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A Leaven In The World… Will Marriages Outside A Church Keep Couples In The Church?

June 18, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments


The Church makes exceptions to its own rules; this is well known. There are God’s rules, such as the Commandments, exceptions to which cannot be granted by man. And then there are the regulations promulgated by the Church, using the authority given her by the Lord, in order to better facilitate the pastoral work of assisting the faithful in living out God’s will for salvation.
Rules made by men can be, and have been, changed by men. What is less well known is why and when doing so is appropriate. The highest law of the Church is the salvation of souls. In order to save one’s soul one must, under ordinary circumstances, do what is ordinarily necessary for salvation, and this includes regularly attending Sunday Mass. The Church teaches this as part of the Deposit of Faith.
When a young couple approaches a priest for the purpose of celebrating a wedding, with the intention that he or another priest preside, they are requesting a sacrament, one of the seven outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace. Because sacraments come from Christ the Lord and are handed down in the Church for our salvation, we must treat them with reverence and respect.
This desire to enshrine the moments of grace in the life of the Church, that is, the celebration of the sacraments, in sacred surroundings flows from the Church’s faith about what happens in these most important moments on our path to eternal salvation. Thus, we have the custom of ordinarily celebrating the Sacrament of Marriage in a church building.
What is a more sacred venue than our sacred buildings where the perfect prayer of Mass is celebrated and the Real Presence of Christ the Lord enables us to truly worship Him?
The ideal for marriage, of course, is that a baptized Catholic marry another baptized Catholic, that they practice their faith and that they also baptize and raise their children as Catholics. Again, the salvation of souls is the highest law of the Church, so this should be no surprise, given that the Church knows she was founded by Christ as the true “sacrament of salvation” for the whole human race.
But the reality is that Catholics often meet and marry non-Catholics, who do not share our faith and for whom exchanging vows in a Catholic church is not desired. Increasingly, even Catholic young people, however, are choosing to exchange their vows in settings outside of churches, and outside of buildings entirely. All of our priests have witnessed this trend.
Some years ago a young man of my acquaintance from the military context met the woman of his dreams and asked her to marry him. I happened to know him through 10k runs sponsored on Andrews Air Force base when I was assigned to a parish in the neighborhood. I also learned he was a baptized Catholic from our chats. I went off to deployment in Iraq and he to Kuwait. We both met up again subsequently at another 10k run and he told me about the love of his life and their nuptial plans. He asked me to marry them.
I met with the couple and shortly discovered that the young lady, not Catholic, had already decided she wanted to be married on the bay at sunset near Ocean City, a Maryland resort. After some gentle coaxing it became obvious that for her the thought was father to the deed and she was not to be dissuaded from going through with the ceremony of her dreams.
With the Church’s desire in view that all be done to enable the Catholic party to practice his faith, I proposed a plan. I asked them to participate in Catholic marriage preparation, to include NFP training and an Engaged Encounter weekend retreat, and to plan a Catholic ceremony at our parish chapel prior to their beach ceremony. They gladly cooperated and all went according to plan. They invited local Catholic friends and came together on a weekday evening at our Maryland parish and exchanged their vows in our church before witnesses: a valid Catholic matrimony. I then drove some weeks later to the resort where, after informing everybody what we were doing, I blessed their vows again before family and friends and they joyfully celebrated their union as planned.
It doesn’t always go so smoothly and just as often the non-Catholic party will not compromise, refusing a Catholic ceremony or the presence of a priest, making it necessary after the ceremony for the Catholic to abstain from Communion at Sunday Mass until a convalidation can take place.
We are also dealing with dropping Mass attendance. These statistics, of course, include young people seeking marriage, as revealed in a recent article by SSPX news: “Weekly participation in the Mass, by dropping six points since the close of Benedict XVI’s papacy, marks the largest decline since the 1970s.”
Fast forward to this month, when it was revealed that the Baltimore Archdiocese has published new guidelines offering engaged couples the opportunity for a wedding ceremony outside of a church building if they will meet with a priest and request it. Of course, if the couple never goes inside of a church even for the minimum of weekly Sunday Mass in order to keep the Commandments, or is living together in fornication, there may not be a Catholic wedding after all. This attempt to keep Catholics practicing their faith in a context of decreasing numbers of Catholic weddings, however, may help stem the exodus.
The guidelines state that the request must be forwarded by the pastor or priest to the archdiocese for the permission, making it necessary for the couple to first meet with a representative of the local parish. No doubt this is foreseen as an opportunity to bring the couple into a closer relationship with the Church, encourage Sunday Mass attendance if necessary, and challenge the couple to otherwise prepare for marriage in a holy way if they are “living together” and not as brother and sister.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence invited a discussion of the matter on Twitter:
“Some dioceses are now permitting outdoor weddings. I have mixed emotions about that. If it keeps some young couples involved in the Church, that’s excellent. Or, does it risk losing even more the sense of the sacred surrounding Holy Matrimony? Your opinion?”
His invitation drew hundreds of responses.
Some mixed marriage couples may choose not to have a wedding Mass out of regard for non-Catholic family and friends in attendance. This certainly would not be a negative reflection on the faith of the Catholic party. But Therese, also on Twitter, made a valid and alarming point as part of Bishop Tobin’s thread: “If the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass doesn’t ‘keep’ them, they’re not discernibly in the Church.” To which I responded:
“Exactly: if a couple does not want to have their wedding in the context of a Holy Mass, where they would be attending the Holy Mass every week as part of the parish, there is a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.”
Let us pray for the difficult work ahead of our priests in pastoral care of engaged couples, and that nuptials celebrated outside of a church building may not be a harbinger of married life outside of the Church entirely. Thank you for reading and praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. @MCITLFrAphorism

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