After three years in Rome, obtaining a degree in canon law, Father Leo Walsh has returned to Anchorage to begin duties as adjutant judicial vicar of the Anchorage Archdiocese’s Tribunal Office — which deals primarily in marriage annulments. He is also the new pastor of St. Patrick Church in east Anchorage.
This was his third stint in Rome, once as a seminarian, again, pursuing additional education, and his latest attainment, a canonical law license. Seeing old friends and familiar sites graced his academic pursuits, which Father Walsh described as edifying and giving context to his 22 years of parish and administrative work, where he gained broad knowledge of the day-to-day realities of the interpersonal challenges in human relationships.
“Whenever you are talking about law, it affects people’s lives,” he said. “Every canon has a face.”
Of the more than 1,600 canons of the Catholic Church’s law, only 20 to 30 deal with marriage law. The lived experiences of parishioners and people are valued and considered in the context of that law, he stated.
To study in Rome — the physical heart of the Catholic Church on earth — was a two-fold blessing for Father Walsh.
“You get two things in Rome you get nowhere else,” he said, “the sense of history, and you get a sense of the universal church.”
“The sense of history is because it simply oozes out of the stones,” Father Walsh explained, noting that the lives of Saints Peter and Paul, martyrs and other saints, the very beginnings and expansion of the church itself, played out in Rome.
The Holy Father is the principal of unity for the church, he observed, and Rome itself draws people from around the world to study, celebrate liturgically and administer the life of the universal church in diversity and unity.
“If it exists in the church, it’s represented in Rome in some way,” Father Walsh said. He noted that his fellow scholars there were from Africa, Europe, Asia, and North and South America.
Alaska is very much an integral part of what is going on in the Catholic Church in reflecting that same diversity, he said. It is not a far-flung, remote place in the minds of his associates in Rome. The sense of Alaska’s privileged place in the universal church is strong among his colleagues, who know Alaska’s history and its pivotal point where East and West meet each other, he added.
While steeped in this cultural and spiritual homeland, Father Walsh spent the bulk of his time studying canon law, and was conferred a license in canon law, known as JCL (Juris Canonici Licentiata.) It is equivalent to the secular degree of JD (Juris Doctor), and is basically a practitioner’s license.
Father Walsh undertook the necessary education for this designation at the request of then Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz. Father Thomas Brundage, who had been on loan to the Anchorage Archdiocese from Wisconsin and oversaw the tribunal office for eight years, returned to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee in 2015, leaving that position vacant.
Economically, it made sense to send an archdiocesan priest to Rome. Father Walsh will now spend time as an “understudy,” as he called it, to Father Pat Travers, presently judicial vicar of the tribunal, and currently on loan from the Diocese of Juneau.
Father Walsh described the work of the tribunal and canon law as “codified mercy.” The Holy Father has added amendments to the code which emphasize this attitude of mercy, he said. The tribunal is “adjudicating people who are petitioning for a declaration of nullity to their marriage so they can get right with the church,” he added. “So they are asking the question, ‘Was this marriage valid?’” The tribunal answers this question.
If a marriage is found not to have been valid from its inception, then the people are free to enter into a valid marriage. That is why they are coming, to be free to marry, in many cases, Father Walsh explained.
“It is a deliberative process,” he said. “It involves people’s rights.”
The nitty gritty tasks of doing so are something Father Walsh has yet to discover in all their details, and he is grateful for his year as an “underling,” as he put it.
He praised the current archdiocesan tribunal staff as very competent.
“They do a great job of making sure that the cases proceed expeditiously and properly, and at the end that they are adjudicated — judged fairly,” he said.
The details of any legal process involve receiving and processing petitions, citing parties and witnesses, assigning judges and receiving testimonies, Father Walsh observed. “It’s not all that exciting,” he said.
He emphasized that the best advice given to him by Father Travers has been: “It is important to remember that we are working with people who care about their faith. If they don’t care, they don’t walk through our door … We handle them with great kindness and great compassion. They deserve our kindness and attention.”
“The process is much less onerous than people believe it to be — it is a deliberative process,” he said. “It’s a much kinder process than people have been led to believe. It is a legal process, but it is not a legal process without a heart.”
Now that he is back in his hometown, Father Walsh is looking forward to some fishing, flying a bush plane (though he is in need of a working airplane), and — in his words — “doing manly Alaskan things.”