SPANAWAY – Jean Foster knows firsthand the pain of divorce.
“When I was married, I had no idea what divorced people, separated or widowed people went through in terms of that big hole in your life,” said Foster, a member of Our Lady Queen of Heaven Parish in Spanaway who went through a divorce in 1988. “It was quite eye-opening.”
Three years ago, led by her compassion for divorced people and a desire to help out her pastor, Foster became a tribunal advocate at her parish. She joined 235 advocates in parishes throughout the Archdiocese of Seattle who are trained to help divorced Catholics navigate the process of having a marriage bond declared invalid.
Advocates, who typically are not lawyers, include laypeople, deacons and sisters. Some advocates are staff members at a parish, and all priests can serve as advocates.
“We act as a companion for the petitioner,” said Deacon George Mounce of Sacred Heart Parish in Enumclaw and St. Frances Cabrini Parish in Lakewood. Mounce, who is bilingual, has assisted English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners through the annulment process since 2007.
The task of a tribunal advocate is to help petitioners gather evidence, write their testimony and present the case to the archdiocese’s Seattle Metropolitan Tribunal (the church’s ecclesiastical court) to determine if the marriage was invalid, explained Sister Carolyn Roeber, director of the tribunal, which hears the cases.
“It’s important to know that advocates don’t judge the person, they assist in presenting a case. Nor does the tribunal judge the people, it just judges the marriage — whether it is valid or not,” she said.
On Sept. 8, Pope Francis announced several reforms intended to lessen the time and cost of getting a declaration of nullity. Catholic News Service reported the Pope said the changes were motivated by “concern for the salvation of souls,” and particularly “charity and mercy” toward people who feel alienated from the church because of their marriage situations and the perceived complexity of the annulment process. The reforms take effect Dec. 8, the beginning of the Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis.
Currently, the annulment process can take over a year and cost between $50 and $500. However, “your ability to pay does not delay or hinder justice,” Deacon Mounce said.
In the simplest terms, he said, annulment is a process for seeking the truth about whether a sacramental marriage existed. “Jesus is not standing with hands on hips shaking his finger at you,” the deacon said. “He’s there with arms outstretched and he knows your pain and suffering.”
Local advocates say their ministry is rewarding. Deacon Mounce has attended weddings of people he met by being their tribunal advocate and watched them go “from sorrow to joy,” he said.
Advocates take an oath of confidentiality — they aren’t allowed to discuss cases, even with their pastor, Mounce explained. Petitioners can seek the help of an advocate at their own parish, another parish, or ask their pastor for help.
As an advocate, Foster said, it makes her happy to see those who have shied away from Mass return to the fold. “I tell them just because you are divorced, you don’t need to stay away from Mass,” she said. “And so they’ll come back and go to church and that’s a wonderful thing.”
Become a tribunal advocate
More tribunal advocates are needed to ensure that those seeking clarification on the status of their marriage can be served in an efficient manner. Anyone wishing to become a tribunal advocate must:
- Be an adult in good standing with the church.
- Have a recommendation from his or her pastor.
- Employ good listening skills; be patient, reliable, non-judgmental and willing to enter into respectful dialogue.
- Take an oath of confidentiality and not discuss cases, even with the pastor.
- Attend two, three-day training workshops initially, and workshops every three years to continue as an advocate.