The Enduring Catholic Wedding Practices that Modernity Could Not Change

The Enduring Catholic Wedding Practices that Modernity Could Not Change

The Enduring Catholic Wedding Practices that Modernity Could Not Change

With the coming of summer, Catholics everywhere are getting married as they have from time immemorial. It is not only the fact they are getting married that has remained unchanged but also the manner by which couples tie the knot at the altar.

This is curious in light of the whirlwind of radical changes that swept liturgy and practice in the Catholic Church over the last decades. However, brides still march down the aisle much like those in the time of their parents. Likewise, they pronounce their vows before a priest in similar fashion.

Indeed, while the institution of marriage itself has suffered in a culture that has made divorce and adultery acceptable, the idea of a traditional wedding endures.

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A Revolution That Changed Things

Was this lack of change an oversight? In a liturgical revolution in which nothing was left to chance, it seems improbable. In fact, what most people do not realize is that radical changes were issued. Thankfully, many today are unfamiliar with the radical new ideas that sought to adapt the wedding ceremony to modernity.

However, the fact remains that the heady reformers in the sixties were quick to declare the traditional usages and old rites hopelessly outdated. They decided the old ceremony would have to go since it was not people-oriented or feminist-friendly. It is no surprise that they came up with their own rites.

What Was Changed

Here is an idea of what the new marriage ceremony should have been.

Perhaps the most radical change was the bride’s procession into the church that is one of the most cherished parts of the ceremonial. In the new rite, the father does not give the bride away since it supposedly represents a “patriarchal” mindset that the modern church no longer accepts. In giving the bride away, the father transfers to the prospective husband the responsibility of protection and support of his daughter. The white bridal veil over the face of the bride in the procession was also not included since it signifies purity and virginity that are sadly no longer assumed today.

In place of these time-honored traditions, the new rites would have both the bride and the groom entering the church at the same time, symbolizing their equal role in making the marriage work. The priest would not need to wait at the altar but could also process in together with the couple. In the new ceremony, the emphasis was on equality and the active role of the community in supporting the marriage.

The vows were not spoken turned toward God in the Blessed Sacrament but rather facing the congregation. The bride and groom did not look at each other during this solemn moment but to the community. The insinuation was that the Christian community was the marriage’s validating institution.

Equality was accentuated even more by the couple pronouncing their own vows instead of repeating the words after the priest, who now became a mere silent witness to the marriage. The new rite’s advocates claimed all these changes were more scripturally sound than the old rite.

Changes Were Made

The Enduring Catholic Wedding Practices that Modernity Could Not Change

The immense majority of Catholics chose the traditional wedding ceremony over the new rites. This is only logical since artificial norms like these have no organic connection with cultures and traditions.

Of course, while the new rites failed to catch on, it would be inaccurate to say that the whole ceremony remained the same. The Nuptial Mass certainly followed the trend of modern liturgy. The choice of readings was expanded. Modern translations were made. All sorts of options and sequences were introduced into the ceremony that reflected more modern practice.

However, the traditional bridal procession and the promise ceremonial that characterized weddings from time immemorial did prevail and the new options regarding these very basic parts of the ceremony were largely ignored.

Indeed, as the twentieth century ended, liturgists were still engaged in selling the new rites to the leery faithful. In 2000, for example, a video was produced by Liturgy Training Publications for the Archdiocese of Chicago to make Catholics aware of the availability of the updated ritual that had not yet caught on.

What Happened to the New Rite

Some might ask why these unknown new rites failed to be implemented. The answer is found in one word: they were made “optional.” Though supplied, there was never a demand for them.

Unlike other reforms that were imposed, couples were given a choice, and the immense majority opted out, choosing the traditional wedding ceremony. The expected clamor for updated rites never materialized. And this is only logical since artificial norms like these have no organic connection with cultures and traditions. The profound symbolism that permeates the old rites was distilled over centuries and resonates everywhere. In the end, the ceremony turned toward God, not the community, won out, and today no one talks about the attempted egalitarian procession and promises suggested by the reformers.

Admission of Defeat

Church officials have implicitly been forced to acknowledge the failure of their aggiornamento. Most Catholic marriages performed in English have all been done according to the deeply entrenched customs of the past. When new norms were recently issued, they still leave the option open for the new usages but they are careful to accommodate those who want tradition. In fact, the new rites, which begrudgingly allowed for a traditional option, have now become the rare option.

