Saturday, March 23, 2013

Blessings and Convalidation

I've not written much on my blog in recent times, so I thought I should make an effort.

From time to time I am asked interesting questions of a general kind which I give written answers to (generally by email). I used to include such "answers" in our weekly bulletin. It might be worth including these occasional questions and answers here.

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Question: 

Consider a Catholic couple marrying at a register office. They then ask for a blessing in church. 
I just don't understand why they would ask for a blessing afterwards. If they wanted the church's blessing why wouldn't they just marry in church in the first place?  
If there was a reason they were unable to do that isn't it hypocritical of the church to give a blessing afterwards?

 

Answer: 

First, I ought to say that I am not an expert on Canon Law, nor indeed civil law - so any corrections or clarifications a reader might give will be welcome. Please don't take this as a definitive guide!

I presume that you are speaking of the UK where marriages can be contracted according to civil law during a religious ceremony. In most parts of the world (including Italy!) the civil marriage takes place before the equivalent of a JP, usually the day before the religious ceremony. In these cases the civil and the religious ceremonies are always separate, so your question does not really apply. In the UK and places with the same practice, a "blessing" would therefore be the names given to some kind of a Church ceremony which takes place after the civil marriage and which would have no (civil) legal standing. 

I know that in the Church of England it used to be common for people to ask for a "blessing" after a civil marriage when the Church's law prevented a marriage taking place in the Church, almost always because one or both of the parties had been divorced. I think the Anglican practice has changed a lot now so that such unions can take place in Church. It may be the case, of course, that the same procedure may be followed in the near future for same-sex couples, where the Vicar is inclined to bless such a "marriage". 

I have never come across public ceremonies of this kind in the Catholic Church. If someone cannot get married in the Catholic Church, then many priests may be prepared to pray privately with a couple, and even bless the wedding rings, if not the wedding. 

In fact, the whole idea of a separate "blessing" of a marriage is wrong, from a Catholic viewpoint, as the Church's role in a wedding ceremony is precisely to bless the marriage after the couple have exchanged their vows. It is the exchange of vows which makes the sacrament, and the nuptial blessing "seals" it, in a sense - so you can't "bless" a marriage which can't take place in Church. 

The kind of ceremony which you speak of is properly called a "convalidation", rather than a "blessing".

A catholic who marries outside the Church without a dispensation is irregularly married. Provided there is no bar to marriage, (such as divorce) such a marriage should be "convalidated" for it to be fully recognised by the Church. A person who is irregularly married ought not to approach the sacraments until a convalidation has taken place. This does not mean - strictly speaking - that the Church does not recognise the marriage (sometimes people say "not married in the eyes of God"). Clearly the Church does recognise it in a certain sense, if not then it would have no impact on the admissibility to the sacraments. 

In the situation which I guess you presume, there's a simple short answer:
If a couple who have contracted an "irregular" marriage, approach the Church to "regularise" it, then provided there is nothing preventing it, a priest would be wrong to refuse.

So in these circumstances the "blessing" (convalidation) is not only permitted, but is to be encouraged.

Hypocrisy raises a few other issues.

The circumstances in which may have led to such a request being made obviously might vary, and it is not always easy to speculate on motives. There may be many reasons why a Catholic might have married in a registry office. It might be because of (perceived) cost. Or sometimes family circumstances - such as difficult relationships between family members. In times gone by it might have been because the bride was pregnant, or because the families disapproved of the union (and the couple went to Gretna Green). Frankly it's unlikely that a couple would ask for a "blessing" (convalidation) on a whim. 

In many cases the request for convalidation follows a long time of absence from the practice of the faith. In such circumstances this is a cause for joy, hardly hypocrisy. (No more hypocritical than the prodigal son, you might say). 

More difficult nowadays is when a couple want a wedding at a smart hotel, or on a beach in the Dominican Republic, rather than in Church, then approach the Church shortly afterwards, or even before such a ceremony. In those circumstances the Church generally refuses to give a dispensation for the marriage to occur outside the Church (allowable circumstances would be in the Church of the other (non-catholic) partner). We do not encourage such arrangements, because the marriage should be seen as a public religious ceremony, indeed a sacrament, not just a moment of private and family celebration. These arrangements - like the practice of "living together" - make the partnership/marriage a private matter, rather than a public declaration of commitment. 

However, even in these circumstances I don't think a priest should refuse, and I don't think the Bishop would normally refuse to give the necessary permission for the convalidation. Bear in mind that the convalidation is generally a very quiet matter and rarely an occasion for all the extravagance of a wedding.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Keeping up with the times ... (The resignation of Pope Benedict)

This article is written for publication in the Staffordshire Sentinel on February 20th 2013.
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You don't need to be a Catholic, or even a religious person, to have been surprised at Pope Benedict's decision to stand down from the Papacy. It is an almost unique event in the 2,000 year history of the oldest continuing institution in the Western World. Longer lasting than the Roman, Mayan or British empires, older than the oldest church or chapel in the world, with a history more extensive and more colourful than any nation or culture, the Papacy has had a unique role already in the history of the planet.
Including Benedict XVI there have been 266 Popes. Fifteen, beginning with St Peter, were martyrs, executed for the faith. Some were men of great Holiness, such as John XXIII (died 1962), others were also great scholars, such as Pope Leo the Great (died 461). Some Popes were great reformers - such as Pope Gregory XIII (died 1585) who introduced the Gregorian Calendar which most of the world uses today. Some Popes were great patrons of the Arts, such as Sixtus IV (died 1484) after whom the Sistine Chapel is named.
Throughout its history, the Papacy has changed and adapted in an extraordinary manner - the first bishop of Rome, St Peter, was a Jewish fisherman, far from home, who led a small and persecuted church. The papacy became by steps a key institution in the later Roman empire;
the unifying force in the culture of medieval Europe and the centre of a powerful empire itself; a driver of missionary activity; in the 19th Century, a shrunken power and prisoner of new nations; in the twentieth century, the tiniest state in the world, yet a vigorous promoter of human rights and social justice.
It amuses and saddens me when I hear people speaking of the need for the Church to bring itself up to date, to catch up with the modern world, and to make changes which are said to be essential for the Church's future. Pope Benedict - so this argument goes - has been inflexible, traditionalist, old-fashioned, and resistant. A new Pope, they hope, will allow women priests, approve of gay marriage, remove the ban on abortion and much more.
Well, they are entitled to their opinions, but not to their ignorance of facts.
First, let us look back in history and see which Popes were most "up to date". Certainly not the martyrs, who bravely stood alone against the power of the day. Probably not the saintly Popes, who are often held in contrast to the times in which they lived. No, the most "modern" Popes were perhaps those of the 16th Century - Pope Julius I (died 1513), the Warrior Pope, "Il Papa Terribile" - who pursued an aggressive foreign policy - he was certainly a man of his time. And his predecessor, Pope Alexander III (died 1503), who had multiple mistresses and bribed his way to the Papacy - he too conformed to the age. We judge them harshly nowadays - not because they failed to keep up with their times, but on the contrary, because they did not resist them.
And Pope Benedict XVI, this gentle scholar, man of charm and sensitivity, now become frail and elderly, is so often judged harshly by the media of today, because he follows the way of the saints and martyrs, rather than the course of the aggressively ambitious. In his humble and courageous decision to step down, we see the evidence of his desire to serve and not to rule.
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At Sacred Heart Church, Jasper Street, Hanley on Friday 22nd February at 12 noon, there will be a Mass of Thanksgiving for the Pontificate of Benedict XVI.