Can an Outdoor Catholic Wedding Be a Powerful Evangelization Tool?

Montana Bishop George Thomas approved an experiment to meet couples halfway, allowing outdoor weddings in exchange for active parish participation and closer catechesis.

(photo: Shutterstock)

BUTTE, Mont. — In the park where Jovlyn Link and Mike Satterthwaite exchanged their vows this June, the pines, like church spires, reach out to the blue dome vaulted above them, the mountains gird round them like walls and acres of grassland spread before them like carpet.

Father Patrick Beretta joined these parishioners in holy matrimony by Montana’s Basin Creek reservoir, even though his own parish of Butte Catholic Community North has two strikingly beautiful churches that draw the eyes heavenward, and the white tower of Immaculate Conception Church stands as a local landmark.

“It was recollected, it was reverent, it was respectful, and it was spiritual,” Father Beretta recalled of his first outdoor wedding, under an experimental new policy put in place one year ago by Bishop George Leo Thomas that grants permission for outdoor weddings — but ties that permission with closer marriage formation and active parish participation.

The Diocese of Helena’s policy permitting outdoor weddings is certainly historic, as outdoor Catholic weddings are almost unheard of in the United States.

Canon law states that the normal setting for a Catholic wedding is the parish church; however, it also makes clear that the local bishop can allow a wedding “to be celebrated in another suitable place” (1118).

As Father Mike Schmitz, chaplain for Newman Catholic Campus Ministries at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, noted in an online post, he has known individuals who have left the Church because they could not have an outdoor wedding, and he acknowledged that some have felt “confused and hurt” by this teaching.

However, he suggested that they may feel this way since they “haven’t yet experienced the Church as a meaningful community,” and so do not realize the good reasons why the parish church is the normal setting for a wedding.

“Catholics believe that marriage is a sacrament and a vocation. Because marriage is a sacrament, it is also a Church act. It happens in a church building because we are in danger of forgetting this fact. Since matrimony is a sacrament, it would seem to follow that the Church gets to have something to say about how it is celebrated.”

However, he noted that a diocesan bishop may grant exceptions to the norm for “serious reasons.”

Bishop Thomas also knows that, in too many cases, the diocese’s policy of saying “No” to outdoor weddings has come at a steep price in the care of souls. He told the Register that he got tired of watching petitions for outdoor weddings on his desk result in strong Catholic parents experiencing the anguish of seeing a son or daughter decide to get married outside of the Church rather than not have their outdoor wedding.

“My concern is that we have a serious number of young people leaving [the Church],” he said.

According to national data examined by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate’s Mark Gray, the number of Catholics not marrying in the Church is substantial. On CARA’s “1964” blog, Gray noted of 2011, “Only 163,775 marriages were celebrated in U.S. Catholic churches in that year. That’s just 7.7% of all marriages celebrated in the country. Catholics make up nearly a quarter of the population and are no less likely to marry than those of other affiliations. This means that Catholics marrying these days are just as likely, if not more likely, to celebrate their marriages at the beach or country club than in their parish.”

Bishop Thomas emphasized that his new policy, in his view, is necessary to prevent a “lost generation,” where the Church no longer has pastoral contact with these couples and their families.  


Into the Heart of the Church

A bold compromise came to Bishop Thomas: The couple would get an outdoor wedding in an appropriate, reverent place, in exchange for their firm commitment to go through thorough marriage preparation and participate actively in parish life, Sunday Mass and the life of the Church.  

Bishop Thomas, laughing, recalls that his priests thought he had lost his mind.

“I said to them, ‘The Holy Father’s example is: You meet people where they are; you accompany them’ — and in this case, my hope is that by allowing this relaxation in the wedding policy that we will accompany them right into the heart of the Church,” he said.

The new policy, implemented in June 2015, allows a wedding to take place outdoors, but the “nature of the place needs to be consistent with a religious celebration.” The current policy does not allow a nuptial Mass: The wedding rite itself has to be either the “rite for celebrating marriage outside of Mass” or the “rite for celebrating marriage between a Catholic and an unbaptized person.”

