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Let’s get married at Sunday Mass

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If the church wants to promote marriage, what better time to have weddings than when the entire assembly is gathered for Mass?

By Scott Alessi, assistant editor of U.S. Catholic.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

Several years ago, while attending our usual Saturday evening Mass together, my then-girlfriend Kathleen and I heard an interesting anecdote during the homily. Our pastor, Father Joe, recounted the story of a recent wedding Mass he’d celebrated in which the couple chose to use that week’s regular Sunday Mass readings. Not only were the readings a good fit for a wedding, Father Joe told us, but by using them at a Saturday evening liturgy the couple had also helped their guests fulfill their Sunday Mass obligation.

In his usual extemporaneous style, Father Joe followed the train of thought a step further. “In fact, you could just have your wedding at the regular Sunday Mass,” he said. “Not only would that fulfill everyone’s Mass obligation, but the regular parishioners would serve as built in guests, so it would seem like you have a lot more friends.”

Kathleen and I chuckled at the joke, but at the same time we exchanged a look that said, “you know, that’s not such a bad idea.” And sure enough, when we decided to take the leap into marriage a couple of years later, we hardly spent any time discussing the question of when and where. We both agreed, with Father Joe’s enthusiastic encouragement, to have our wedding at the Saturday evening vigil Mass that we attended together every week, exchanging our vows among family, friends, and fellow parishioners.

These days, weddings have become highly personalized affairs, with every last detail designed to reflect the interests and personalities of the bride and groom. Reality TV shows like Bridezillas and My Fair Wedding have shown just how far some crazed couples will go to have the “perfect wedding,” and society still clings to the notion that your wedding day should be all about you. Couples are encouraged to pick the ideal location, attire, music, and just about any other detail that they can customize.

As weddings have become more about the individuals involved, they’ve also become more detached from the community. The bride and groom may agonize over which distant relatives or old friends they should add to the guest list, but little consideration is ever given to the people with whom they share the pews every Sunday.

Some couples take things a step further, planning “destination weddings” that leave their local church and the community behind in favor of a more scenic vacation spot. Not only do these weddings take place well outside the consciousness of the parish, they can even leave out family and friends who can’t afford to make the trip, all for the sake of the couple getting to have their own ideal wedding. But is a wedding that excludes others for the sake of the couple really ideal?

Even for Catholic couples who celebrate their wedding in the context of a Mass, the liturgy often seems low on the priority list. For some, it feels as if the Mass is merely a formality before the big reception. As long as the decorations are all in the right places and the photos look perfect, nothing else really seems to matter.

As active parishioners, my wife and I believed strongly that our wedding shouldn’t be a closed-door private affair but a gathering open to the entire parish. And more importantly, we wanted it to be as much a communal celebration of the Eucharist as parishioners would find on any other Sunday, not an event designed to shine a spotlight on us. Our goal was to have a wedding as a part of the Mass, not a Mass that happened to take place at a wedding.

Keeping the Mass almost entirely unchanged made planning a breeze. The readings, of course, would be those that were already scheduled for that Sunday, and we decided to serve as the readers ourselves. We called upon a mix of fellow parishioners and family members to fill other roles, such as ushers, gift bearers, and extraordinary ministers of communion.

When Ed, our parish music director, approached us to ask about the songs we’d like him to play, we simply requested he stick with what was already on the schedule for that weekend. A few weeks later he asked again, this time bringing a concern of his to our attention. “But the offertory hymn is ‘The Cry of the Poor.’ You must at least want to change that one,” he insisted.

“No, it is fine,” I assured him. Our parish regularly took collections for the poor and helped those less fortunate in the surrounding neighborhood. Why shouldn’t we remember the poor at this Mass? Maybe we didn’t ask for “The Cry of the Poor,” but it seemed a fitting song to include as a reminder that our wedding wouldn’t just be about making a commitment to one another, but to the community as well.

One song that didn’t make the cut was “Here Comes the Bride.” We eliminated most of the staples of secular weddings, including the grand entrance procession. Instead we simply walked side by side in the normal entrance procession to the week’s opening hymn. We also didn’t see the need to surround ourselves with a large wedding party, or even a best man and maid of honor, since they serve no liturgical function. The only question that left was who would hand us our rings, a job easily handled by the lead altar server, whose family were active fellow parishioners.

The Saturday evening Mass in our parish was never very crowded, and since we only invited 30 guests we had no concern about the pews being too full or the parking lot overflowing. And when Mass was over there was no rush for us to leave the church; we invited everyone—whether they had received an invitation in the mail or just happened to walk in the church doors for the first time that night—to join us in the parish hall for food and refreshments. Though we did have a small, private dinner later that night with close friends and family, we didn’t want to exclude our parish family from the party.

Granted, showing up for weekly Mass to find that you’re also attending someone’s wedding may not be everyone’s ideal way to worship. Those who dread the thought of Mass dragging on past the one-hour mark may fear they’ll be stuck sitting through extended liturgies, surrounded by strangers and subject to stories about people they don’t know. If such special Mass occasions are advertised in advance, some parishioners may just skip them in favor of another time or a different parish for that weekend.

I know that some regular faces were absent from the pews on the day of my wedding, and I can understand their concern. Weddings have become such personal moments that attending one when you don’t know the couple or their family may just feel, well, awkward. Some parishioners may feel like they’re invading the privacy of the bride and groom, and others may feel that the couple is infringing upon their ability to attend their regular weekend Mass.

These feelings only show just how distant we’ve become from the people we share the pews with every week. Our conversations are often limited to a casual “hello” on the way in or out of church and a handshake at the sign of peace. We certainly don’t know each other well enough to be invited guests at significant personal moments in each others’ lives.

But this is precisely why having more weddings in the context of our weekly worship would be a welcome change. At our wedding, people we’d never spoken with before seemed truly moved to be a part of the celebration. Some even brought us gifts. It was a chance to learn people’s names, invite them into our lives, and build relationships. For us, it was also a way to highlight the important role of our Catholic faith in our relationship and to affirm our continued commitment to the church as a married couple.

Catholic leaders in recent years have spoken often on promoting marriage, yet the actual sacrament still remains behind closed doors. What better way for parishes to promote marriage and foster a sense of community than to make weddings a part of our weekly worship? All it would take is for priests to begin putting out the invitation to couples. You never know when someone might take them up on the suggestion.

Flickr photo cc by Travis Rock Photography