So you’re engaged…Congratulations! Now that your parents and grandparents have been called, the “He/She said yes!” photos have been posted, it’s time to get down to details. And boy there are a lot of them! Among the first of them is likely to be finding a parish where you should have your wedding and setting a date.
Disclaimer: Before we dive into this, let’s just state the obvious: It is ALWAYS better to sit down with someone who knows what they’re doing instead of trying to figure it out on your own. This person will guide you through every step of the way. What I’m offering here is just a resource for couples to help begin planning your Catholic wedding.
“How do I start the process?”
Contact your local pastor first. Every Catholic church bulletin I’ve ever seen has a number to call if you are looking to plan a wedding. You’re probably going to actually have to pick up a phone and call (your phone can actually be used as a phone!) instead of emailing, but check the bulletin to make sure.
“We’re new in town and don’t have a church that we usually go to. What do we do?”
If you don’t have a place that you usually attend, you can find out what parish’s territory you live in pretty easily by calling your local diocesan office or by a web search. You could also find a parish that you would like to attend, or a church that is convenient for you and give them a call.
“We have a church that we usually attend, but it is UGLY! How do we find a prettier church to get married in?”
Here, liturgists would want me to say that the parish where you currently go to church is the most preferable place. Why? That’s your community of faith—the ministers, the people, the environment where you are living out your Catholic faith. Even if it’s a 1960s brutalist spaceship church (apologies to the Benedictines of St. John’s abbey), this is the space (ship) where you belong and are living out the Gospel in community.
If you’re just picking a prettier church, you could end up in a space that is separate from your regular worshipping community. Ideally, a wedding is a celebration for the whole worshipping community, and not just invited guests. It’s a chance for the whole parish to come together and celebrate God’s work in their lives. I get that you don’t want a bunch of randos showing up at the expensive reception, but I think that a destination parish impoverishes what the sacrament of matrimony is celebrating.
“So I HAVE to get married at my local parish?”
While it is preferable to do so, there are, of course, really good reasons to get married in a different church than the one that you usually go to:
- You might be getting married in a place closer to family or friends.
- You might want to get married in the church at the college where you studied.
- Maybe you are still trying to find a church where you fit in.
- Maybe you are having an enormous wedding and your guests won’t fit.
- Maybe your home parish is booked on the only weekend you have free.
The list goes on. In these cases, it is perfectly acceptable to get married in a different church than your local one. You can contact the church where you want to get married to see what the process will look like to get married there even if you are living elsewhere.
“Do I have to get married in a church? I want an outdoor wedding!”
While there are exceptions, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) has more or less said that Catholic weddings are to take place inside a church. The church building is a physical space where the Church gathers to perform its sacred rituals.
So, not to put too fine a point on it, the Church prohibits outdoor weddings. Of course beaches and mountains are beautiful and are certainly places where you can encounter God. But the church building is a central focal point for the community to celebrate its life together.
If you really want to explore the possibility of an outdoor wedding—say at an outdoor shrine—you will have to have a really good reason and then get the permission through the diocese.1 Talk to your local pastor about how to proceed.
“How long ahead of time should we contact the parish?”
How far in advance depends on the church, the time of year, how important a specific date is, etc. Some churches ask for a year in advance, but at least six months is also common. There are no requirements in canon law for how long you have to be engaged but the advance time is important so that all of the marriage preparation can be done.
“Marriage preparation? What is the church going to ask me to do?”
Once you contact the pastor, he will want the both of you to come in to begin the process. The actual process itself differs from diocese to diocese, but in general the preparation involves a few steps.
First, the process is catechetical—an opportunity to think, pray, and talk about the theology of marriage. Think of it as a kind of “Theology of Marriage 101” where the couple receives some pastoral education about the sacrament. Second, the process is investigatory—a series of questions to determine whether each party is “free to marry” and doesn’t have any impediments.[Footnote. With marriage there are sometimes reasons why you can’t get married, and these reasons are called impediments. An obvious example: you can’t marry someone you’re closely related to like your parent or sibling (even if you’re adopted). A more common impediment is that you can’t marry someone who is already married. Other examples include someone who is ordained, like a deacon, priest, or bishop, or someone who has made a public vow of chastity like a religious sister or brother.] Third, the process is interpersonal—an opportunity for you to grow in knowledge of one another, frequently by doing a marriage preparation inventory like FOCCUS to help start discussion about important issues that married couples face, and through a weekend marriage retreat.
“What do I do if I’m not marrying a Catholic?”
For this question, we have to approach the answer from two different perspectives: 1. The perspective that concerns the religious affiliation of the couple; 2. The perspective of what the ceremony could look like.
1.) The Couple
The Catholic Church sees non-Catholics in two groups: baptized non-Catholics (like Protestants) and non-baptized non-Catholics (like Muslims, Jews, Hindus, even a non-religious person who was simply never baptized). Let’s look at both groups.
