Non solum: The “spiritual and ecclesial character” of the Wedding Liturgy

In no. 73 of the Instrumentum Laboris, the working document which the participants in the Synod of Bishops are discussing these days, the section below on the wedding liturgy is included in Part III. Its tone is warm and inviting, but it makes clear reference to the difficulties and pastoral challenges involved in many weddings.

Let’s share success stories and constructive ideas. What have you done, and what suggestions would you make, to reinforce the “spiritual and ecclesial character” of the celebration of marriage?

The Wedding Liturgy

73. An engaged couple spends a considerable length of time preparing for marriage. The actual celebration of marriage, preferably in the community to which one or both of them belongs, requires due attention and emphasis, above all, on the celebration’s proper spiritual and ecclesial character. The Christian community, in warmly and joyfully participating in the celebration and through the invocation of the Holy Spirit, receives the new family in its midst so that, as the domestic Church, the new family might feel itself a part of the larger Church family.

Frequently, the celebrant has occasion to address an assembly of people who minimally participate in the life of the Church or who belong to other Christian denominations or other religions. Consequently, this can serve as a valuable opportunity to proclaim the Gospel of the Family, which might prompt, even in the families that are present, a rediscovery of the divine gifts of faith and love. The celebration of a wedding is also a timely occasion to invite many to celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

14 comments

  1. “Frequently, the celebrant has occasion to address an assembly of people who minimally participate in the life of the Church or who belong to other Christian denominations or other religions.”

    …. which of course takes place after the bride walks down the aisle on the arm of her father to the traditional tune “Here Comes The Bride.”

    I might suggest that what happens at the wedding service has more to do with the latest trends on television than anything else … a few pastors are loathe to try and do anything about it. In my experience, sadly there have been few “success” stories and more caving in than anything else.

    Sorry, I can’t be more positive.

  2. The second paragraph of no 73 carries strong echoes here in Japan. In almost 40 years in Japan I can count on one hand the number of Wedding Liturgies where both partners were Catholics.
    The choice of reading(s) is the key. It is made easier when the priest also runs the marriage preparation course himself, or is involved in planning it. I have found that the rehearsal, which often takes twice as long as the actual ceremony, when both the bride and grooms parents are present, a valuable occasion for sharing Christian/Catholic understanding of marriage.
    Unless some groundwork is done, or material that will fill out what the priest says in his homily is made available, what the Synod proposes is difficult to implement.
    Finally, on occasion, the couple will visit after the honeymoon, to thank the priest for presiding at the wedding liturgy, or before and/or after the birth of their first child. With one couple, however, as we talked I realized they hadn’t completed the civil procedures to register their marriage since they’d been to busy with the honeymoon, going round saying thanks to friends and guests, and setting up their new home. Thankfully somedays later the bride ran to inform me they had been to city hall to register their marriage.

  3. I have strived to make the wedding Mass more like other Masses, which I thinks helps make them seem “spiritual and ecclesial.” Two examples: opening hymn, and leaflet. I have encouraged the couple to have an opening hymn (like we do at Sunday Mass), one that is well-known and singable. We don’t sing it during the procession – that would be a disaster for no one would sing because everyone is looking at the procession – but the celebrant invites everyone to join in after the procession. I have encouraged the couple to have a leaflet that looks like a liturgy guide, with the proper parts of the Mass liturgy in the right order, and music for things like the Responsorial Psalm. This is to counteract the tendency to make a handout which is little more than a cast of characters, which doesn’t help people participate in the liturgy.
    awr

    1. @Anthony Ruff, OSB:
      A “leaflet”? Father Anthony?

      We require all of the couples to prepare a worship aid, which we approve of ahead of time. We give them a template they can use, and then customize all they want. It helps keep them organized as they prepare for their wedding celebration, helps keep it “Catholic” and “liturgical”, and (because it needs to get to a printer ahead of time) makes sure they have it done a week or so before the wedding celebration, and thus not scrambling at the last minute. It works very well.

      1. @Chuck Middendorf:
        Whom and what does it work for? Do couples see this as something genuinely helpful to them, or as another obligation to fulfill, a rule to obey? You use the words “require” and “approve” with a corollary of “disapprove,” is that how it comes across to the couple? You may win the battle of the worship aid but lose an opportunity to engage the family in a meaningful celebration beyond: you must do this, you mustn’t do that.

      2. @Scott Pluff:
        It seems to work for everyone. Our parish is overflowing with young adults and weddings. I didn’t mean to preclude it’s the only part of marriage preparation. But it helps we have a pastor focuses a lot on the issues of young adults.
        And my use of “approve” and “require” is for the use of this blog. In conversations with the engaged couple, who are all very appreciative of the support the parish provides, you use it as “an opportunity to engage the family in a meaningful celebration”. It’s merely a means to end. We talk about how they are presiders at their wedding, and help them pick readings and songs that speak to the lives they want to live together as married Christians, we talk about how marriage flows from baptismal vows, etc. We “require” lots of things: Engaged Encounter, FOCCUS, preparation sessions, even a valid marriage certificate, but that doesn’t mean we do it in a heavy-handed way, but rather in a welcoming way, with dozens of volunteers to assist them. We double the number of weddings each year, so we must doing something right. (Our parish is only 5 years old, and literally have doubled each year.)

        Fr. Anthony: I was just being silly. I found the term “leaflet” odd.

      3. @Chuck Middendorf:
        Not sure what you mean, Chuck, and I’m pretty sure we’re talking about the same ideal.
        I don’t work in a parish so my weddings are one-off things – for a family member of a university grad. I encourage them to put together a little leaflet or booklet or whatever you call it which is a true liturgical aid with all the congregational parts. Does that clarify?
        awr

  4. It took me a lot longer to be able to pray when presiding at weddings than at Masses or funerals, but I’ve noticed a real change in my prayerfulness over my first few years. I hope that helps!

