For a marriage to be a valid sacrament, in the Catholic sense, it must be between two baptized Christians who have never been previously married (validly), except for the death of a spouse. There are variations to the rule in which proper dispensations or permissions can make the marriage valid under other circumstances as well. For example, a Catholic can marry a baptized Protestant and it would be equally valid provided that the couple was prepared by the Catholic Church, the Catholic promises to raise any children from the marriage Catholic, and permission is procured from the chancery office of the diocese. When all these steps are taken, then the marriage can be witnessed in the Catholic Church and is valid.
In Catholic marriage there are always two things to consider: first the civil, or the contract, and second the sacrament, or the covenant. Catholic marriage, when prepared by a valid representative of the church, such as a priest or deacon, has to cover both aspects of marriage. The prenuptial investigation covers the backgrounds of both candidates for marriage. Couples usually have to take an inventory test, known as FOCCUS. This objective test helps the minister to counsel the couple in certain key areas before marriage. It also rates their compatibility. Next the couple attends either an Engaged Encounter Weekend or Pre-Cana. These preparation programs further aid in the couple’s communication and self-knowledge.
Finally, the priest or deacon finishes the inventory and collects all the vital documents required by canon law, such as recent baptismal certificates, confirmation certificates, and, if need be, necessary dispensations or permissions from the bishop for a non-Catholic partner or one who was previously married. “Recent” refers to a document less than a year old. The original baptismal certificate your mother has in the attic is no good, at least from the perspective of Canon Law. Every time a Catholic receives a sacrament, the church of baptism is notified. When a person obtains a recent baptismal certificate by contacting the church where they were originally baptized, not only is the information on the front contained as in the original document (name of baptized, name of parents and godparents, date of birth, date of baptism) but on the back would be listed all the sacraments received as of the date that recent certificate was issued. Since most Catholics are baptized as infants, you would not see any notations on the back of their original baptismal certificates mentioning marriage or holy orders. If a man or woman has been previously married, the church of baptism would have been notified, and it would appear on any recent baptismal certificate issued since that time. That is why these documents cannot be older than one year.
Not only is Christian marriage the sacrament of matrimony, it is also a legal contract in civil law. A contract or marriage license is procured from the state or commonwealth in which the bride or groom lives. The bride and groom, along with a witness, simply fill out the proper paperwork at the town hall. At the rehearsal or on the day of the wedding, the best man and maid of honor (or at least two witnesses), and the clergyman, who acts as official witness for the state, sign the legal certificate, which must be mailed in to the town hall within five to ten days. This certificate becomes part of the legal documentation in the county of the marriage.