Monday, April 29, 2019

Problems with Weddings and How We Might Remedy Them

Now that we are turning the corner into May, we are entering into the main season for weddings, most of which take place on Saturdays in the warmer months.

The Catholic Church has been known throughout the ages for the strong, unambiguous stand she takes on the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage and of the naturalness, goodness, and social priority of the family that emerges, by God’s blessing, from the union of man and woman.

There is, nevertheless, a monumental disconnect between this exalted doctrine and the disgraceful, if not sacrilegious, manner in which weddings are often conducted. [1] Experience, records, and anecdotal evidence suggest that far too many Catholic weddings are not conducted as befits a holy or sacred occasion, but rather, are turned into carnivals, with the officiant acting as ringmaster. At times, the giddy banter in the church before or after Mass is so loud that an organist playing at full volume can still hear it. Sermons can become the priest’s own version of a wedding reception toast or a sentimental fireside chat with the couple, complete with reminiscences, chestnuts, and down-home advice. “The kissing of the bride” can be a real performance, complete with whistling and clapping; needless to say, everyone goes to Communion! A beautiful and sacred space is turned into a sports arena and a fashion show.

One thinks in this connection of Ratzinger’s rebuke:
Wherever applause breaks out in the liturgy because of some human achievement, it is a sure sign that the essence of liturgy has totally disappeared and been replaced by a kind of religious entertainment. Such attraction fades quickly — it cannot compete in the market of leisure pursuits, incorporating as it increasingly does various forms of religious titillation. [2]
If we actually believe in the “sanctity of marriage,” this kind of Hollywood travesty has to be stopped, and if we do not do all in our power to stop it, we are effectively endorsing a secular redefinition of marriage and allowing the faithful to be formed by it and in it. Clergy should take as a model the Lord Jesus expelling the money changers from the temple: “My house shall be called the house of prayer; but you have made it a den of thieves” (Matt. 21, 13). He didn’t set up a Pontifical Committee for Relations with Thieves, or make a public apology about how badly thieves have been treated over the centuries; he simply drew a line between sacred and profane, and threw them out. God’s house is, first and foremost, a house of prayer. The prophet Isaiah says: “The Lord of hosts, Him you shall honor as holy. Let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread” (Isa. 8, 13). The prophet Malachi likewise: “The son honoreth the father, and the servant his master: if then I be a father, where is my honor? and if I be a master, where is my fear? saith the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1, 6).

Connected with the fear of the Lord and respect for His temple is the evangelistic opportunity presented by a beautiful liturgy. I do not mean, of course, that the liturgy should be turned into an occasion for catechesis or apologetics, but rather, that simply by being as it should be, dignified, expressive, and noble, it will touch the hearts and minds of at least some of the non-practicing Catholics and unbelievers present. To cite Ratzinger again:
If the Liturgy appears first of all as the workshop for our activity, then what is essential is being forgotten: God. For the Liturgy is not about us, but about God. Forgetting about God is the most imminent danger of our age. As against this, the Liturgy should be setting up a sign of God’s presence. Yet what is happening, if the habit of forgetting about God makes itself at home in the Liturgy itself, and if in the Liturgy we are only thinking of ourselves? In any and every liturgical reform, and every liturgical celebration, the primacy of God should be kept in view first and foremost. [3]
I remember a priest in Ireland telling me that when he offered a Novus Ordo funeral Mass in English, but merely prayed slowly, chanting the texts, and keeping silence at appropriate points, and generally acting as if he believed in what was happening and was earnestly praying for the deceased, a number of people said to him afterwards: “My goodness, Father, if every Mass was like that one, I’d start coming to church again.”

Has there not been an incredible failure to face the obvious fact that treating the most sacred mysteries casually and horizontally necessarily leads to the eclipse of God? I speak of the eclipse of His transcendent fatherhood and His right to our total homage, intellectual and moral, as well as the eclipse of man’s own nature, his need for redemption, his capacity for the infinite and the eternal, and his heavenly destiny, with all the self-denial and self-mastery it demands of us here and now. The use of such completely foreign imports as “the unity candle” or jars of sand to signify the uniting of two families or two lives exemplifies the stress on horizontality that, together with inventing ritual whole cloth, is one of the worst legacies of the general agitation for liturgical reform that afflicted all the Christian churches and ecclesial communities in the twentieth century.

There will never be a renewed acceptance of the full truth about marriage and family, an adherence to divine and natural law, if there is not a renewed acceptance of the full truth about the sacred liturgy: an adherence to the natural law of religious homage (the obligation of creature to Creator) and to the divine law of Christian worship (the sacrifice of the Cross).

Here are a few ways in which weddings could be improved in the context of the Novus Ordo. (Some of these suggestions would also apply, mutatis mutandis, to Tridentine weddings.)

1. The most important precondition for resacralizing weddings is that those who are to be married understand ahead of time something of the beauty, holiness, and lofty demands of the sacrament, not as described in some wishy-washy pamphlet, but by reading together, in segments, a robust treatment of the subject. In all my years of teaching, the best document I have yet found is Pope Pius XI’s Encyclical Casti Connubii, which has the benefit of being relatively short, frank, and challenging. I imagine that some couples would never do the reading at all, but some others would, and it could at least spark honest, difficult conversations that need to happen, such as the reasons behind the Church’s teaching on the good of abstention before marriage and chastity during it, the corrosive evil of contraception, the inherent ordering of married life to the begetting and educating of children, and the distinct but complementary roles of husband and wife in the family.

