Tying the Catholic Knot: Church Teachings and Wedding Customs

May 20 feature for the engaged and newlyweds on life happily Catholic ever after.

(photo: Wikipedia)

Above the confusion and contentious hum that surrounds the redefining-marriage debate stands the Catholic Church. Her beliefs on marriage do not sway with public opinion, but are seated in Christ, the unchanging Truth. The Church passes on what she has received without reinterpretation.

Many people today aren’t aware of the fullness of these teachings and where they come from. As we launch into wedding season, it’s worthwhile to revisit the Church’s teachings as well as various wedding customs.

Marriage Theology

It’s the Judeo-Christian tradition from Genesis that one man marries one woman. This principle is explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The matrimonial covenant, by which one man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole 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” (1601).

Catholic marriage (matrimony) is one of the seven sacraments and more than just a natural union. Since it is a spiritual bond, once validly entered into and consummated, it is permanent, unending and sealed by God (Catechism, 1640).

Fittingly, the word “matrimony” has its origins in the Latin word mater (mother) and refers to the procreative end of marriage — to welcome children. Catholics believe that there are two ends of marriage: procreation and unity.

God’s creative love is expressed between the married couple by children. To this end, the Church instructs married couples only to practice natural family planning within reason and forbids all use of artificial birth control (Catechism, 1652-1654). Artificial contraception interferes with the couple’s openness to God’s plan and severs the channels of grace.

Due to the seriousness and sacred quality of Catholic marriage, before the nuptials, pre-Cana (remember the wedding in the Bible where Jesus turned water into wine?) instruction is required.

Recently, the Nazareth Project for Marriage and Family Formation in the Milwaukee Archdiocese sponsored a pre-Cana retreat for engaged couples.

Father Luke Strand of Holy Family Parish in Fond du Lac, Wis., counseled couples “to see the face of Jesus in your future spouse. The married couple must have Jesus in the center of their marriage. Married life is the prism through which we see Jesus. God is a distant reality, but not if you think of the married couple. When a person sees a married couple, they should see God.”

Another speaker, David Urbanski, encouraged couples to reflect on the idea that “passion draws us together, but compassion holds us together.” He continued by praying: “May you be overwhelmed by the grace of God rather than the cares of life.”

In keeping with the solemn significance of Christian marriage, many beautiful customs have developed over time. Elizabeth Olson’s website, Wedding Lore and Traditions, shares the origins of these practices.

Wedding Customs

The ring is unending, so it’s a promise of eternal love and support. In many languages, the ring is also called an “alliance,” which reminds the newlyweds of this oath. This is why spouses exchange rings in the ceremony.

For nearly two millennia, white has been a symbol of celebration. The joy of a new life and purity are also expressed. The bride’s veil protects her modesty in church, too. It was also once thought the veil was to confuse evil spirits who might try to harm her.

In times past, the bridal party was also an effort to confuse any evil spirits that might want to upset the couple’s happiness. Now, it is more duty-focused, providing witnesses to the marriage.

In terms of groomsmen, long ago, men sometimes had to be bold. The groom would take along his strongest and most trusted family or friends to persuade the woman and her family.

We go to the Blessed Virgin Mary as children before the throne of heaven to offer her flowers as a pledge of our devotion and recognize that she will be the solace in the midst of our woe; many couples pray before images or statues of Mary while the Ave Maria or other Marian hymn is sung at the nuptial Mass.

Brides throughout the centuries have incorporated the old English rhyme “something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue and a sixpence in her shoe” into their marriage Mass, too. This custom links her to the past, while looking forward to future happiness and fortune. In terms of the “something blue,” blue pigment was once derived from the rare stone lapis lazuli and considered in the ancient world to be more valuable than gold. Since early Christian times, blue has been association with the Blessed Virgin Mary due to its exclusivity. It also suggests royalty and directs us to the sky — i.e. the Queen of Heaven.

As couples prepare for weddings, may they remember what is most important: a holy marriage. Let’s hope and pray that all newlyweds will be happily Catholic ever after.

J. Roche writes from Wisconsin.