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Representing the ‘mercy of the Church’ – Parishes’ annulment advocates provide unique ministry

Helen Bennett, an advocate, is the business manager of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Owensboro. LAURA RIGSBY | WKC

BY ELIZABETH WONG BARNSTEAD, THE WESTERN KENTUCKY CATHOLIC

In his ministry as an annulment advocate, Deacon Michael Wiedemer works to meet people “where they’re at.”

“Because many times, they’re hurting. Many times, they’re searching,” said Deacon Wiedemer in an April 15 interview with The Western Kentucky Catholic. “They’re looking for something; they want to find the Church again.”

And as an advocate, he tries to help them find it.

Helen Bennett, whose full-time ministry is as the business manager of Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Owensboro, also serves as an advocate.

“To be an advocate is to step into a very important role of support, for anyone who is interested in pursuing a declaration of invalidity, (also known as) an annulment,” she said.

Speaking from her own experience, Bennett explained that “no one expects to end up in a divorce situation. And it’s very painful. Some people say it’s even worse than death.”

Bennett said that receiving her declaration of nullity many years ago paved the way for her to both remarry and to be a “practicing, active Catholic.”

She said there are many reasons why someone would want to pursue this process; it is not just for someone who wishes to remarry one day.

“Some people do it because they see it as the last hurdle,” said Bennett. “They see it as part of the total process and part of the healing process… They may be 70 years old and never intend to remarry.”

Deacon Michael Wiedemer, an advocate, serves at St. Mary of the Woods in McQuady and at St. Anthony the Abbot in Axtel. LAURA RIGSBY | WKC

Deacon Wiedemer said he has worked with individuals who “may not be in full communion with the Church,” perhaps if they have been divorced and then remarried outside of the Catholic Church.

He said that as an advocate, he is a representative of the Church in a special way: “We represent the mercy of the Church – the mercy of Jesus Christ.”

“We all make mistakes… and this is part of the understanding of the Church, to help them through that (annulment process),” he said. “To get their life back on track. And to have that authentic joy again.”

Pat Cairney, the director of RCIA at St. Thomas More Parish in Paducah and an annulment advocate, said the advocate ministry serves a practical – not just spiritual – purpose.

In addition to this being “a listening ministry,” he assists people in gathering documents and other paperwork required by the Church’s tribunal for pursuing a declaration of nullity.

“Just as in the secular world when you’re working with a pile of paperwork, it helps to have someone else to help you go through it,” said Cairney.

Bennett said the Church’s tribunal has put together a thorough list of questions to begin the annulment process – and this list can be intimidating. As an advocate, she likes to schedule a series of meetings with the individual pursuing the annulment, and they work through the questions together.

After that, the packet of answered questions is delivered to the tribunal, which takes it from there.

Bennett said some of the questions can be “painful, or open up old wounds.”

“But going through it with someone, I think, is so helpful,” she said, expressing gratitude for the person who served as her advocate when she was pursuing her own declaration of nullity. “You can talk through things… it’s very conversational, and it’s very confidential.” 

Pat Cairney is an advocate and directs RCIA at St Thomas More Parish in Paducah. COURTESY OF ST. THOMAS MORE

Deacon Wiedemer debunked a few misconceptions about annulments. He explained that in the Diocese of Owensboro there is no fee to pursue an annulment.

Also, the children of an individual who receives an annulment will not become illegitimate: “It’s just that the marriage was not sacramental,” he said.

Bennett said the whole process can take a while – sometimes 12 to 24 months. After they deliver the packet to the tribunal, she keeps in contact with the people with whom she has worked, to help ease any worries or fears.

Cairney said people come to him from different paths.

Sometimes the parish connects him with them, or an individual may approach him of their own accord. Other times, individuals going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults; in which people enter the Catholic Church – may ask him for assistance in this area.

“What I try to do is educate people about what is going on,” he said, acknowledging that the process can be tedious. He said his role is “a matter of keeping them informed and helping them be patient.”

Bennett agreed.

“It’s about soul-searching,” she said. “It’s about looking at yourself as much as you possibly can, and to be as open and honest with yourself and with the tribunal about what has gone on in your life and in the life of your former spouse.”

“To tell your story can be very healing,” she said.

 

Laura Rigsby contributed to this story.

To contact the tribunal in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, call (270) 683-1545. 

Originally printed in the May 2019 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic.


Copyright © 2019 Diocese of Owensboro/The Western Kentucky Catholic

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