Weddings today can get complicated.
Much time and energy often goes in to perfecting the decorations, flowers, dresses and tuxedoes, receptions, dances, invitation lists and so much more.
Actually, this is not only a modern reality, as we know weddings long ago had challenges; Jesus’ first miracle saved the day at the wedding feast at Cana.
Dealing with all of these things is not bad, unless it obscures the actual event: the sacrament of marriage.
As couples today consider their futures, some, perhaps having checked out divorce statistics, decide not to formally marry. Others choose a destination wedding or a justice of the peace option.
But many continue to find great richness in making their commitment within the Church.
The wedding liturgy proclaims, “you have come together into the house of the Church so that in the presence of the Church’s minister and the community your intention to enter into Marriage may be strengthened by the Lord with a sacred seal.”
Why does the Catholic Church continue to encourage the sacrament of marriage and the preparation that goes into it?
The Church views the time of preparation for the actual marriage, most often lived out through a parish and with the help of a priest or deacon, as a way to prepare the couple for their life-long commitment to each other.
“The grace of the Sacrament is real and necessary for the sole reason that God brings together two finite, rational, fallen people who have fallen in love with each other and desire to become one,” said Fr. Paul Rutten, pastor at Immaculate Conception Parish, Watertown.
“It will require sacrifice, patience, understanding, humility, forgiveness which come from God. The grace they need is the ability to find Christ and unity with the other person all the while they may be in situations in which they are struggling to like or love the other person.
“The self-sacrifice that is necessary to truly give yourself to another person is not just a human trait and thus it is when we experience God’s grace that we are able to live in a supernatural way,” he said.
The word “covenant” is often used these days in reference to legal agreements, but it is also a term found throughout the Scriptures and Church documents. In that regard, a covenant is “a solemn agreement between human beings or between God and a human being involving mutual commitments or guarantees.” Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouse and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.” CCC, 1601
That sense of covenant, of the permanence of the bond created in the sacrament of marriage, along with the tools provided through marriage preparation, can help equip a couple for the long haul.
“In recent years I’ve noticed that many people approach marriage with an escape clause,” said Fr. Greg Tschakert, pastor of St. Katharine Drexel Parish, Sioux Falls, and judicial vicar for the Diocese of Sioux Falls.
“They desire a lifelong marriage, but they aren’t always committed to the concept of indissolubility. When they begin with an escape clause, they sometimes fail to capitalize the relationship sufficiently for it to really thrive,” he said.
“I would never advise anyone to remain in an abusive union, but sometimes people abandon a union simply because they are bored or the partner isn’t quite who he or she seemed before the wedding.
“Marriage doesn’t bloom fully on the day of the wedding, and all relationships change with the passing of seasons. Couples need a great deal of commitment to help the relationship grow, even as they grow in individual ways,” said Fr. Tschakert.
The Church, through its pastors and other ministers, has a tremendous opportunity when a couple comes seeking to be married. The first encounter can set the tone.
“When Bishop Don Kettler was a pastor in Sioux Falls, I learned a valuable tool from him at one of our pastors’ meetings,” said Fr. Charles Cimpl, pastor at Holy Spirit, Sioux Falls.
“He said, ‘When a person calls me and tells me he/she is engaged the first thing I say is congratulations’. He went on to say that sometimes we can turn a couple away quickly when the first thing we ask is, ‘are you registered?’ or ‘why do you want to get married here?’,” Fr. Cimpl said.
“Most of the couples I deal with have some sense of the sacramentality of marriage. Of course, it is on a spectrum but generally they know that there is a need for preparation for their marriage and also for a religious aspect to it.
“Certainly for all of us in our vocations, our backgrounds are important in how we view commitment, persistence and endurance,” he said.
Jordon Boe and Mary Lenards are in the preparation process for their marriage later this year. They are working with Fr. Cimpl. Both said that working towards the sacrament of marriage in the Catholic Church has always been their plan.
“I have always wanted to prepare and celebrate my marriage in the Church,” said Boe.
“I think growing up with strong Catholic values instilled from my family and then those values continued to grow through the SFCS (Sioux Falls Catholic Schools) have always led to that desire. I cannot imagine being married anywhere else,” he said.
“Getting married in the church was the only option for me,” Lenards said.
