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 | By Mary D. Dillard

‘An extension of Jesus as the Good Shepherd’

One advocate’s perspective

All it took was Deacon Dan Laurita, the Diocese of Birmingham’s Tribunal defender of the bond, to approach John Martin, a parishioner of St. John the Baptist in Madison, with an invitation. The invitation was simple and direct: “There is a training coming up for people interested in becoming a Tribunal advocate, and I would like you to be there.”

Martin admits he wasn’t exactly interested in becoming an advocate, but the deacon’s prompting was enough to get him to the training. His background in civil law and academia made him a good candidate, but the reservation to take on the role did linger in Martin’s mind. After attending the training and discussing the potential role with his wife, he came to the conclusion that helping his fellow Catholics through the annulment process was a way he could serve not only them but the Church.

As a lay advocate for roughly three years, Martin sees his role as more of a facilitator. “In civil law you’ve got defense attorneys and prosecutors who are pushing their case, but we are out for the truth,” he explains. “It’s not an adversarial relationship; rather, I am facilitating getting the information needed to find the truth down to the Tribunal.”

Getting that information together can be challenging. After all, speaking to a priest or deacon about personal circumstances is much different than divulging private matters to a fellow parishioner. To help, Martin meets with the petitioner once or twice, walking them through what is needed such as documents and the autobiographical essay. “It’s kind of a sad business,” says Martin, but he tries to approach each case with an abundance of respect for the petitioner’s privacy. “I am standoffish in a way,” he confesses. “I don’t want to intrude, and I don’t need to know more than what is needed.”

Instead, Martin feels the autobiographical essay required as part of the formal annulment case process does a wonderful job asking the right questions to bring out the points for or against a marriage being “right” from the beginning. Of course, the essay is also the most time consuming and difficult. “I am very sympathetic,” asserts Martin, “but they need to do it on their own and in their own time.”

Once the essay is complete, Martin reads the essay, offers his opinion on the grounds for an annulment, gets all the documents in order, mails it off to the Tribunal, and awaits the sentence.

Martin has helped a half dozen people through the process, yet even as an active member of his parish, he has not previously known any of them. His not knowing the petitioners can be a good thing but, at times, it can be immensely unfulfilling not to actively share in their healing. In those moments of doubt, however, Martin’s wife reassures him that the work he is facilitating is for God and His people.

The people of God that approach the diocesan Tribunal do so with uncertainty and, quite possibly, trepidation for varying reasons: a desire to enter the Catholic Church, a yearning to resolve the past, a longing to return to the sacraments. Whatever the individual circumstance may be, though, Martin does believe the process is one of healing, transformation, and grace. “It is part of a bigger picture, which is Jesus coming for His children,” Martin insists. “He is the shepherd seeking out His sheep to bring them back.”

While the role of advocate might not have the same edifying qualities as say an extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, an adult religious education teacher, or even a cantor at Mass, Martin contends the efforts of advocates is an extension of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, for as his wife points out, “Your contribution is making a difference in people’s lives, so they can become new and be restored through the sacraments.”

Do you have:

  • An attention to detail and a talent for paperwork?
  • An ability to learn new things and explain them to others?
  • An ability to listen with compassion and respect?
  • Flexibility to meet people where they are?

Are you:

  • A practicing Catholic who is trustworthy and discreet?
  • Maritally living in accord with Catholic teaching?

If so, then you would likely make a very good advocate in the marriage tribunal.

A canonical advocate is the personal legal representative of a party to a case brought before the tribunal. You do not have to be a civil lawyer or have any experience in law to be a canonical advocate.

Which lay parishioners make the best advocates? An advocate should be a person who is good with both paperwork and people. They need to have a good working relationship with their pastor. They should be able to devote sufficient time to help a petitioner through the process of preparing and presenting their petition for a declaration of nullity. They must be willing and able to ask people direct, difficult questions with empathy and compassion. They need to be willing to answer their client’s questions about the process. An advocate needs to be attentive to detail, trustworthy, and discreet. Finally, an advocate needs to be a practicing Catholic who is living out the Catholic faith in keeping with Church teaching. And, if you are bilingual, that is an added bonus!

To learn more about becoming an advocate, please contact Mattie Shumate at 205-838-8307 or