Ask Fr. Shea

Faith-based questions and answers about a range of topics.

Answers are provided by Fr. Michael Shea, CM, Associate Director of the Miraculous Medal Shrine.

Send Your Question to Fr. Shea.

Question:

My marriage of twenty-three years was annulled seven years ago. I was never notified that an annulment had been applied for, or on what grounds it was granted. Did I not have a right to this information?

Answer:

At the very outset of every procedure for a decree of nullity, the second party must be contacted, or at least every effort must be made to do so. The reason I couch the response somewhat carefully is that there are times when the respondent’s whereabouts are unknown; however, contact must be attempted to give that person an opportunity to offer important information bearing on the validity of the marriage.

If this is not done, your rights were violated, and you can seek canonical redress.

Question:

My husband was divorced, and we are in the process of seeking an annulment so that we can be married in the Church. Can I now receive the sacraments, or is that still forbidden?

Answer:

Applying for a decree of nullity does not guarantee the obtaining of such a decree. Most dioceses review potential cases and “weed out” cases with no chance of success. Of the cases then accepted, an even more thorough review is required. 

The priest who heads one marriage tribunal informs me that he accepts about sixty percent of the cases presented, and, of that number, about eighty percent are resolved in a manner permitting the parties involved to enter into a sacramental union.

The proper procedure while you wait, then, is to abstain from sexual relations until the case is completed. That failing, both you and your intended husband must refrain from receiving Holy Communion since he is presumed to be still validly married.

Question:

I am a divorced Catholic who never married in the Church. Are there any religious orders for women who wish to enter religious life after having raised a child and having had a spouse?

Answer:

Many congregations of women accept candidates who were previously married and are now either divorced (with an ecclesiastical degree of nullity) or widowed.

You can write to the various religious communities or contact your diocesan director of vocations for a listing of sisters to contact.

Some people think that virginity is necessary for entrance into the convent, but that is not the case for all orders. A classic example is that of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, who was the widowed mother of several children.

Question:

How does my daughter go about converting to Catholicism?

Answer:

If you are a Catholic, you would be the biggest help in her conversion process. If not, some Catholic friend might introduce her to a local priest, or she could simply go to the rectory of a local church and introduce herself.

If she is not baptized, she would have to begin instruction in the Catholic Faith and participate in the (restored) Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. If she is a member of some Christian denomination, participation in the RCIA is not required.

During her time of catechumenate, she should read as much about the Church as possible and obtain as broad an appreciation of Catholic liturgy and Church history as possible, all the while living according to the Catholic moral code. If all this makes sense to her, she should then ask to be received into full communion with the Catholic Church, receiving the Sacraments of Penance, Confirmation, and Eucharist from the priest responsible for her reception into the Church. If she is not baptized, she will probably be baptized, confirmed, and communicated at the Easter Vigil Liturgy in her new parish.

It should be observed that “converting” to Catholicism is not a personal choice; on the contrary, it is the recognition that God has chosen me, and not that I have chosen Him! Therefore, we are concerned with a process of discerning the truth of Catholicism and the voice of Christ at one and the same time. The process is essentially a communal one, with various members of the Church helping the convert to hear and to understand.

Question:

May Masses be said for non-Catholics?  If so, why?

Answer:

Yes, they may.  Your question seems to suggest some confusion between praying for someone and that person’s reception of Holy Communion, which is problematic for non-Catholics.

When Mass is celebrated for someone – living or dead, Catholic or otherwise – the Church merely prays for that person’s welfare, especially spiritual. To be restored to health or to obtain the gift of eternal salvation is not something limited to explicit membership in Christ’s Church.

Question:

At what age does a parent’s responsibility for a child’s going to Sunday Mass end? Is “forcing” a good practice?

Answer:

In a certain sense, parental responsibility for children never ends, especially where their spiritual welfare is at stake. In a more narrow sense, however, I imagine it would be reasonable to say that when children have left home, a parent’s potential for “forcing” anything is well-nigh gone. Of course, a parent always hopes that what has been stressed as a value will have been integrated into an adolescent or adult child’s permanent way of life.

The value of “forcing” is that it is a very strong manner of indicating what is of significance to a particular family, in just the same way that children are “forced” to eat three meals day or go to school.

Question:

Are there various dioceses around the country requiring certain mandatory preparation periods for marriages? Ours now calls for a four-month notice and either an Engaged Encounter or Pre-Cana conference.

Answer:

Most dioceses now require a period of four to twelve months’ notice to the parish before marriage, lest a couple rush into a union without proper consideration and preparation.

Similarly, various programs are offered and mandated to ensure that the couple has the best information possible available to them, so that they can make an intelligent and informed judgment on their suitability for marriage, in general, and to this partner, in particular.  While such programs may seem like an annoying and unnecessary obstacle to young people head over heels in love, they are usually rather grateful later on, if the formation either causes them to understand each other better or brings them to a decision that marriage is not right for them at the present moment, or at any time.

The Church exercises pastoral care for couples when she provides such programs, and likewise protects the sanctity of marriage from unthought-out celebrations.

Question:

What should I do when I discover my Fundamentalist in-laws indoctrinating my children in their beliefs?

Answer:

The problem you identify is one reason why the Church has always discouraged “mixed marriages.” Religion is such an important part of life that it automatically impels a believer to share it with others.

Presuming that your in-laws are people of goodwill who love your children, they undoubtedly feel they are loving their grandchildren by imparting their version of the Gospel to them. All the goodwill in the world, however, cannot justify an attempt on the part of anyone (relative, teacher, or government official) to interpose himself between a parent and child. It is both your right and responsibility, then, to make it known to your in-laws that they are engaging in what you consider reprehensible action, which you will not tolerate. If they will not agree to cease their proselytizing of your children, they should be told that they will not be allowed to see them.

All this naturally presupposes that your husband sees things your way. If he does not, you have a most serious problem on your hands, perhaps calling for family counselling. Let’s hope and pray that the difficulty can be settled in a spirit of true Christian charity.

Question:

I have been asked to participate in a Roman Catholic/Greek Orthodox wedding. The Catholic says her pastor will be there and that it is completely approved by the Church. I realize there are unity talks going on between the Churches, but I wonder about participation in their liturgy. What about receiving Holy Communion?

Answer:

Yes, it is possible for a Catholic to marry a Greek Orthodox in an Orthodox ceremony, and to do so licitly and validly, provided the proper dispensation has been obtained. I presume that is the case here since you say the bride’s pastor will be present.

As a matter of fact, many Catholic theologians and canonists say that it is better to have the wedding in the Orthodox Church because some Orthodox question the validity of our marriages for a most interesting reason: they believe the priest is the minister of the sacrament, while we hold that the spouses administer the sacrament to each other. If the Catholic priest does not see himself as the minister, they reason that he cannot have the intention to administer the sacrament, and hence it is invalid. Therefore, the simplest procedure is to obtain a dispensation from the Catholic form of marriage.

Since I do not know what you are expected to do in the wedding, I cannot answer you any more completely. Neither the Orthodox nor the Catholic Church permit intercommunion, so that is out of the question.

Question:

Why is our Eucharistic service called the Mass?

Answer:

The name comes from a historical accident. As you may know, at the conclusion of the Mass the priest (or deacon) used to say, “Ite, missa est.” Literally, that means, “Go, it (the Church or congregation) is sent.”  “Missa” (dismissal) gradually and eventually became the name for the entire service. That translates into English as “Mass.”

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