Did you know the word “convalidation” isn’t in Spellcheck? I don’t know if you have been following the debate over Pope Francis’s Amoris Laetitia, his writings following the Synods on the Family held the last couple of years. As a divorced Catholic who was civilly remarried, went through an annulment and convalidation, all of which you had a ring-side seat for, my ears perked up when I heard the public’s reaction to AL as it related to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics. There seem to be two camps developing: Team JP2/Familiaris Consortio and Team Francis/Amoris Laetitia.
Familiaris Consortio states that if your first marriage is not annulled and you remarry, then your first marriage is still valid and you are currently living in a state of adultery. Couples remarried outside the Church may only receive the Eucharist if they live in a state of abstinence from “the acts proper to married couples.” I think I will just say “sex” so people don’t think I mean buying term life insurance, filing taxes or arguing over who will take out the garbage. Couples who did not abstain from sex, were supposed to abstain from the Eucharist. Some believe this black and white rule is absolute; there is no wiggle room here, despite what Pope Francis has written.
Amoris Laetitia advises priests to take a more in-depth, case-by-case review of circumstances to see if some people can be restored to receiving the Eucharist: “a responsible personal and pastoral discernment of particular cases.” I think that this is actually what many of us have already been lucky enough to experience and that the Pope seeks to make this experience universal.
I don’t see the two as incompatible, as some people do. When I myself was divorced and civilly remarried, I did not receive Eucharist until my annulment was final, my priest gave me absolution and I was in the process of convalidation with the church. In fact, every step along the way in that process could have driven me away from the Church. Instead, at every step of the way I received compassion, understanding and mercy. No one was the Eucharist police. I knew what I was doing, I knew that I could not receive and I knew I was on the road to fix things. I also had a variety of reasons for doing things the way I did that were so complicated, I cannot even go into them all. For example, at the time I remarried I underwent moves to three different states within one year and was starting an adoption process that required a valid civil marriage. I may have had a scarlet A on my chest, but luckily, it’s my initial so maybe people thought it was a monogram. You know how much I love a monogram.
I also received compassion from my friends, such as you. Not only did you stand by me at my civil marriage and act as a witness for my annulment, but during all of this mess, you allowed me to act as confirmation sponsor for your son – my godchild. He wisely asked you if I could sponsor him in my state of, let’s say noncompliance. Knowing the details of what I was doing, you told him I was on the right road. My own sense of failure and shame from the divorce were so strong that I remember being embarrassed at the confirmation Mass that I would not be able to receive. Surely the priest would notice that I had gone up to the altar for the ceremony but was not in the communion line. And I had worn a red suit. Here is the Adulterer! Right here! Not receiving. In red. Luckily, the Holy Spirit had given me a wicked case of bronchitis and sent me to the ladies’ room at the crucial moment with a violent (penitential?) coughing fit.
Some have objected to the lack of clarity in Amoris Laetitia, which seems to translate into an objection to the self-reflection and subjectivity advocated by Pope Francis. My point is: life is messy. Everyone’s circumstances are different and it serves the Church well to look at us individuals with unique circumstances and intentions. Let us remember, the Church has played a role in all these relationships, too. I almost fell off my chair when the priest who prepared us for convalidation told me that we weren’t just discussing my failure here, it was also the Church’s failure for not preparing me better the first time around. There was fault on both sides (although I am pretty sure most of it was mine.) This was such an important lesson in the process and it helped me own my level of culpability in the divorce/annulment. No matter how one-sided things may seem, you have to recognize and own your level of responsibility if you are to move forward as a whole person. The annulment process also helped me in this way, helping me out of my blind spots. It helped give me back my joy in my new life and it showed me love.
I would also like to thank the Archdiocese of Newark and the parish priest who first counseled me when I started this process. I think he would have given me an annulment that night if he could have, just to shut me up. The cathedral complex in Newark is the only nice thing there and the night I arrived for the annulment info session, it rose out of the urban chaos like the Emerald City. A priest there asked what room I was looking for and I said, “The Annulment Walk of Shame.” Luckily, he laughed and I felt so much better. I left knowing exactly what I needed to do and how I would do it.
I ended up having to file in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC and due to our unique situation, Ted and I decided to get civilly married while we waited on the annulment process, said to take two years. We were no spring chickens! I mean, messing up the first half of your life can really take some time. PS, the annulment came through in record time – about three months – what? By our first civil anniversary, Ted and I were re-settled in a Houston home, married in the eyes of the Church. A few months later our son joined the family. I am not sure you can write a black and white rule book that could have addressed this situation.
The time away from the Eucharist definitely brought me closer to it and increased my appreciation for the sacrament. I will never take it for granted again. I also feel blessed to have come in contact with the supportive clergy that advised me, in three different states no less. It is because of them that I remained Catholic, developed a stronger faith and overcame my own shame of failure.
Discernment is important, intent is important and, yes, circumstances are important. The Church was not my enemy. It listened to me. Instead of losing one member, the Church gained a Catholic family.
Thanks for being part of the Church’s mercy.