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Catholic Marriage Processions and Other Problems

May 6, 2009

Courtesy of Rocco, I came across this set of guidelines designed by the USCCB for Catholic weddings. Too often in our culture, the Church wedding is just part of the trappings that goes along with the extravagant dress, the “wedding parties”, the flowers– plus the overdose of mushy sentimentalism. It’s a great photo-op. But these guidelines note that it is more than a photo-op, and that the Church should not be used as as a mere wedding prop.

My favorite point is the one concerning the wedding procession, which seems to be universally ignored:

“What the movies depict isn’t necessarily what the Church envisions. The bride and the groom enter freely and equally into marriage, and the entrance procession symbolizes that, as the couple approach the altar to stand before the Lord. The Rite of Marriage suggests that the liturgical ministers (priest, deacon, reader, servers) lead the procession, followed by the bride and bridegroom, each escorted by “at least their parents and the witnesses.” Perhaps the groom goes first, led by his attendants and escorted by his parents, followed by the bride, led by her attendants and escorted by her parents.”

This is what the Church calls for, and it is liturgically proper. And yet, how many Catholic weddings consist of a liturgically-inappropriate wedding procession — a secular organ tune, the slow march of bridesmaids, followed by the escort of the bride by her father, while the grooms stands shiftily at the altar rails? This is wrong on so many levels, not least for the symbol of the father giving away his daughter like a piece of property. In fact, the couple embrace the sacrament as equals, and in fact marry each other (again, I doubt many realize that). When I mention this to priests, they always agree with me, but are universally unwilling to mention this to wedding parties, so ingrained is the sense of entitlement.

I wish more Catholic couples would take these guidelines seriously. Yes, it is a small issue in the scheme of things, but it feeds into the larger issue of the loss of a distinctive Catholic culture.

For the record, my wife and I followed these guidelines almost to the letter — from the procession to memorizing our vows to the use of people in liturgical functions. We also used incense, and were told this was a first!

  1. May 6, 2009 10:22 am

    I couldn’t agree with you more. My family strongly opposed to the idea of Poli and I processing together. Poli and I wanted to do this, but in the end I processed to the altar by myself. My husband also wanted me to walk down the aisle though; it was very special. It made it more special that I was walking by myself too.

    We didn’t do the unity candle (they should get rid of this altogether hehehe), which our priest was very much thankful for! We also memorized our vows, which now that I look back at other weddings that I have attended, it was very neat we decided to do that, because it does symbolize that the ministers of marriage are the bride and groom and not the priest.

    The incense would’ve been nice! I’m glad you and your wife did that. Getting married in the middle of a hurricane, we did not have that option :)

  2. May 6, 2009 10:24 am

    Oh and these guidelines need to be followed by parishes and enforced by the pastors. There is one parish here that refuses to have the bride go in procession with her parents. A lot of people don’t like that, so they get married in another church. It would be good if the guidelines are followed across the board, so you don’t have people getting married elsewhere.

  3. May 6, 2009 10:25 am

    Well, I would only say, the guidelines must be seen as relating to the West, not the Church as a whole (and I know MM knows that, but I want to say it before others say something about it).

    Whenever talking about the sacrament of marriage, this is always where one finds a major difference between the East and the West (even in the Catholic Communion), and this leads to practical differences in how weddings are conducted (such as the fact the priest gives the sacrament, not the couple, makes it so that a deacon can’t preside at the ceremony).

  4. May 6, 2009 10:26 am

    I also had to compromise on the issue of the bride walking with her father, but I did so by processing with my mother — which is why I was glad to see that option approved by the guidelines!

    As for unity candles, don’t even get me started on that one!

    Your wedding was indeed unique… in a good way of course. :)

  5. May 6, 2009 10:26 am

    Good point, Henry, thanks.

  6. May 6, 2009 10:27 am


    Do you know how the processions are mandated in the Eastern rites?

  7. May 6, 2009 10:28 am

    Your wedding was indeed unique… in a good way of course. :)

    Not only the hurricane made it unique… the liturgical dancers did!

