  4. Hi Jean. It seems your question is similar to Jessie’s. Have you checked with your tribunal office? They are trained in providing pastoral answers in these kinds of situations.

  5. This may seem like a long response but can be very helpful for parish processes: Our diocese, in a collaborative effort of the Bishop, Tribunal and Christian Initiation offices, developed a form years ago that helped pastors and initiation directors help “sort” the information off all serious inquirers at the beginning of the process. The tribunal reviews the forms and contacts pastors as need be for cross references.This form is modeled after the pre-investigation form used by pastors with engaged couples. The form must be signed by the candidate and pastor and then imprinted with the parish seal. A copy of the form is kept in parish files and the original is sent to the Christian Initiation office and kept on file for three years. The form is submitted for every candidate regardless of age. All the instructions you listed on TeamRCIA are always a part of the catechesis for all pastors and directors. As well as being mailed to every parish annually, the form can be downloaded from our website for everyone to access throughout the year. This has been successful in our diocese for the most part. We have “fine tuned”the form a few times but are committed to its use. This has also become the tool for an ideal way for pastors (or their representative) to meet with the candidates at least once before the celebration of the initiation sacraments. If properly completely it can be used for official documentation in the parish registries.

  6. Which diocese is Jeanne from? I would like to take a look at the form on the diocesan web-site.
    Thank you.

  7. I have been in a quandary because I am working with a couple — he is an uncatechized Catholic seeking Confirmation and Communion and was in a previous civil marriage — she is a Lutheran. Both want to be participating Catholics because they now have a child together (they live together)and they want this child and a child from the previous marriage baptized. They want to be a Catholic family. He resists any talk of annulment or marriage. The pastor is okay with proceeding to the sacraments. I am not comfortable with it, but am following the directive of the pastor. I am so very grateful that you brought this issue up, Nick.

  8. Hi Ruth. Your pastor is the one to make the call. He might have information that you are not aware of. If the family is really committed to living a gospel lifestyle, let your pastor worry about the law. You can spend your efforts catechizing them about how to go forward from here. Thanks for all your hard work.

  9. Nick,

    You wrote an excellent article that will be helpful to many people. I am a canon lawyer, and I would offer one suggestion: “Annulment” is no longer an acceptable term, although it remains commonly used (something like “blessing” a marriage, which is also incorrect!). The acceptable term is “Decree of Invalidity,” because what the process must yield is proof that one or both parties gave a consent which was invalidly given. They may not be aware of the invalidity at the time of consent, but some factor in the consent made it invalid. Not only is this the acceptable term, but it also relieves concerns about “my children become illegitimate” which holds strong today. Also, the word “annulment” conjures up the idea of “null and void” which means there was never anything there, and, in fact, there is usually “something” there–a time of love, of good relationship, and usually of children. “Decree of Invalidity” doesn’t give the impression of “nothing there” but says, instead, that the marriage consent was invalid. That may seem like the same result, but, as we know well, terminology makes all the difference! And what the Tribunal actually issues is a Decree of Invalidity.

  10. Jesus was always more concerned with healing than with punishing a “sinner”. It seems that when we are wounded we are more open to hearing God’s voice as so many who come to inquire about the Roman Catholic expression of the Christian faith have been wounded by the breakup of a marriage and are fragile and vulnerable. At that point in their lives our Church tells them that they have to “qualify” to follow Jesus in the Catholic way through the Sacraments which are very healing as well. If the mission of the Church is to live as Jesus lived, we may need to consider how to be a more healing presence to those who knock on the door of the Church seeking Jesus. I just don’t understand why someone who is divorced and not in another marriage is required to apply for and be granted a Decree of Invalidity prior to being considered “good enough” for the Catholic Church.

  11. Thanks for your thoughts Lynda. I know it can seem as though church officials are saying some one is not “good enough,” but I’m sure that’s not what they intend. We can all do better with pastoral language, especially when dealing with folks who are vulnerable. If you’ve experienced someone whose language seems inappropriate, I’d encourage you to seek out someone else who is an expert in canon law for a more reasoned understanding. Lawyers a like everyone else. Some are great and some are not so great.

  12. This is a reply to Jessie Albanese.

    My understanding is that a Catholic marrying a non-Catholic outside the Church is in an invalid marriage and after a civil divorce the Catholic party will need a simple declaration of nullity to clear up that marriage.

    I do not know if the non-Catholic party needs the same. I am sure the Diocesan Tribunal can clear this up, who is always the ultimate authority.

    Good luck.

  13. I would like to reply to Lynda about those coming into the Church being deemed “good enough”.In preparing to celebrate the Frist Scrutiny,I ran across the article titled “Enough” A Scrutiny Homily for the Woman at the Well which was posted on the Team RCIA website. It says, “Christ says ‘enough’! Enough of all this fear, enough of all these barriers we’ve created.We have work to do and we can’t do it if we’re divided.” It’s an excellent article/homily about Jesus finding us worthy and lovable. I’ve been the RCIA Coordinator for 15 years at my Parish and my heart has been broken many, many times by having to work within Church laws and Church rules that seem sometimes to defy the catechesis of what and Who Jesus is for us. Lynda, I couldn’t agree with you more BUT this is the Church we love, trust and live within and we certainly have the option to leave but I choose to stay and work within the imperfections and hard rules because this is Jesus’ Church and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. My advice, Lynda,is to keep telling your Candidates that Jesus loves them, they are definitely ‘good enough’and precious in His eyes. Jesus left His Church and His vision for us in the hands of people flawed by sin so He wasn’t expecting perfection but He did promise that the gates of hell would not prevail against it. And that’s what I hang my hat on!

  14. Wow, this topic sparked a lot of conversation! It is a popular topic among my RCIA team as well because we have seen many people come through with these same situations. Thankfully, our pastor(s) have been pastoral with these folks allowing them to participate in the sacraments at the Easter Vigil with the understanding that they cannot further participate in the sacraments until the annulment comes through. We are also talking about setting up a church ministry of a team of people to help those going through annulments to work through the paperwork and the emotions, etc. of the process so it can be done expeditiously and with care.

  15. I am a canon lawyer and also part of an RCIA team, and have had my share of difficult pastoral situations over the years. This is a response to Jean: Jean, your intuition is correct. There is no impediment for a person to be baptized or received into the Catholic Church if they have been married only once and are now civilly divorced. The bond of marriage between those two persons still exists in the eyes of the Church. The issue and need to consider an annulment process would come when the newly baptized/received person enters into a new relationship with another.

  16. Thank you Virgil for identifying the link I wrote about concerning the Pastor Investigation form. I was slow in opening TeamRCIA mail. The Judicial Vicar for our diocese is recommending that we edit the form again. We need to clarify that the pastor needs to have the receipt of the completed libellus from the Tribunal before celebrating maybe even the Rite of Acceptance for Catechumens or Welcoming of Candidates depending on their current status, so they will not have false hope concerning the celebration of the sacraments of initiation. As we know people are very disappointed when told about prohibitions only before a Minor Rite is to be celebrated with the worst case scenario being that eventually some opt not to join the Church at all. We are a small diocese but for many reasons it can be a substantial waiting period to receive the Decree of Invalidity (Nullity). Another reason to have year round, on-going Inquiry and Catechumenate periods, not school models! Thank you Francine for the lesson in terminology.

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