Archive for September, 2015


Thursday, September 24th, 2015

It would take an extreme form of callousness not to have been proud of being a Catholic the last two days and the pride should continue to swell in our hearts and minds for three more days as Pope Francis continues his missionary journey to the United States. He speaks a message of love, mercy, and forgiveness and challenges all of us, myself included, to love God more dearly and our neighbor more nearly as the famous refrain from Godspell recalls. I was moved to tears by his speech to the joint session of Congress. It was masterful in construction and amazing in delivery. It was courageous of Speaker Boehner to invite the Holy Father and courageous of the pope to respond in English.

At both the White House and today at the Capitol, the Holy Father chose to raise our eyes up and beyond the current divisive debates which mark our political landscape to embrace fundamental American concepts which in the past have served us so well: religious freedom and liberty, respect for all human life from conception to natural death, welcome once again the stranger, live the Golden Rule, protect mother earth, end the death penalty.

In speaking to the U.S. bishops, we were exhorted to put aside narcissism and petty differences so as to act even more boldly on proclaiming the ministry of mercy of Jesus to the world. Using that marvelous metaphor of the Easter/Pentecost fire and applying it to a Church gathered around the family fireplace, he told we bishops that it is high time to stop being so exclusionist and more welcoming of the new family reality by letting each member stand around the fire with us regardless of their starting point.

Lifting up four Americans, two of them not Catholic (Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King) and two of them not so well known Catholics (Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton) he invited all in our country to continue to dream of a just society, an equal society, a kind and compassionate society, and a society bent on peace and the end to warfare, weaponry, etc. You may not know but certainly the Holy Father knew that as a young woman, Dorothy Day had a procured abortion but the mercy of God brought her back to stand around the fire and enlarge it with an outreach to the homeless and desperate of society.

The spin doctors of the media were at work to a certain degree, but a lot of what they were thinking (and perhaps some even hoping for), namely contentiousness between the Holy Father and the President and the Holy Father and a bitterly divided Congress just did not materialize. Gently but firmly Pope Francis spoke the language of Church teaching without offending most. I would be grateful if we bishops would be capable of doing the same.

There is Friday’s speech to the family of nations yet to be delivered and several major talks to be given at the World Meeting on the Family but it would be hard to imagine a conclusion to this missionary journey that will be as thought-provoking as these last two days in the nation’s capitol.

By the way, our seminarians were present in Washington today. I wanted them to experience the man whose name some of them will soon be using as they offer the Eucharistic sacrifice. Francis is the pope of the people and clearly even in secular leaning America, the people love this pope. I love this pope – more than any other in my lifetime and I shall spend my remaining months doing what I can to bring more people to stand around the family fire.



Tuesday, September 22nd, 2015

Pope Francis is now only hours from arriving at Andrews Air Force base in Washington having completed his journey of hope to the island nation of Cuba. Having three times stood on the ground awaiting the arrival of now St. John Paul II, I can imagine the feelings of those who have worked so hard to prepare for this moment.

The women and men of the United States Secret Service, many of whom are Catholic, are filled with professional anxiety for the Holy Father’s safety. They know they shall never protect anyone again in their lives before crowds of people desperate to see the Pope. No elected official draws such a vast crowd ever (though they wish they could), no other head of state, even the Queen of England, would see so many people.

Those who have worked so diligently and hard preparing to host the Pope also want everything to go well. Representatives of the U.S. government, the Bishops’ conference, the Archdioceses of Washington, New York and Philadelphia, the United Nations are now just hours from their one moment to test all they had planned with a man who is notorious for going off script and schedule. They want and we pray that all goes well.

The media have sought credentialing in incredible numbers to cover the papal visit. About one hundred international, Vatican-credentialed media will accompany the Pope on the plane from Cuba and will return with him to Rome on Sunday. But when they step off the plane at Andrews Air Force base, they morph into the larger pool of media swarming on Washington, New York and Philadelphia.

