The Catholic Digest Wedding Guide - more frequently asked questions

More Catholic wedding FAQs to accompany the article in February 2010's print edition

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By Paul Boudreau


How do I go about getting married in the Catholic Church?

Once you’ve decided to get married, you need to call your local parish office and tell them you wish to begin the marriage preparation process. They will explain the procedures and help you to make the necessary arrangements.

 

Why do we have to pay to “rent” the church for the wedding?

Any time the parish provides a spiritual service for its members, it is customary to make an offering, a sacrificial offering to the church. It’s an expression of our faith. At the same time it costs money to provide for a wedding. The time the staff spends with you compiling information for its records and preparing you for the ceremony costs money. The forms and literature and registers used in the preparation process cost money. The professional services of the priest or deacon cost money. The use of the church building, including lights, heat or AC, staff on hand to open, prepare, and clean up after, all cost money. It isn’t easy vacuuming up all those sequins that end up embedded in the carpet, not to mention the boutonnière pins that are everywhere. Because Catholics sometimes don’t get the idea of a sacrificial offering, most parishes have resorted to charging a fee for using the church. Call it “rent” if you will.

 

I really want to have a Saturday evening reception but I can’t find a church in my state that will marry us after 2 p.m. If I have to get married at 2:00, guests will have three hours between the ceremony and the reception, which is pretty ridiculous! It’s MY wedding! Why can’t I get married whenever I want?

It is your wedding and you should be able to get married whenever you want. But you’re trying to schedule your wedding at a time when the church isn’t available. Most, if not all churches in the United States have a schedule that accommodates one or more Saturday Vigil masses that starts with confessions around mid afternoon and ends after the last mass in the evening. When a wedding is scheduled for a Saturday, it must be taken into consideration that the ceremony will often begin late and will continue beyond the conclusion through the time it takes the photographer to finish the portrait shots. If a wedding is scheduled to begin later in the afternoon, it could easily overlap the time slots allotted for the run-up to the Saturday Vigil. If the priest is the only priest in the parish, which is often the case, the difficulty is compounded. So you understand why a Saturday wedding has to start earlier. You might consider having a Friday evening wedding. Lots of people do and you can light the church with candles and it’s lovely.

 

If we don’t have a Mass with our wedding ceremony, could my fiancée and I still take Communion? If my fiancé is not Catholic, may he receive Communion?

Communion is customarily received during the celebration of Eucharist. The only time it is allowed to be given outside of Mass is when it is brought to the sick. When a Catholic marries someone who is not a Catholic, the rite for the celebration of marriage outside of Mass is followed. Only with permission from the local bishop can the wedding take place within Mass. At the same time the bishop can grant permission for the party who is not Catholic to receive Communion. Talk to your pastor.

 

My soldier husband and I were married in a civil ceremony overseas. Can we still have a big Catholic wedding in a church when he returns from active duty?

You certainly can. The Church doesn’t recognize the civil weddings of its members. Therefore your Catholic wedding will be your first and only wedding. You can make it as big as you want.

 

Can gay and lesbian Catholics be married in the Church?

The Church defines marriage as the union of a man and a woman and does not celebrate same-sex unions.

 

My fiancée and I live together. Will the church make one of us move out before our wedding?

There is no rule regarding couples living together, although some dioceses have policies. Some pastors will make you move out and some pastors won’t.

 

The pastor who makes you live apart is trying to help you understand the sanctity of marriage. For Catholics, the personal, social, and sexual union of a man and a woman can only be made within the sacred commitment of the sacrament of marriage. Without the strength of that publicly made commitment and the grace that attends the sacrament, the union is vulnerable. The common pressures of life will more easily cause a rupture in the relationship that may lead to disunion, not good for the couple or the society, and certainly not good for any potential offspring of the union.

 

The pastor who overlooks your living situation is thinking that taking up separate residences would place a rather heavy, perhaps unbearable financial burden on you. At the same time, he’s taking into consideration that a couple living together outside of marriage is certainly moving in the right direction by approaching the church to get married. His pastoral sensibility suggests that such a step should be supported and encouraged by rolling out the welcome mat and not setting up what amounts to an insurmountable obstacle.

 

It must be considered too that on this issue the Church lives in two worlds. On the one hand, if a couple who has been married in a civil ceremony approaches the church to have their marriage “blessed,” the Church usually does so readily without requiring that they live apart first. On the other hand, if a couple is not civilly married, they are considered a different case and sometimes, especially if they are young, are required to take up separate residence.

 

Neither the civilly married couple nor the couple living together are considered married in the eyes of the Church; they’re both the same. Yet one is treated differently than the other. This is a disparity the Church still struggles with.

 

Can someone who is divorced get married in the Catholic Church?

Yes, although the person must apply for and receive a declaration of nullity for the former union from the diocesan tribunal. The pastoral staff will inform you of the details of the process and assist you in making the application. The process, however, can sometimes take a year or longer, depending on the backlog and how quickly information is gathered.