America’s Catholic bishops have issued a new translation and instructions following new norms found in the Roman Missal implemented in 2011. These new norms go a step further by curiously allowing for other old traditions and customs that make weddings special. For example, the ancient Spanish custom of the groom handing thirteen gold coins to the bride who returns them. The coins (called las arras), represent his promise to provide for his new family, and her trust in his ability to do so.

The present text of the revised rites is deliberately vague about the traditional practices. However there is a clause that leaves leeway for couples to have a ceremony “in the customary manner.” This all but insures that the ancestral wedding opening will be the preferred option.

There is a lesson to be learned in all this. The Church is a Mother and has always taken wholesome elements of different cultures, improved upon them, and incorporated them into Her liturgy and rites. This can be seen in popular hymns, devotions… and wedding practices. The story of the modern Catholic wedding rites that never became popular is typical of what happens when organic norms and established tradition are disregarded. In such cases, the new “updated” replacement must be either imposed from the top down or, when made optional, it is ignored and forgotten.

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  • jaScott

    When my parents married in 1935 the ceremony took place in the rectory. My mother was Catholic, my father was a baptised, non-practicing Lutheran. Mixed marriages were frowned upon in those days. They had Mom’s priest and 2 witnesses. Candles, flowers and guests were not allowed. Their love and commitment to each other lasted until Dad’s death in 1981. They may not have said their vows before the tabernacle but Our Blessed Lord was definitely part of their marriage. That’s what counts.

  • Geoffrey Lopes da Silva

    Mr. Horvat:

    I am an avid reader of yours, but this article has left me scratching my head. I am an instituted acolyte (“subdeacon”) and often function as master of ceremonies for various liturgies in the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite. I also just got married a few weeks ago on the Memorial of Our Lady of Fatima, and so I feel I might have something to offer to this discussion.

    My research indicated that the “father giving away the bride” custom originated among Germanic Protestants, which was then inherited by the Anglicans and then immigrated to the United States, where it then spread among Catholic weddings. Traditional hand missals cannot be relied on, but instead we must look to official liturgical books and other semi-official texts. Fortescue’s “The Ceremonies of the Roman Rite Described” makes absolutely no mention of how the bride and bridegroom are to enter the church in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The traditional “Rituale Romanum” (Titulus VII – Caput 2) seems to be silent on this subject as well. Both texts are also completely silent on the bride veiling her face or not. Also, it would seem to me that the bridal couple repeating words after the priest was one of necessity (due to illiteracy, etc.), and never really the ideal.

    At our recent wedding, we opted for what we considered to be the “Catholic” form of entrance: At the end of the regular procession for a solemn Mass, the bridesmaids (flower girls) followed the Bishop. Next came our two witnesses, followed by us, all while “Old Hundredth” was sung by the choir, accompanied by pipe organ and trumpet. The “vows” consisted of the Bishop using the “Q&A” form, with my wife and I saying “I do”, thereby declaring our canonical and sacramental consent. The Church teaches that the ministers of this sacrament are the bridal couple, with the Priest (or Bishop or Deacon, etc.) acting as the witness for Mother Church, in addition to the two canonical witnesses.

    When all was said and done, our wedding Mass, which endeavoured to faithfully follow the rubrics of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, was met with much “talk” in the parish as being the most beautiful wedding ever seen there. It was called “very Catholic”, with even some who had married decades earlier wishing they could “do it over again”, this time “the Catholic way”.