2. The ceremony of betrothal should be restored as a sacred way of marking the period of engagement and preparation. Lest this suggestion be viewed as a form of throwback romanticism, it is worthy of mention that one sees betrothals happening quite regularly at the more traditional colleges listed in the Newman Guide. My wife and I were betrothed in a ceremony led by the priest who married us about six months later, and the idea occurred to us in the first place because we’d seen so many others doing it. However, the rite is still not known as well as it should be known, and the recent publication by the USCCB of a pathetic “blessing of engagement” could throw some people off the scent of the real deal. The traditional rite of betrothal is available in a number of places, e.g., here, here, and here. A Google search turns up a number of good articles on the subject.

3. The pastor or celebrant should insist on worthy music being utilized for the wedding: the Ordinary of the Mass and the Propers of the Nuptial Mass (perhaps in simple English psalm tones, if the choir cannot handle more) and additional pieces chosen from a list of suitable hymns and instrumentals.[4] A priest friend of mine told a delightful story. One day he was meeting with a lady to go over the plans for her wedding Mass. She listed off for him a number of popular songs she wanted to have performed at the Mass. The priest smiled and said: “I’ll let you have those songs, as long as you agree to one request of mine.” — “What’s that, Father?” — “That you play Gregorian chant at your reception.” — “But Father, that’s not appropriate for the occasion!” — “Right. Neither are these songs appropriate for the occasion of divine worship. Now let’s rethink the music for the Mass.”

4. Moving to the wedding itself, if one is working with Catholics who have a modicum of faith and open-mindedness, one could suggest holding a Holy Hour after the wedding rehearsal while the priest hears confessions, particularly those of the bride, bridegroom, and wedding party. Among other benefits, this practice would greatly increase the possibility of the bride and bridegroom marrying in a state of grace so that they actually receive the fruits of the sacrament of matrimony rather than being vowed to one another in a graceless state of mortal sin. (Theologians teach that when marriage is contracted in a state of sin, the parties are indeed indissolubly wed, but the grace of the sacrament is not actually received by the sinful party until he or she is restored, through absolution or perfect contrition, to a state of grace, and then the sacramental grace is said to be “revived.”)

5. At the ceremony itself, the priest should bring out the most beautiful vestments and vessels he has access to, chant his own parts of the Mass, avoid the pitfalls of showmanship, and see to it that the service is conducted with solemnity. Such an ars celebrandi, together with the aforementioned music and the Holy Hour and confessions of the evening before, would accentuate the sacredness of the great mystery being celebrated.

When I have discussed these matters with priests, I generally get two reactions (and usually from the same people): “You are right,” and “It’s impossible.” I think there is a lot of discouragement out there about weddings and funerals, because these occasions, more than any others, bring home to the clergy just how horribly lacking in basic Christian faith and morals most baptized Catholics actually are. Nowhere is the postconciliar collapse of the Church and the destruction of the liturgy more apparent.

Nevertheless, with St. Thérèse, I maintain that discouragement is a form of pride, and that Christ is looking for “a few good men” to make the strenuous efforts needed, “brick by brick,” to elevate the seriousness and beauty of all of our sacramental life — be it baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and funerals, or daily and Sunday Mass. This is obviously a long-term project, but it begins with making whatever improvements we can, here and now. With all the care and goodwill in the world, we will sometimes offend people who do not know better, but let us strive to explain clearly and patiently the rationale behind all that we ask or propose to do.


[1] There is a similar disconnect between Catholic eschatology and modern-day Catholic funerals, which have degenerated into maudlin wakes of the Protestant “low church” kind. The primary purpose of the Mass for the Dead is to pray for the soul of the departed, that it may be saved and, if in need of purification (as the vast majority of saved souls will be), may be delivered soon from the fires of Purgatory. Hence the traditional Requiem Mass focuses all of its attention on the faithful departed: there is no homily; gone are blessings of certain objects or of the people; a special Agnus Dei begs for the repose of souls; the Propers are a continuous tapestry of prayers for the dead; and so forth. The way that modern funerals have been turned towards the emotional relief of the living and the “celebration” of the mortal life of the deceased is, in reality, a double act of uncharity: first, it deprives Christians of the opportunity to go out of themselves in love by praying for the salvation of their loved one’s soul, thus exercising a great act of spiritual mercy rather than being a passive recipient of an act of spiritual mercy; second, it deprives the departed soul of the power and consolation of collective prayer on its behalf. Of course, all of this presupposes an orthodox understanding of the Four Last Things.

[2] Joseph Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy, trans. John Saward (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 198–99; also in idem, Collected Works, vol. XI: Theology of the Liturgy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014), 125.

[3] Joseph Ratzinger, Preface to Alcuin Reid, The Organic Development of the Liturgy: The Principles of Liturgical Reform and Their Relation to the Twentieth-Century Liturgical Movement Prior to the Second Vatican Council (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 13; also in Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, 593–94.

[4] Fr. Samuel Weber’s book The Proper of the Mass for Sundays and Solemnities has several settings of the Nuptial Mass propers, ranging from psalm-tone to melismatic.

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