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Annulment sponsors accompany people through an often misunderstood process

When lifelong Catholic Rebecca (a pseudonym) filed for divorce from her husband of seven years, she knew one thing for sure; she wanted to pursue an annulment. What she didn’t know was how to go about it.

“Honestly, I had no clue,” Rebecca said. “I had a couple of friends who had started the annulment process but never finished it. Others were like, ‘you have to write a short paper,’ and I was like, ‘On what? What am I doing? How do I start?’”

Eventually, a close friend encouraged Rebecca to reach out to Elizabeth Sondag, vice chancellor of the Archdiocese of Omaha and a judge on the Metropolitan Marriage Tribunal. Sondag gave Rebecca the name of Deacon Mike Conzett of St. Margaret Mary Parish in Omaha, who would serve as her annulment sponsor and help her through the process.

“He was amazing,” Rebecca said. “He was just really easy to talk to and was so nice. He answered every question I had. He listened to my story. He had a very fatherly, calming quality that made me feel at ease through the whole process.”

Rebecca was not alone in her initial confusion about the annulment process. As defined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), “an annulment is a declaration by a Church tribunal (a Catholic Church court) that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.” 

According to the USCCB, elements of a valid, Catholic marriage include: The spouses were free to marry; they were capable of giving and freely exchanged their consent; they intended to marry for life, be faithful and be open to children; they intended the “good of each other,” and their consent was given in the presence of two witnesses and before an authorized church official.

Divorced non-Catholics who want to marry a Catholic need to have their case heard by a tribunal of the Catholic Church, and divorced Catholics who married outside the Catholic Church also need to go through a tribunal process.

FREQUENTLY MISUNDERSTOOD

The USCCB also acknowledges on its website that the annulment process is frequently misunderstood, which is why annulment sponsors are so valuable.

In the Archdiocese of Omaha, the Metropolitan Marriage Tribunal carefully examines all petitions for annulments. If the tribunal concludes that an essential element or property of marriage in God’s plan did not exist from the beginning, a Decree of Nullity, or annulment, is issued. 

Annulment sponsors help clear up many of the misconceptions surrounding annulments. One of the most common is that an annulment is a “Catholic divorce,” but there is no such thing. Another misconception is that children become illegitimate when an annulment is granted.

The most common reason people seek an annulment is because they want to get remarried. However, it is essential to know that the annulment process can take 12 to 18 months or longer, and there are no guarantees that an annulment will be granted.

Rebecca did not know if she would get married again. Still, she wanted to get an annulment as soon as possible after her divorce. And although every person seeking an annulment is different, Rebecca said she found the process healing.

“For me, it was almost therapeutic to answer all these questions (contained in the tribunal’s questionnaire),” she said. “It reinforced why I was doing this. It is fresh in your mind, and you are getting it over with, and then it is something that is in the past, you don’t have to bring back up.”

Deacon Conzett said that if a person wants an annulment – for whatever reason – it is best not to delay.

“It’s always, always, always better to file a petition sooner rather than later,” he said. “There are many instances when someone is seeking an annulment after being married for 30 years, and witnesses aren’t there anymore. Memories fade. The facts that might have been there don’t come out.”

Deacon Conzett added that the passage of time makes it harder for the tribunal to have the moral certitude it needs to grant an annulment.

PROVIDING VALUABLE INPUT

There are approximately 20 annulment sponsors in northeast Nebraska, most of whom are deacons. These individuals are trained to assist petitioners at the beginning of the annulment process.

Deacon Ron Ryan, who serves as a judge on the marriage tribunal, said that annulment sponsors are especially helpful at the beginning of the annulment process when petitioners must draft a petition document. This document outlines the information needed by the marriage tribunal to begin reviewing a marriage for a possible declaration of invalidity.

“Drafting the petition document can often be difficult for petitioners, and the trained annulment sponsors are able to provide valuable input by reviewing the petitioner’s first draft and making suggestions,” Deacon Ryan said.

Sondag agrees.

“The annulment process is new to many people,” she said. “An annulment sponsor can help them to know what is important to include from their own story. They can guide them when writing their story. Many people want to prove that they are a good Catholic or a good person. They think that if they can prove that, they will get an annulment, but that is not the case.”

The tribunal does not make any moral judgments regarding the parties involved. Instead, they judge whether the invalidity of the marriage at the time of consent is proven.

“It’s very important for us sponsors to communicate to people that this isn’t the tribunal trying to blame somebody for what happened,” Deacon Conzett said. “It’s not ‘us versus them.’ It’s the way to seek the truth as to, was this a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church, or did something get in the way to prevent this from being a valid marriage?”

The tribunal is profoundly aware that their decisions impact the lives of the faithful and that knowledge informs every aspect of their work.

“Prior to hearing and deciding cases, we pray as a group, asking God’s guidance as we seek the truth,” Deacon Ryan said. “In addition, I believe that each of us, individually, pray for the petitioners and respondents, as well as all those who are impacted by our work.”

MERCY AND HEALING

Annulment sponsors also feel strongly about the work they do. Deacon Conzett said his goal as an annulment sponsor is to provide a place where people encounter the mercy and healing of Jesus Christ.

“A big part of being a sponsor, I believe, is to accompany that person as they are going through a particularly difficult time in their life,” he said. “Helping them, praying with them. Things that we can do that the world out there won’t do or can’t do, for whatever reason, to help them.”

This mindset keeps Deacon Conzett from focusing only on outcomes.

“Yes, you want to help people get to the next place,” he said. “But sometimes, the next place isn’t necessarily an annulled marriage. It’s a relationship with God. And maybe it’s stronger than it was for whatever reason.”

In most cases, after the annulment paperwork is submitted to the marriage tribunal, Deacon Conzett doesn’t hear from the person he has sponsored. Often, he won’t know whether an annulment was granted, and he is OK with that.

“There have been a couple of people that reached out and have absolutely thanked me,” he said. “Even people who wanted to buy me a steak dinner. Which is nice … but I discourage that because that’s not why we do this.”

So why does he do it?

“It’s a ministry,” he said. “It’s a piece of the Church that not many people know about or understand. But I love it. It is a work of mercy. It’s what we’re called to do.”

The Archdiocese of Omaha eliminated the fee for all annulment cases in 2015, so there is no cost to individuals seeking an annulment. Gifts to the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal help cover those costs. Those gifts also help parishes and schools become communities of hope and transformation, as well as supporting many other important ministries throughout the archdiocese.