 

My fiancé is Catholic and was married before, but he wasn’t married in the Catholic Church. Does he still have to get an annulment?

Yes, although if there are no other impediments, the procedure is relatively simple and much shorter than a formal annulment. The pastoral staff will assist your fiancé in applying for a “defect of form” declaration of nullity.

 

My fiancée and I are both Catholic and were both married in the Catholic Church. But we’ve both been divorced and remarried several times, she five and I three. Her first husband has since passed away and so has my first wife. Can we get married in the Catholic Church?

Surprisingly, the answer is yes. For both of you, your first marriage was the official one and nullified all subsequent unions, no matter how many there were. The death of your original spouses then released you both from your marriage bonds and freed you to celebrate marriage once again in the church. However, you will have to provide the person preparing you for marriage with a lot of paperwork, including proof of death (a death certificate) for your former spouses and documents supporting your subsequent unions and divorces. Chances are you will also be required to participate in some helpful counseling to examine the difficulties that may have led to your multiple divorces.

 

Will the priest marry us if the bride is pregnant?

Pregnant women are not prohibited from getting married in the Catholic Church. However, if the pastor arrives at the conclusion that either one or both of the people getting married are doing so because they feel pressured by the situation of the pregnancy, he has the obligation to postpone the wedding until the couple’s freedom to marry is established.

 

Can the bride wear a white wedding gown if she is pregnant and “showing”?

Certainly. However, human nature being what it is, expect to draw some comments from the assembled guests.

 

Who at the parish (e.g. priest, staff, marriage prep people) should we invite to the wedding reception? Should we offer to provide transportation and overnight accommodation?

It is entirely appropriate to invite to your reception the priest or deacon and whomever you’ve become close to in the preparation process. Unless you’re providing transportation and accommodations for all your guests, it would not be necessary to do so for invited parish staff. Don’t be surprised if the priest can’t come. Saturday is usually pretty busy and he’ll have a tight schedule following your wedding.

 

Can I invite active homosexuals to my wedding (relatives, friends, etc)? May an active homosexual play an active role in my wedding (e.g. bridesmaid, best man)? May I invite an active homosexual to perform (e.g. sing) at my wedding?

You sure can. No one can presume to know the conscience of anyone coming to church for a public celebration. Therefore, everyone is invited to attend and participate. If the “activity” to which you refer is considered sinful, you can see how excluding one person for a certain kind of sinful activity would mean that we’d have to exclude everyone for every kind of sinful activity. That would probably include the bride, the groom, most of the guests, and even the priest!

 

Are things like having bridesmaids and a maid of honor and best man, groomsmen and flower girls etc. a necessary part of a Catholic wedding? We want a simple wedding and would like to skip much of this.

The Catholic wedding requires only that there be two witnesses present. That is usually the role of the maid of honor and the best man. But that’s all you need. All the rest is just frosting on the liturgical wedding cake.

 

My brother, who will be my best man, is divorced and remarried. Will he be allowed to sign the marriage certificate as a witness?

There is no requirement that a witness be in good standing with the Church. Neither is it required for the witness to sign the marriage certificate. Sometimes a pastor will require a witness to sign the marriage register. What is legally required is that the witness sign the marriage license issued by the state. And the state has no requirements regarding the religious status of the witness.

 

Can I have my uncle, who is a deacon and lives out of state, officiate at my wedding?

Catholic Clergy from other parishes are regularly welcomed to officiate at weddings. Arrangements should be made with your pastor well in advance.

 

Will the Church allow another religious figure to participate in the wedding?

Clergy from other Christian denominations and other religious faiths are welcome to participate in the Catholic wedding ceremony. They may proclaim the readings, address the couple, sing the songs, pronounce a blessing, and generally do the things that clergy do. But only the Catholic priest or deacon may receive the wedding vows of the couple. And of course only the priest can preside at the altar.

 

Are animals allowed to attend the ceremony (family pets, decorative doves, etc)?

Generally the church isn’t the place for animals, although they do show up sometimes at Christmas Masses and in October for the Blessing of the Animals. One Palm Sunday I saw a bishop ride into the church on a burro. So maybe if the pets were in little pet cages or bags or something it would be all right. Flying things like doves must be in cages — lined with newspaper, please. If one of those things gets loose you have a devil of a time getting it out of the church. In any event, talk to your pastor.

 

Is it okay to play classical music like Pachelbel when the bride enters, instead of “Here comes the bride”?

It’s all classical. Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major” is fine for the bridal procession, as is Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” (“Here Comes the Bride”). There is also the “Trumpet Voluntary” (“Prince of Denmark’s March”). Along with these “big three” you might consider traditional church hymns familiar to your families. The beloved recessional, Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March,” is a very recognizable and appropriate musical conclusion to your wedding. Popular pieces such as “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “You Are My Sunshine” should be avoided.