A.) Marrying another Christian: “Mixed Marriages”
If your spouse-to-be is a baptized non-Catholic (like a Protestant), then you will need to seek permission through the diocese to enter what is called a “Mixed Marriage.” Your pastor can direct you to the appropriate person at the Diocesan office to get that permission.2 Before the diocese gives permission, three conditions must be met:3
- The Catholic party will promise to make a home that is hospitable to Catholicism and to do what is in their power to baptize and raise any children Catholic.
- The non-Catholic party is informed of the Catholic party’s responsibilities from #1. Just to be clear, the non-Catholic party does NOT have to promise anything. He or she just has to be informed of the promise being made by the Catholic partner.
- The couple receives instruction about the theology and nature of marriage.
B.) Marrying a non-Christian: “Disparity of Worship”
If your spouse-to-be is a non-baptized non-Catholic (whether Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or just non-religious who was never baptized), then you will need to seek permission to enter a “Disparity of Worship Marriage.”4 Here, you will likewise need permission through the diocese,5 and satisfy the same three requirements mentioned in the previous paragraph.
2.) The Ceremony
So far, the Catholic Church presumes that the Catholic party will be married in a Catholic church by a Catholic minister, normally a priest or deacon. If you are not marrying a Catholic, the Church suggests that the ceremony might be a better expression of your marital union if it does not include Holy Communion.6 The reason is simple: do you really want half the congregation not coming up for communion? Or worse, feeling excluded? So in that case, you can have readings and a homily, the exchange of consent (vows), the nuptial blessing, and then head to the reception.
However, it’s also quite possible if you’re marrying a non-Catholic that having a Catholic wedding in a Catholic church with a Catholic minister might not be well-advised. Your spouse-to-be’s mother or father might be a minister in their church; they might have a very strong tie to their denomination; they might just simply not get/like/trust Catholics. The Church foresees this pastoral necessity and provides for something called a “Dispensation from Canonical Form.” This is another permission given through the diocese7 which allows you to get married by a minister of another tradition, in their ceremony, in their building, by their minister. The only set requirement is that the ceremony be public.
“What if my spouse and I got married outside the Catholic church, but we want to get it recognized now?”
Here, the process is fairly simple. Contact your local pastor, and he will likely take you through some questions, get copies of your baptismal certificates, and all that jazz. Second, you will likely go through some kind of marriage preparation, just like any other couple who is getting ready for the Sacramental celebration of marriage. Finally, you will have some kind of public ceremony where you will exchange consent before one another, the Church’s minister, and at least two witnesses. You’re done!
“What if one of us has been married before?”
This question is one of the more potentially complicated questions regarding the Catholic celebration of matrimony. If you or your spouse-to-be have ever been married in any way whatsoever—in a church, by the justice of the peace, or by an Elvis impersonator at the Forever Chapel in Las Vegas—it is essential to inform the person who is preparing you for the Sacrament. If either of you has been married before—again, in any way whatsoever—the question is whether that marriage was valid, and whether you are “free to marry” or not.
There are a few scenarios where your previous marriage or that of your spouse-to-be appears valid, and before being able to marry again, you will need what is called a “declaration of nullity,” more commonly called an “annulment.” Examples of scenarios that would require an annulment include:
- A Catholic marries another Catholic by a Catholic minister.
- A Catholic marries a baptized non-Catholic by a Catholic minister.
- A non-Catholic marries another non-Catholic in any circumstance at all—merely civil, religious, or by Elvis.
The third scenario is the one that confuses most people. “Why does my non-Catholic spouse-to-be need to follow Catholic procedures and get an annulment?” It’s a fair question, but I think that the answer makes a lot of sense. At its core, by recognizing the validity of non-Catholic marriages, the Catholic Church is making a profound statement towards ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue. The Church is saying that these other denominations as well as civil authorities are perfectly competent to celebrate marriage in their own traditions. If the Church didn’t require your non-Catholic partner to get a declaration of nullity, it would be the same thing as saying, “Non-Catholic marriages don’t really count.” Imagine the damage that would do!
With these important details and decisions in place, you can get started on all the other details that planning your wedding day will entail: seating charts, flowers, band or DJ, buffet or served meal, open bar or cash bar…
Regardless of how you decide on those details, always remember that from a Catholic perspective, it’s important to remember that marriage is a Sacrament—an outward, external sign of the internal reality of God’s grace. In other words, when you and your spouse get married, you are providing to the whole Church a witness of God’s love for all people everywhere. And that is something worth celebrating!
- This permission would come from what’s called the “Local Ordinary” in Canon Law. For most folks the Local Ordinary will be either: 1. The Diocesan Bishop; 2. The Vicar General; 3. The Episcopal Vicar. ↩
- Just like an outdoor wedding, the permission for a mixed marriage needs to come from a Local Ordinary. ↩
- See Canon Law §1125. ↩
- The Latin word for “worship” is “cultus,” so you will frequently see this called “Disparity of Cult.” Ugh, literal translations… ↩
- Permission for Disparity of Worship also requires permission of your Local Ordinary. ↩
- Here, you can see a document called the Ecumenical Directory, #159. ↩
- Dispensation from Canonical Form also requires the permission of your Local Ordinary. ↩