Reframing the marriage celebration

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Saturday, 26 June 2010 00:00
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At one parish where I was assigned there was a woman, a widow in her 70s, who would often attend wedding ceremonies at the church. This person would dress up so she would fit in with the crowd, then wait until the ceremony had just begun, walk in the back door that was off to the side, and sit a few rows behind all other guests. At the end of the ceremony, she would leave just before the recessional.

I often would see her back there, so one day I asked if she knew all these bridal couples. There was a little fear in her answer, as if she had done something wrong, when she said no, that she simply wanted to be with young people as they were getting married.

web mug weberShe confessed that sometimes she felt lonely and found joy in the wedding ceremony. Mostly, though, she simply wanted to pray for young couples beginning their marriage journey.

I commended her and assured her that she was not imposing herself on the bride and groom. In fact, she probably had a better understanding of a marriage ceremony than most of the bridal parties and their parents have. She knew it was a public act of worship!

Sadly, many people have drifted into thinking of a marriage ceremony, with or without a Mass, as a private event arranged and sponsored by the couple getting married. Thus we hear such things at churches as couples asking if they can “rent the church” for their wedding. That attitude of the marriage ceremony being private also comes to the surface when family members feel they have a right to do almost anything they want in the church at the time of their son or daughter’s wedding.

Any pastor will be able to share stories of conflict with personnel representing the marriage industry in this country. These stories of complaint do not necessarily come from overly-strict or controlling pastors but from those who want the wedding ceremony to be prayerful and truly an act of worship.

Photographers moving furniture, including the altar, ‘for a better shot,’ is just one example. I recall one photographer who managed to stand between the bride and the bride’s parents while the vows were being spoken. I don’t know if the picture was good, but I saw how disappointed the bride’s parents were that they could not see their own daughter and future son-in-law at such a holy time.

Another example is when I walked into an old church about an hour before the wedding was to begin. The florist hired for the event had a hammer and was pounding a nail into the end of a pew so she could hang a floral piece.

Such attitudes and actions usually are justified by the people involved because, as they say, they were hired by the bridal couple for the day; they are simply trying to get the results they promised!

But such behavior also reflects and leads to young couples feeling that the marriage ceremony is their opportunity and obligation to create a church event. What is often lost is the relationship of a wedding to the whole of the life of worship within the church.

Truly, I am not blaming couples or even those who make their living by providing services for weddings. Nonetheless, there has to be a new way of looking at marriages that take place in our parishes.

First of all, we have to find ways to remind people that the wedding is an official and public form of worship of the church. Like the widow who attended so many weddings, all people in the parish need to be invested in these times of prayer. It’s good to have the couple involved in planning the ceremony, but we have to be careful that they also know they are doing so as members of the church community who are preparing for a church sacrament.

Secondly, we may have to work with both the couple and their parents in moving the church wedding away from being a show and toward being a witness of one’s faith. I have found that having a good rehearsal that goes beyond showing participants how to enter or depart can help. Often I use the night-before practice as a time for some catechesis of the liturgy. Praying together at the rehearsal and doing some reflection on the readings that will be heard is also helpful.

Finally, there has to be a conscious effort to help parishioners of all ages realize that the church ceremony is the beginning of a Christian marriage and not an event that stands alone. Phrases like, “the happiest day of your life,” or “it’s the bride’s day,” simply do not do justice to either the marriage day or the life that will follow. Beginning at an early age, we need to share new images of what it means to have a Catholic wedding.

Marriage itself needs greater support and understanding in our 21st century. Perhaps the way to start is by reframing the way we think of the church ceremony that begins that marriage.

Father Herb Weber is pastor of Perrysburg Blessed John XXIII.
Last Updated on Saturday, 26 June 2010 00:00