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The Diocese of Nashville’s Tribunal staff has started an initiative to go out to parishes to guide people through what diocesan Vicar General and Judicial Vicar Father John Hammond called a difficult, largely misunderstood, sometimes scary, and always painful process – a marriage annulment.
“It’s always painful and so we really feel like everything that we do to make it as human and pastoral and gentle a process as we possibly can, we want to do,” Father Hammond said.
To fulfill this, the Tribunal has begun making trips to parishes and parish ministry groups to explain the process and answer any questions. 
The program is “for people to know that we care and that we are invested in meeting them where they are but not leaving them there, helping them heal and be better prepared for their current or future marriage,” said Tribunal Director Erin Stracener.
Stracener, who holds a Master of Divinity degree from the University of St. Thomas, previously worked in the tribunal and then as Director of Religious Education at St. Matthew Church. When she returned to the tribunal, she and Father Hammond, who is also pastor of St. Patrick Church in Nashville, began planning the educational trips.
“It has always been an instinct for the both of us that the more of this kind of thing that we can do, the better,” Father Hammond said, who has a degree in canon law from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, also known as the Angelicum.
The office has already given two presentations. One at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Cookeville and another at Our Lady of the Lake Church’s Surviving Divorce group.
The Our Lady of the Lake ministry is a 12-week program that helps and supports Catholics through and after divorce.
“It’s very helpful after the groups have been through the DVDs to formulate thoughts and ask questions,” said Cindy Church, one of the facilitators of the Surviving Divorce group. “To me it is taking the veil off of something that has always been a little bit elusive in the Catholic Church.”
The presentations explain why a declaration of nullity would be needed; how the process works; how and where to start the process; who to talk to; and more, with time at the end for questions.
Case Instructor Valerie Cooper has been part of facilitating both events with Stracener.
“In this way, we are both affirming the importance of marriage while dispelling many myths and helping to alleviate fears about our process,” Cooper said.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops states that a marriage is declared null by the tribunal when it is found to have not met “the essential elements required for a binding union,” according to Church law. 
The USCCB goes on to explain that “spouses must be free to marry; capable of giving their consent to marry; freely exchange their consent; must have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; intend the good of each other; and give their consent in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister.”
The Nashville Tribunal receives more than 200 annulment cases a year. Some of the cases are from the Diocese of Knoxville, which is currently in the process of forming its own tribunal office.
Each case can take a year to process. This is dependent on the cooperation of all involved parties, since much of the process relies on collecting evidence in the form of testimony.
“People sometimes feel personally attacked and we try to do everything that we possibly can to really drive the point that we are not here to assign blame. We are not here to judge or shame you,” Father Hammond said. “We are here to help you by basically getting at the truth of a situation, which requires a judgement of certain facts and certain circumstances and events, but we’re not in the business of judging people.” 

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