Like many in his generation, David Benzinger left the Catholic Church to explore other spiritual paths. When his first marriage ended in divorce, he didn’t seek an annulment due to many negative impressions associated with the process.
“I really knew nothing about it and why the Church required it,” he said. “Instead, I followed standard secular thinking on the matter, which included canards like ‘it’s just a money grab for the Church.’ Back then, if you asked me questions like ‘How much does an annulment cost?’ ‘What does the Church do with the money?’ or ‘Why does the Church require it?’ I would not have known the answer to all three questions. Yet, I remained stubbornly opposed to it. I knew that without an annulment, remarriage would block me from being a sacramental Catholic.”
While Benzinger voluntarily left the Church, based on his self-described cynical attitude toward the issue of annulment, he remembers telling others that it was not his choice to leave the Church. Rather, the Church left him.
“With this perceived roadblock in mind, by the time I met my current wife, I became open to exploring the Protestant side of Christianity,” he said. “When we got engaged, we began to shop for a church home. She wanted to leave her Christian Science faith tradition behind, so we decided to land in the United Methodist Church, where we were married and had our children baptized and confirmed.”
While the United Methodist Church members were kind and welcoming, the 58-year-old Commercial Operations Manager at GE Healthcare felt a distinct lack of depth and richness and never fully embraced the faith. He begin feeling a strange tug in the direction of the Catholic Church.
“I recognize that this was the Holy Spirit calling me, but I ignored it. I was a firm believer in the phrase ‘The family that prays together, stays together,’” he explained. “To even discuss this gentle nudging would be disruptive to our family. Besides, my old nemesis, annulment, loomed like an insurmountable barrier. As our boys grew up and were confirmed, the gentle talk grew stronger. The talk was becoming a shove. I finally got to the point where I mentioned it to my wife. Nothing was decided, and a second conversation came up a few months later. At that point, she could sense that whatever was happening to me was getting serious.”
One Sunday in September 2016, Benzinger was driving to church and instead of turning right into the Methodist parking lot, he turned left into the Catholic parking lot. For the next two months, he made the left turn on Sunday mornings. After realizing he was falling in love with the face of his youth, he made an appointment with the parish priest. It was there he heard the phrase, “You need an annulment.”
Though daunting, Benzinger’s desire to return to becoming a fully sacramental Catholic outweighed his perceived hurdle of annulment. His priest gave him a book on annulment that enlightened him and offered an understanding of the process.
“This led me to the faithful decision of writing the petition for a Decree of Nullity, with the help of that same priest,” he explained. “I was going for it and it felt good. It was also terrifying since I had no idea what I would do if the tribunal returned a negative decision.”
Throughout the months during the annulment process, Benzinger imagined himself as a sheep that had wandered far from the flock. Songs about lost sheep during Mass seemed more common than usual, triggering deep feelings within him. The imagery often entered his dreams and the metaphor became more intense as the annulment process neared its conclusion. In his mind as he played the role of the lost sheep, his wandering had made his wool dirty.
“I was hungry, thirsty and longed to be back in the flock. It was always dark in these visions. I don’t remember ever seeing the daylight. Eventually, I envision being picked up by Jesus and placed on his shoulders. He picked burrs out of my wool and began to carry me back to the flock. But how long would the journey take? Would he even find the flock? Back in real life, I wondered if the annulment decision would be positive or negative and when it would finally happen,” he explained. “At last, I received an affirmative decision from the tribunal, but there was a 15-day appeal period. I remember the night before I found out that the annulment process was over. I felt a deep emptiness. Sleep was difficult. Doctors would call it an anxiety attack. In my mental metaphor as a sheep, it was raining hard and very dark. I had a fleeting thought that maybe this was a darkest before the dawn moment. It was. The next morning, I reached out to my advocate who gave me the wonderful news. It was over and I had returned home.”
After receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation, Benzinger felt peace and joy. He is a member of Christ King Parish in Wauwatosa and encourages those contemplating the annulment process to begin as soon as possible.
“Witnesses are needed and the longer you wait, the harder it will be for them to remember your prior marriage. To be blunt, witnesses also die,” he said. “There has never been a better time to start the annulment process. Pope Francis has simplified things in meaningful ways.
“Finally, don’t be afraid — God will guide you through the process and you will appreciate the Church and its sacraments like never before.”