The wedding bells are beginning to ring, and the scent of orange blossoms is filling the air. It is the start of Wedding Season, the most dreaded time of the year for priests and deacons. Not a few of them will comment, in private, that weddings are the part of their ministry they despise the most. (Nota bene: For the sake of this post, I am distinguishing the wedding ceremony and the travails necessary to plan and celebrate it from the rest of pastoral care for engaged couples.)
I could probably fill a book with all of the things that couples preparing for marriage do that drive clergy to drink. But since this is a blog post, I will limit myself to the lowlights that we here at Catholic Answers hear about most often—not from the clergy, mind you, but from family members and friends of the happy couple who want to know why clergy seem to be so unaccommodating to those engaged to be married.
Scheduling. One of the first problems that usually arises when an engaged couple calls up a church is conflict over the date of the big day. Particularly in cases in which the couple is marrying in a Catholic church simply to keep the parents happy, very often a date has already been selected. Not infrequently, this date is selected based on the caterer's calendar instead of the parish's (and sometimes non-refundable deposits will already have been paid out to reserve that date). Then tensions rise when the pastor must inform the couple that the date they want will not work for the parish for any one of a dozen reasons.
Unless a couple has an objectively serious reason for needing to marry by a certain date (e.g., relocation, military deployment), they should not set a date until after they consult with the parish. In those cases in which a couple does have serious reason for needing to be married by a certain date, flexibility as to the rest of the planning would go far in encouraging parish cooperation. For example, if you are open to getting married on a day other than Saturday—the Saturdays in a parish calendar can be booked up to a year in advance—let the parish know and ask for options.
And let's not forget the question of weddings during Lent. I have heard from many people wondering whether the Church "allows" weddings during Lent. Oftentimes they have heard from their parish that "weddings are not held during Lent."
Weddings can be held during Lent, but many parishes do not schedule weddings for Lent—both because of the penitential nature of the season and because parish calendars during Lent are already filled with other events during this important season on the liturgical calendar. Again, unless there is an objectively serious reason requiring marriage during Lent, ordinarily a couple should respect the policies of the parish.
Payment. Left to their own devices many Catholics can be stingy in compensating priests and deacons for their time and labor. I once received a flurry of angry missives after suggesting that a Catholic who wanted to take a priest along as a chaplain on a trip provide the priest with a stipend of at least $100 per day over and above all travel costs, room and board, and chaplain-related expenses. (A stipend of $100/day is a "wage" of around $12/hour for an eight hour day.) One woman told me that "the privilege of holding the body and blood of Christ is payment enough" for a priest. Others suggested that a priest expecting adequate payment for his service is engaging in simony—evidently forgetting the scriptural dictum that "the laborer deserves his wages."
The very fact that many Catholics tend to be close-fisted in compensating priests for their time and labor in ministry may be one reason why many retired diocesan priests struggle to pay their bills. I once read the account of a Catholic who met a retired priest who actually had to eat his meals at the local soup kitchen because he was hungry and had no other way to afford food! (For anyone who is inspired by this account to help struggling priests in need, I recommend checking out the work of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, which provides services and financial assistance for priests in straitened circumstances.)
Frankly, Catholics who are shelling out thousands of dollars—and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars—to wedding vendors to create My Day can afford to be generous with the priest or deacon who is presiding at their wedding. They can also afford to be generous with the parish that is facilitating the wedding. That means coughing up any set stipend without complaint and giving more if possible. In cases where the couple does have serious financial difficulties and is struggling to pull together a modest wedding, they should let their presider and the parish know about their circumstances and ask for options.
Cooperation. Ever wonder why you seem to hear the same wedding homily, hitting all the same points, at every wedding you attend—no matter which readings are selected? Oh, maybe there will be a quick mention of the readings, but they seem like they were dropped into the storyline like Mad Libs insertions. That's because they can be if a couple doesn't give serious attention to the readings they select and give their choices to their presider quickly enough for the homilist to do more than pull a prepared homily from his files and fill in the blanks with the couple's readings.
This is one example of a larger problem: While couples oftentimes expect service with a smile from clergy and parishes—to the extent that they can become grumpy when they do not receive it—couples can sometimes be less than cooperative with clergy. From not honoring appointments, to not completing pre-marital counseling and other prerequisites in a timely fashion, to dithering over liturgy selections, couples sometimes do not consider it important to be respectful of their presider's and parish staff's time and needs. If you make an appointment, keep it (or call and apologize); if you have a commitment, honor it; if you want a homily tailored to you as a couple, get the homilist your choices for Scripture readings ASAP.
