Jan 23, 2014

Diocesan Tribunal welcomes three new advocates into ‘ministry of healing’



Story and photos by Rebecca Drake

SPRINGFIELD – The Tribunal of the Diocese of Springfield, which guides people through the marriage annulment process, today welcomed three new advocates into the ministry.

Making a profession of faith and taking the oath to “serve diligently” were (left to right in above photo) Deacons William F. Kern and James McElroy and Father John G. Lessard-Thibodeau.

Both deacons are retired attorneys and Father Lessard-Thibodeau is pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Holyoke. All agree that the work of the Tribunal is a ministry of healing.

“We are extending the love of Christ to those not remarried within the church,” said Deacon McElroy, who worked as a lawyer for 18 years and served as a district court judge for 18 years. He now serves as a deacon at St. Mary Mother of the Church Parish in Lee and its two mission churches in Stockbridge and Otis.

Deacon McElroy added that the work of the Tribunal is an important part of addressing the pastoral needs of contemporary family life, a concern of Pope Francis that was reflected in the recently released questionnaire disseminated to Catholics around the world.

“It’s a pastoral ministry to the divorced and to people in troubled marriages,” said Deacon Kern, who has 42 years of experience as an attorney.

Both deacons began their higher education studies in seminaries, where they became familiar with canon law. Working in the Tribunal, they will now employ their legal expertise, along with their ministry as permanent deacons in the diocese, to facilitate the often misunderstood process of marriage annulment in the Catholic Church.

“It’s a quiet but vital ministry in the church … a healing ministry,” said Father Lessard-Thibodeau. “Healing is the goal (of the ministry) … and relief.”

As a parish priest for 21 years, Father Lessard-Thibodeau brings a unique perspective to the ministry, he said. In a similar way, the deacons, as married men, bring that perspective to their encounters with clients, said Msgr. John J. Bonzagni, judicial vicar of the Tribunal.

Msgr. Bonzagni said that the new Tribunal personnel are fulfilling “an office in the church.”

“The office is that of an advocate and it is as important as an attorney is in the civil court system,” he said.

But, unlike the civil divorce process, the annulment proceedings are “non-adversarial” said Father Lessard-Thibodeau, who is about to begin canon law studies. And, for many, he said, it is “the first opportunity to tell their story” and to be listened to. He said the Tribunal’s work also is “very dependent on pastors and laypeople.”

Deacon Leo Coughlin, director of the Springfield Diocese’s permanent diaconate program, explained that, five years ago, he was asked to find deacons who, along with himself, could help with Tribunal intake interviews throughout the diocese. Deacons Theodore J. Tudryn, Richard Magenis, Francis Ryan, Jack Antaya and Gary Doane are now fulfilling this role, allowing clients to begin the annulment process in their local parish or town instead of traveling to Springfield.

And the best part of the work of the Tribunal, said Deacon Coughlin, is seeing the relief and happiness on the faces of clients as they leave the office. “The weight of the world has been lifted off their shoulders,” he said. “They walk out on ‘cloud nine,’ relieved that somebody listened to them.”

Sister Claire Lapointe (pictured at right), a Sister of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, is the director of the Tribunal and serves as a judge. She also emphasizes the healing aspect of the ministry.

“I can be a part of the compassionate arms of the church. I can help people start anew, if possible,” she said. “These people are important to me.”

Sister Lapointe, who has worked at the Tribunal in Springfield since 1990, said it is “a very necessary ministry” and, in fact, is a required office in every diocese.  

The work of the Tribunal will now be facilitated and enhanced by the legal expertise and pastoral experience of the three newest advocates.

“It’s a home run for the Diocese of Springfield,” said Deacon Coughlin.