BLOOMFIELD – Your marriage is over. Your divorce is final. You’re trying to move on. But something is bothering you: Was it ever, according to church law, really a marriage at all?
Each year in the Archdiocese of Hartford, about 100 individuals approach the Metropolitan Tribunal to petition for an annulment, which would state that, although a civil marriage may have taken place, a valid marriage in the eyes of the church did not. Once feared as a further painful process on top of an already stressful relationship and agonizing divorce, the annulment process is becoming more streamlined and less taxing, thanks to recent changes made by Pope Francis.
Dominican Father Mario Juan-Diego Brunetta, the tribunal’s new judicial vicar, sat down with the Transcript on Dec. 1, his first day on the job, to assure potential petitioners that “I’m a very congenial person, a friendly and approachable person and [you] need not be afraid.”
In a decision that went into effect Dec. 8, the first day of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis in September called for a briefer annulment process without the obligatory automatic appeal. He also requested that the process be less expensive and more of a pastoral ministry.
Before the change, the Code of Canon law allowed a year for the initial deliberation of a case, he said. The automatic appeal added another six months to the process. “The Holy Father eliminated the automatic appeal; it doesn’t exist anymore,” Father Brunetta said.
Automatic appeals from the Archdiocese of Hartford used to go to the Diocese of Providence, while appeals from Bridgeport and Norwich dioceses came to Hartford, he said.
“And the Holy Father wants us to bring down the amount of time,” he added. “In this country, when people cooperate and witnesses respond quickly, you can have the thing done in seven months or five months.”
He added that such a time frame was not guaranteed.
Local fees have been done away with, in line with the Holy Father’s and Archbishop Leonard P. Blair’s wishes, according to Carol Hatten, Metropolitan Tribunal notary. Previously, a $500 fee was requested but not mandated here. If a case needed arbitration in the Roman Rota, the Catholic Church’s highest judicial court, there might have been an additional fee of about $850, she said.
Christopher Brust, director of the tribunal, said that fees by the Roman Rota, when it is appealed to, may still apply.
The first person a petitioner meets at the tribunal is the judicial vicar, who decides how each case should proceed and assigns judges.
“The judicial vicar sets the tone for the tribunal,” Father Brunetta said. “My responsibility is to make sure that obviously we follow the church and the universal law of the church..., but there’s a way in which the personality of the judicial vicar informs the work of the place.”
He hopes that his easygoing South Jersey background will resonate with everyone he comes in contact with, he said.
“I’m the eldest of four boys,” he said. “My father is a retired police chief. My mom died many years ago. I’m the product of 26 years of Catholic education.”
He studied pre-med, hoping to become a doctor, but after graduating from St. Joseph University in Philadelphia, he decided to teach in the missions in American Samoa. He thought about the priesthood but did not begin formal studies right away, choosing instead to work with migrant farm workers, during which time he learned Spanish.
“Slowly, slowly, slowly, slowly, I responded to God’s call to become a priest,” he said. At age 30, in 1996, he became a novice in the Dominican order. He was ordained to the priesthood on May 24, 2001.
He received his doctorate in canon law (J.C.D.) from The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. From 2003-11, he was a judge and defender of the bond at the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Hartford.
“I cut my teeth working with Father [Robert] Vargo,” who was judicial vicar here from 2003-15, Father Brunetta said, adding that his predecessor deserved much praise. He said his first eight years of practical experience were under Father Vargo’s tutelage.
From 2012 until his recent appointment here, he worked as an ecclesiastical judge in the Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of New York, where he often worked on 60 cases at a time.
“My role when I meet with people is to help them give words to what their doubt is,” he said. “Everybody has the right to approach the tribunal and ask the church to decide on the question, ‘Is my marriage valid or invalid for XYZ reason?’ That’s called a petition. Once the petition is received, my job is to impanel a college of judges – three judges is my intention to be on each case – to investigate and to interview people, to gather data, so that we can then make a decision in light of the church’s law and the understanding of theology and in these people’s lives whether or not this marriage is valid.”
A petitioner must already have been civilly divorced before the tribunal will consider the case, he said. The petitioner will need to produce witnesses to prove the claim. After the testimony is transcribed, the case is assigned to judges, he said.
Mr. Brust said that some cases are winnowed out at the beginning. “The law itself actually has a stipulation that if there is no foundation that is seen, then the petition can be rejected at the outset. Practically speaking, the ones that do get accepted have some promise to them,” he said.
Father Brunetta said, “The tribunal is part of the pastoral ministry of the archbishop, and we are entrusted with carrying out that pastoral ministry on his behalf. Everything that we do here is aimed toward the salvation of souls, and so our work here is to aid them as best we can in accord with church law, to resolve a doubt and to move forward in their lives. We are not here to thwart them. We are here to help as best we can. I would just try to instill in them that I take very seriously that pastoral aspect of what we do as canon lawyers, as canonists, as my role as judicial vicar, and that...”
At this point, Father Brunetta went silent for a few seconds and leaned forward, as though speaking sympathetically with a man or woman seeking help. With a friendly chuckle, he said, “There’s really nothing to be afraid of. I’m really the nicest person you are going to meet today.”
The Metropolitan Tribunal of the Archdiocese of Hartford is located at the Archdiocesan Center at St. Thomas Seminary, 467 Bloomfield Ave., Bloomfield. In addition to marriage cases, the tribunal hears cases about clergy who have been accused of wrongdoing. For more information, call 860-541-6491.