No one ever gets married thinking they will go through a divorce. I know I never did.
I got married at 26 years old thinking that I knew everything I needed to know about life and love. Four years later, I found myself in a crumbling marriage, filing for divorce, and beginning the deep work of the annulment process.
I never wanted any of those things for my life. And while I will never say I am grateful for what happened, I am very grateful for what those experiences and years have taught me about myself.
The unfortunate reality is that both inside and outside the Catholic Church, annulments have a rotten reputation. People think it means the Church does not acknowledge you were ever married (false). Others think it means any children from that union are considered illegitimate (also false — no one is “illegitimate”). Divorced Catholics still are a part of the Church; there is still a spot for you at the table with your name on it.
What is the difference between a divorce and an annulment?
A divorce is a civil judiciary act that legally ends a marriage. An annulment is a formal declaration from the Church that what was believed to be a valid, sacramental marriage was never a marriage in the first place.
Let me break this down a bit more for you. The day a couple got married, it looked like a sacramental marriage took place; it appeared they both had the proper intent and will to live their vows. A thorough investigation, however, can discover reasons or circumstances outlined in canon law that prove a sacramental marriage never really happened at all, thus making it null.
Because the Church highly values the sacrament of marriage, each marriage is presumed valid until proven otherwise. This means until the Church tells you you are not sacramentally bound to the other person, it is presumed you are still married to them. A Catholic couple could in good conscience think they were entering a valid marriage, but sometimes it can be proven that there already existed conditions that prevented the reality of a sacrament to have taken place.
What does the process look like?
The length of an individual annulment largely depends on your diocese. Where I live, our archdiocese tells people an average case takes 12 to 14 months. My own case took 11 months in total. Each case is unique and different.
The process itself is mostly paperwork. The person filing (the petitioner) answers a detailed questionnaire. It covers everything from your family of origin, growing up years, dating, courtship, marriage, what happened in your relationship, how things went wrong, etc. Included with the petitioner’s written testimony is a list of witnesses who also answer a set of questions about how they knew the couple and what they observed in the relationship.
The other person in the marriage is known as the respondent, and they have a right to participate and offer their own testimony. Typically, it is not common for the respondent to participate.
If you are a divorced Catholic who is thinking about beginning the annulment process, the best place to start is to contact your parish and ask who is the best minister to speak with: the pastor, deacon, a pastoral associate, etc. This person will become your advocate and walk alongside you every step of the way. Make an initial appointment and come with your own questions and concerns. Your advocate will help you find answers and flesh out what needs to be more detailed.
Why even go through the annulment process?
The annulment process is not easy. It is difficult to drag up all the pain from the past. But the only way we can heal is when we can acknowledge the roots of our choices, pain, and trauma.
Whether a divorced Catholic desires remarriage or not, I think the annulment process can be a tool to facilitate deeper healing. That was my own experience.
Being open to the annulment process is a way to let the Church walk with you and support you in the aftermath of your divorce. Pursuing an annulment shortly after my divorce was a way for me to take responsibility for what I did wrong in my marriage and name the baggage I dragged with me into that relationship.
Going through the annulment process taught me more about grace, mercy, and forgiveness than I ever thought I needed to know. I am a stronger, healthier, and more healed version of myself because I did this hard work.
Regardless of the reason you or someone in your life may be involved in a divorce, Jesus sees you. Your pain and suffering is not overlooked by Him. He is aware of all your needs, even the ones you don’t realize. You are not forgotten by Him; you are not forgotten by the Church.
The annulment process in the Catholic Church exists out of the mercy of Jesus so you can experience deeper healing. Allow yourself to be open to the process even if it feels overwhelming.
It has changed me more than I could have imagined.