Some just can’t stand good news and Gospel hope and love so the negative spins have begun. Don’t listen to them, dear reader, listen to the Pope and carefully read and ponder what he has to say. Agendas abound for this visit but there is only one which  really matters and that belongs to the Successor of St. Peter, Francis. His is a message of “yes” and not “no”. His is a message of God’s love for every human being and not just those who feel they have made it. His is a message of mercy, not punishment. His is a message of sharing not hoarding. His is a message of inclusion, not exclusion. His is a message of joy in the Gospel, not burdens. His is a message of relief, not bondage.  Listen to him – this immigrant to our shores, as he opens the vision of Jesus to all humankind. Don’t let the “spin-doctors” spoil the moment – one of the greatest for Catholicism in my lifetime.

Finally, tell yourself throughout the next five and a half days that he is speaking to you, to me as a bishop who I am sure I will hear an earful, to a nation that values its religious pluralism but also stands “Under God.” He speaks as a priest who for all of his priesthood until March 2013 served a poor nation, governed by despotic anarchists who disvalued human life and squandered what profit their office brought them on protecting an economic order of very rich and very poor only. He believes that God seeks for all people equal opportunity, a life of freedom from tyranny, sufficient economic activity to allow all God’s children to live fruitfully and a future for the earth, which is currently at grave risk due to unfettered capitalism.

The barque of Peter has arrived on our shores and its faithful navigator, Pope Francis, wishes us to study the winds of change, which will lead to a better life with God and with one another than what we now have.

Fasten your seatbelt, as we are sure to encounter predicted turbulence.



Thursday, September 10th, 2015

By now, most of you have heard that Pope Francis has “made annulment of marriages cheaper and easier,” as one news source hastily reported. This report has resulted in many questions concerning what was actually stated in the Pontiff’s Apostolic Letter issued motu proprio (of his own initiative), which was released on September 8th, although the letter was dated August 15th. It is surprising that the content of this letter had not leaked out before its release!

The Latin title of the letter, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus, Gentle Judge”) is an accurate description of our Lord and a model for the Church to emulate. As an Apostolic Letter, it lays out new ecclesiastical (Church) laws in addition to or in place of existing laws. The purpose of the letter is to describe certain reforms of the canonical (the Church’s legal) process used when determining whether a marriage should be declared null. Or, to use the common but inaccurate expression, whether an “annulment” of a marriage should be granted.

As is the case with most new laws issued for the universal Church, a preparation period of three months is given before the law becomes effective, in order to allow bishops the opportunity to instruct and prepare the faithful in their dioceses concerning the meaning and impact of the new law. In his letter, Pope Francis established December 8, 2015 as the date on which this new law will take effect. In a style that is typical of our Holy Father, it is fitting that the effective date should coincide with the beginning of the Year of Mercy.

While only released in Latin and Italian, below are a few key points which were outlined in the pope’s Apostolic Letter:

