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Catholic Weddings

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Author: Mavis Elliot

If you or your intended are Catholic, you will usually be allowed to marry in a Catholic Church - most often even if you are not usually practising - on condition that you sign up to the following basic principles:

  • You choose to marry freely, without external pressure
  • You intend to remain together for the rest of your life
  • You intend to remain faithful to each other
  • You intend to have at least one child (unless the bride is past childbearing age)

  • Divorcees will not normally be allowed a Catholic Church wedding. Exceptions are only made when a first marriage was not recognised by the Church - consult your priest for advice. Normally the wedding will be in the parish of one of the bride and/or groom. You will need the written consent of your own parish priest in order to marry in another church.

    What is a Catholic wedding?

    The service is a religious one, which usually also covers the civil aspect of a wedding, since most priests are empowered to act as registrars. (If this is not the case, you will need either to have a registrar present at the church, or to get married in a register office beforehand). You may be married with or without a Mass (the full Catholic religious service).

    Your wedding will be performed by a priest or sometimes a deacon. If you have a friend who's a priest that you'd particularly like to do the wedding, it is usually possible to arrange this, even in a church where he does not usually operate. A marriage with Mass will usually last about an hour, without a Mass about half an hour. In either case, you will be able to choose whether to have hymns and/or other music.

    Setting the date

    Weddings during the season of Lent (the weeks before Easter) are not encouraged, although nowadays, they will not be refused except for the three days before Easter Sunday. (Strictly speaking, if you get married during Lent, you may not be allowed flowers or organ music, although many priests will not insist on this). You should try and give the church at least six months' notice. You will be expected to obtain the marriage licence yourself. The publishing of the banns is a formality which the priest will take care of.

    You will need to see the priest of the parish where the wedding takes place. He will want to talk to you about the Catholic teaching on the nature and duties of marriage - usually you will be asked to attend four or five meetings. You will be asked to fill in forms about yourself and your family, your baptism, confirmation and First Communion, and provide a baptism certificate (available from the Church you were baptised in).

    If one member of the couple is not a Catholic, you will need to obtain a dispensation for a 'mixed marriage'. Usually this is granted readily by the parish priest himself. If one of the partners is not baptised (if, for instance, they belong to a non-Christian religion, or to none), a dispensation for 'disparity of cult' will be needed. This must be granted by the bishop, and although it's usually a straightforward matter, you will need to allow enough time for this to go through well before the date of the wedding. The priest himself will take care of the paperwork for you.

    What type of service?

    If the bride and groom are both practising Catholics, they may choose a 'Nuptial Mass', where they will both receive Communion. Mixed marriages, between a Catholic and a non-Catholic, are usually performed outside of Mass, in a ceremony which includes readings and prayers but no Communion. The vows are the same, whichever version you choose; the bride does not promise to obey.

    The order of service is as follows :

  • The bride is escorted to the altar where the groom is waiting by her father, or whoever is giving her away. This may be accompanied by organ music or a hymn.
  • The priest introduces the service and says a short prayer.
  • There is a reading from the Bible. This will have been chosen by the couple themselves and is usually read by someone of their choice.
  • A psalm is read or sung.
  • The priest reads a Gospel reading (chosen by the couple).
  • The priest gives a short homily or sermon.
  • The couple exchange vows, using the religious form, followed by the civil version (if the civil marriage is not taking place separately).
  • The priest blesses the rings and the couple place them on each other's finger, saying, "Take this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit."
  • Some short 'bidding prayers' are read for the new couple and for other intentions. They may be composed by the couple themselves and read by a person of their choice.
  • The service continues with the celebration of the Nuptial Mass if there is one.
  • The priest reads a 'Nuptial Blessing' over the couple.
  • If there's a Mass, the couple receive Communion.
  • The priest gives a final blessing.
  • The couple and their witnesses sign the register.
  • Bride and groom process out, to be greeted at the door of the church.

  • Planning the service

    There is some room for manoeuvre in the choice of texts. The priest will provide you with a sample of texts and possibly hymns during the preparation. The attitude to non-biblical readings varies from parish to parish. As a general rule, it is best to keep non-religious texts for a moment like the signing of the register, when they will not be seen to be 'competing' with the Bible readings. Some priests will follow the rules to the letter, however, and not allow even this.

    The same is true for music, which in principle should all be sacred. If the parish has an organist available, you may request their services. Remember, they will expect to be paid (ask the priest how much seems reasonable). If you have friends who play other instruments they may be allowed to play, on condition that the choice of music respects the sacred character of the occasion and place. Few Catholic churches employ professional choirs and organists; those which do may not encourage 'competition' from other musicians!

    It is a good idea to check the capacity of the church before sending out invitations: don't choose a small country parish for a grand society wedding! There are no restrictions on who may be present. Most parishes help non-churchgoers to follow what is happening by providing a booklet. Alternatively, it may be a good idea to produce a service sheet yourselves, once you have chosen the texts and hymns. Consult the priest on what should be included. It is often a good idea to give complete texts, for instance for the readings, and for prayers such as the Our Father, where everyone will be invited to join in. Other items in the service can simply be mentioned in the order in which they occur, to help your guest follow the service. Indications on when to stand, sit or kneel are always useful.

    Some practical issues

    The order of seating is for you to decide. If you are having a Mass, and especially if it is at a scheduled Mass time, you are likely to be joined by other parishioners who are not your guests. They will usually be discreet and leave the front rows for your friends and family. There is no compulsory dress code, either for the couple or their guests.

    Flowers can be arranged as you wish, within reason. Many couples leave some of their flowers as a sort of 'votive offering' to decorate the church after the wedding - a gesture that's always appreciated by the priest and his parishioners. A photographer will be allowed and usually video cameras, although sometimes the priest may wish to impose restrictions on when and where they may film. 'Confetti policy' varies from parish to parish too.

    It's customary to give the priest an offering for his efforts, which will have included a fair amount of paperwork. How much is down to you and what you can afford. About 50-70 is probably reasonable; more is generous. The groom or best man, or sometimes the bride's father will usually give the offering to the priest in an envelope after the service. It's customary to invite the priest to the reception too!

    All in all, a Catholic wedding will not hold too many surprises or strange customs, even for non-Catholics. It will be solemn enough to fit the importance of your big day, without excessive formality or stuffy pomposity. But remember: for Catholics, marriage is a sacrament and a very serious commitment. If neither of you has any real religious convictions, it may be advisable to choose a different kind of ceremony for your marriage.

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