Convalidating an Existing Marriage: What Is It and Why?

Published January 28, 2018


Saint John Paul II in Man and Woman He Created Them:

Redemption is a truth, a reality, in the name of which man must feel himself called, and called with effectiveness.

And again:

Man must feel himself called to rediscover, or even better, to realize, the spousal meaning of the body and to express in this way the interior freedom of the gift, that is, the freedom of that spiritual state and power that derive from mastery over the concupiscence of the flesh.

These words from Saint John Paul II, have for me, been at the heart of the annulment and convalidation process; healing, redemption, purity, mastery over concupiscence, a deeper understanding of the spousal meaning of the body, and a grasp of the sacramentality of marriage.

I’ve written elsewhere about not being able to take the Eucharist as a divorced and remarried woman. January 28, the feast day of Thomas Aquinas, I celebrate my two-year anniversary of coming into full communion with the Church. Two days later, on January 30, I celebrate our two-year convalidation anniversary.

The help of Reconciliation

During the season we spent going through the annulment process, the sacrament of Reconciliation became a place of solace for me—even though I could not receive the full benefits of the sacrament. The word Reconciliation comes from several Latin words. Re- as a prefix comes from the Latin and means “again,” con means with, and cilia means little hairs/lashes. In Reconciliation we return to an eyelash-to-eyelash position with God. I can never write those words without tearing up—they move me so. My greatest desire in life is to be in constant eyelash-to-eyelash relationship with God. And so when I found out that my priest was willing to hear my confession and pray with me, it quickly became an avenue for mortification of sin and purification of my heart and soul.

For months while we walked through the purgatorial annulment season, I would show up and plop down in the chair opposite my priest: “I know you already know, but I need to remind you again that I cannot apply the sacrament to you,” my priest kindly and gently reminds me. “Yes, Father. I understand, Father. Thank you for hearing my confession and praying with me, Father.” And so my faithful priest hears me, gives me spiritual direction, and prays with me. Even without absolution and the full exercise and benefits of the sacrament, God used this time to work on my heart. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph 1257 says, although we are bound by the sacraments, God is not. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy,” God says in Romans 9:15.

The habit I built of going to confession during that time, even without entering into the fullness of the sacrament, trained my soul to be ever more sensitive to even the smallest sin—not in an over-scrupulous way,  but in a way where the smallest block between my soul and my savior was sensed immediately. This led to a desire to live in ever greater conformity to Christ, and that is what helped me, body and soul, to walk this annulment road.

Convalidating our marriage in a post-Obergefell culture

Convalidation, the name the Church gives to its sacramentalizing of an existing marriage that has been performed outside of Catholic oversight, means to firm up, or, to strengthen. This is what a lot of Catholics need right now—a strong, firm understanding of what sacramental marriage is. Catholics need keen, faithful priests to walk this road with them. During the annulment process and the conversion journey into the Catholic Church we sought the help of priests we knew; the deacon assigned to help us was also a source of encouragement. The day I walked down the beautiful church aisle to be married sacramentally in the Catholic faith I had 3 priests and a deacon waiting for me at the altar—convalidators, witnesses to God’s gracious work in our lives.

Why did we submit ourselves to this after 18 years of marriage?

First, this is what the Church asks us to do;  we are converts from Calvinism so embracing the Church as Christ’s authority on earth was part of our journey, and it was one of the first issues we researched when we studied the doctrines of the faith.

Second, because our marriage will be a sign of contradiction to the culture that has blossomed out of no-fault divorce, the culture that now finds itself in the post-Obergefell mishmash of marriage being whatever anyone wants and only for as long as everyone involved thinks it’s still “working”  for them. We live in a culture desperately in need of good, strong marriages. We live in a world that gives up on marriage when it gets hard. And yet this is precisely how we are sanctified, St. Paul says.

The right thing to do is always the right thing to do, even if it comes after 18 years.

At this moment of history every act of faithfulness regarding marriage counts. And so on this second anniversary of my convalidation, I want to encourage all of you, my brothers and sisters who are cradle Catholics: Fear not! If you have a troubled marriage, seek help; our God is a gracious, most merciful God, seek Him. If you need an annulment, get one; no matter how long it takes, it is worth the wait. If you are living together outside of marriage, go find a strong priest who is on fire for Christ and the gospel, and get help with your situation. If you are reaping the consequence of a divorce you did not want, cling to Jesus your Redeemer, and get some help from a strong priest and parish. If you are in a disordered relationship of any kind I plead with you to seek help, don’t give up until you get it. Do not be afraid to suffer. I know many of my foolish decisions are a result of aversion to hardship and pain. Embrace hardship as a grace from God. I say this as one who has walked through many valleys. Nolite temere!

Luma Simms is a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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