Couples married outside the church are invited to convalidate their unions

BRAINTREE -- Bishop Mark O'Connell likes to make marriage convalidation a "no fuss" ceremony.

"Come with two witnesses or come with 30. Do whatever you want, wear whatever you want," Bishop O'Connell said in a Dec. 8 interview.

Convalidation is a ceremony for couples, at least one of whom is Catholic, who married outside of the Catholic Church. When a couple's marriage is convalidated, their union is officially recognized by the church. Catholics whose marriage is not recognized by the church cannot receive Holy Communion or be godparents.

"This makes it right in the church," Bishop O'Connell said. "You get the sacramental grace of marriage, and it restores your ability to receive Holy Communion."

As North Region auxiliary bishop of the archdiocese, Bishop O'Connell has celebrated convalidations on New Year's Eve for the last five years. As vicar general, he will celebrate convalidations for all interested couples throughout the archdiocese at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on Feb. 11, 2024, at 3 p.m. It will be the first-ever archdiocese-wide convalidation ceremony.

"I want to continue (convalidations)," Bishop O'Connell explained, "and it just seems that the cathedral is the church for everyone."

The date couldn't be more appropriate. Feb. 11 is World Marriage Sunday, celebrated by Worldwide Marriage Encounter, a Catholic marriage enrichment program.

Liz Cotrupi, the Archdiocese of Boston's director of Family Life and Ecclesial Movements, said that raising awareness of convalidation is critical.

"Marriage and family are an icon of God's love," Cotrupi told The Pilot in a Nov. 29 interview. "It's important that we give every advantage to that marriage."

She said that some Catholics marry outside of the church due to convenience or interest in an exotic wedding destination but later decide to be married within the church. Upon baptizing the children of a civilly-married couple, a priest might suggest convalidation to them.

"Convalidation is not just a blessing, per se," Cotrupi said. "It's an actual process, making your marriage valid within the eyes of the church."

Since a convalidation is a marriage, it follows the usual process of getting married within the Catholic Church. First, a married couple would meet with their parish priest, deacon, or pastoral associate. After that, the priest or deacon would have to look into the couple's sacramental and marriage history to see if they can be convalidated. Any past marriages within the Catholic Church, and any civil marriages to someone else, must be annulled before convalidation. Annulments are handled by the Metropolitan Tribunal, the ecclesiastical court of the Archdiocese of Boston.

"Every situation has to be looked at independently because they all have their own specifics about them," Cotrupi said.

The couple would have to fill out a prenuptial investigation form about themselves and their marriage history. The priest, deacon, or pastoral associate would explain what both parties are consenting to if they decide to convalidate their marriage. Depending on how long the marriage has lasted, the priest or deacon may suggest a marriage prep course like Transformed in Love or a World Marriage Encounter retreat.

"Marriage is a hard thing," Cotrupi said. "When you decide you're going to get married in the Catholic Church, the idea is, coming into this, that you want it to be permanent, faithful, exclusive, and open to life. Not all marriages are open to that."

That is why Cotrupi believes that preparation and communication are so important. If a marriage is unhappy, she said, so is the family. If the family is unhappy, so is society, because the family is the bedrock of society.

"They're laying down their lives for one another in this sacrifice of marriage," she said, adding: "There's this amazing bond, this covenant that is formed between them, and then with God."

If a Catholic wants to convalidate his or her marriage to a non-Catholic, the couple must fill out a mixed-marriage request if the other party is a baptized Christian, or a dispensation request if the other party is not Christian. The requests are handled by the Canonical Affairs Office of the archdiocese.

Capuchin Brother James Peterson, assistant to the Moderator of the Curia for Canonical Affairs and Vice Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Boston, is responsible for handling mixed-marriage and dispensation forms.

"It's what we call, in the canonical world, regularizing your situation," he said about convalidation in a Nov. 30 interview. "If someone gets married civilly and they're Catholic, the church doesn't recognize that."

He has most of the rules about marriage memorized after 13 years on the job, but he has a binder full of statutes "for anyone who wants to look." Much as he would for any marriage ceremony, he refers to the Code of Canon Law to make sure that the convalidation takes place within "canonical form."

"It's just my job," he said. "It's good to help people regularize their situation."

Once the couple is free to convalidate, they must pick a time and date for the ceremony. Cotrupi said that couples may not be able to go through the convalidation process in time for the Feb. 11 ceremony, but that is okay. The ceremony is meant to "get the ball rolling" so couples will consider convalidation for the future.

"God wants us to have an abundant life," Cotrupi said, "and one of the ways we have abundant life is through our encounters with the Lord and his church. Sacramental marriage gives us the grace to have that foundation."

When a marriage between a Catholic and a non-Christian is convalidated, it is a valid marriage. When a marriage between two Catholics, or a Catholic and a baptized Christian, is convalidated, it becomes a sacramental marriage.

"Of course, with any sacrament comes the grace of God into that relationship," Cotrupi said.

At the ceremony, each couple will receive a certificate and have their convalidation recorded in the sacramental register.

Bishop O'Connell said that at a convalidation ceremony, the prayers and readings are done collectively, but the vows are read and the rings are exchanged individually.

"There are no worries about the validity," he said when he could hear each vow individually.

According to Bishop O'Connell, couples who have convalidated their marriages have "very, very much appreciated it."

"It's a great release to be validated in the church," he said.