Reprinted with permission from "The Pilot."

Is there a bride or groom who does not hope, wish, dream, and plan to have "the perfect wedding"? In pursuit of this perfection, brides and grooms come to my office armed with checklists, computerized schedules, "questions Mom wanted me to ask," and stacks of thick, bridal magazines. These glossy publications are built on the premise that a perfect wedding day is entirely possible--provided you're willing to pay for it. Make no mistake about it: There is an industry out there ready to reach into your wallets, purses, checkbooks, and savings accounts as soon as your engagement is announced.

Of course the zeal that fires the desire for a perfect wedding day is a wondrous and genuine energy. How might we channel that energy and make the best use of its hope-filled intentions? Rather than seeking the "perfect" wedding, can we look toward preparing for a joyous, solemn, meaningful, and prayerful wedding?

Weddings are by their nature joyous events. A man and woman who have found each other and fallen in love are ready to tell God and the world that they promise to be faithful to each other, for better or for worse, all the days of their lives. Let trumpets blare and church bells ring! What joy this brings to any human heart, to know that in faithful love, two lives will become one in marriage and that the "two become one" may multiply that love through bearing children. While we know well how to celebrate joyously once we reach the reception hall, we seem less adept at giving voice to that joy in the wedding ceremony itself.

If everyone at the reception sat in total silence, we would know that something was wrong! Wedding liturgies that do not offer opportunities for the guests to sing render silent the very people who have been invited to celebrate! If engaged couples and pastoral musicians work together, keeping their plans simple and their expectations modest, they can offer an opportunity for wedding guests to participate that makes everyone present a member of the "wedding party."

The joyful "dancing" at a wedding liturgy will take the form of processions: measured steps intended to lead those assembled deeper into the mystery being celebrated. The first "dance" or procession is that of the guests into the worship space. Who will greet them as they arrive? Perhaps the families of the bride and groom can be at the church doors to welcome relatives and friends as they arrive. Bridal attendants as well as groomsmen can "usher" people to their seats. And who better to welcome the arriving guests than the bride and groom themselves! Forget the nonsense about the groom not seeing the bride before the wedding: This is pure superstition and has no business on the church steps where Christians are gathering to pray.

Once the guests have gathered, the more formal procession into the church begins. Let the priest or deacon lead the joyful families to the sanctuary! Have we not had enough of long lines of bridesmaids entering as if on a runway at a fashion show--where everyone wears exactly the same dress? Isn't it time for fathers to stop "giving away" their daughters as they did in the days when daughters were considered to be property? How long will we continue to marginalize the groom, leaving him in a corner of the church, until everyone else has made a grand entrance?

For the past 30 years, our "Rite of Marriage" has called for a wedding procession in which the priest goes to the doors of the church to meet the bride and groom, their parents and attendants, and leads them all to the altar while the entrance song is sung. More and more couples are planning this joyful entrance into the church and finding it to be a wonderful experience. Perhaps there will also be a procession with the Book of the Gospels and at Communion time if the wedding is celebrated at Mass. The recessional at the end of the liturgy will easily find joyful expression as the newly married couple leads their friends and families from the place of worship.

Weddings are solemn as well as joyful events. The solemnity of a wedding emanates from the promises the bride and groom make: to love and honor each other in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, all the days of their lives. ... No more solemn promises does any human being make to another. The only comparable promise of fidelity we know is the Lord's promise to us, His people!

The best way for a couple to celebrate their vows with solemnity is to learn them by heart. This means pondering and praying over them on a daily basis, perhaps for a year or more. This is the best way for those words to root themselves in a couple's hearts. Let a microphone be near as those promises are exchanged at the wedding. This is what people have come to hear the bride and groom say, and this is what we need to hear: the promise of faithful love, made again in a culture where promises and fidelity are such fragile items. (Let's put an end to priests saying out loud, "I Mary, take you, John, to be my husband..." and waiting for the bride to repeat after him. The priest or deacon can hold a "cue card" to which a nervous bride or groom can refer if memory fails.)

In spite of what the bridal magazines say, this is not the "bride's day." For Catholic Christians, a marriage is an event in the life of the faith community. Because the bride and groom are members of that community, the church invites them to pronounce their marriage promises in the context of the church's prayer and stands as witness, announcing God's blessing on the nuptial union. This all happens in the liturgy of the church, which has boundaries as well as options. The most beautifully joyful, solemn celebrations are those that respect the church's rites, its scriptures, and musical norms. Very often, the requests that don't complement the liturgy can be fulfilled at the reception after the church service. Finally, nothing will distract from the solemnity of the celebration more than photographers and videographers (professional and amateur) strolling up and down aisles and into the sanctuary in pursuit of the perfect picture!

If a couple wants their wedding to be meaningful for themselves, then they should learn to pray together and regularly join the church community in its prayer on the Lord's Day. The more familiarity an engaged couple has with the church prayer and with the church at prayer, the more meaningful they will find their important role in the celebration of their wedding.

If a couple wants their wedding to be meaningful for their guests, then they should carefully select the scripture passages to be read and even more carefully select those who will proclaim them. They should work with the pastoral musician to select that music that will best highlight the sacrament being celebrated. They will do everything they can to help their guests understand that the church service, not the reception, is the heart of the wedding day.

Every guest who comes to a wedding expects to see a bride in a white gown and a groom in a tuxedo. Every guest expects to hear some music, to listen to some words, to see rings exchanged. Not every guest expects to pray at a wedding. Not every guest expects to be invited to participate in a wedding. Not every guest expects to leave a wedding having grown closer to God through having prayed with the bride and groom. A wedding can be one more scene cut and pasted from a bride's magazine (about as impersonal as one can imagine), or it can be an experience of God, with all the joy, solemnity, meaning, and prayer that spiritual moments offer us. And that's about as personal as one can get! Priests and deacons, pastoral musicians, and brides and grooms must first invite the Lord and the prayer of his church to guide the plans for wedding celebrations, and then invite the guests to share in what love the Lord offers us all in celebrating the sacrament of marriage.

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