More than just a wedding: the sacrament of matrimony

North Texas Catholic
(May 8, 2024) Feature

River Bailey and Lindsey Moeller in St. Patrick Cathedral

River Bailey and Lindsey Moeller in Saint Patrick Cathedral, where they plan to be married. (NTC/Richard Rodriguez)

Lindsey Moeller always knew when the time came, she would marry in a Catholic Church.

Raised in a devout family, the 23-year-old watched older cousins wed in the faith, “and I wanted that, too.”

So when Moeller became engaged to River Bailey, “the first thing we did was call St. Patrick Cathedral to see what dates were available,” she recalled. “It’s a popular place to marry and so beautiful.”

The Colleyville native and her fiancé are part of a declining number of couples choosing a traditional church ceremony. According to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, Catholic marriages decreased 69 percent between 1969 and 2019. Other denominations are experiencing a similar decline as the influence of religion in society fades.

Instead of a church setting, many couples today are opting to wed in secular venues that reflect their personal tastes and preferences like beach resorts, gardens, and high-end hotels.

Moeller and her betrothed, a convert to the faith, believe marrying in the Church makes the commitment more meaningful.

“The most important part of our wedding day is the Mass because that’s when we promise before God to love each other for the rest of our lives, make a family together, and stand by each other through everything,” observed Moeller, a pediatric speech pathologist.

Of course, there’s a legal aspect to marriage that involves the state of Texas.

“But the state doesn’t care what happens to us or our marriage,” she pointed out. “The Catholic Church does.”

The St. Patrick parishioners recently attended a diocesan Pre-Cana class with other couples as part of their marriage preparation.

“It was a whole day just talking about our relationship, what we hope for our marriage, and any fears we have,” Moeller said. “It shows the people in our Catholic community and the priest who is mentoring us really care about our marriage. It feels genuine.”

Understanding the sacrament

A timeline of nine to 12 months is required to complete formal marriage preparation in most parishes. In the Diocese of Fort Worth, the process includes a group Pre-Cana class; meetings with a sponsor couple trained and assigned by the parish to discuss issues that arise in a marital relationship; a natural family planning course; and canonical paperwork.

Marriage is an unbreakable bond in the Catholic Church, and preparing for it helps a couple learn the religious, spiritual, and theological aspects of the sacrament. Catholics sometimes question marrying in the Church because they feel the preparation process is unnecessary and time consuming.

“A lot of that is solved with good pastoral counseling and solid Catholic teaching,” Father Jonathan Demma countered.

The pastor at Sacred Heart Parish in Wichita Falls meets with every engaged couple at the start of their marriage preparation.

“I want them to understand why they are having their wedding in the Church, the nature of the sacrament, and the reason for formation,” he said.

Fr. Demma breaks the ice by asking, “Who will administer the sacrament?” When they answer, “the priest,” he explains a man and woman administer the rite to each other — not the priest.

“And that is different from the other sacraments,” he continued. “I am there to witness, but the couple confer the sacrament to each other.”

The significance of the wedding band is another topic discussed. “Receive this ring as a sign of my love and fidelity,” are the words spoken during the ceremony.

“Your wedding ring is not your own. You’re wearing a sign of the other person’s commitment to you and vice versa,” Fr. Demma emphasized. “It’s a sign of the other person’s love and fidelity and not just a symbol to the secular world that I’m unavailable. That surprises people.”

Another conversation with the bride and groom is scheduled after the pre-wedding requirements are complete.

“I’ll hear from one or the other how they didn’t want to do the preparation and didn’t know why they had to,” he explained. “Now they understand the importance of preparing for the sacrament and are glad they went through the process because they learned so much.”

Why marry at the altar

During the ceremony, the Church wants a couple to “understand what you say and mean it,” Fr. Demma said. That’s why personalizing vows is not allowed. No one, not even a priest, can change the wording of the marriage rite. Only the Vatican has that authority.

“In Catholic marriage, people don’t write their own vows to avoid ambiguity. Consent is what makes the marriage,” explained Chris Vaughan, former diocesan director of Marriage and Family Life. “The priest or deacon has to make sure the couple, and everyone witnessing the marriage, know what they are consenting to.”

Marrying outdoors or in a secular venue is another issue that often arises with brides and grooms.

“Catholics are obliged to get married in the Church — not a civil ceremony — because we go to the Lord asking Him to bless the union,” Vaughan stressed. “The beautiful thing about our faith is you don’t have to climb a mountain or go on some long journey to find Him. We know He’s present in the Eucharist in every Catholic parish. Marriages, blessed by the Church, are only allowed in places of worship.”

People will say they feel God’s presence the most in nature.

“In the beauty of creation, we can see God. That’s true,” the seasoned catechist agreed. “But we don’t have to search for Him. We can just go to the Church.”

Vaughan recommends the newly engaged begin their journey to the altar by calling the parish before booking a reception venue or anything else.

Early contact with the parish can avoid problems with choosing a wedding date.

“Spring weddings are wonderful unless you pick a day a year from now and find out it’s Holy Saturday,” Vaughan said. “Weddings, in general, are not allowed on that day.”

Weddings during Lent are also rare.

“They’re usually done for a pastoral reason, and it’s a more subdued affair,” he explained. “Penitential readings are used, and you can’t bring decorations to the church.”

Deacon blesses Rob Smat and Kate McBride
Rob Smat and Kate McBride secured a dispensation from the Diocese of San Diego to be married outside by Deacon Paul Pesqueira early in the pandemic. (Courtesy/Sage Justice )

Overcoming obstacles

Rob Smat and Kate McBride began planning a church wedding as soon as they became engaged in 2019.

The pair met at the Caruso Catholic Center at the University of Southern California, and attending Mass together became an important part of their courtship.

“We try to live the Gospel and what it means to be Roman Catholic,” said Smat, who grew up in Fort Worth’s Holy Family Parish. “Having a Catholic wedding with a Mass was important to us.”

But celebrating the religious rite other newlyweds take for granted became a challenge for the young filmmaker and his California-born fiancée. In 2020, the United States was battling COVID-19, one of the deadliest worldwide pandemics in history. To control the quick-spreading infection rate, states across the country enforced social distancing guidelines and shuttered hair salons, fitness centers, schools, and places of worship.

Californians faced some of the most rigid stay-at-home orders. Two weeks before the August 1, 2020, wedding date, a sudden surge of COVID cases in San Diego County dashed the couple’s hope of exchanging vows in the bride’s childhood parish, Mary, Star of the Sea Catholic Church in La Jolla.

“They shut the churches down,” recalled Smat, who recounted how COVID impacted the wedding industry and his own nuptials in The Wedding March, his recently published book. “We would have married inside the church with just the priest and the two of us present, but [the state] wouldn’t let us do it.”

With few options available, help came from a deacon they met at USC who later guided their marriage preparation. After securing a dispensation from the diocese, Deacon Paul Pesqueira officiated the wedding ceremony at an outdoor site a block away from the church. Forty-six immediate family members, who were checked for fevers before the liturgy, witnessed the marriage.

Although the newlyweds were lucky to marry at a time when so many other wedding ceremonies were postponed, “we did feel a sense of disappointment that we weren’t able to marry inside the church that meant so much to us,” the author admitted. “Ultimately, we were blessed to have a wedding at all in the summer of 2020, and that joy outweighed our matrimonial subtractions.”

Smat urged other couples to recognize the value of preparing for a church ceremony.

“You go through the hurdles, obstacles, and paperwork to do other things like buying a house,” he added. “Why not put that same effort into the spiritual union with your spouse?”

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