Increasing numbers of engaged couples do not have a parish in which to host their wedding or they get told by a church official that they don’t qualify for the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony for various reasons, e.g., they’re not registered members, they’re cohabitating, one of them is divorced… Many such couples grew up in a household that was affiliated with Catholicism, closely or loosely, but they are no longer practicing the faith—also for various reasons. I am encouraged when I am contacted by engaged couples that want to stay connected, want to marry in the church, or want a priest to bless their union.
Since a wedding is one of the most important days of a person’s life, it probably ought to occur in one of the most important places in a person’s life. For those who grew up in the church, received sacraments in the church, and hold Christ as central, church seems like a logical site. Though happy that brides and grooms want to stay attached and want their special day focused on faith with God’s blessing, I am sad that many engaged couples feel marginalized by church officials or get turned away with no support or encouragement for their nuptials. As a priest, I, and others, want to help those in irregular situations—those who are not active registered members at the church where they desire to wed and those who are confounded by ecclesial regulations—to receive a church blessing.
Couple’s cases are as varied as colors and their myriad shades: a forty year old widowed Catholic engaged to a divorced non-Catholic who doesn’t want to hassle with a year-long annulment process (and neither does she), a twenty-eight year old bride who experienced abuse in her Catholic elementary school and parish who wants to stay connected to the larger church but not her own parish, a pregnant couple whose pastor told them they cannot have a sacramental wedding, a medical student who is culturally Catholic (attended Catholic schools and holiday Masses) and doing his residency far from home where he plans to marry his non-Catholic fiancé, those that simply want their civil union blessed by their church… Situations that were once uncommon are now common. My hope is that while couples are engaged and reach out to engage the church, they will be welcomed by church officials with hopes that they will continue to engage God and faith in ever deepening ways in the future.
Some of those who meet objection or rejection by a harsh or dour church figure will separate from religion for good. I pretend that those cases are rare; and I have been as guilty as other clerics who tell couples what we’re not permitted to do for them rather than figuring out what we can do for them. I think it is important to distinguish the institutional corporate church that seems to put rules and regulations above compassion, wielding judgement and condemnation, from the community of believers that supports a couple’s sacramental expression of faith to one another and to God. If brides and grooms encounter the former, they might never engage with church again. If, however, church representatives accompany the couple to find a path in which their union can be supported, blessed, or sacramentalized, it might be an incentive for fuller engagement in many facets of their life together as they grow deeper in love through marriage.
I pray that we will all stay engaged, that we don’t give up on humanity or the church in general, even if we give up on some individuals and some elements of church in particular. I think that the time of engagement of bride and groom can also be a time of greater engagement with the church and a time of creating a firm foundation for further engagement as time goes by.