November 15, 2019

‘We help each other’: Group’s support leads to hope and healing in the soul-searching journey of annulment

Above, Kate and Paul Halter at their wedding on Nov. 9, 2018, at Holy Spirit Church in Indianapolis, officiated by Msgr. Paul Koetter. (Submitted photo)

Above, Kate and Paul Halter at their wedding on Nov. 9, 2018, at Holy Spirit Church in Indianapolis, officiated by Msgr. Paul Koetter. (Submitted photo)

By John Shaughnessy

The wedding ceremony was everything that Paul and Kate Halter had hoped for, giving the couple a sense of joy, relief and peace after a long journey marked with overwhelming pain at times.

Before they met each other at a mutual friend’s birthday party, both Paul and Kate had known the devastation of divorce, including the heartbreak of their first spouses leaving them for someone else.

That pain has been replaced with a deep love for each other. And yet that wasn’t the only reason each of them beamed at that moment.

Their smiles also reflected the love they have for their Catholic faith—a love that made them want to be married in the eyes of the Church.

To make that possible, they each had sought and eventually received a “declaration of marriage nullity”—commonly referred to as an annulment—for their first marriages. And now they were free to marry before God in the Catholic Church. (Related: Answers to common questions and concerns about the process for a declaration of marriage nullity)

As they turned toward the cheers and applause of everyone who had witnessed their marriage, they saw friends who had been there for them, giving them their advice, support and friendship.

This then is more than the story of a couple celebrating their new life together. It’s also the story of an unusual support group in the archdiocese. It’s a group of Catholics from Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis who have been through the process of seeking a declaration of marriage nullity—people who provide encouragement and guidance to others going through a marriage nullity case with the archdiocese’s tribunal.

It’s also the story of the priest who guides the group, a pastor who wants to invite members of other parishes to join their group—or help them start their own.

Being married before God

Msgr. Paul Koetter presided at the wedding of the Halters in November of 2018, seven years after he started the support group for parishioners who are presently working through a marriage nullity case with the tribunal.

“We would gather monthly, do some sharing and talk about their annulments,” Msgr. Koetter says about the beginnings of the group. “I heard some of the raw pain they were going through and the tendency to sometimes misinterpret letters from the tribunal. I was able to answer questions, calm folks down and encourage them.

“The group began to grow, and I saw how they helped each other. Those who got their annulments remained with the group and were able to speak about their experience as a way of encouraging others. Many of the present group are people who are finished with their annulments, and their marriages are blessed in the Church. This is now, for them, a ministry of service.”

He’s seen the difference that ministry has made.

“People in the middle of the process appreciate a group that they can talk to about an annulment. So many people do not understand the process and can quickly judge it. The members of the group respect the process and offer a place where the frustrations, joys and pains of the process can be shared without judgment of the person or the process.”

The efforts of the support group have also led to a special quality among its members, Msgr. Koetter says.

“I have been impressed with the deep respect they have for the sacrament of marriage and the value of being married in the Church. They, more than most, deeply value the idea of being married before God.”

‘We help each other’

Teresa Vail and her husband, Tim Lake, were there when Paul and Kate Halter were married. The coordinator of the Holy Spirit support group, Vail knows personally the devastation of divorce, the path to a declaration of marriage nullity, and the joy of being married in the Church.

“There have been 10 weddings since we started the group,” she says. “My husband and I have been invited to all of them, and I’ve sung at about half of them. Some of my closest friends have come out of this process. We help each other. We answer questions.

“Divorce is such a hard thing. You have to believe there is something beyond that, and it doesn’t have to affect your relationship with Christ or define you. I felt like a failure when I got a divorce. I don’t feel that way anymore.”

After her marriage was declared null, Vail was married to Lake at Holy Spirit Church in 2013.

Back then, “cases generally took two years,” according to Daniel Ross, a judge instructor for the archdiocese’s tribunal. Now, thanks to changes by Pope Francis, the process usually takes an average of 18 months.

“The people at the tribunal are as nice as can be, but it’s a daunting process,” Vail says. “They tell you it’s not about how it ended, it’s about how the marriage began—and what wasn’t right about it from the beginning. I was 20 when I got married, and we had broken up four times before that. I was young and dumb.”

The process—including providing in-depth answers about the marriage—requires a significant self-examination, she says.

“It’s a very illuminating process, but it’s hard. To have a support group help you through the entire process is invaluable. We need to walk that path with someone, and I understand that walk. I have been in these groups and have felt the Holy Spirit guiding us.

“I would tell anyone going through this that our group is a great place to start your journey. Continue with us and allow us to make that journey with you. The friendships and the communion with the Holy Spirit that we all share are such valuable parts of the journey.”

For her, that journey has led to a marriage built upon the foundations of love and faith.

“If God made the perfect person for me, it would be Tim,” she says. “We got back from a mini-vacation and the highlight of the trip was going to Mass every day together. I feel God has put me right where I need to be. I wouldn’t have made that journey without him.”

‘It was truly a celebration’

When Kate Halter was granted her annulment in 2013, she experienced a wide range of emotions—all positive.

“It was freeing, validating, and I was thrilled I could move forward with my life in the Church—and I was free to marry in the Church,” she says. “My faith is very important to me.

“It made me feel whole again as a person.”

In contrast, pursuing a marriage nullity case was the last thing Paul Halter wanted to do after his divorce.

“I did not want to go through it,” he recalls. “I had gone through a painful divorce, and I did not want to go through another process that would tear through my heart and soul again.”

Yet after he met Kate and their relationship deepened, his view changed.

“Kate was encouraging, and I also wanted to go through the process for myself so Kate and I could share a sacramental marriage—and share further in our faith together.”

The couple credits the Holy Spirit support group and the tribunal staff in giving Paul “the perseverance” to continue the process, which was completed last year.

They were “married before God” at Holy Spirit Church on Nov. 9, 2018, with Msgr. Koetter officiating the ceremony.

“It meant a lot,” Kate says. “We are both cradle Catholics who have both found a lot of strength and endurance in our faith. To fully partake in the sacraments [as a married couple] has been amazing. It was reassuring to see how our Church was willing to help us through the process. It was a blessing.”

Paul adds, “It was truly a celebration. Absolute joy. We were surrounded by family and friends. Many of the people there were members of the support group.”

The couple will celebrate their anniversary in Cana during a trip this month to the Holy Land.

“That will be awesome,” Kate says.
 

(The next meeting of the support group of Holy Spirit Parish in Indianapolis will be on Dec. 3 at 7 p.m. For more information about the December meeting, contact Teresa Vail at tvail@orthoindy.com or at 317-710-0435. Anyone who thinks they can benefit from the group is invited to attend.)


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