Last week, I watched the press conference at which the two new auxiliary bishops of Boston, Bishop-elect Bob Reed and Bishop-elect Mark O'Connell, were introduced by Cardinal Sean O'Malley the day their appointment was announced. Bishop-elect Reed is an old hand at dealing with the media, but it was Bishop-elect O'Connell's highly emotional response to a question about how Pope Francis has impacted his ministry that stood out to me. The bishop-elect's response is at 21:55 in this video of the conference:
I was struck by his words about helping "people who thought they were at the periphery but Pope Francis said, ‘No, you're not!'"
It occurred to me after hearing O'Connell's response that I wasn't precisely sure what he was talking about. I knew Mitis Iudex Dominus Jesus had been promulgated last year, and that it reformed the annulment process, but I had not read anything about how those reforms were going. And, here was a new bishop telling us about one of the most concrete examples of a "Francis effect." And why did he mention immigrants specifically?
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I called Bishop-elect O'Connell to ask him about this. He told me that he thought there were three reasons that more people are now obtaining annulments as a result of Mitis Iudex, especially immigrants. The first has to do with jurisdiction. "Previously, a case could only be heard in the place where the wedding took place, or where the respondent lived, and you could only hear a case where the petitioner lived if it was within the same episcopal conference," he explained. "But, for new immigrants, the wedding often was not in Boston, or the respondent did not live here, therefore, we were unable to do their cases. Often we were sending these cases back to tribunals in Latin America that were either very slow or even ineffective. There are dioceses that have not done an annulment in years."
Monsignor Charles Antonicelli, Vicar for Canonical Services of the Archdiocese of Washington, reports a similar uptick in the number of annulments for Latinos on account of the jurisdictional changes wrought by Mitis Iudex. "Bishop-elect O'Connell is absolutely right that for many Hispanics, who had previously been unable to pursue an annulment here in the U.S., the changes wrought by Pope Francis have made a significant difference," he told me. "Here in Washington we are able to reinstate many people into the full communion of the church where, previously, it could take years to get an annulment through an ecclesial process in another country."
The second reason, and one not limited to Hispanics and other immigrants, is that Mitis Iudex suggested dioceses stop charging fees for an annulment. In Boston, there was an initial filing fee of $50 and, if the case required a formal process, they requested an additional $700. In Washington, D.C., for a formal annulment process the archdiocese requested a fee of $750, and, for a decree of nullity, $100, according Antonicelli. In both archdioceses, the fees were waived if people could not afford it, but both O'Connell and Antonicelli indicated that there is anecdotal evidence people stayed away because of the cost. "Eliminating the fee altogether has brought in people who either did not know the fee could be waived or who did not want to be a charity case," O'Connell told me.
The third reason for the increase in the number of annulments, especially among immigrants, is that the process is simpler and faster. "If the respondent is willing to participate, you can do a total simulation case in about one month and or a month and one-half," O'Connell told me. I asked what a "total simulation" case is. "A total simulation case is one in which the couple did not marry for the reasons the church articulates, for example, they did not intend to have a permanent union. Sometimes the marriage was for an alternate purpose, like helping someone overcome an immigration obstacle."
Bishop-elect O'Connell told me that he gets choked up about these changes and the effects they have had on people's lives because he has seen it firsthand. He often gives talks about the changes in the annulment process in different parishes. "A woman came up to me at one parish, and said she had always been reluctant to get an annulment," O'Connell said. "I discussed her circumstances, which I cannot divulge, but when she realized that we could do this, that there was no fee, and that the process would not drag on, she was moved to tears. I told her to say a prayer for Pope Francis because he had changed her life."
This press conference happened last Friday. The following Sunday, we heard a reading from the Hebrew Scriptures in which Elijah visits the widow of Zarephath in Sidon, and her son dies. Elijah raises the boy from the dead and restores him to his mother. In the Gospel, Jesus does the same for the widow of Nain. The church is our mother and, talking with Bishop-elect O'Connell and Monsignor Antonicelli, the dry work of canonical affairs seems to be exactly what these readings are talking about: The power of God breathes new life into a person and reinstates them into the church. There were some reactionary bishops and canonists who objected to Mitis Iudex, indeed, who long objected to the various indults the church in the U.S. received from Rome to expedite the annulment process. But, so far from this reform being another hare-brained initiative of the pope, still less another example of his supposedly liberal flirtation with heresy, the changes begun by Mitis Iudex are straight from the Gospel, from last Sunday's Gospel. In Boston and in Washington and throughout the church, people are being reinstated into the life of the church by the power of the Holy Spirit and the good work of judicial vicars.
[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]