Ministry in the marriage tribunal
Editor’s Note: Several Sisters of Providence minister in church diocesan marriage tribunals. Here they help people who are divorced and want to remarry within the Catholic Church to navigate the process to a marriage annulment. Currently divorced Catholics who remarry without first receiving an annulment are excluded from receiving sacraments.
Here Sister Ann Casper interviews three sisters who serve in marriage tribunals:
Sister Maureen Abbott (formerly Sister Maureen Francis), defender of the bond and case instructor in the Archdiocese of Portland, Ore.;
Sister Paula Modaff (formerly Sister Marie Pauline), auditor for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and
Sister Evelyn Ovalles, director of the tribunal and judge in the diocese of Gary, Indiana.
Sister Ann: Sister Maureen, you used the term “a delicate business” to describe your ministry with people seeking annulments. Why so?
Sister Maureen: So much depends on the person who counsels the individuals concerned. It’s important to meet them where they are — how do they view the church? How do they appreciate the community aspect of marriage? The process lends itself to self-insight, but if someone simply wants a “quick fix” to get married again in the church in a matter of months, the combination of personal work and paperwork can create bad feelings. That’s one of the main reasons seeking annulments gets a bad rap.
Sister Ann: Sister Paula, your reaction?
Sister Paula: I agree that it is very delicate work and I always strive not to give any indication of judging what may have occurred in the marriage. Currently my role in the annulment process is that of an auditor. I interview the witnesses, i.e., family, friends, and other associates named as such by the petitioner or respondent. I love it because I have direct contact with people. I really study the case very carefully ahead of time so that I know what grounds I am looking for and the details I need. Witnesses are usually quite nervous, so I approach our meeting as a conversation.
Sister Ann: Sister Evelyn, you have a different role in the process. Explain your role.
Sister Evelyn: I am called a tribunal judge and I see myself as atypical of many tribunal judges. I choose to interview the petitioner, respondent and witnesses myself, rather than relying on the written reports of advocates or auditors. This is the heart of my ministry and what energizes me. Here is where I get a chance to listen to the parties involved and to have a better sense of the problems in the marriage. (Sister Evelyn goes on to explain that those who approach the tribunal come from differing beliefs and faith traditions and with differing degrees of valuing them. Add in different cultural experiences and how those involved understand marriage — all of this impacts the case.)
Sister Evelyn: For the most part, I am truly amazed at people’s honesty and sincerity, and I think it reflects the love and respect they have for their present spouse or fiancée and for the church, regardless of the process in which they are engaged. Oftentimes a declaration of nullity of a marriage is requested by someone who wishes to participate fully in the sacramental life of the church or who wants to be married again in the Catholic Church, or wants to become Catholic. I have had non-Catholics apply for annulments for the sake of a Catholic spouse being able to receive the sacraments.
Sister Ann Casper: How does each of you see your role impacted by the fact that you are a woman religious?
Sister Maureen: As a woman and a religious, I feel I bring a listening heart. Sometimes feelings of anti-church and anti-religion are expressed to me in interviews. The title ‘sister’ still bears some weight with people and seems to soften their attitude, put them at ease and in a degree of comfort as we ‘chat.’ I pray a lot for the person and I reach out to them hoping that a little crevice — a ‘faith’ or reconciliation moment — will occur and help them deal with the hurt and pain.
Sister Evelyn: As the only woman reviewing cases in our tribunal, I feel I balance the male perspective. I am a good listener and feel that I relate to people with empathy. If a case is particularly difficult, I will put it aside for a while and reread it later. Often I have new insights in doing so that strengthen the case.
Sister Paula: I have served in many capacities, as defender of the bond, as judge in the first and second instances, as an advocate, and as an auditor. Obviously, in each of these roles I have been involved in a judicial process. However, I consider my ministry a pastoral one. I feel I have an impact as a woman and as a religious because people are used to telling us stories and confiding in us. … And I pray a lot! It’s all the Holy Spirit. I pray before, during and after every session and for all the people involved in the case.
(Originally published in the Summer 2014 issue of HOPE magazine.)