January 27, 2017

Vicar judicial continues ministry in absence of archbishop

Father Joseph Newton, left, archdiocesan vicar judicial, poses on Nov. 29, 2016, with fellow staff members in the archdiocesan metropolitan tribunal. They are, from left, Swiden Torres-Torrijos, Ann Tully, Msgr. Frederick Easton (retired vicar judicial and now adjunct vicar judicial), Nancy Thompson, Joseph Gehret, Kay Summers, Peggy Crawford and Benedictine Father Patrick Cooney. The staff posed in the St. Alphonsus Liguori Chapel in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis. Not pictured is Daniel Ross, a recent addition to the tribunal staff. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

Father Joseph Newton, left, archdiocesan vicar judicial, poses on Nov. 29, 2016, with fellow staff members in the archdiocesan metropolitan tribunal. They are, from left, Swiden Torres-Torrijos, Ann Tully, Msgr. Frederick Easton (retired vicar judicial and now adjunct vicar judicial), Nancy Thompson, Joseph Gehret, Kay Summers, Peggy Crawford and Benedictine Father Patrick Cooney. The staff posed in the St. Alphonsus Liguori Chapel in the Archbishop Edward T. O’Meara Catholic Center in Indianapolis. Not pictured is Daniel Ross, a recent addition to the tribunal staff. (Photo by Natalie Hoefer)

By Sean Gallagher

When Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin was appointed the new archbishop of Newark, N.J., on Nov. 7, 2016, changes immediately occurred in the Archdiocese of Indianapolis.

Cardinal Tobin ceased being archbishop and served as administrator with limited authority until he was installed in Newark on Jan. 6.

Msgr. William F. Stumpf and Father Joseph Feltz respectively were no longer archdiocesan vicar general and vicar for clergy.

In the midst of all this change, Father Joseph Newton continued as vicar judicial, overseeing the archdiocese’s metropolitan tribunal, which primarily shepherds petitions of Catholics seeking a declaration of nullity (commonly known as an annulment) of a previous marriage.

And as the faithful in central and southern Indiana await the appointment of their next shepherd, he continues in this role, to which Cardinal Tobin appointed him last summer.

The Church’s Code of Canon Law requires that a diocese’s vicar judicial remain in place even if during a time of transition there is no bishop to lead it.

“The judicial vicar remains to see that the administration of justice still happens in the Church,” Father Newton said. “It would be unjust for the position of the judicial vicar to go away, and therefore every marriage case that’s in the works come to a complete stop.

“So, the Church, in its wisdom, maintains the position so that justice may continue so that people’s marriage cases can keep going.”

A few weeks before he was installed in Newark, Cardinal Tobin expressed his confidence in Father Newton’s continued ministry in the tribunal during the archdiocese’s time without an archbishop.

“One of the functions of law is to provide stability to the community,” Cardinal Tobin said. “Father Joe will provide the archdiocesan administrator with clear guidance that will allow him to shepherd the Catholic community in central and southern Indiana until a new archbishop is named. I am confident that my successor will be as satisfied with Father Joe’s service as I have been.”

Msgr. Stumpf was elected archdiocesan administrator on Jan. 9 by the seven priests who serve on the archdiocesan college of consultors.

Father Newton said he was attracted to ministry related to canon law before he was ordained a priest in 2008. He learned the various tasks of people ministering in the tribunal while still a seminarian, and in his first three years of priestly life and ministry.

From 2011-13, he studied canon law at The Catholic University of America in Washington. Since completing graduate studies, he has ministered full time in the tribunal, becoming vicar judicial on June 29, 2016.

Although the study and practice of canon law has its intellectual side, Father Newton traces his interest in it to his personal hobby of restoring old cars.

“I’m very mechanical by nature,” he said. “I like functional sorts of things. Canon law has a lot of function. It takes divine law, natural law and the teachings of the Church and sort of distills them into principles which govern the Church.

“In some ways, it’s very practical. It always appealed to me because, in many ways, I’m a sort of practical kind of person.”

He experienced the practical application of canon law when he served as associate pastor of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis from 2008-11, discovering that ministry in a parish and in canon law came together to help him be a better priest.

“Being in a parish helps me understand that everything we do here in the tribunal is about people, is about supporting their rights,” Father Newton said. “It is a pastoral ministry. Each and every person that works [in the tribunal] has a vocation to this particular ministry. We couldn’t do it otherwise.”

He was also attracted to ministering in canon law because of the two priests who preceded him as archdiocesan vicar judicial: Msgr. Frederick Easton, who served in the role from 1980 until his retirement in 2011; and Father Stanley Pondo, who was vicar judicial from

2011-16, and now serves as pastor of St. Louis Parish in Batesville.

Reflecting on those two priests, Father Newton looked at his desk, at which vicars judicial have worked for several decades.

“Whoever sits at that desk … stands on the shoulders of giants, of great canon lawyers,” he said. “It’s quite a legacy to live up to. I don’t think that I can live up to the legacy, but that doesn’t stop me from trying.”

For his part, Msgr. Easton appreciates Father Newton’s pastoral approach to ministry in the tribunal.

“He definitely has captured a good understanding of the maxim found in the last canon of the 1983 Code of Canon Law,” Msgr. Easton said, “namely this: ‘the salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the Church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.’ ”

Ann Tully, coordinator of the tribunal and a judge instructor/assessor, was on its staff when Father Newton first ministered there as a seminarian. She has enjoyed watching him grow in ministry in canon law and appreciates his current leadership of the tribunal.

“Father Joe became part of our team from the beginning,” she said. “Now that he is the judicial vicar, he leads a team that he is completely committed to serving, and we are very proud of him.”

That team has been working harder than ever since Pope Francis promulgated changes to canonical procedures in marriage cases in 2015.

The changes included allowing tribunals to handle cases when a former spouse lives in another country, forgoing the previous requirement that a second tribunal had to review cases, and establishing a brief process for cases that met specific requirements.

That same year saw Cardinal Tobin eliminate all fees for marriage cases in the archdiocese’s tribunal, although Father Newton noted that these were frequently waived in the past for people in need.

Father Newton said these changes and the pastoral example of Pope Francis and Cardinal Tobin resulted in the archdiocesan tribunal starting a record 275 new cases in 2016—about 110 more than the previous record.

“The increase in cases is not something that we go around bemoaning,” Father Newton said. “It’s joyful. It means that the example of our Holy Father and Cardinal Tobin, the outreach of the tribunal and the working of the Holy Spirit is alive and at work in people who really want to do what the Church asks them to do. This is cause for great joy on our part.”

And even though the Church in central and southern Indiana is currently without an archbishop, this pastoral ministry of justice in the tribunal will continue under the leadership of Father Newton.
 

(For more information on the ministry of the archdiocesan metropolitan tribunal, visit www.archindy.org/tribunal.)

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