If you’re an RCIA director or team member, you know that one of our biggest issues is having to address marriage questions with our seekers.
Seekers come from a variety of backgrounds, and it is inevitable that we will have to address these issues. Yet far too many of us are ill-prepared to address them when they arise. Given how often we come across these issues, we spend far too little time talking about how we, as RCIA teams, should be addressing them.
Years ago when I started in this ministry our policy was to simply just “sent to father.” The ecclesial version of “passing the buck.” Our thinking was that we should let the pastor take care of them and once their issues were resolved, we could take them into formation. The trouble with this approach was that we usually never saw them again.
So while your pastor (or other designated submitter) are the experts and are most rightly the only people who should be counseling seekers who have previous marriages, neither should we as RCIA team members be abandoning them as they seek to get these issues resolved. So what should we be doing when we encounter difficult marriage situations with our seekers?
Do try to find out as soon as possible
Ideally we should be learning about any previous marriages during the precatechumenate. Remember, if you’re following good practices, this first period of the process is a period of discovery: They get to know our story as church while we take the time to get to know them and their story — not by having them fill out a registration form but by actually talking with them one-on-one over a series of meetings. I find that in most cases, by following this process, any marriage issues tend to reveal themselves. Sometimes, however, in an effort to learn where they have been and where they are now, we also need to ask some direct questions. Remember, the sooner we learn of any issues the more time we have to get them resolved.
Don’t make any promises
Even if you have some knowledge and experience with marital issues, ours is not the place to make any judgements or decisions. That is the domain of your pastor or other designated submitting minister. Every case is unique and every diocese is different. Not every case is easy and not all annulments are granted. Further, with the recent changes made by the Holy See with how marriage cases are to be handled, any information we think we might have could now be incorrect. Our job is to be welcoming, compassionate listeners as we direct them to those who can best help them. We should also remind them that whatever they might think they know about these issues (because there is a lot of misinformation out there) they shouldn’t make any assumptions before talking with the pastor.
Do allow them to participate in the process
Seekers should never be turned away. They should be welcomed into the formation process. They should go through the Rite of Acceptance (or Rite of Welcoming) provided all other conditions of preparation for those rites are evident (though you should check with your diocesan bishop’s office to be sure there are no local restrictions on this). They should attend Mass and participate in the active life of the parish. They should also participate in regular catechetical sessions. There’s no question that going through an annulment process can be stressful, but I have also found that the sense of community these catechumens and candidates find by being part of the parish can also provide them with the strength they may need to see the annulment process through.
Even if you have some knowledge and experience with marital issues, ours is not the place to make any judgements or decisions. That is the domain of your pastor or other designated submitting minister.
Don’t have them go through the Lenten Rites until any issues have been resolved
The Rite of Election and the Rite of Calling to Continuing Conversion are strictly reserved for those catechumens and candidates who have met all the necessary conditions for full initiation. That is to say that there are no sacramental impediments that would prevent them from being received fully into the church. Further, this should not be a surprise for them. These issues should be discussed during the pre-catechumenate and should be written into their preparation plan. You should also make a point to review with them the status of their case during your periodic progress review meetings. This way you both stay on the same page with regard to how well they are doing.
Do educate yourself about marital issues and the annulment process
Even though we should never make any promises nor provide any official counsel to seekers in these situations, neither should we be ignorant of what they may have to go through. This is easier for those catechists who have had some personal experience dealing with marriage issues, but for someone like myself who had no experience in these matters, I had to make an extra effort to learn. Talk with your pastor or designated minister. Go to your diocesan website and see what resources might be available from your marriage tribunal. Some diocese even offer workshops for submitters which you might be able to attend. For me personally, I never like working from a place of ignorance because that can lead to a lack of compassion.
What have you learned about walking with seekers that have difficult marriage situations? How have you helped them walk through their precatechumenate process while also addressing these issues? Share your insights in the comments below.
8 thoughts on “Is your RCIA open all year-round? Serving on the front lines of marriage and annulment issues”
An additional challenge that I am seeing in my ministry is those who have marriages that need to be validated or couples who are living together. This is especially difficult if they have children together. and we do not want to rush to validate a marriage that may not be on steady ground.
I discovered early on in my RCIA ministry that it would help tremendously if I were trained as a Lay Advocate for our diocesan tribunal. It helps me keep track of the progress of any annulment in order to make decisions about progress through the RCIA program. A past Pastor told me not to allow anyone in until all impediments were resolved, but more recent pastors have been accepting of following the advice you have presented in your article. When the participants know you care and are working toward helping them move forward, it makes the relationship with them, other participants much more supportive.
I have one unmarried, unbaptized couple coming through. It is my understanding if they were already civilly married, then Easter Vigil would sanctify their union without an official Catholic wedding ceremony. Is that your understanding?
My understanding is the following: if two unbaptized persons are married and then both receive baptism, (and confirmation and Eucharist,) their natural bond of marriage becomes sacramental marriage at the moment of baptism, so long as the marriage is valid according to civil law, both parties consent, and there is no impediment.
We just had a young father receive the Easter sacraments after a 3-year annulment process for his wife. We journeyed with them all the way and it was day of great rejoicing when they received the notice that the annulment had been approved. Their civil marriage was blessed just a few days before Easter Vigil and that evening was another time of great rejoicing. What a journey! We told them many times how inspired we were by their patience and commitment. I’ve been an RCIA Coordinator for 25+ years and never hear that the Easter Vigil would sanctify a civil union, Maybe it does; I just never learned of that.
Catherine & Jane, that is also my understanding BUT the civil marriage must be a first marriage ie no impediments. We had this situation some years ago and that was the case. I always talk to my PP about it and if any doubt send to the Tribunal.
We invited an associate pastor, who sits on the Tribunal, come explain the Annulment process, so that our team can be more proactive when seekers come to us, but have marriage issues that need to be resolved. Our role as a team is to be supportive of our seekers and be an aid to assist the advancement of the process, even though we are not privy to the confidential details of the process. If the seeker confides in one of us, we should walk with them as a friend.
The most common problem we have in our parish and one I haven’t seen yet in the comments is the widely held belief by the majority of Catholics that one must receive their initiation sacraments BEFORE they can be married in the Church. We started May 6 with 10 inquirers, 8 of whom were in relationships, some already civilly married and some engaged and planning on being married in 2020, all most likely in active sexual relationships, . One couple was already working with our wedding coordinator for a June 2020 wedding. This pattern is increasing. I prepared a detailed handout on the nuts and bolts of what the Church teaches about Catholic marriage, and did a whole inquiry session on the topic. I began the evening by asking how many people believed that one had to be fully initiated to have a Catholic wedding. Every single person in the room raised a hand. All of these people are good people with sincere hearts who want both to be Catholic and to have a Catholic wedding – something we should rejoice in. Many come with churches and reception venues already reserved, with down payments made.We as Church have not done a good job of teaching what our faith believes about marriage. One unbaptized young man is coming with his fully initiated fiancee as a support person. Their jaws dropped open when they were told this information during inquiry, and I was wondering to myself how this sweet young girl didn’t know, if she had gone through a high school Confirmation process. I have found in the past that some RE catechists don’t even know this information. Now we as RCIA team members have to help them work through all this.
I have been working with RCIA ministry since 1987, and have always let individuals enter the process. I explain that they can start, they can continue, they just can’t receive their sacraments till we have that decision & document. They are allowed ‘on the path’, but that milestone/achievement can’t be determined. I have found that as long as I give the expectations early on/up front, it’s not a big problem. Yes, the waiting can be frustrating and the unknowns can be stressful, but there is a goal, and they aren’t walking on the path alone.