Liturgical add-ons. Speaking of the liturgy, the marriage ritual in the Roman rite of the Catholic Church already offers a couple wide latitude in selections. They can choose readings from dozens of scriptural options; they can choose prayers they would like to hear prayed during the marriage rite; they have several options for saying their vows and, in the U.S., more than one choice for the form of the vows (although they are not allowed to edit those approved forms for the vows according to their personal vision of marriage). Not only that, but they can choose their liturgical music and invite friends and family to participate in the liturgy to varying extents.
Even so, complaints are heard when clergy draw some boundaries. Some presiders dislike the American custom of the unity candle, pointing out that the unity candle is a wedding industry fad. Others place limits on music, pointing out that "Here Comes the Bride" is not actually liturgical music but is taken from an opera by Richard Wagner. Some will suggest that popular wedding customs that are not found in the Catholic marriage ritual—jumping a broom; pelting the couple with rice; even, believe it or not, laying flowers at the feet of a statue of the Blessed Virgin—be done outside the nuptial liturgy (either after the ceremony or during the reception). Engaged couples or their families will protest, assuming that these customs are a fundamental ingredient of the Wedding Experience and that My Day won't be the same without them.
Assume that your presider wants as much as you do for you to have a memorable experience and is not acting punitively. It is not disrespectful to ask for clarification about why he prefers to do something a certain way, and a presider should be careful not to make his preferences mandates (i.e., saying things like "Because the Church says so!" when the Church is silent on the matter). But a basic willingness to defer to the presider's judgment on non-essential, extraordinary customs to be included in the nuptial liturgy is only reasonable, and does not mean you cannot observe those customs outside the nuptial liturgy.
Respect for the premises. Rather than provide a laundry list of all the ways in which couples and their families have (mis)behaved during weddings, I'll provide a quick list of a few Do's and leave the Don'ts to your imagination—and to your pastor to outlaw:
- Do ride herd on your photographer. He should not be dangling over the altar for just the right shot of your first kiss. He should also be reminded to take posed shots quickly and not linger unnecessarily over arranging your cast and crew. And ask your ushers to keep an eye on guests armed with their own cameras, herding back to their pews anyone who rushes the sanctuary for snapshots to be live-blogged on Facebook.
- Do leave the church in better condition than you found it. Programs left in pews (or on the floor) should be gathered; the pews should be checked for lost belongings; and no one should be allowed to release anything, throw anything, blow anything, or smoke anything anywhere on church property.
- Do leave the furniture alone. No moving of pews or kneelers or any other sanctuary furniture (don't even ask to do so!) unless the parish offers you the opportunity. If you need extra chairs for overflow crowds, offer to take responsibility for setting them up according to the church's specifications. Then be sure to instruct your ushers not to leave for the reception before they either load the chairs into vehicles for removal (if the chairs were rented or belong to you) or store them properly for the parish staff (if the chairs belong to the parish).
- Do save your receiving line for your reception. The church is God's house, not yours. Clergy, as God's representatives on earth, have the privilege of greeting congregants after Mass. Your greetings to family and friends should take place at your reception site, where you will be the host. On a practical note, saving the receiving line for the reception means that you will be able to clear the parish premises of your wedding guests and accoutrements in a more timely fashion, making it easier for the parish's staff and maintenance crew to convert the parish back to its everyday set-up (especially if there will be a Saturday vigil Mass following your ceremony).
- Do cooperate with reasonable modesty standards. The clothing of the wedding party should meet any guidelines given by the parish. Pass on those guidelines to your guests, and arrange to have on hand a few shawls for any guests who did not get the memo. (Feel free to blame the parish for the standards if you need to. Just ask your ushers to smile sympathetically and say, "I'm so sorry, but the pastor insists.")
Give thanks. Finally, when all is said and done, try to remember that your presider and your parish are not mere wedding vendors, who do a job for pay and need nothing more than a check and a handshake at the end of the day. When you are writing out your thanks to family and friends for all that they did and gave to make your wedding day special, remember to also write a letter of gratitude to the pastor of the parish. Try to recall for him one or two special memories of the day that he and his staff had a hand in making possible. A memento of your wedding, such as a snapshot of the two of you standing with your presider, would be charming.
The bottom line is that weddings shouldn't be the most dreaded part of ministry for clergy. While weddings can become a routine part of a priest's or deacon's years of ministry, Catholic couples should do all they can to share the joy of their special day with their presider and parish by taking care to be courteous and considerate.
These days, the effort on your part to be courteous to and considerate of your presider and parish staff while planning your wedding will make your wedding stand out for them in their memories as one of the best days of their lives.