Even as a Catholic immersed in the life of the church, I rarely hear stories about the annulment process. Understandably, the church wants to respect the privacy of couples, but a lack of stories often leads to a lack of understanding. In “The Francis Impact,” a new documentary from Salt and Light Media, four stories show how Pope Francis has changed the church and the world. One of these stories is that of Mark Schwinghammer and Lynn Imholte, a couple from St. Cloud, Minn. They waited for a long annulment process to unfold, so they could marry in the church.
Lynn’s husband died in a car crash around the same time Mark’s wife initiated divorce proceedings. Mark and Lynn share their story with grace. They speak about their early relationship as one in which they consoled each other over coffee and conversation. Both were caring for teenage children. They did not move in together or marry in a civil ceremony, because they wanted to set a good example for their children.
The key was to shift the spotlight off of Francis onto ordinary people who have been impacted by him.
Lynn is a eucharistic minister who brings Communion to people in a hospital. She describes the Eucharist as a key part of her faith, something she wanted to be part of her wedding and her life. Both Mark and Lynn felt faith was important, both individually and to their relationship.
“She would come over for a Saturday morning coffee, and we would talk about the Bible study she was in,” Mark says in the film. “I thought that was a good trait and part of why I asked her to marry me.”
Pope Francis’ reform of the annulment process in 2015 and his call for a more pastoral approach to divorced Catholics, as expressed in “Amoris Laetitia,” allowed Mark and Lynn to marry in the church. Prior to Francis’ reforms, two diocesan tribunals had to approve an annulment request before a marriage was annulled. The couple waited more than three years as Mark’s annulment was denied two times, even when the annulment had the support and cooperation of his first wife.
Pope Francis has called for a more pastoral approach to divorced Catholics.
“The fact that the church was putting up roadblocks to these very good, holy, practicing people was very telling about why the process needed to be reformed,” said Sebastian Gomes, the director of “The Francis Impact.” Gomes heard about Mark and Lynn’s story through a mutual friend while at a reunion at St. John’s University in Minnesota. “There’s a lot of people who have gone through [an annulment], but it’s such a personal experience.... It’s tough to get people to talk about it,” he said.
After Pope Francis instituted reforms, a declaration from one tribunal became enough to approve an annulment. Mark’s annulment was approved shortly after the new rules took effect. He and Lynn had a Catholic wedding that their pastor described as “the best celebration of all” because “everyone there was faith-filled and committed like [Lynn and Mark] were.” Mark and Lynn share their story from a place of gratitude for Francis’ reforms.
The church was putting up roadblocks to these very good, holy, practicing people.
“The Francis Impact” is a sequel to Gomes’s 2014 documentary film, “The Francis Effect,” and it has a decidedly different focus. While the original documentary was centered on the first year of Francis’ papacy and closely tracked the pope, “The Francis Impact” looks outward to show how the church and world have changed because of Pope Francis’ leadership.
“It was the pace at which Francis was doing things that really drove us to say, ‘Yes, we need to do a second film,’” Gomes said of his team at Salt and Light. “The key was to shift the spotlight off of Francis...onto ordinary people around the world who have really been impacted by him and let them tell their story.”
It was the pace at which Francis was doing things that really drove us to say, ‘Yes, we need to do a second film.’
The film also features Catholic leaders in El Salvador—like Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas—who joined environmental activists to save freshwater from metallic mining; the people of Lampedusa who were inspired by Pope Francis’ 2013 visit on behalf of migrants; and the interreligious friendship that formed between Cardinal Gérald Lacroix, the archbishop of Quebec, and Boufeldjah Benabdallah, the president of the Quebec Islamic Cultural Centre, after a mosque shooting in Quebec City.
Gomes said he wanted to “emphasize the universality of the impact” Pope Francis has made. “This is not isolated to a particular culture or country or continent,” he said.
“The Francis Impact” gave me a moment to pause and recognize that, while my church remains imperfect, Pope Francis has transformed the lives of many people.