As far as Bishop Thomas knows, no other diocese has this policy. The Register did request information from the U.S. bishops’ conference, but the communications office declined to comment.

“There has been considerable interest from bishops here at the USCCB,” said Bishop Thomas, speaking of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ June West Coast meeting.


Preparing Well for Marriage

Seaneen Prendergast, who assists couples with wedding preparation at Father Beretta’s parish, takes her job very seriously. While Father Beretta has a few meetings with the couples, she meets personally with every couple between 10 to 20 times, from the time they get engaged to the wedding day. She makes sure they go over the Church’s catechesis on marriage and requires them to be at Mass on Sunday, as is the directive of the Church for all of the faithful.

“When you want to make people feel welcome and wanted in the Church, you need to have contact with them,” she reasons.

Prendergast said she is upfront that a couple can get married outside, but they cannot have a nuptial Mass, per the diocesan policy.

The new policy allowing outdoor weddings has Prendergast exercising extra vigilance. She can tell when people are not interested in the parish, but are really “church-shopping.” She also has to look out for people who think getting an outdoor wedding means they do not have a binding sacramental marriage.


Marriage Prep Must Convert Couples

One of the biggest challenges that priests face is that many Catholics seeking marriage today are placing more value on the aesthetics, instead of the sacredness, of the wedding.

Father Bryce Sibley, pastor at Our Lady of Wisdom Catholic Church, which serves Catholics at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, said couples often look at the church building not because it is a sacred space, or because it helps them enter the sacredness of the ritual, but to determine whether the photographs will look better.

From his perspective, there is only one way to get couples to move beyond the aesthetics and into the sacred: “marriage preparation as evangelization.”

At Our Lady of Wisdom, he said, most couples have already been well-formed through their participation at the Newman Center. But he makes sure everyone gets the marriage preparation, counselors and mentor couples they need to start their marriage strong on their wedding day.

“Marriage prep — and Pope Francis talks about this in Amoris Laetitia — can become a great tool for catechetics and, more importantly, for evangelization,” he said.


Grottos: Halfway Point?

However, when it comes to outdoor weddings, bishops may want to look at the outdoor sacred spaces they already have. Michelle Bauman La Rosa, managing editor for Catholic News Agency, told the Register that she and her husband were married in September 2015 at Our Lady of Lourdes Grotto, which is on the campus of their parish, Our Lady of Lourdes in Denver.

The Denver Archdiocese has a policy against outdoor weddings, on the basis that they “seem to separate marriage from the rest of the Church’s sacramental life” in favor of individualism, and a church building “honors the same transcendental values that couples yearn for in their marriage.”

However, while a grotto is an outdoor space, it is still part of the parish church, which means it has archdiocesan approval for weddings. La Rosa’s husband proposed at the Lourdes grotto, so it is special to them. But it also is a permanent sacred space, with a tabernacle and altar for Mass, which the La Rosas wanted as the context for their wedding, above all. The grotto allowed them to have the beauty of the outdoors in a holy, Church-approved setting.

“We had a lot of people comment on how beautiful it was,” La Rosa said of their nuptials.

One way to meet Millennials — the group who most wants outdoor weddings — halfway on outdoor weddings, La Rosa suggested, might be for parishes to build more outdoor grottos on their grounds.

“It’s a nice compromise — it’s a sacred space, and it is outside. I thought, ‘Yes, that’s a really nice option.’”

At the Diocese of Helena, the bishop and his staff will be evaluating how the policy is working and will collect feedback from couples and parishes to track how the goals are being met. So far, six couples have been married outdoors.

Prendergast and Father Beretta believe the policy is a real asset to help them reach those Catholics who have largely stopped practicing their faith but have asked for the sacrament of matrimony. The key is that parish leaders have to develop close relationships with couples and their families if they want to see them in church after the wedding. If they invest the time to work closely with couples, and explain why the Church teaches and practices what it does, “they come back,” Prendergast said.

“If you handle it correctly,” Prendergast added, “they will be there [in the Church] for the rest of their lives.”


Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff reporter.