We’re in wedding season, and hoo-boy 2021 is going to be one for the ages. We’re basically doubling up the calendar with last year’s postponed weddings, and judging by the first early summer wedding I was at last week, people are ready to throw down and celebrate together. It’s going to be a busy summer.
Catholics aren’t your average matrimonialists — we take marriage very seriously, if you hadn’t noticed. Catholic weddings are about as far from a Las Vegas chapel fling as you can get. So if you’re headed to a Catholic wedding this summer, there are a few things that might help to know going in.
1 — You’re gonna be inside.
Even though destination weddings are fun, you won’t find Catholics getting married on a beach or in a meadow or inside a donut shop. So leave your sandals at home — at least for the ceremony — because you’ll be inside a good old-fashioned church building.
There’s a reason for that: At a Catholic wedding — and any other Catholic worship gathering — the church building stands as a gathering place for God’s people. Any given parish has been bringing people together — week in and week out — for generations, so the building represents a specific community of faith in a particular location. Even when someone dies, the faithful departed are still united to us, most especially in prayer — so the church building itself symbolizes an in-the-flesh community of people enduring through time in a specific location.
Why is this important for a wedding? Despite all the smiles on a wedding day, any married couple knows marriage takes work. We need the support of others to sustain committed love for a lifetime — especially if marriage is to bear fruit in children or service to others in some way. It’s a mistake to think that a wedding is all about the bride and groom — marriage is a profoundly public event.
Celebrating a wedding in a Catholic church building is the best way we know to anchor a couple at the start of their journey in a supportive community of faith. This community is the best resource the Church can offer them as they set out on a life together, so it’s baked into the wedding itself.
2 — The vows are gonna sound familiar.
The vows for a Catholic wedding don’t change. So that’s one less thing a bride and groom need to plan for!
The reason is actually rather profound. Marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church — one of seven unique ways we encounter God. Each sacrament uses tangible elements to communicate God’s life-giving presence. In baptism water signifies both life and death because when we are baptized, we take on a new life in Christ. In the Eucharist, bread and wine become a meal where we receive Jesus’ body and blood. So what is the important element in marriage?
The rings would be a good guess, but that’s incorrect. The essential element of a Catholic wedding is the vows — the words of consent the spouses exchange. The covenant they create with those words is the heart of a wedding — that public commitment creates a burning core that fuels marriage for a lifetime.
And, interestingly, because the sacrament of marriage takes place in that exchange of vows, the priest or deacon who is presiding at the wedding is not the minister. In every other instance, the ordained priest or deacon ministers the sacraments, such as in baptism or confession. But at Catholic weddings, the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament — to themselves.
This means that they continue to minister the sacrament to one another long after they proclaim their vows at the altar. Whenever they are cooking a meal, or cleaning a toilet, or changing a diaper, or going out on a date night, they are ministering the sacrament of marriage to one another because they are acting out of the loving commitment they made together.
The best part? Because each sacrament is an encounter with God, the love it takes to sustain the day-to-day love of marriage participates in God’s love. So it’s not just the bride and groom standing up there alone. They are surrounded by a community of faith (both visible and invisible) and diving into an ocean of God’s love together.
3 — It’s gonna be long.
I already told you to not expect any Las Vegas chapel shenanigans. Look, a couple is standing up there giving their lives away to each other and the community — it’s a pretty daunting undertaking.
Just like the Church sends a couple into marriage in the context of a community, she also sends them forward with another invaluable resource: the Eucharist. If the bride and groom are both Catholic, most weddings will be celebrated in the context of a Mass. And if Sunday Mass takes an hour, this wedding will take longer — so hit the restroom ahead of time and settle in.
Yes, we know the Mass is a meal that draws us into Jesus’ sacrifice and offers us the gift of His presence and life through His body and blood. But what’s that have to do with marriage?
Well, what better way for a husband and wife to sustain their love than to model it after Jesus’ love? His love extends to death and beyond — there’s a reason couples declare their vows at an altar and below a crucifix: that kind of sacrifice is just exactly what marriage will ask them to do! They’ll be asked to die to themselves in love over and over — for each other, for their children, for other people in need. If they can connect that sacrifice to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, then they’ll tap into an inexhaustible source of love and hope — and their sacrifices will actually bring joy, not despair.
The Church wants every married couple to reflect a bit of heaven, so every wedding sets them up for glory. Remember that when you’re raising your second glass of champagne on the dancefloor at the reception — the community, the hope, the spirit, the fun all reflect the fullness of what God wants for all of us. So celebrate it!