The Catholic Wedding Liturgy: A Sprint Through the Sacrament?

Gang Like A Wedding

**While we’re talking a bit about annulments, it might be fun to talk a bit, as well, about weddings.**

I read an interesting graphic several years ago which noted the steady growth in “inter” marriages across young couples in the US. Differences of creed, race, and ethnicity no longer present the same obstacle to love and life-long commitment they once did. The only outlier in this category, unsurprisingly, was a deep decrease in inter-political marriages. Red and blue, it would seem, mix as well as water and oil.

On a parish level (and perhaps a university level as well), this growing trend of inter-religious couples will likely bring with it a subsequent growth in requests for Wedding Liturgies outside the context of Holy Mass. Since these are not commonly performed–and rarely perfected–I would like to open a discussion on how we can imbue these Sacramental celebrations with the same sense of reverence and wonder that dwells in the Wedding Mass. Thankfully I happened to be present at just such a liturgy this past weekend, so I have some very immediate data to work with.*

Allow me to present some potential problems, and afterwards, what I believe are corresponding responses or solutions.

2 Problems with the Catholic Wedding Liturgy Outside of Mass

1.  “Doesn’t a Catholic Wedding always have to have Mass?” The first issue we encounter is a simple one: unfamiliarity. Most Catholics, and even non-Catholics, are simply accustomed to experiencing “the whole shebang,” to use a deeply theological term. The omission of the Eucharistic liturgy prevents those Catholic Christians who have not been regular in their Sunday attendance an opportunity to be in the presence of (or recipients of) the Eucharist. This creates a rupture of expectations that makes many people quite uncomfortable and confused. At Church you get Communion, it’s just what happens. When that doesn’t happen in the Wedding Liturgy, things seem suspect, and when things seem suspect people forget to experience the sacred.

2. “Why was it so short?” In addition to rupturing one’s expectation of receiving Holy Communion, the Wedding Liturgy (on its own) also proves to shock people’s sensibilities vis-à-vis time. Catholics go into a church expecting to be there for an hour, because again, Church is an hour, that’s just how it happens. A simple Wedding Liturgy can done in 20 or 25 minutes. Even for the least practicing Catholic, there can be something jarring about this.

Prayer, especially liturgical prayer, relies on rhythm, It relies on a person knowing how to engage and disengage, to listen and respond. Thus, when a couple is processing out of the Church together almost as soon as the bride has been walked down the aisle, there is an obstacle to sacred experience for most of the gathered assembly. There was barely a chance to settle in, to get a feel for the priest, to contemplate oneself, one’s family, one’s community, or any of the other intimate relations for which one should pray during a wedding.

Simply put, a short Wedding Liturgy very easily leads people to ask why a church-wedding was really necessary at all. A brief event could in no way be a Church event. In a very real sense, the surprise we feel is not merely that the wedding was so short, but that the building failed to complete its task of making the ceremony a powerful and life-changing one.

2  Responses to These Problems

1. Sacraments can stand on their own. While the Eucharist, as source and summit of the faith, offers a dramatic context in which to celebrate a Sacramental Marriage, it certainly is not the only place where nuptial unions can (or ought) to take place. Baptisms, Confessions, and Anointings all take place outside of a Eucharistic assembly. Why shouldn’t a wedding as well?

Moreover, holding the Wedding Liturgy on its own, I’ve come to find, allows those gathered to have a special look into the sacramentality of Marriage. By singling it out as the “thing for which we are expressly and only gathered for,” the Church offers its ministers a chance to identify Christian Marriage as a real place where God’s love is embodied and made present to the world.

Here, as in one’s daily life, we rely on specific people to be God’s primary channels of grace.   What a marvelous entry point for preaching to Catholics, non-Catholic Christians, and even the “nones”! What a testament to human dignity, to human responsibility, and human capability–that God would choose simple promises (one’s which do not mention any words like God, Incarnation, Eucharist, or Magisterium) to be the moment wherein he makes his love present, binding, and evident–albeit in God’s own quiet way.

Even if the service is shorter than usual, the richness of it cannot be denied. Marriage is a Sacrament. In and of itself it unites humans to God and to one another in a real and grace-filled way. Such a fact should give us great cause for celebration, not confusion.

2. Wedding Ministers have to be on their game. If there is any controllable issue which helps determines the prayerfulness of the non-Eucharistic Wedding Liturgy, it is how the minister chooses to make use of time. As we said before, the speed at which this liturgy can start and finish is often jarring and unsettling to many Catholics, those accustomed to spending 50-70 minutes in Church. Thus, it is the minister’s task to set the tone regarding the focus and mindfulness necessary in such a short service.

First things first, it would be very wise at the beginning of the service to address the issue up front. Encourage the congregation to pray that much harder, that much earlier, and that much more earnestly for the couple. Set a little fire, create a little urgency: Get everyone to realize that the couple are both the ministers and the outcome of the Sacrament. Remind the congregation that every prayer should flow between, “God, please do this for them” and “God, please let me witness you do this to them.”

Moreover, the minister, as the primary speaker throughout the liturgy, after recommending this prayerful urgency, has the duty to foster it throughout the whole of the wedding. At the most recent marriage I attended, the priest had this magnificent way of praying and pacing himself. He seemed to offer the congregation pockets of time to reflect on his words, all without sounding like a bad poet (Praise God).

This deliberate attention to words and silence made it very easy for me to consider what was happening and, more importantly, to sense (as opposed to felt) that I was participating in something. As I listened more I prayed more; as I prayed more, I was able to give better attention to the couple, to share in their joy, and to offer my prayers for their life together.

___________________________________________________________________________

There are obviously a hundred or a thousand other topics we could bring up: preparing the liturgical ministers, how to make the vows audible, and eliciting liturgical responses to name a few. However, I think it falls upon us as lay ministers and clergy to set the tone and lead others into prayerful participation in non-Eucharistic Wedding liturgies.

Have you noticed any other areas where we could improve? Does your parish have any methods to help couples, families, and friends in their celebrations?

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