    Just kidding :)

  8. Bill H permalink
    May 6, 2009 10:28 am

    I was married in Belgium, and that’s my vague recollection of how it went. Truth be told, I don’t remember that much about the procession because it was never rehearsed or planned — it was just kind of assumed that everyone knew what they were supposed to do. Me being the odd American, I just did what I was told to do at the time.

    I’m rather glad that I got married overseas. The wedding industry here is more or less a racket, and I was able to get around all sorts of potential disputes with my parents by saying “That’s just how they do it in Belgium,” (regardless of whether or not it was.)

  9. May 6, 2009 10:33 am


    There is a lot to the Eastern ceremony (and some things do depend upon which church one is talking about, too), so, as a best overview, I suggest this page (in part because things differ depending upon various factors): It’s written from the UC tradition, so, again, realize some things reflect that too.

  10. May 6, 2009 10:58 am

    Great post, MM.

    We followed the guidelines too. I processed in with my parents, and then my wife processed in with hers.

    We also had incense (I insisted!), a Litany of the Saints (as is custom in parts of Europe), and 2 homilies! We didn’t do a unity candle. We did not do instrumental processional music, only a gathering song. We processed during the gathering song.

    We also made some slight adjustments to the wording of the Rite, the Eucharistic prayer, etc.

    We also resisted the usual garbage that happens at wedding receptions. Did not “make our entrance,” no DJ/announcer, etc. But it was held at a winery, so there was lots of WV wine.

  11. M.Z. permalink
    May 6, 2009 11:05 am

    Guidelines are intended to direct people, not be an impediment. I don’t recall the stats off hand, but somewhere around 50% of Catholics are in an irregular marriage, be it at the courthouse steps or having been done at a Protestant service. Secondly, marriage is not just a sacramental institution. Correction, marriage is sanctified sacramentally, but is first and foremost a natural institution. I think it is a grievous error when one is held against the other. I am quite scandalized when marriages with many children are declared null for defect of form and then the anulee races off and has his adultery blessed. It is because marriage is so important as a social institution that we need to attempt to make sure they are all sacramentally blessed.

  12. May 6, 2009 11:10 am

    Michael: that’s fantastic! We also processed to the gathering song, and I also insisted on the Latin Gloria, Sanctus, and Agnus Dei.

    It’s funny you mentioned the litany of the saints, as I really love the litany, and often thought about how great it would be at our wedding — but I never followed through as I saw no evidence from the liturgical texts that it could be apt. Rats!

    And I hadn’t pegged you for a smell’n’bells man!

  13. May 6, 2009 11:13 am

    I think one of the problems is that the people charged with coordinating weddings in parishes can put up impediments. I had to fight for the Gloria, for instance. But at least at the Cathedral, they understood the liturgical issues. Where my sister-in-law got married in New Jersey, she dealt with a rather old crusty woman, who directed them to do the inappropriate procession…

  14. M.Z. permalink
    May 6, 2009 11:16 am

    I suppose I should tread carefully lest I hit one of the Trent anathemas. At least as it has been implemented in regards to marriage, I think Trent hasn’t served marriage in the Church well.

  15. May 6, 2009 11:29 am

    Ok, I have never heard of this before. Could someone explain to me the benefits of the symbolism of processing this way? Because I’ve only seen in done the usual way, and I don’t see how it is inappropriate to do it that way.

  16. May 6, 2009 11:59 am

    Michael Denton – The problem is that, in american custom (and elsewhere, I imagine), the father “gives the bride away.” There are multiple layers of sexism there, as MM pointed out in his post.

    Our pastor was actually not in favor of Emily and I processing in together because we were obviously not married at that point. He preferred the option of my parents processing in with me, followed by Emily and her parents. I suppose that way could be interpreted as families “giving away” their children as property, but it’s certainly not as obvious as the father giving the bride away. The option we chose also emphasizes that marriage is not simply about the couple, but about families coming together within the wider community, and that is something we wanted to stress. Another bad aspect of american weddings is that all the emphasis is on the couple, isolated in their “romance” from the community and any social understanding of the sacrament. Our readings (and homilies, and prayers of the faithful) also reflected this dimension. The couple processing in together alone can in fact communicate an emphasis on the solitary couple, but it does also communicate that each person is coming forward willingly and is not “given away” by anyone. I suppose there are good reasons to prefer either option, depending on what the couple wants to emphasize. But the american-traditional “giving the bride away” option does not reflect a Catholic view of the sacrament in any sense. It should be resisted.

