Reforms to annulment process show mercy

Categories: Year of Mercy

By Kristi Anderson
The Visitor

Earlier this fall, Pope Francis announced that the process for those seeking a declaration of nullity of marriage, or an annulment, would be undergoing some changes to help the process become more pastoral and to reduce the length of time the process takes.

“The Holy Father wanted to expedite the annulment process for the good of souls,” said Father Virgil Helmin, who has served for 35 years as judicial vicar for the Diocese of St. Cloud and oversees the process. “He wants the church to be a place of welcome for everyone.”

Helmin, VirgilBut, Father Helmin said, it is not a shortcut. “It is intended to help with delays in the annulment process. Each case will still be given full and proper attention.”

On Sept. 8, the Vatican released texts of two papal documents, “Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus” (“The Lord Jesus, the Gentle Judge”) for the Latin-rite church and “Mitis et misericors Iesus,” (“The Meek and Merciful Jesus”) for the Eastern Catholic churches.

The changes, including the option of a shorter process, go into effect Dec. 8, the opening day of the Year of Mercy.

“The church wants to show mercy” to those who have experienced divorce, Father Helmin said. “We are meant to be a place of healing.”

Based on the changes as well as ongoing misconceptions about the process, here are eight things you need to know about annulments:

* What is an annulment? 

A declaration of nullity, or annulment, is a conclusion by the Tribunal [court]of the Roman Catholic Church that at the time a man and woman exchanged consent, the man and/or woman did not make a valid life commitment to marriage. This determination is made by trained canon lawyers who thoroughly study the relationship.

* How does the annulment process begin in the Diocese of St. Cloud?

A person seeking an annulment  contacts his or her parish pastor or the diocesan Tribunal, which is called the court of first instance.

Up until Dec. 8, when the court of first instance finished the annulment process, the decision was automatically sent to a court of second instance, the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

After going through a review process there, the man and/or woman were notified of the final decision. For a marriage to be considered null, the courts of first and second instance both had to reach an affirmative decision.

With the new norms, the decision of the first instance will no longer be automatically appealed to the Tribunal of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

* How does this affect the way the St. Cloud Tribunal operates? 

“For the Diocese of St. Cloud, it will mean that the time of the annulment process will be virtually cut in half,” Father Helmin said.

There is still a collegiate court of three judges called a “turnus.” The judges confer on the merits of a petition and then compose the decision. In St. Cloud, the judges are Father Helmin, Deacon Don Tzinski, Theresa Wyburn and Father Robert Rolfes.

“Grounds for the declaration of nullity have not changed with the pope’s reforms. They remain as stated in the 1983 Code of Canon Law and the document ‘Dignitas Connubii,’ [an instructional document for tribunals  in handling canonical processes of marriage nullity written in 2005]. None of that has changed,” he said.

* How much does the annulment process cost? 

Pope Francis said that “gratuity of the procedure be assured so that, in a matter so closely tied to the salvation of souls, the church — by demonstrating to the faithful that she is a generous mother — may demonstrate the gratuitous love of Christ, which saves us all.”

This means that the process should be made affordable and accessible for everyone. It does not require the process to be free of charge.

“We still need to pay the people who work on these cases, and in some cases that means paying a fee to partially cover the costs,” Father Helmin said. “But no one will be turned away for inability to pay.”

Presently, the Tribunal asks for $500, with $100 due at the time the process begins. That cost can be adjusted if the client is unable to pay the full amount.

* Why is an annulment necessary?

The Catholic Church teaches that at the time a man and woman exchange consent in marriage, it is a commitment for life. When a marriage ends in civil divorce and either or both parties wish to marry in the Catholic Church, a decision must be made whether the previous marriage was contracted validly.

“This goes along with Pope Francis’ teaching that the church is a forgiving church; that the church is looking out for the good of people. All of it is for the good of souls,” Father Helmin said.

* After an annulment, are children considered illegitimate?

“A decree of nullity does not make children born of the marriage illegitimate. An ecclesiastical annulment only deals with the spouses,” Father Helmin said.

* How might this reform change one’s annulment experience?

Mike Lamb knows the pain — and the healing — that the annulment process can bring. In 2012, he started working with the St. Cloud Tribunal office.

“I always felt the annulment process was important and something I should go through,” Lamb shared. “When I came to the Tribunal, I felt like Deacon Don [Tzinski] was on my side. I felt like this was a painful part of my life and there were things I didn’t want to talk to anyone about. But he gently and compassionately brought those things out.”

The process went fairly quickly at first, Lamb said, but when his case was passed on to the court of second instance, things slowed down, as is often the case with the annulment process and one of Pope Francis’ reasons for reform.

“Each step, there was a lot of anguish there, a lot of time. It was over two years by the time all was said and done,” Lamb said. “If I were to look back on my experience, knowing about this current policy coming out, if that were in place, my annulment would not have taken so long. My hope is that these new changes are going to help the focus be more about healing.”

* How can the annulment process provide healing?

Lamb, who is a chaplain and works as a social worker for Rural Stearns Faith in Action, found that his parish community, Immaculate Conception in St. Anna, was very supportive of him during his divorce and annulment process.

“I would encourage people to embrace those who are going through divorce,” he said. “We are all broken people. By going through the annulment process, it can fully unite us back into the community. Even though I never felt like I left the community or the community didn’t support me, it can be healing in the same way the sacrament of reconciliation can be healing.”

For more information about the annulment process, visit or call the Tribunal at 320-251-6557. In light of these changes, the Tribunal of the Diocese of St.