    I think the homily is key; proclaiming that and how God abundantly blesses *this* union. People respect the preaching more if you show you actually know this couple (given that’s the one thing that unites the assembly), and it doesn’t take a lot of biographical details to do that. Then, they sometimes actually pay attention while we’re naming grace.

  5. The vision laid out in Instrumentum Laboris of using the occasion of a wedding to evangelize inactive and unchurched people is promising but would be hard to implement effectively. If you have a warm, personable presider who can approach the issue in the just right way in his preaching it could work. But anytime I have seen a priest try to approach the subject of inactive churchgoers at a wedding or funeral it turns out badly. It may be chiding, “I’ll remind you it is a sin not to attend Mass on Sunday.” It may be passive-aggressive, “You know, we’re open for business every week, not just for weddings and baptisms.” It may simply be ineffective, “Please consider joining us for Mass this Sunday…” in case you’d like to experience more lousy music and pointless preaching like you heard today.

    Give them a good experience of liturgy (actually good, not just good-intentioned), let the rites speak for themselves, offer gracious hospitality, and don’t nag or berate people about Mass attendance. Beyond that, don’t view weddings/baptisms/funerals as a captive audience where you can try out your sales pitch.

    1. @Scott Pluff:
      @Anthony Ruff:

      The Pluff and Ruff Team have some good food for thought.

      AR – We encourage couples in the same two areas, as experience has shown that this “sets up” the occasion for better participation and a more appropriate atmosphere from the start. Not everyone takes the advice, but those who do seem to feel that it was the right choice after the fact. We also encourage people not to sing the Our Father, as it is one of the few prayers that almost everyone will know without assistance. In some cases, any little bit of united prayer can make a huge difference in the hospitality that is perceived (nod to Scott).

      SP – Wow…I have seen situations very similar to what you have described. I’ve also seen exhortations work tremendously to great effect when done by the right person–which is not always the priest himself. I agree that it needs to be the right person at the right time.

      In the long run, working extensively with the couple (and the immediate family, where practical) seems to be the best place to start so that the rites have a chance to speak eloquently on their own at that point. If the couple wants what the couple wants despite all the efforts of the priest, however, the liturgy will inevitably play second fiddle to all of the other fluff arranged around it. It’s hard to convince those present of anything regarding the sacred nature of the event when the family has roamed the church, taking down and throwing all of the Christmas decorations/flowers into a corner because “they don’t match our colors!”

    2. @Scott Pluff:

      Yes.

      Don’t say a word about “why aren’t you here more often?” Give people an excellent experience.

      And in my opinion the best way of giving people that experience is to make use of a competent cantor, together with music which demands a cantor’s ministry (as opposed to liturgical wallpaper).

      If the cantor is skilled, the assembly warm-up will enable people to feel part of what is going on and take part in what is going on. (Of course, that means you need to have that assembly warm-up!)

      I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been approached by people after weddings who were delighted by the music, and they were so pleased with themselves because they were able to take part, that they were able to sing things they didn’t even know. “Is it like this every Sunday?” is a question I often receive, the implication being that if it were they would be back in a flash.

      I know a small number of dioceses where the policy is that a cantor must be hired for all weddings, not just an organist. It pays off.

  6. I’d be interested in how a presider would work in an invitation to all present at the wedding to celebrate Reconciliation!
    Another pragmatic matter to take into consideration is that, even if we do our best to make the wedding liturgy spiritual and ecclesial and a good experience of liturgy, a modern fact of life is that most likely very few of those in attendance reside within the geographical boundaries of the spiritual, ecclesial, liturgically excellent parish at which the wedding takes place. As with the “Francis effect” they will likely go back to a place where the care & concern taken with said wedding liturgy will not be in place Sunday after Sunday (Scott Pluff alludes to this). But geography and dispersed gene pools are a major factor in many modern weddings.

    1. @Alan Hommerding:
      If the presider exuded warmth, smiled from ear to ear when greeting people, and had a genuine demeanor of hospitality, I could imagine it working. “If you have been away from the church, whether for a few months or many years, it is simple to return. You can begin by making a good confession in the sacrament of reconciliation. After that, you will be a full member in good standing of the church, it’s really that simple.”

      The problem is that many priests are more versed in laying down obligations, rules, regulations, and consequences. Even the same words spoken in a different tone of voice, or with a scowl instead of a smile, would carry different meaning.

  7. An answer from “the other side.” About ten days ago I got married, and one of the most exciting parts for me was planning the liturgy. I married someone who was raised a Methodist and is no longer practicing, and he has no intention of becoming Catholic. We went through the diocesan marriage prep and also met with the priest several times. I was astounded when we completed the marriage prep with our priest and my fiancé said, “Every couple getting married, religious or not, should have to do some sort of prep like this.”

    Since I have some knowledge of theology and liturgy, I ended up planning our liturgy myself. I chose what prayers we wanted from the Rites book, and together we chose readings. I also asked if we could do a footwashing (just the two of us), which our priest wholeheartedly supported. In the worship aid, I wrote an explanation for the footwashing, noting its normal context within the Holy Thursday liturgy and explaining why I find it appropriate for a wedding.

    In all honesty, I think we should view weddings as an opportunity for hospitality. Open the doors and let people see what we do. It’s a silent evangelization. As I planned our liturgy, I did everything I could to make my husband, his family, and others comfortable. We ended up with a very simple, very meaningful liturgy.

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