    MM – I’m a moderate when it comes to smells-n-bells. I’m all for them on high feasts and special occasions. Our marriage, I thought, was certainly one of those occasions.

    I do want to caution about one danger — that of “guarding against” all “secular” cultural marriage traditions in an attempt to preserve a perceived “pure” Catholic culture. Not all cultural traditions should be opposed. In fact, many should be upheld and encouraged. I was a music minister at a wedding in WV this past weekend and the bride, a friend of mine, is Filipino and they incorporated some really powerful Filipino wedding traditions. The american procession tradition shouldn’t be opposed just because it’s american (and not “Catholic”), but because of what it communicates, or better, what it embodies.

    The fact is, though, that many american traditions (when it comes to weddings, sure, but also in the wider culture) are not compatible with Catholicism. The traditions of various indigenous cultures are often much more compatible. Discussions of “inculturation” should take place on a very particular, case-by-case basis.

  17. Policraticus permalink*
    May 6, 2009 12:17 pm

    I do want to caution about one danger — that of “guarding against” all “secular” cultural marriage traditions in an attempt to preserve a perceived “pure” Catholic culture.

    I agree. In fact, the Tridentine liturgy, often taken to be the highest and most sacred form of worship, is actually the most secularized liturgy the Roman Rite has ever had. Virtually every sensible and physical aspect of it–kneeling, sanctuary fenced off from the congregation, bells–is straight out of secular Carolingian political and social custom. These secular elements are not in any way unworthy of the liturgy. It is important to note that there is no “pure” liturgy if by “pure” we mean “completely other-worldly.” But I do find it amusing when liturgies are compared in such a way that one is held up as more sacred or pure than any other.

  18. May 6, 2009 12:29 pm

    I work in phone tech support/customer service for a company that makes, among other things, custom-printed books that some people use as mementos for weddings.

    Every once in awhile, I get a call from some newly-married woman who is having…”a fit” doesn’t adequately capture the flavor of the rant directed at me and my company. Her book has some sort of problem with the binding, or one or more of the photos came out slightly dark…and now her perfect wedding is ruined!!!

    I usually hit the “mute” button on my phone at that point, and tell the woman sitting next to me, “If I ever get engaged, I’m gonna tell my fiance that, if she ever starts acting like this harpy, I’m gonna tell her the wedding is off.”

    My co-worker once said, “But you’ve got to understand, it’s Her Day To Be A Princess.”

    ME: “NO IT ISN’T! A wedding is not a one-day chance to be a princess. You want that? Well, then throw a big stinkin’ party, the theme of which is, ‘Jessica’s a princess,’ and all your friends can bring presents for your narcissistic self, maybe build a throne on some kind of pedestal so they can bow down and defer to your awesomeness or whatever, but that’s not what a wedding is for!”

    JESSICA: “Um…”

    ME: “Look, I’m sorry for ranting about this, but Memory books and trinkets and mementos are…I guess they’re nice, but that’s not what “that day” is all about. All that material stuff is just the wedding industry sucking money out of you, playing on your insecurities. If I ever get married, what’s going to be special about that day is that I’m committing to spend the rest of my life with a woman. THAT’S the memory I’ll take away from that day, not how much the reception cost, or what designer made my wife’s dress, or what company made the sterling at the dinner. All that stuff is un-necessary crap – in fact, having to watch my wife getting stressed out at having to arrange a $25,000 “Event” would actually detract from the day.”

    By the time I finished, Jessica was regarding me with a look that said, “OMG, that’s so romantic…” and I sort of mumbled something about having to catch up on emails or whatever.

    What I wanted to say to the customer was “Look – did you marry the guy you wanted to marry? Yeah? Are you happy about that? Yeah? Then just…chill!” but of course, wanting to keep my job and all, what I actually said was, “I do apologize for the problem with your book. Let’s see if we can make this right…”

    My parents were married for 36 years, and you could often see them walking hand in hand down Main Street in the town where my mom lives. Lots of people in town were inspired by that.

