What Is the Rite of Betrothal?
The rite of official engagement in the Church is gaining popularity.
When Kaitlynn Schenk joined her boyfriend for Eucharistic adoration one summer afternoon, she didn’t expect to leave not only engaged, but officially betrothed.
Jack McPherson asked her to marry him in front of the altar at Our Lady of Good Counsel in Plymouth, Michigan, and as soon as she finished saying “Yes,” a priest friend of theirs came out, along with four witnesses. The proposal was only the first part of their engagement — McPherson had arranged for them to receive the rite of betrothal, as well.
It was a surprise to Schenk in more than just timing — she had never heard of the rite of betrothal before, and not just because she’s still in the process of joining the Catholic Church. McPherson, who converted in 2020, had only recently heard about it from his friend, and it was the first time their priest, Father Adam Nowak, performed the ceremony. Though this rite was standard in the Church before 1962, it fell out of favor after Vatican II and has started seeing a comeback.
“I think it centered my attention away from thinking that this is just about me and Jack and toward doing this to serve God,” Schenk said.
Being betrothed in the Catholic Church is a more formal commitment than just an engagement. While engagement indicates intent to marry, betrothal is a contractual promise to get married. In olden times, this would be when families would negotiate the details of the marriage contract, such as exchange of land and property. Breaking a betrothal is, then, more serious than calling off an engagement, and its structure reflects the future wedding.
“The couples are actually making the step themselves — they're the ones who are pledging to each other before God,” Father Nowak said. “And in that way, it very much mirrors the actual rite of marriage, in which the couple will exchange vows. In the rite of betrothal, the couple does something somewhat similar, where they stand before the minister of the Church and say, ‘I promise to get married to you.’”
The rite itself is short and may take place within the celebration of Mass. It begins with the recitation of Psalm 126, after which the priest outlines the meaning and blessings associated with betrothal.
He begins: “It is the dispensation of divine Providence that you are called to the holy vocation of marriage. For this reason, you present yourselves today before Christ and his Church, before his sacred minister and the devout people of God, to ratify in solemn manner the engagement bespoken between you.”
After the priest’s allocution, the couple join hands and make vows to one day be joined in marriage. The priest then places the ends of his stole in the form of a cross over their hands and witnesses to their vows, declares them officially betrothed, and blesses the engagement ring.
If Mass does not follow, then Scripture from Tobit 7:8 and John 15:4-12 may be read. The couple may also sign a betrothal contract.
Most importantly, the ceremony centers the couple’s relationship around God, viewing their vocation as the manifestation of God’s will in the world.
“This isn’t a gimmick,” McPherson said. “We’ve done our homework on each other and what we want. We want the Holy Mother Church and the one true God at the center of our marriage. If I’m going to get married and I’m getting married in the Church, I want it to be as involved in the Church and as defined by the Church as possible.”
Those who choose to formalize their engagement with a betrothal are often looking for a way to start marriage preparation in a way that differentiates it from the secular view of engagement. Even among Catholics, the high divorce rate and low percentage of engaged and newly married couples involved in the Church indicates there is something wrong with how many people prepare for marriage.
“Marriage preparation is one of those really difficult things to do as a priest because, unfortunately, many couples aren’t there for the right reasons: They are there because it’s the church they grew up in, or the high-school church they graduated from or their parents’ or their grandparents’ parish,” Father Nowak said. “It’s beautiful to see couples like Jack and Kaitlynn, who want to be married in the Church because they take it very seriously and see it as a beautiful gift from God.”
Mary-Rose Verret is someone who wants to change the low participation of young couples in the Church, and she says making betrothals a regular part of Catholic marriage prep may be able to help. Along with her husband, Ryan, Verret founded Witness to Love, an apostolate that uses an early-Church model of mentorship to teach engaged and newly married couples about the sacrament. Since starting in Louisiana 10 years ago, Witness to Love has spread to 400 parishes in more than 80 dioceses across 24 countries around the world.
“In the early Church there was just no concept among the general public who were not Christians of what a sacrament was and who God was, and the whole understanding had to be explained really from the ground up. The same thing [is needed] in today’s society, with regards to marriage,” Verret said.
Parishes that use Witness to Love marriage formation pair engaged couples with a married couple who can mentor them and help integrate them into the Church community.
“We’re trying to change the painfully low percentage of engaged and early-married couples who go to church, which in many places is less than 10%,” Verret said. “The more that the Church can offer encouragement to engaged couples to be present in the life of the Church during their engagement, the better. Offering the rite of betrothal and introducing young couples to the Church community is an amazing place to start.”
Betrothal helps to communicate a sacramental vision of marriage from the beginning, and when paired with a supportive community, Witness to Love has seen participation increase.
“We have a number of larger parishes that, once a month after a certain Mass, they may invite all engaged couples to stay after Mass for the rite of betrothal,” Verret said. “They put their pictures in the bulletin, they ask the parish to pray for them, and it’s such a beautiful and encouraging thing to feature the engaged couples.”
There are many ways to incorporate the rite of betrothal into the engagement period. Weston Boardman, a college friend of McPhearson’s who told him about the rite, decided with his fiancée, Michaela Wuycheck, to wait a few months to get betrothed.
As soon as he finished proposing to her back in June, they had their engagement blessed. But since Boardman is in the Marines and stationed in Virginia for several months and they won’t be getting married until October 2022, they wanted to celebrate each step of their engagement.
“If we had done that right then, I would have missed some of the words, but this is such a great way for us to really prepare our hearts and have our families present,” Wuycheck said.
They’re planning a November betrothal, which will be a little under a year before their wedding.
“It’s a nice stepping stone during the engagement,” Boardman said. “We got to have the initial excitement of the engagement and the blessing, and now with the betrothal, we can keep putting God first.”
Overall, an officially betrothal is appealing to people because it makes their love official in the eyes of God.
“It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re engaged, but we’re still figuring it out,’” Wuycheck said. “We are committing to one another to be married and to be each other’s absolute partner in life for the rest of our lives. When we have our betrothal ceremony, what we already promised to each other will be promised in the eyes of the Church as well.”