Restoring marriages, relationships to protect, nurture the Domestic Church

October 13, 2020

A stained glass window depicts two wedding rings at St. Anne Catholic Church in Houston. The Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston seeks to minister to the faithful of those who experience broken marriages as a main priority. Photo by James Ramos/Herald.

HOUSTON — Central social institutions are marriage and family that should be supported and strengthened, and not undermined, according to the U.S. Catholic Bishops. This includes restoring marriages and healing broken relationships to protect and nurture the domestic Church.

“Strong marriages and family life are especially important in our world today when the life of the family is increasingly threatened by contrary ideologies,” said Father Luke Millette, judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal’s Judicial Affairs of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

“In our role as a Marriage Tribunal, we seek to strengthen family structures and repair relationships so that those who come to us might hopefully, through the grace of God, be able to be restored more fully to full and active participation within the community of the faithful, which is the Church.”

Quest for justice

The Tribunal serves the faithful in many ways in its quest for justice. However, Father Millette said most of its work focuses on the investigation of requests by those who have divorced to determine if their former marriages fulfilled the Church’s theological and canonical understanding of marriage.

The demand for annulments dramatically increased between 2015 and 2019 after Pope Francis streamlined the annulment petition processes and gave local bishops more opportunities to assume the role of judge in their dioceses.

Consequently, in 2020 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, cases are down substantially from previous years.

“The biggest impact this year has been in our caseload, which has been cut in half due to the difficultly of case sponsors accessing files onsite and meeting with clients in-person on a regular basis versus on Zoom,” said Anne Bryant, J.C.L., director of the Tribunal.

“In addition, many people have a lot on their plates right now with helping to educate their children and working at home themselves or searching for a job if they no longer have one. On the bright side, this has enabled us to ‘catch up’ on the cases that were left over from 2019 and move the 2020 cases more quickly.”

Pandemic’s silver linings

Father Millette agrees the biggest challenge currently is implementing the changes necessary to keep the Tribunal moving forward during these times of COVID-19. He has found silver linings.

“We have had to become creative and think outside of the box to continue moving forward with our case workload without causing significant delays to the process,” he said. “The biggest blessing has been the chance to implement some new changes that will add more pastoral tools for assisting the people of God. One of these is adding the process for a ‘Petrine Privilege,’ which is the ability to gain a dissolution of a prior marriage from Rome in certain circumstances when one of the previous spouses was not baptized.”
Bryant believes the pandemic has helped people to reprioritize their values.

“Protecting and nurturing human life can take many forms, and the rise of COVID-19 has made us more aware of those that are living in poverty, even more so because of job loss,” said Bryant. “We also have identified the generous spirit of those who are helping others, such as assisting those that have suffered through an abortion or some other kind of abuse, and now want to find completeness and marry through the Church. Hopefully, through our ministry of teaching and healing, we are able to bring new life to those who come to us.”

Canonical resource

In addition to the Marriage Tribunal, the ministry is a resource to the archbishop and priests, religious and laity at the parish level in all canonical matters. This includes assisting agencies and institutions of the Archdiocese with information on policy or programs. The ministry also serves as a tribunal of second instance appeals for six other dioceses in its Province.
“The Tribunal has many different types of areas it serves, and we work with helping all of the people of God, both lay and cleric,” said Bryant. “As defined in Canon Law, the Tribunal serves as a means of delineating responsibilities and protecting rights as they are authentically proclaimed and legitimately codified in Church Law.”

Generosity serves others

As one of 60 ministries supported by the Diocesan Services Fund (DSF), the Tribunal relies heavily on the funds provided through the generous support of the faithful each year.

“In December of 2015, Daniel Cardinal DiNardo reduced the fee for formal cases and eliminated fees for any other type of nullity or dissolution petition, so everyone that needs assistance with their marriage can seek the services of the Tribunal for free,” said Bryant. “Thus, DSF funds the majority of the Tribunal expenses. We would not be able to carry out our mission without the support of the DSF and generous people of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.”

Father Millette said the Tribunal and other ministries in the Archdiocese that impact the lives of thousands of Catholics every year would not be possible without the DSF and those that serve at the parish level to support their missions.

“Every person who approaches the Tribunal is assisted by a case sponsor at their parish, each of whom generously volunteers free of charge to guide people through this process,” he said. “Our ministry is just as dependent on the invisible support of everyone who donates to DSF and funds this important mission to the families around us. While no one else may ever know what they have sacrificially given for others, God sees and knows and will bless them for it abundantly.”