  1. The Church continues to view marriage as indissoluble (permanent), based on Christ’s teachings in Sacred Scripture (Mark 10:2-12, Matthew 19:3-12). Even if a divorce decree has been granted by a civil authority, this does not change the fact that the marriage continues to exist. “Therefore what God has joined together, no one must separate” (Mark 10:9).
  2. There was a need to reconsider the existing nullity process: Pope Francis has consulted with numerous experts in canon law, theology and pastoral practice before proposing changes in a marriage nullity process that had become long, burdensome and often frustrating for many who questioned whether their failed marriage was ever valid (binding) to begin with. It was not uncommon that, in some parts of the world, the “annulment process” took more than two years to complete. To use an old quote from civil law, “justice delayed is justice denied.”
  3. Only one decision in favor of nullity is necessary: Under the current law, if one or both parties in a failed marriage believe that the marriage was never valid due to a flaw in the consent of one or both persons, two Church tribunals (courts) must agree that this flaw existed, declaring the marriage invalid (non-binding) and rendering the parties free to remarry. Under this new legislation, a decision from only one court is required, saving a significant amount of time.
  4. The bishop can permit an even shorter process in some cases: By his office, the diocesan bishop already possesses full judicial power and may function as a judge in cases where both ex-spouses agree that their marriage should be declared null and there is clear and abundant proof to support their assertion. This proof would include witness testimony, expert testimony (such as evidence provided by a counselor, psychologist or other qualified professional), and written evidence attesting to the nullity of the marriage.
  5. Additional reasons for nullity: The Holy Father, in describing the shorter process mentioned above, provided additional reasons for why a marriage might be declared null. It could be that one or both parties lacked the faith to understand marriage as an indissoluble bond, ordered toward the good of both spouses, open to the possibility of children, with the full intention of fidelity. It is possible that a spouse elected to abort a pregnancy to avoid procreation, or intentionally remained in an affair at the beginning of the marriage or shortly thereafter. Perhaps a spouse has concealed the fact of children born from a previous relationship or a pre-existing and incurable disease. Such hidden factors might have caused the other party to enter the marriage with erroneous presumptions about the qualities of the person he/she married.
  6. A party still has the right to appeal: Whenever one of the former spouses feels that the tribunal’s decision was unjust for any reason, he/she will have the right to approach the Metropolitan Tribunal (in our case, the Archdiocese of Miami) in order to make a complaint. This right exists in our current law and continues under the new law, in order to avoid abuses among diocesan tribunals and to protect the rights of both former spouses. Appeals may also be made to the Church’s marriage court in Rome, the Rota, if the concerned party chooses to do so.
  7. One judge is as good as three: While it is preferred that marriage cases are reviewed by a panel of three ecclesiastical judges (a “Collegial Tribunal”), a single judge may hear the case, as well. While this is also a reiteration of an existing law, it is most helpful for those diocesan tribunals with limited personnel and resources. However, the pope advises bishops to exercise caution that the process does not become “lax.” The long-held requirement of a tribunal staff member who functions as “Defender of the [marriage] Bond” continues, in order to provide potential arguments against assertions made by judges prior to a final decision regarding whether the marriage should be declared null.

In addition to the previous points, I would like to add some helpful information that was not addressed at length in the Apostolic Letter:

  • Although commonly referred to as an “annulment,” the accurate term for the Church’s procedure is “declaration of nullity.” This means that the tribunal has reviewed the evidence and has discovered that, for one or more reasons, a truly binding marriage never existed from the beginning. The tribunal then declares the marriage to be null.
  • This “declaration of nullity” does not mean that children born from the union are “illegitimate” (unlawful). Our existing law states that children born from a marriage that was presumed to be valid by at least one of the spouses at the time of consent are legitimate, regardless of a later discovery by a Church tribunal.
  • The purpose of this process is always to discover the truth about the marriage, whether it was truly valid (binding) or invalid (null, or non-binding). It was never intended to be merely a “rubber-stamp” process.
  • From the moment a case is received, every Church tribunal begins with the presumption that the marriage is valid. It is then up to the single judge or panel of three judges to determine whether there are any reasons to overturn that presumption (e.g. immaturity of one or both spouses; pressure to marry due to age, premarital pregnancy or other reason; intention of one or both parties at the time of marriage not to include fidelity, permanence or openness to children; and various psychological disorders, such as substance addiction, narcissistic personality disorder, etc.).

The Tribunal Office for the Diocese of St. Petersburg offers some very helpful resources, for those who would like to know more about the marriage nullity process. To view some of the available resources, please click here.  Also, in keeping with Pope Francis’ desire that all parties should be permitted to participate in the process with minimal expense, there are no fees for services offered by our Tribunal.

My hope is that all bishops and pastors, as well as parish and tribunal staff members will take the Holy Father’s letter to heart and more closely imitate Jesus, the Gentle Judge, by offering healing and guidance to those who suffer from the pain of separation and divorce.