The Wedding Priest

How did I get here? A wedding priest?

I heard my pants rip. I knew where the hole would be, the only place it could be–the crotch. Ripped pants are the enemy of many, but they are especially the scourge of the priest. People expect us to be buttoned up, to not expose ourselves in public. While thankfully I was not exposed after trying to perform the splits on the dance floor, the fabric on my pants coming apart provided a metaphorical opportunity to reflect upon what I had been exposed to in a summer where I would preside at six weddings in four different states. 

How did I get here? A wedding priest? It started the summer before. My mother died. Quickly. She was in the hospital for a bowel obstruction at the beginning of August. She had the blockage removed on the Feast of Assumption, only to be told that she had metastatic breast cancer. It was everywhere. She would die three weeks later. I stumbled through the year in a fog clinging desperately to my brother, my only family that remained. At 37 years old, I was an orphan. It was amidst that loss, searching for a sense of self, that the Spirit began to work. People began asking me to preside at their weddings.

Two invitations came from my fellow cross country coaches, another from a basketball coach, both from St. Ignatius High School in Cleveland, OH. As a chaplain to both teams, I saw those invitations coming. My summer calendar was quickly filling. During Advent, I went to hear confessions at a local parish here in Cleveland. A friend of mine happened to be there for confession that day. After confessing his sins and receiving absolution from me, he started to walk away only to make a sudden heel turn. “Father, do you do weddings? My daughter is having a hard time finding a priest she likes.” Number 4. Number 5 would come a few weeks later from a former student. His twin sister, a Lutheran like himself, was getting harassed by the local Catholic clergy during wedding prep. She had not decided to convert to Catholicism because of it. His call was a call for help. The final one came from a business school friend. I casually mentioned to her that if she needed a priest for her daughter’s wedding to let me know. She assured me in December that everything was in place for the August wedding. She called in April. Number 6.

It was amazing walking with these six couples. Two couples met later in life, in their late 30s. Before meeting each other, they had let the dream of family fade. Now gratitude overwhelmed them. A second spring blossomed. 

One couple met at work. They were lawyers and picked a Gospel passage for their wedding where lawyers questioned Jesus. God incarnate I guess. 

Another couple were runners. We did wedding prep on long runs. Naturally, the road to Emmaus was proclaimed at their wedding. 

The bride of one couple was the second of four girls while the groom was the second of four boys. Of course they found each other. 

And there was the incredibly sweet, kind couple, human resources professionals. Pictures of kindness…until they hit the dance floor. Then they turned into these bottles of spasmodic joy. (It was there my pants ripped.) 

These big celebrations of family attended to my grief. They taught me to smile, expanding my own sense of family. In witnessing the vocational Sacrament of Marriage so frequently, I reflected on my sacerdotal vocation. I liked being a priest, especially the intimate access I receive to the joys and griefs of others. My life is a mix of oil, flame and smoke; bread and wine; feasts and funerals; babies, teenagers, and grandmas.

But mostly I learned about people’s deep hunger for an authentic Church. I learned how to write a wedding homily from a saintly old Jesuit, the late Dick Hauser. He told me to pray with the couple and then let the fruit of their prayer, their words compose the bulk of the homily. So I asked couples:

“What is special, attractive about your partner? How will the two of you transform the world together? How have your families taught you about love? Marriage? God?” 

It was a beautiful window into two souls. I recorded these conversations transforming them into homilies. Congregations love it. They want to feel like the celebrant knows the couple. More importantly, they come to a wedding themselves open to love, open to how God might move them through the love of the couple. They want to reflect on their own commitments, imagining laying down their own lives for the good of another. They dream of their children and reflect back on how God walked with their families throughout the years.

People who had not been in Church for a while, but were there for the couple, appreciated feeling welcomed, especially by a priest. They were open to the bride and groom blessing them, even if they are not so sure about God or religion.  They want to raise their hand in return to bless the couple. So many people talked to me about religion at receptions. They mentioned how naturally religious they were, how open they were to religion. They also sometimes divulged their heartbreak that the Catholic Church turned them away, or disappointed them in their time of need. I could not solve them. I could only listen. But they did give me hope for a future Church.

I am finishing formation as a Jesuit. Next year, I will return to the basics during our mandated spiritual sabbatical, aka Tertianship. I’ll pray the Spiritual Exercises a second time. I’ll be asked to consider the Standard of Christ. I’m sure that as I gaze out into the vast field of saints that line up next to Christ I’ll be overwhelmed in seeing so many, especially my dear mother. I also imagine that a few of them will be wearing wedding dresses and tuxedos, and maybe even one or two will have a hole in their pants.

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Photo courtesy of Fr. Paul Shelton, S.J.

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