The people of the Church aren’t merely observers but active participants with God, who unites and upholds husband and wife in the Sacrament of Marriage.
Catholic wedding liturgies must reflect and express this larger and more noble reality with clarity and reverence.
The diocese’s new uniform policy for the celebration of weddings serves to bolster that clarity throughout the Jefferson City diocese.
“We’re trying to move the understanding from this being ‘my wedding’ or ‘my big day’ to something that pertains to the whole Church,” said Father Daniel Merz, pastor of St. Thomas More Newman Center parish in Columbia and chairman of the Diocesan Liturgical Commission.
“It’s about communion: the union of bridegroom with bride, of the couple with the Church, and ultimately, union with God in heaven.”
Bishop W. Shawn McKnight instituted the diocesan-wide policy on weddings in November 2019, in consultation with the diocesan Presbyteral Council, the Liturgical Commission and his cabinet of advisors.
He pointed out that the Church has a sacred duty to ensure that the celebrations of Matrimony — a sacrament of the Church, willed and instituted by Jesus Christ — are loving, joyful, sacred and respectful.
“This policy serves to foster a deeper communion in the celebration of Marriage throughout the diocese, to provide clarity for engaged couples on the ritual boundaries to be observed in their wedding ceremony, and to assist priests and deacons in the counsel they give to engaged couples,” Bishop McKnight wrote.
Fr. Merz pointed out that there’s always room for legitimate diversity within the communion of believers, “but unity throughout our diocese must also be safeguarded.”
The diocesan policy states a clear preference for weddings to take place within the celebration of Mass.
Weddings are to be held inside a Catholic church or at an outdoor location that has a consecrated, permanent altar, such as the National Shrine of Mary, Mother of the Church in Laurie or the Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Starkenburg.
Only sacred music — as opposed to ballads, popular or country music — are to be played and sung inside the church building.
This includes the prelude, the postlude and all music during the ceremony.
“Music is an essential part of the human experience,” said Fr. Merz. “In this way, the Church is saying, ‘We hold your marriage in such high esteem, and we want to ensure that all the music clearly expresses that.’”
The diocesan policy offers several options for the entrance procession, with each setting a proper tone of reverence for the wedding.
It is highly recommended to include a cross-bearer carrying a liturgical crucifix.
“We consider the cross to be such an important part of a wedding because it was on the cross that Christ gave His life for His bride, the Church,” said Fr. Merz. “The Eternal Wedding Feast — the mystical marriage of Christ and the Church, began on the cross.”
The crucifix is also a reminder that in entering into marriage, the husband and wife vow to be willing to die for each other so that the other can get to heaven.
The bride, groom and all members of the wedding party are to stand, kneel and be seated with the rest of the congregation throughout the Nuptial Mass, except when they are taking part in the wedding rite proper.
The Mass and Catholic wedding rites are awash with sacred and meaningful symbolism. Any additional symbols, such as unity candles, that are not called for in the marriage rite divert attention from those essential symbols and therefore should be reserved for the reception or some other occasion.
Nonetheless, Fr. Merz assured, “all of this leaves plenty of opportunity for the bride and groom and their families to bring their personalities and interests into the wedding ceremony — such as attire and decorations, the choice of scriptural readings, selections of sacred music, and more.”
In union with the whole Church
The policy points out that weddings may take place during regular Sunday Mass or Saturday Vigil Mass.
This option works best when the bride and groom belong to and are very involved in the same parish.
“That’s kind of a beautiful thing to do, because the whole parish is there supporting you,” said Fr. Merz.
He emphasized that marriage is about communion between the bride and the groom, “but in a bigger way, it’s about their communion with the Church and ultimately with Christ.”
“So we want to start off on the right foot here, and having your wedding ceremony reflect the unity and communion of the Church,” he said.
This is all the more important in light of the lack of value much of secular society currently places on marriage, let alone a Christian understanding of marriage.
“In a sense, by drawing attention to the dignity of marriage and the importance of the rituals surrounding it, the Church is saying, ‘Marriage IS worthwhile, it IS important, it DOES have dignity and meaning, and it is VERY relevant for our society,” said Fr. Merz.
Helping couples enter marriage with the right intentions and mindset is an important step in building up strong families, he stated.
He said priests consider it an honor and privilege to help engaged couples prepare not just for their wedding but for marriage.
“There is real joy for the priest when a young couple sits down with you and talks about how they met and got engaged, and what it all means to them; it’s a beautiful part of priestly ministry,” he said.
In fact, one of the reasons Fr. Merz wanted to become a priest in the first place was to be able to share in the intimate, sacramental moments of people’s lives.
“Marriage is one of those beautiful moments,” he said. “And from a theological perspective, this is the sacrament of where we’re all going!”
He pointed out that offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is one of the defining acts of ordained Priestly ministry.
“And the Eucharist is the foretaste of the heavenly wedding banquet,” he noted.
Parish priests spend a lot of time ministering to and counseling married couples of all ages, trying to help and strengthen their marriages.
“I find it significant that in the Gospel, St. John the Baptist, who was celibate and from a priestly family, gave his life defending marriage,” Fr. Merz added.
“A sacred rite”
Bishop Emeritus John R. Gaydos, now retired, worked with the Presbyteral Council to update the diocesan recommendations for weddings after a revised Order of Celebrating Matrimony was promulgated in 2015.
Bishop McKnight worked with the Diocesan Liturgical Commission and Presbyteral Council last year to update the document.
He also raised it to the level of diocesan policy.
“It is essential to remember that Matrimony is a Sacrament of the Church, a sacred rite and a public good, not a secular celebration or a private agreement between two parties,” Bishop McKnight stated in the preamble to the policy.
He wrote that the policy “should be read and understood in light of the Church’s desire to be faithful to Christ, faithful to the Church’s Sacrament, and welcoming of the joyous love of engaged couples.”
It should also be interpreted in conformity to the Church’s Order of Celebrating Matrimony and the Code of Canon Law.
“The best foundation”
The policy also addresses situations such as marriage between a Catholic and a non-Catholic; and participation in a Latin Rite Catholic wedding by members of an Eastern Rite Catholic Church.
This fall, Bishop McKnight plans to finalize a common program for preparing couples for marriages.
Priests of the diocese will discuss and learn more about the program during their annual institute in October.
“I’m very excited about this,” said Fr. Merz. “Once again, this is the Church saying that marriage is important enough that we want to make sure our couples are receiving the best foundation for marriage and family life that we can give them.”
The Diocesan Policy for the Celebration of Weddings can be found online at diojeffcity.org/marriage-preparation/.