Intimidating, scary, “do we have to?” are some of the initial thoughts couples had before approaching their pastor about a convalidation, a sacramental marriage in the Catholic Church for couples who were first married outside of the Church in a civil marriage, which is invalid.
Those initial fears subsided, invoking words like joy, togetherness and a renewed strength in marriage.
“It was not anything we worked ourselves up for, it was open arms,” said 29-year-old Kingslei Lisko. She and her husband Dylan, 25, are currently going through the convalidation process at Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church in Slovak. “We weren’t in trouble. We thought it was going to be a lecture and it wasn’t. Through this whole process our marriage has strengthened.”
The Church does not recognize a marriage of a baptized Catholic who was married outside of the Church without proper dispensations. If a Catholic has a civil marriage, he or she is not permitted to receive the sacraments, including the Eucharist.
However, with a convalidation, the couple exchanges vows in front of a priest and therefore enters into matrimony in the Catholic Church, which is a starting point of their married life together in the Church, said Elizabeth Reha, director of the diocesan Family Life Office.
In 2016, there were 222 convalidations in the Diocese of Little Rock and so far this year, there have been 136.
“You see so much joy in those people’s faces. They made a choice, maybe not realizing they were excluding themselves from the sacraments and then coming back to their heart, their home, the experience of God we have as a gift in the Catholic Church,” Reha said.
There are a variety of reasons why couples decide not to get married in the Catholic Church including timing, not understanding the requirements of the Church and a previous marriage that would first require an annulment, Reha said. A convalidation, as with any valid marriage, also requires an annulment or annulments for any previous marriages by either the Catholic or non-Catholic spouse. The process of declaration of nullity, declaring previous marriages invalid therefore allowing for a marriage, has no set time frame and varies by each case. If a previous marriage does not canonically meet the requirements of the Church to be considered invalid, a convalidation cannot occur. According to the Diocesan Tribunal, an annulment must first be completed before setting a wedding date.
The Liskos were married outside of the Church April 27, 2015, and have two sons, Reece, 7, and Brady Paul, 2. Dylan is a cradle Catholic.
“We weren’t doing things exactly in the order we should have been doing things. I was pregnant with my youngest son. We were going to wait and do things the right way,” but decided to get married a month and two days before their son was born, she said. “… We had a huge piece missing when we got married at the courthouse, it was just a rainy Monday morning. We got in our vehicle after, we were married, but it was weird. We had talked about it, we knew that we didn’t do it right; we knew we were missing a huge piece to not do it in a church, our church.”
In January 2016, the couple spoke with their pastor about getting their sons baptized. Today, the couple is waiting on her declaration of nullity for a previous marriage and has been taking the steps toward convalidation. Kingslei, who was Baptist, is also going through RCIA classes to join the Church.
The steps are almost identical to marriage prep, but the focus is to make sure the couple understands Catholic marriage.
“We spend a little more time on personal reflection as a couple and less time on the nuts and bolts of the finances and those types of things,” Reha said. “We want to make sure their marriage is in a stable situation and that they have an understanding that this is going to be a grace given them that is beyond what they’ve experienced before and that this also sets up the longevity of ’til death do you part even at a more serious perception and that they understand that their investment to the Church requires more than just a stamp of approval.”
While the Church does not recognize a civil marriage of a Catholic, a couple may find it hard to celebrate two wedding anniversaries. Celebrating the convalidation close to an anniversary is helpful, Reha said.
“If they can get it close to the date of their civil marriage, then they don’t have to juggle two dates,” Reha said. “Because in a convalidation, we’re saying you’re saying ‘yes’ for the very first time. We’re saying the marriage starts now.”
Brittany, 31, and Joey Barrett, 34, celebrated their convalidation July 30, the six-year anniversary of their civil marriage, with Msgr. Francis Malone presiding at Christ the King Church in Little Rock.
“To me it was super special just knowing it was part of the sacraments,” said Brittany, a cradle Catholic. “I will never forget it because our boys entered the Church the same day … I know it’s given me an overall peace.”
The couple married civilly at Union Station in Little Rock. Brittany said during college, she sporadically attended Mass with Joey, who was Baptist. The couple later started going to the Methodist church where their children, Jack Mason, 4, and Patton, 2, were baptized.
“I guess over the years I felt little callings. I think it was January that God was calling me back to the Church. As soon as I mentioned it to Joey he said he had no problem,” she said. “I think it was coming back to the Church and meeting with Msgr. Malone, I understood about being back in communion.”
The couple said marriage preparation showed “different sides to our marriage we didn’t talk about before,” Brittany said. Joey is going through RCIA classes to join the Church.
“It’s strengthened the family more than anything else. Praying before we eat, saying ‘Father, Son, Holy Spirit.’ I don’t know all the prayers and stuff yet but I’m learning,” he said.
Reha, who has been family life director for 24 years, said she has seen an increase in convalidations.
“I think people are feeling called to come back to the sacraments so there is a desire for that, and I think there is less stigma” and fear to talk about canonical issues, she said.
For the Liskos, they found great comfort in talking to both their pastor and knowledgeable staff at the diocese.
“I wish so bad that I would have had somebody to talk to that had gone through the same thing because it’s not near as intimidating as you think it’d be,” Kingslei said. “… You feel so much better knowing you’ve done things the right way.”
Brittany said she’d encourage other couples in their situation to “try to just remember it’s about you and Jesus and try to put all the other stuff in the back of your mind that makes it hard, embrace the process. I’d encourage them to pray about it and go where he’s leading you.”
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