    They got married in a little chapel in a little, nondescript town where mom grew up on the California coast, with his and hers family there, and a few close friends. They gave a couple hundred bucks to the priest, and another couple hundred to rent the parish hall for the afternoon. They had a cake from some local bakery, and some of the church ladies cooked up a delicious spaghetti for everyone to eat.

    When they talked about their wedding, what they talked about is how blissful they were at the opportunity to marry the person they loved, and how humbly grateful they were for the blessing their wonderful spouse was, and had continued to be. (Dad died in mom’s arms, of cancer, in 1996. RIP, Pops…)

    I read somewhere that the average American wedding now costs $25,000, and my reaction when I read that is, “That’s absolutely obscene.”

    Bridal magazines encourage a kind of almost pornographic fascination with brand name designers and accessories. The enterprise (and that’s what we’re really talking about here – a business) strikes me, frankly, as depraved, profaning what should be holy, turning an occasion of self-giving into an exercise in juvenile, narcissistic wish-fulfillment.

    Sorry for ranting a bit, but this really bothers me.

  19. Dcn. Brian Carroll permalink
    May 6, 2009 12:45 pm

    This is probobly comment #18 or so and I’m surprised that so far nobody seems to realize how delicate an opportunity for re-evangelizing or “welcoming back” marriage preparation and the wedding are? This is in many cases the first contact between the catholic(s) and the Church since high school or before. I would counsel being as welcoming and as cooperative as possible. Of course one needs to resist the obvious grotesqueries: karaoke, bride accompanied by her dog (not a seeing-eye dog) etc. But the opportunities abound to demonstrate once again that the Church always and only says “no.”

  20. May 6, 2009 1:06 pm

    Dcn. Brian Carroll,

    I agree. There has to be a pastoral dimension to this that we can never forget. It is not enough to just “say no” but we have to explaini the reason behind the guidelines.

  21. May 6, 2009 1:12 pm


    I hear ya. Last year, I was planning our wedding and, to be honest, I didn’t enjoy it at all. The question that my fiance and I asked ourselves was: “How do poor people get married?” We REALLY wanted to get married, but didn’t want to go through all the superficial planning (and the money) that went into it. We tried to keep it humble and we still spent thousands of dollars.

    I was so turned off by all the “I’m a princess” and I want my wedding to be very “magical” and like a “fairy tale” that I did the quickest shopping ever for my wedding dress: in and out of the store. I’m just glad we’re married now and we don’t have to deal with all the BS.

  22. May 6, 2009 1:31 pm

    My fiance and I haven’t yet decided how we’re going to process in. I want us to walk in together and he wants us to process in with our parents. That’s something I’m willing to negotiate on, so we’ll see what the wedding coordinator at the church recommends based on her experience.

    I’m really looking at my wedding as a chance for evangelization. My fiance and I are both converts from the same fundamentalist protestant branch and this is probably the one chance we’ll have to get our families inside a Catholic church so I want to make the most of it and I want the beauty and importance of the sacrament to be communicated through the ceremony.

    There’s a good book, I can’t remember the name of it right now, about the selling of the idea of the “American Wedding.” I highly recommend it though for a look at how what it expected at a modern wedding is really shaped by those in the industry.

  23. May 6, 2009 3:37 pm

    “How to poor people get married.”

    Having spent most of my time in Los Angeles in working class, majority Hispanic parishes, I’m tempted to respond, “They’re the one’s throwing some of the biggest parties!” It’s often the families of very limitted means that take huge familial pride in hosting a truly huge wedding (not the silly things that rich people blow money on, but lots of food, lots of people, live mariachis, etc.)

    Still, it’s possible to go small. My wife and I were right out of college and for familial reasons needed to finance the whole wedding ourselves. Everything for the ceremony and reception was under $1000 total: under 100 guests, the reception was at my parents’ house, music was just the stereo on shuffle, we picked up food at Costco and had my mom’s sisters and great aunts all bring huge trays of Mexican food, etc.

    It wouldn’t fit most people’s dreams, but hey, at least we’re married. :-)

  24. May 6, 2009 3:44 pm

    DC – If I ever get married, it’ll be a lot like yours, I think. It sounds like you’ve got a great parish down there.

