Ocean beaches, a fiancé’s non-Catholic church, a park, or at the Justice of the Peace office are some of the places that Catholics choose to get married outside of the Church. A lack of understanding of the Catholic sacrament of matrimony is to blame. For who would knowingly reject the graces that this sacrament offers marriages?
With age, however, comes wisdom for many couples — and the yearning for an actual sacramental marriage. The Church stands ever ready to welcome them home, although there is preparation that must be done before the couple makes their vows before God and a priest in union with the Church.
Anissa and Daniel Mesa of Chandler, Arizona, married before a justice of the peace in 2003. They already lived together and had a child they wanted to enroll in Catholic school when Anissa suggested making their union legal. “I didn’t realize the importance of doing it the correct way,” Anissa explained.
Daniel had attended a Catholic school through seventh grade. Anissa was baptized but otherwise faith was not practiced at home. Yet Anissa sought it out on her own, often attending Mass with her older brother Rico. Anissa and Daniel — one of Rico’s friends — began dating at age 17. Sometimes, the three of them attended church together. “I felt like God was trying to talk to me, but I didn’t know how to pray and have a relationship with him,” Anissa explained. “Even after Daniel and I got married, something was missing.”
Last year, Anissa desired to learn more about the Catholic faith, and so she enrolled in a Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) class in their parish of St. Timothy’s in Mesa, Arizona. Daniel was Anissa’s sponsor and attended with her. They soon learned that since their marriage was invalid, neither should be receiving the sacraments.
“We both believed in God but had not understood how that mixed in with our marriage,” Daniel explained. Through RCIA classes, he said he felt a sense of urgency. “I was putting my wife’s soul in jeopardy,” he said. “I should have known this; I should have led her to a better path. Once we decided to get married in the Church, we felt an immediate difference.”
Through their parish, they went through the “Witness to Love” marriage preparation and renewal program, which included meeting with their deacon and a mentor couple. “The biggest impact was learning that once you give yourself to your partner, it changes everything about you,” Daniel said.
“So many things I didn’t know: such as being a selfless person and putting my husband’s needs over my own, praying throughout the day, and asking God to come into our lives and to bless our union,” Anissa said.
At the Easter vigil this year, with their three children — age 14, 20 and 24, present — Anissa made her first Communion and was confirmed, and after Mass in the chapel, Daniel and Anissa made their sacramental vows. “It feels as though we are one with Christ,” Anissa said. “Thanks be to God!”
Father Chris Kadrmas, judicial vicar for the Office of Canonical Services in Bismarck, North Dakota, often sees couples married outside the Church who later want to convalidate their marriages — this means to have their marriage recognized by the Church.
“In order to do so, they must say their vows before a priest,” he said. “It’s not a renewal of vows, but as if they are saying them for the first time, because this is going to be the date of their marriage in the Church.”
Before getting to that point, Father Kadrmas explained that they have to go through marriage preparation. If there were previous marriages, however, those have to be investigated. If the previous marriages are found to be invalid, the couple can prepare to marry in the Church. To determine validity in such cases, the couple needs to make an application for nullity. The marriage tribunal will either declare the marriage invalid from the start or find it valid, in which case receiving the sacrament of matrimony again is not possible while the previous spouse is still living.
It is not necessary for both spouses to be Catholic, although they must get permission from the bishop and the Catholic spouse must promise to do all that he or she can to have children baptized and raised in the faith.
Father Kadrmas likens marriage to driving a dangerous stretch of highway. “If you knew there was a 50% chance you would have an accident, you would not be texting, not paying attention, and not wearing your seatbelt,” he said. “Instead, you would wear your seatbelt and pay careful attention to get through it safely.” Given the high divorce rate, he said that having good marriage preparation, following the teachings of Christ, and getting married in the Church, thus receiving sacramental graces, is a way to navigate marriage with the maximum advantages for success.
Diane Brady and Dave Stell from Syracuse, Indiana, were married in a garden ceremony in 1983 by a Presbyterian minister. Both were married previously in the Catholic Church. Diane had two daughters, ages 12 and 13, and Dave had a 4-year-old son.
In 1982, Diane worked for an air freight company. During a sales call to Dave’s company, he was immediately smitten. Bouquets of roses and persistence soon overcame Diane’s initial reluctance to date him. They had met in October and married the following July.
Diane had a Catholic education through college, but the “let your conscience be your guide” ideology of the ’60s and ’70s had poorly formed her. “I was very broken after my first husband left,” Diane said. “I raised my daughters alone with sporadic child support.” Dave had attended Catholic schools in Chicago but also received what he called a “Catholic-lite” education.
After 30 years of marriage, Dave and Diane began yearning to return to the Church. They started attending Mass, and then Diane’s mom became ill and moved in with them.
“Her illness brought me to my knees,” Diane said. “I prayed the Rosary with her at night when I tucked her in. I gradually understood that I was receiving the sacraments unworthily, so we stopped going up to Communion.” At church, they met couples who had gone through the annulment process. Dave resisted at first, thinking falsely that it would mean his son was illegitimate; he also believed the Church used it as a money-making scheme.
“It took many years of listening to Catholic radio to help him understand and allow us to try,” Diane said. They discovered that the fees had been dropped in their diocese. In fact, Pope Francis has asked dioceses, whenever possible, to provide tribunal services free or at least to subsidize the cost.
Diane and Dave spoke with their pastor and applied for a nullity of marriage. “We also made an agreement with our pastor to remain chaste so we could receive the sacraments during the process,” Diane said. “I still weep now every time I validly receive the Lord in Holy Communion. What a gift!”
During the process, Diane discovered she had bladder cancer. “That made our desire even stronger so when I saw Jesus face-to-face, I’d be as ready as I could be.” Thankfully she is now cancer-free.
In 2018 and 2019, they received certificates of nullity on their previous marriages — which stated that they had entered into them unwillingly or not been fully informed about that unique relationship of a binding union.
“After 35 years of marriage, we were happily covenantally married on April 12, 2019,” Diane said. “The Church is the Body of Christ, and I want to be a full, healthy member of it. We are so blessed!”
Patti Armstrong writes from North Dakota.
This story was updated after posting.