Bishop establishes Spanish marriage tribunal

By Paul Madrid
Special Correspondent

Bishop Joe Vásquez recently established a Spanish section of the diocesan marriage tribunal, which is one of the first tribunals in the country equipped to handle annulment cases entirely in Spanish without the use of translators.
Father Christopher Ferrer, who is in charge of the diocesan Office of Canonical & Tribunal Services, sees the practical need for the new section. 
“Annulment cases involving Spanish-speaking parties have increased substantially over the last few years,” Father Ferrer said. “Our past setup did allow Spanish-speaking faithful to submit documents and testimony in their native language, but we used translators to translate all of the evidence into English. We also issued the decisions only in the English language.”
The annulment process is detailed and generally takes several months to complete. The process begins at the parish level. A person sets up an appointment with one of the local clergy or parish staff, who goes over the history of the marriage with the person, helps the person find the witnesses and documents needed for the process, and acts as the person’s advocate with the tribunal. Once the tribunal receives the case from the parish advocate, the formal process begins with the tribunal contacting the other party to the marriage, giving them the opportunity to suggest witnesses and evidence either in support of nullity or against nullity. The tribunal then investigates, contacting the witnesses for their statements, and then, after reviewing the evidence, the judges reach a decision on whether the marriage is valid or not. 
Father Ferrer explained the Spanish translation of all of this information often added more delays to a process that can be time consuming. This additional delay was one only Spanish speakers had to endure. 
“After receiving the directive from Bishop Vásquez, we assessed the language skills of our canonists and staff and made an effort to hire additional bilingual support staff to make a Spanish section possible,” he said. “The tribunal is now arranged such that translation is no longer necessary. The judges on these cases review evidence in Spanish, hear the arguments of Spanish-speaking advocates, and write their decisions in Spanish so that the parties and advocates can understand them without translation. This will help us reach decisions in these cases at the same pace that we handle English cases.”
Bishop Vásquez explained that while efficiency is an important motivator for creating the Spanish tribunal, it was not the only one. 
“Pope Francis has consistently asked the church to find ways to reach out to individuals at the peripheries of civil and ecclesial society,” the bishop said, “and the faithful that find themselves estranged from the Gospel’s message concerning matrimony deserve the church’s special attention, even more so when they are a part of a vulnerable community. That is one reason why I decided to eliminate the language barrier for a vulnerable part of an already vulnerable community.” 
Bishop Vásquez also noted that recently Pope Francis reformed the marriage nullity procedures to remove  many physical and moral barriers that prevented estranged faithful from seeking the church’s help for healing and support. 
“This served as a good reminder for me that the church needs to be adaptable in its juridical structures to fulfill its supreme law: the salvation of souls,” the bishop said.
In addition, Bishop Vásquez noted that the process for the V (Fifth) Encuentro, the initiative of the U.S. bishops on ministry to Hispanics, has recently begun, and this encouraged him to take this step now in the Diocese of Austin. 
“Through the V Encuentro, the U.S. bishops are discerning ways to reach out to Hispanics who find themselves estranged from the life and vision of the church. Making it easier for Spanish-speaking faithful to approach the tribunal in their native language is just one way that the diocese is responding to the increased Hispanic presence in our local church. The Spanish tribunal initiative is not just about deciding annulments faster; it is also about welcoming Spanish speakers to our community and making them feel that the Catholic Church in Austin is truly their home.”