This week we had the funeral of Father Ralph Besendorfer, who was our expert on helping people to happy marriages. In my sixty-three years as a priest, I have officiated at hundreds of weddings, always asking the same question, “Have you come here freely, without reservations to give yourself to each other in marriage?”
That question outlined three necessary elements for a valid marriage: first the parties cannot be forced into the union; secondly, they are able and willing to give themselves; and thirdly, their union meets the requirements of a true marriage.
In 1966 the church, coming aware of people being unhappily locked into unions that were not valid marriages, authorized experts to recommend annulments for such people. At that time, New York’s archbishop called on Father Ralph, a possessor of a doctoral degree in church law, and he appointed him to travel the world’s U.S. military establishments, recommending annulments for those in false marriages.
In 1983 our Church published an English translation of the new Code of Canon that had been published in Latin three years earlier. Father Ralph who was new to our diocese, volunteered to explain our new code. In one sentence he summed up both the new code and his own approach to the priesthood. He said, “The old code was written to control people, while the new code is written to serve them.”