 

During the Mass, can we play hymns that have been set to modern music like rock or techno?

You might be able to, depending on the priest or the music director. Liturgical music should be appropriate and dignified. Keep in mind that the wedding liturgy, especially within the celebration of the Eucharist, is always a public ceremony. Therefore the Church needs to make sure that it is celebrated appropriately. If the music doesn’t enhance the sacred dignity of the liturgy, it doesn’t belong. Work together with the liturgical staff to choose music that is clearly religious and doesn’t introduce ambiguity into the service.

 

My cousin is a fantastic pianist and I want her to play for my wedding. Do I have to use the church’s organist?

Policy varies from parish to parish, but in many cases the parish musician is responsible for all the music that accompanies the church’s liturgies. While that doesn’t exclude the use of an outside musician, it often requires the staff musician to work together with the couple selecting and preparing the music, auditioning the outside musician to assure parish standards are met, and being on-site for the rehearsal and the wedding to ensure that everything goes smoothly. For this you could be charged a “bench fee.”

 

My fiancé and I are trying to be thrifty with our wedding. We don’t want to spend extra on flowers for the church and are happy to use whatever the church has. Is that a faux pas?

Not at all. Just be sure that you’re on the same page with the people who will be decorating the church for the weekend. You will achieve the best results by working together with them.

 

Do I have to say the word “obey” in the vows?

No. A wife is no longer obliged to promise obedience to her husband, nor a husband to his wife. A Catholic union must be mutually respectful and deference must be paid by both to the other.

 

Can I incorporate wedding traditions from other cultures into the ceremony, like having the bride and groom’s families face each other while the vows are being recited, having the couple exchange something along with the rings, or the German custom of sawing a wooden log in half?

Sure, as long as you don’t fire up a chainsaw in the church. But the log deal, done with what is known as a two-man crosscut saw and representing obstacles the couple will overcome in their lives working together, is usually performed at the reception, or at least outside the church after the ceremony. Other cultural customs, like the lasso (cord), arras (coins), presentation of the Rosary and Bible, the unity candle, etc., are not part of the Catholic ceremony, but are added as cultural customs. Now there’s “The Sand.” The couple pours two vessels of different colored sand into one glass vessel and it mixes, creating a new color. It’s cute, but too many additional signs distract from the authentically Catholic sign of the wedding sacrament. The sign of the couple themselves should stand alone. But most priests will allow the other stuff, too, if it has special significance for the family. But please don’t overdo it.

 

Why is our priest discouraging us from lighting a unity candle at the wedding?

The unity candle is not now, nor has it ever been, a part of the Catholic wedding liturgy. It is a fairly recent and pretty clever sales idea that probably has its roots in the retail candle industry. The bridal magazines got hold of the idea and ran unity candle features linked to revenue producing advertisements. Candle companies then pushed the idea to florists and wedding facilities, and the distribution channels were established. Once the Engaged Encounter people got on board with it, the call for the unity candle in Catholic wedding liturgies began in earnest. Today it is so common that I’ve had couples ask me if they had to have a unity candle. Some priests try to discourage it because it distracts from the outward sign of the sacrament: the couple themselves and their exchange of promises. Plus, it’s trickier than it looks. There’s a YouTube video of a grandmother catching her hair on fire. And any time you have to move the bride laterally with her gown and all, it becomes a major logistical problem. I think you’re better off without it. But sometimes, once Auntie Beatrice gives you a really expensive one for a shower present, you’re stuck with it.

 

I went to a wedding where the couple walked down the aisle together instead of the bride being given away by her father. What are my options at a Catholic wedding in this regard?

Both the bride and the groom equally and freely enter into marriage, and the entrance procession should reflect that. So the Catholic wedding rite calls for a procession to the altar in which “the ministers go first, followed by the priest, and then the bride and the bridegroom.” It goes on to say that “they may be escorted by at least their parents and the two witnesses.” (The Rite of Marriage #20) But the Church’s liturgy almost always accommodates social customs. That’s why you usually see the customary bride coming down the aisle escorted by her father, and the priest already at the altar with the groom. (That custom, by the way, reflects the archaic social concept of the bride as “property,” the ownership of which is being passed from father to husband.) Options for the wedding procession include just about anything that will get everyone involved down the aisle in a reasonably dignified manner.

 

Does the bride have to bring flowers to the Blessed Virgin Mary?

It’s not required in the Catholic liturgy, but it is the custom in some families for the bride at her wedding to bring flowers to the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This may be done after Holy Communion or, if the marriage is celebrated outside Mass, after the Nuptial Blessing. CD


For more Catholic wedding questions and answers, pick up a copy of the February 2010 Catholic Digest

Photo copyright 2010 Jupiter Images Corporation

Paul Boudreau

Father Paul Boudreau is a priest of the Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, currently serving in the Diocese of San Bernardino, California. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and retreat leader.