“In this important ministry of reconciliation every obstacle (and excuse) for not applying for an annulment should be removed,” Bishop Gerald Barnes said in a letter announcing the fee waiver. “Too many people feel they are on the outside looking in; the New Evangelization calls us to reach out to them and facilitate their return to the community.”
Father David Andel, J.C.L., Judicial Vicar for the diocese, said that Pope Francis’ emphasis on forgiveness and reconciliation, particularly in relation to those who have drifted away from the Catholic faith, was a catalyst for the local discussion about waiving annulment fees. After discussing the idea with Fr. Andel, Bishop Barnes consulted the Presbyteral Council, his chief body of priest advisors, and received a positive reception.
The average amount of the annulment fee in the Diocese of San Bernardino was about $400, Fr. Andel said, generating about $40,000 a year. Any outstanding annulment fees owed to the Diocesan Tribunal are also waived. The vast majority of dioceses in the United States charge an annulment fee. The Diocese of Cleveland, Ohio and Archdiocese of Detroit, Michigan are among those who have also eliminated their annulment fee.
Getting rid of the fee helps put greater focus on the spiritual process of the annulment and its potential for healing, Fr. Andel said.
“There’s been that perception than an annulment can be bought,” he said. “This flies in the face of that.”
In his letter, Bishop Barnes alludes to the healing benefits of the annulment process. “A divorce that is often an experience of failure, embarrassment or anger is frequently transformed into a lesson of self-discovery and forgiveness,” he writes.
While the diocese was always willing to reduce or even waive the annulment cost for those who claimed financial hardship, the larger message of the fee waiver is already being felt, some priests say.
“My people have received it as the Church being interested in helping them,” said Father Henry Sseriiso, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption parish in San Bernardino.
The local move to eliminate annulment fees comes at a time when Church leaders are discussing the plight of divorced Catholics who have not had their marriage annulled as part of a larger discussion on challenges to the family at the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops. Father Benedict Nwachukwu, pastor of Sacred Heart Church in Rancho Cucamonga, says the cumulative effect of Pope Francis, the discussion of difficult family challenges at the Extraordinary Synod and the diocesan move to waive annulment fees has created an atmosphere for some to come forward and attempt to resolve their marriage status.
“People have started talking about it—their situation—and what can be done,” said Fr. Nwachukwu, who is the Vicar Forane for the West End Vicariate and Chairman of the Presbyteral Council.
The timing of the fee waiver and the Extraordinary Synod on the Family is coincidental, Fr. Andel said, but added that it could motivate those who have avoided the annulment process.
“For those who have never attempted it and money stood in the way, it’s no longer an obstacle,” he said.
Added Fr. Sseriiso, “the ball is on their side.”