What is convalidation?
Convalidation is the exchange of vows between a couple whose marriage has not been recognized by the Church. For example, if your Catholic child marries someone "outside the Catholic Church," and the couple then want to have their marriage "blessed by the Church," they come to the Church to exchange their vows and "convalidate the marriage."
How does this concern Christian Initiation?
Many catechumens and candidates preparing to join the Catholic Church are married to Catholics. In some cases these marriages happened outside the Catholic Church and need to be convalidated for both parties to be able to receive the sacraments again.
Do all marriages of catechumens and candidates need to be convalidated?
No, definitely not. In many cases the marriage is already recognized by the Church. One example is if the catechumen or candidate is married to a Catholic and if they married according to proper Church procedures. This marriage is already recognized by the Church and should not be convalidated even if the couple married before the non-Catholic wanted to join the Catholic Church. Another example is if the catechumen or candidate is married to another non-Catholic in a marriage recognized by the Church. That would include, for example, the first marriage for both parties. This marriage should not be convalidated in the Catholic Church.
Suppose a couple who don't need a convalidation want one anyway?
The best we can offer is to renew their marriage vow before the community. However, in no way should people get the idea that formerly this marriage "didn't count."
Does it make a difference if the catechumen is unbaptized?
The difference is that the marriage of an unbaptized person is not "sacramental marriage." You can't receive any other sacrament until you at least receive baptism. However the Church may already recognize the marriage as binding even when we do not recognize it as a sacrament.
In that case how does a binding marriage become a sacramental marriage?
Simply with baptism. The waters of baptism sacramentalize the marriage.
When should a convalidation take place?
As soon as possible. There are usually one or two obstacles. One is that parties who were eligible to marry in the Catholic Church chose not to. In this case they may celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation and become eligible again for marriage in the Church. The other possible obstacle is that one or both parties have married more than once. In this case former marriages must be annulled before convalidation can take place. If the annulments are granted, the couple is eligible for convalidation.
Should convalidation be delayed till Holy Week so that the sacraments may be celebrated together?
No. Marriage is not a sacrament of initiation. Even though it becomes an issue for many who wish to join the Catholic Church, it should not be confused with initiation. A marriage needing recognition by the Church is separate from initiation, and its convalidation should not be delayed. This will benefit both parties since if one is Catholic, s/he may return to the sacraments without further delay.
If one party is unbaptized, isn't it easier to wait till after Easter to convalidate the marriage?
Yes it's easier, but not necessarily better. Convalidations of a marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person require a dispensation from the Chancery. Convalidation between two Catholics does not. Some pastors like to wait till after Easter to save on paperwork. But even though it requires paperwork that would not be necessary after Easter when both are Catholic, it's still better to convalidate the marriage as soon as possible. Convalidation pertains to marital status, not to initiation, and to delay is to place an unnecessary burden on the couple.
Does marriage between a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic require a dispensation too?
Yes. Now, technically, this dispensation pertains to liceity and not to validity. That means there's a law requiring you to get the dispensation, but the marriage will still be marriage if you don't. Some have chosen, therefore, to dispense with the dispensation. Still, it's better to obtain one and then convalidate the marriage as soon as possible.
Yes, and this is most important. Be sure the couple is ready for marriage in the Catholic Church. This is a normal pastoral consideration. A pastoral evaluation should be made about the couple's understanding of marriage in the Church and their readiness to live that commitment within the context of the Catholic Church community.