“Whenever I pictured my wedding, it was always in a church, even when my faith was not as strong. I just never had a desire for anything else. Thankfully, I found someone who wanted the same. We actually never even talked about other sites for our wedding because not getting married in the church wasn’t on his radar either,” she said.
Within the broad framework provided by the Church and in more particular using the guidelines established by the Diocese of Sioux Falls, parishes and pastors use a variety of tools as they work with each potential bride and groom.
“We have tried a variety of approaches to marriage preparation over the years – classes, inventories, individual meetings, sponsor couples, counseling, etc.,” said Fr. Tschakert.
“Any of these tools can help the couple prepare for their wedding and their marriage. One of the perennial issues with all of these is how the couple approaches these tools. Some couples see them as requirements or steps to accomplish. Others see them as opportunities to grow in their relationship,” he said.
The Diocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life offers a variety of supports to pastors and to couples preparing for the sacrament of marriage.
On its website, sfcatholic.org/family life, you will find resources for classes, Engaged Encounter weekends, the FOCCUS Inventory and Natural Family Planning information. In addition, there are recommended books as well as an extensive series of locally produced videos on all aspects of preparing for and living out the sacrament of marriage.
Office of Marriage, Family and Respect Life director Emily Leedom said keeping these resources fresh, helpful and meaningful is an ongoing process.
“Pope St. John Paul II, in his letter on the family, insists that the Church, holding in the highest regard the value of the family, has a ‘pressing need’ to proclaim the gospel to all people, most especially those who are married or preparing for it,” Leedom said.
“Thus, the Church needs to take seriously the way in which she is ministering to couples as they prepare for marriage and as they seek to faithfully live out those vows. As a Diocese, we are seeking to respond to this invitation by reflecting upon our own processes and resources and naming those areas where we can better support couples in this journey,” she said.
“I generally hear good reports from couples who attended the Engaged Encounter Weekends or the Evenings for the Engaged sessions,” said Fr. Cimpl.
“They appreciate the witness talks of couples that are married and share with them the ups and downs of married life. I have found sponsor couples that work one-on-one with the couples after they have completed the FOCCUS Inventory to be a valuable part of the preparation sessions. Often the couples develop a relationship between them that goes beyond the preparation period,” he said.
Boe and Lenards say their preparation and working with Fr. Cimpl has been good for them.
“It has been much easier than expected,” Lenards said.
“Fr. Cimpl has been so available and accommodating in working with our busy schedules. There are multiple options and times for marriage preparation class which is also helpful. If you want to get married in the church you will make the effort to do so,” she said.
“I have found that the Church and Fr. Cimpl are always there for you no matter what you need,” said Boe.
“Father has been very supportive and wonderful to work with. My family has known him for many years and growing up I had always wanted him to be a part of this day and it is great to have that realization. Overall the aspect to have him around has been the most helpful because we have not felt uncomfortable to go to him for any questions,” he said.
That sense of personal connection is great, but is not practical for every situation. It’s a challenge recognized by the priests in this story.
“I do want couples to know that we are here to help them experience the most out of their lives, but that it doesn’t often come in the ways that we think it should,” said Fr. Rutten.
“Too often marriage preparation is theoretical and so they listen but do not always believe we know what we are talking about. We want to be there for them in those moments when they need and desire some help or encouragement along the way.
“We also know that none of us are perfect and many of us didn’t always start out on the right path, but the Church has helped us find our way to a deeper understanding of Christ’s love for each one of us,” he said.
Fr. Rutten said the life of a parish can have an impact on how a couple ultimately sees themselves and their role in the community.
“I do think the parish can have a great influence on couples with how marriage and family is presented and promoted,” he said.
“The parish is an extension of our family and is another home for us and so as we look around at the families and couples we get an idea of what life is like. How we treat young families with kids and chaos. How we treat older couples who are slowing down and set in their ways. All reflect how we as a parish see family and married life,” said Fr. Rutten.
Fr. Cimpl said family of origin for the couple also has an impact as they approach their wedding.
“I find that most of the couples I assist have a pretty good understanding of what they want to bring from their parents and others into their marriage and what they would like to change from what they observed from others,” he said.
“Because the age of marriage is somewhat higher than it was a few decades ago, the couples are very honest about what they hope and want their relationship to be as they enter marriage,” said Fr. Cimpl.
