Louise, 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.