By Jennika Baines
Sun Associate editor
At the May 14 meeting of the Diocesan Pastoral Council, the agenda included a panel discussion on diocesan programs to help heal troubled marriages as well as the process of annulment for marriages that have ended in divorce.
A panel discussed the options available to couples who are struggling in their marriages. The panel included Father Timothy Elmer, judicial vicar for the diocese, Claire Johnson of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal Office (the canon law court which considers annulments within the diocese), Mike and Andrea Buckley of the Good News Foundation and Cindy Fallon and Blair Kahler, who have both gone through the annulment process.
The talks given were very honest and, at times, very personal.
The panel discussion was videotaped and will be made into DVDs which will be distributed by the Good News Foundation to those who would like to learn more. The DVDs will be available in the fall.
“As a priest, especially as a parish priest, I always thought it was very important for couples struggling in their marriages to seek counseling in one way or another and it’s good to hear the church is providing that,” Father Elmer said. “But some marriages are going to fail, we know that. The Tribunal is not another form of counseling. When people come to us, they’ve already had a civil divorce.”
A divorce is a civil proceeding while an annulment involves canon (church) law. Annulments consider the entire marriage from its beginning, and when an annulment is granted it essentially states that the marriage was never fully entered into on the right terms. Part of the process of requesting an annulment is the completion of a 26-page questionnaire that requires the petitioner to truly examine the relationship and what went wrong.
For Cindy Fallon, filling out this long questionnaire helped her to come to a greater understanding of her first marriage. “I have to admit, after filling out the long form, it was very healing to me,” she said. She married at a young age, and the form helped her understand why the marriage fell apart after 27 years. “I could see my part in that and I could see my ex-husband’s part in that. It also helped me to move forward in forgiveness.”
While she said she was “a nervous wreck” during the annulment interview, with the help of an advocate who explained each step of the process to her, Fallon was granted an annulment. She was then able to remarry within the church.
Fallon also encouraged those gathered to reach out to couples who are not able to rebuild their marriages and who are struggling with the feelings of loss and failure which accompany separation and divorce. “People know what to do when there’s a death in the family. You send cards, you send flowers, you invite them over for dinner. People don’t know what to do when there’s a divorce. There’s no standard,” she said. “But you’re still grieving like you would with a death.”
Mike and Andrea Buckley also gave a personal talk about the struggles they have faced in their 39-year marriage. Andrea struggled with the needs of her aging parents while Mike kept secret his escalating financial troubles at work.
“Then 15 years ago we hit a low point in our marriage. I had closed a part of my heart off to Mike. I struggled with feelings of mistrust which affected my feelings of intimacy as a wife,” Andrea said. “I realized I had to make a decision to love when I didn’t feel like it.”
By chance, Andrea became a volunteer at the Good News Foundation, where she learned about the programs available to couples struggling in their marriages. Now, after completing those programs together, the Buckleys facilitate those same programs to help other couples strengthen their marriages.
The Good News Foundation offers two programs for couples. The first is The Third Option, a series of meetings which help couples build the skills they need to dialogue and understand one another. The program can act as either marriage enrichment or crisis intervention courses for couples. The Third Option meetings are available in Syracuse, Utica and Binghamton.
The other program, Retrouvaille, is a more intense weekend-long experience with some follow-up workshops to help couples learn to resolve conflicts and strengthen their marriage.
Mike Buckley said that he hopes to be able to establish a system in which each parish has a married couple who is willing to act as a liaison for the Good News Foundation. He said they would look forward to training couples to be able to help their fellow parishioners.
Blair Kahler and his wife Karen provided their own personal reflections on the annulment process and how their faith and the programs at the Good News Foundation helped them to build a stronger marriage. Married 18 years, the two have never been more in love, Karen said.
But they are able to maintain this relationship with the practical advice provided by the Third Option courses. “Even this morning we used these tools,” Blair laughed. “You know, we’re trying to get out of the house in Utica and get here in time. And we used these tools to get out the door in time without getting into an argument.”