In recent years, an increasing number of Catholics have attempted to get married outside of the Catholic Church, without regard for her laws concerning marriage. Couples do this in different ways and for many different reasons. Because knowledge of Catholic teaching is growing weaker in our culture, many people no longer realize that such weddings are “invalid,” meaning, they are not true marriages. And because they are invalid, these “marriages” have the tragic effect of alienating countless people from the fullness of Catholic life, particularly her sacraments.

Therefore, it is an all the more wonderful thing these days when couples seek to be married validly in the Church, after having attempted marriage outside of the Church. Seeking a true marriage is a sure sign that God is present and at work in their lives. Whatever has happened in their past, God wants to lead couples closer to Him and to each other. This article is an introduction to what we Catholics call “convalidation,” and the preparation couples need for this form of the covenant of marriage.

What is convalidation?

“Convalidation” comes from two Latin words and means that a couple is getting married “with validity.” A convalidation celebrated by two baptized Christians is a celebration of the sacrament of marriage, one of the Church’s seven sacraments, all of which are gifts given to us by Jesus Christ so that we can share in God’s life and grow closer to Him. The only difference from any other sacramental marriage is the circumstance under which this marriage is being celebrated, i.e., after a civil marriage ceremony has already taken place. With the appropriate permission, a convalidation can also occur between a baptized Catholic and a non-baptized person. Such a marriage would be valid but non-sacramental.

What is involved in preparing for a convalidation?

Marriage preparation for convalidating couples is typically an adapted version of the preparation that engaged couples undergo. The content of the preparation will vary from couple to couple, as different couples will have different levels of experience and knowledge of the Church, the sacrament of marriage, and of each other.

For many couples, one or more annulments will be required before a convalidation is possible. Parish clergy and staff members are happy to assist in this process if it is necessary.

All couples, because they are still looking ahead to their marriage in the Church, are asked to live as do other couples preparing for marriage. Sometimes this is kind of cutely described as “living as brother and sister,” but the idea is that the couple not engage in marital relations until the time they are married in the Church. This is difficult to achieve, but the grace of God and appropriate practical measures can make possible what we might be tempted to think is impossible. The sacrament of confession is an essential means of spiritual preparation for marriage. Of course, it is always important to make good use of confession, keeping in mind that we must be resolved to turn away from sin.

What are the benefits of convalidation?

There are very powerful benefits to getting married in the Church. First, this allows couples to put themselves right with God and the Church. This should give peace of mind, joy, and the confidence that comes from doing God’s will.

Second, sacramental marriages bring many benefits: a bond between the two spouses created by God Himself, so strong that only death can dissolve it; each of the spouses becomes in a special way the pathway to heaven for his or her spouse and an icon (“picture”) of Jesus Christ for each other; and their marriages will be redemptive, meaning that your joys and sorrows as a married couple will share in the saving work of Jesus.

Third, getting married in the Church allows Catholics who had been living in invalid marriages to participate fully in the sacramental life of the Church. All people are welcome to attend Mass. But receiving Holy Communion is for those who are fully participating in the life of the Church (free from mortal sin and committed to faithfully living as a disciple of Christ). Receiving the sacrament of reconciliation (confession) and becoming validly married prepares spouses to return to receiving Our Lord Jesus in Holy Communion.

What will the ceremony be like?

As with the marriage preparation, some of the ceremonial details will depend upon the individual couple. But a convalidation is a true celebration of marriage, and so it follows the Catholic Church’s Order of Celebrating Matrimony. Whether the rite takes place within or outside of Mass, it includes a Liturgy of the Word (Scripture readings and homily), Prayers of the Faithful, the Rite of Marriage, Our Father, Nuptial Blessing, and Final Blessing and dismissal. Convalidations are typically much simpler than other weddings in terms of the other ceremonial details (number of people in attendance, clothes, music, etc.), but there must be at least two witnesses in addition to the priest or deacon.

Finally, anyone with questions about or interest in convalidation should speak with his or her parish priest, deacon or lay minister. This should be a good and grace-filled experience for couples, and a time to grow closer to the God Who loves us more than we can imagine. Parish pastoral teams are happy to serve couples by preparing them to become one with God and with each other in the holy covenant of marriage.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.