  • Mary Frances Gould

    My husband and I just celebrated our 41st Wedding Anniversary. My husband is Methodist and I am Catholic. I was 25, he was 28. We met with my priest and his minister to discuss our nuptials. It turned out they were golfing buddies! They worked out a beautiful ceremony where they were both present to officially witness our marriage. We picked appropriate traditional liturgical music…we did not want any songs from the 70’s. Lol! Our procession was a family affair for both sides. Our attendants went down the aisle first followed by the Best Man (my husband’s brother) followed by my fiancés parents, then the Groom by himself. Then my parents followed by the Maid of Honor ( my sister), then me ( the Bride!) by myself. The attendants took their places in the second pews while our parents waited for us at the altar. As soon as I got to the altar, our parents joined our right hands, symbolically joining our families. Then our parents took their places in the first pew. We faced each other and repeating after my priest traditional vows. My new husband’s minister delivered the sermon and a prayer. Since we got married during Mass, my priest, knowing half our guests were not Catholic, explained every step so they would understand and participate if they wished. Afterwards, we received such beautiful comments and compliments from our guests. One neighbor, 8 years older then me that was like my big sister, told me when she got married, she wanted it just like ours. This was a bitter sweet time for all of us since my father had just been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. This family style wedding was especially meaningful for us. My father died 10 months later.

  • Wolemai

    A major change, which you did not mention, was the dropping of the word “obey” from the ceremony. For time stretching back to the Apostles, this word was said by the bride as part of her vows, following from the direct teaching in Scripture of both St Paul and St Peter. Obviously this was highly offensive to feminists and therefore had to go.
    Sadly most modern Catholics would see this change as a good thing, little realising that not only is it a dropping of a specific Scriptural teaching, but more importantly it is a direct challenge to the headship role that God gave the husband, which was designed to guide and protect the Christian family, even to the point of the husband being prepared to die for his wife. This is just one reason why the whole sense of chivalry seems to have disappeared from modern society. It also of course helps explain why young men are growing up without the sense of respect and protectiveness they are supposed to show towards women.
    I strongly believe that this whole area is a causal factor in both the disintegration of the family and the waywardness of so many male youths in our society today.

    • Geoffrey Lopes da Silva

      Do you have a source for this? My Baronius Press hand Missal for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite (Tridentine Mass) makes no mention of the word “obey” in the traditional wedding liturgy. I understand this was included in the Anglican wedding liturgy, and that the late Diana, Princess of Wales, famously omitted it.

  • Janice Marler

    I like tradition but the newer way sounds okay other than seemingly making the congregation more important than the Blessed Sacrament . Christ is the One that is marrying you, the One whose blessing you want ,and the One to help you with your marriage- not the congregation.

    • Catherine Mammana

      Actually, Christ is not the One marrying you. The sacrament of Matrimony is the one sacrament which the couple administers to each other, and the priest (Christ) officiates. Christ is the third, and most essential partner, in the sacrament.

      • Janice Marler

        Thank you.

        • Catherine Mammana

          You are very welcome, and God bless you.

  • MagistraM

    Actually, when my husband and I married over 25 years ago, we professed our vows (memorized, not repeated after the priest) from the sanctuary, with the priest standing below us. We faced each other, not the congregation, nor the tabernacle. We did all of these things as visible signs that the man and woman are the ministers of the sacrament, not the priest; the priest is there as the Church’s official witness.

    We DID have the bridal procession and many Latin hymns!

  • AgnesRegina

    The bride being escorted by her father is more of a small-T tradition, it’s not mandated; but the Nuptial Mass is absolutely gorgeous. The texts of the Proper chants are beyond beautiful and the extra blessings the priest gives – one for the bride and one for both, at the end of Mass – always make me tear up a little. And of course the wedding ceremony itself is very lovely! I’m sure it is findable online

  • Martha

    I had a NO wedding 21 years ago, and was happy reading this that many of the traditional elements were included. I’ve not had the pleasure of witnessing a Traditional wedding even though we’ve been attending TLMs exclusively for the last 5 years, so it’s interesting to read what goes on in one!

  • Andree

    I came down the aisle with my husband to be, the entire wedding party, the priest and altar boys. I did not want to be property that was given away, nor did I want everyone to stare at me and make me the center of attention. The Mass is about God after all. We are a very devout couple and did this with the full blessing of the priest, who is also very devout. I believe being given away is more of a custom than a Church mandated thing. I am of advanced age and my dear father has been deceased for a long time.

  • Chris Whittle

    Actually, the Tridentine Rite of Matrimony doesn’t have the requirement of bride being escorted down the aisle by her father, for a good reason: if the father is deceased, she might chose to have another male relative escort, or in case of advanced age the bridal procession might be omitted.

    • Janice Marler

      We were married 40 years ago and my mother gave mr away, as my father died when I was nine.