Fr. Tschakert notes that most our lives happen not in big moments, but in the day to day.
“Most of married life will be spent as ordinary time. There are holidays, vacations and family parties, but most of marriage is lived in the ordinary life of work, homemaking and rearing children,” he said.
“It is in ordinary time that the bonds are formed and strengthened. When couples share household tasks, like laundry, cooking, cleaning and childcare, they are building a base of mutual trust and appreciation that will see them through the bumps on the road that ultimately appear.
“If there is one word of advice I would give any couple it’s to eat at least one meal together every day, taking some time to linger at the table,” Fr. Tschakert said.
Of course each couple coming for marriage brings their own story. Some are dealing with previous marriages, difficult family history, or personal issues – and any one of these issues might require special attention or actions before the sacrament can happen.
But the actual requirements for a valid marriage are pretty simple.
“I think many people are fairly unaware of the church laws concerning marriage, especially that for a marriage to be valid, it has to be witnessed by a priest or deacon and two witnesses. In previous generations these church laws were passed along by parents or grandparents,” said Fr. Tschakert.
Regarding previous marriages, though every situation is unique, Fr. Tschakert offers the following:
“The Church is very aware that sometimes marriages do fail, and sometimes examination will demonstrate that there was some flaw in the bond that prevented the marriage from succeeding. When this flaw can be demonstrated, the diocesan marriage tribunal will declare the union null. If nullity is declared, then the parties would be free to marry in the Church again.
“Anyone who wishes to have a failed marriage examined by the tribunal should start this process with their local pastor. This process has often proved a healing process as parties were able to look at the reasons why a marriage failed and how they might do better going forward,” said Fr. Tschakert, who has worked with the marriage tribunal in various capacities for 33 years.
One unique aspect of the sacrament of marriage is that the bride and groom are the actual ministers of the sacrament.
“According to the Latin tradition, the spouses as ministers of Christ’s grace mutually confer upon each other the sacrament of matrimony by expressing their consent before the Church.” CCC 1623
“The Sacrament of Matrimony is unique to us as priests for we are witnesses of the Sacrament and not officiants of the Sacrament,” said Fr. Cimpl.
“The couple, when they say their vows to each other, are the officiants of the Sacrament for each other. This is a powerful statement by our Church of the unique bond of marriage as a man and woman come together to form a covenant of life and love.
“It is the closest symbol on earth of the way Christ loves us. Even though I witness several marriages each year I always get a chill up and down my spine when I hear a couple say their vows to each other. It is an amazing open-ended commitment and I feel honored to be witnessing to their vows,” he said.
That opportunity to be a minister of the sacrament and to then build upon it can set the stage for a successful marriage to follow.
“I would say that making the decision to marry in the Church is going to be the second best decision of your day, the best decision being marrying your partner,” said Boe.
“To have the foundation of the Church built into your first moments as man and wife, consider that all things through Christ are strengthened and what can be better than that?” he said.
Said Fr. Tschakert, “A number of years ago, Pope Benedict XVI wrote an encyclical on the meaning of love and how love develops in our human lives.
“As we develop in our ability to love, we are gradually drawn into the love of God and make our way to eternal life. For many, the sacrament of marriage is both a very human way to live and a source of salvation as couples learn how to give of themselves in love.”
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website, www.foryourmarriage.org, has in-depth sections for dating and engaged, married life, and family life and parenting.
The article on planning a Catholic wedding offers this suggestion:
“A very good way to know what the Catholic Church believes is to participate in its worship. This is especially true in the case of marriage. The Catholic wedding rite, whether it is celebrated within a Mass or not, is a powerful teaching tool. This is experienced in many ways, for example:
- in the active role taken by the couple who, in the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, are the “ministers” of the sacrament;
- in the fact that the wedding takes place in a church, signifying it is a sacred action;
- in the scriptural readings which speak of God’s plan for marriage and his presence to the couple;
- in the music which lifts our thoughts and feelings in a prayerful, joyful way;
- in the homily given by the priest or deacon addressing the couple and their guests about the meaning of marriage as well as its joys and challenges;
- in the vows and exchange of rings in which the couple express their freely-given consent, promising to create a loving and lifelong union of permanence, fidelity, and openness to children;
- in the various prayers and blessings through which the Church solemnizes and supports the journey on which the couple is embarking.”