  25. May 6, 2009 4:22 pm

    Having spent most of my time in Los Angeles in working class, majority Hispanic parishes, I’m tempted to respond, “They’re the one’s throwing some of the biggest parties!”

    But that’s only possible because they have the ENTIRE family (I mean, second and third cousins and everything) contributing to the wedding! My wedding would’ve been much cheaper back home where everybody would’ve contributed. That’s why I think an ideal wedding would be a huge potluck!

  26. May 6, 2009 4:26 pm

    A potluck wedding reception is a great idea. Actually, my fiance and I have been discussing a potluck rehearsal dinner if we can find a house big enough (Sadly, the reception will be at a hall and catered, but the price wasn’t terrible)

  27. May 6, 2009 4:26 pm

    Katerina – Exactly. There is a difference between having a “big party” and the capitalist/consumption-oriented american weddings that we are all familiar with.

  28. May 6, 2009 4:53 pm

    But that’s only possible because they have the ENTIRE family (I mean, second and third cousins and everything) contributing to the wedding!

    Hmmm, I hadn’t realized that. The aunties were all happy to bring huge trays of food (just like for every family gathering) but I don’t think we’d ever taken up money to help finance a family wedding. But then, my mom’s family had been in the US for a few generations and taste no longer ran to 500 person receptions and huge mariachi bands like you’d see at the big weddings in the St. Joe’s hall.

    It is cool to have a pot-luck reception, though it helps if you have a core group of women from the family or community to coordinate really large batches of food. We’re currently in Cincinnati for my sister-in-law’s wedding, and there’s a group of mothers in the community out here who do all the food prep for all the weddings of their daughters. So the week before the wedding is a whole sequence of gatherings making huge quantities of food.

  29. May 6, 2009 7:08 pm

    Well, I guess God protects fools. We got married in 1972. I walked down the aisle to “Lohengrin” on my dad’s arm. I was wearing a homemade gown. We didn’t even have a Mass (my husband wasn’t Catholic at the time). The reception was cake and punch in the church basement. The relatives all got together for dinner at the Elk’s Club afterwards. I doubt if the whole thing cost more than $700.

  30. May 7, 2009 12:34 pm

    Can I just add that the Unity Candle is not Catholic.

    enjoy Easter
    peace to all

  31. May 7, 2009 12:49 pm

    I had an Americana Wedding. But it was the best wedding I’ve ever been to, I’ll say that. ;)

  32. Dani permalink
    May 7, 2009 11:12 pm

    I’ve never had a problem with the father giving away the bride; my only sadness is that the death of my dad means he wont’ be able to. I’m not sure why this is an ‘un catholic’ wedding

  33. May 8, 2009 4:39 am

    MM, I usually ignore your posts because of the anti-Republican vitriol, but I really believe this post has been a literal Godsend for me. I did not know about these guidelines. Your post just put an end to a very passion-filled argument I’ve been having recently on the subject. Thank you.

  34. May 10, 2009 3:21 pm

    “Our pastor was actually not in favor of Emily and I processing in together because we were obviously not married at that point.”

    Curious. This is what the rite calls for.

    My wife and I were far from families of origin, so we were fortunate enough to call the shots. We opted to get married at a parish Sunday Eucharist. We’ve known three or four couples to do this.

    We processed together, asked two parish groups to merge to lead the music, changed nothing in the Lectionary or in the music plan for the weekend.

    I also agree preparing couples for marriage is an amazing opportunity for evangelization. Many people are quite open to it.

  35. May 10, 2009 5:05 pm

    Curious. This is what the rite calls for.

    It’s one of the options that Rite allows. He gave a good explanation about why he preferred one over the other, and we agreed with him.

  36. May 10, 2009 7:05 pm

    My apologies for not turning off my moniker.

    Michael, I hope your pastor had a better reason than that. If people needed to be married to process together liturgically, it would be the end of concelebration. As we know it.

    However, you did it, blessing on your marriage. Best of luck with Dale.

  37. May 10, 2009 8:42 pm

    Michael, I hope your pastor had a better reason than that. If people needed to be married to process together liturgically, it would be the end of concelebration. As we know it.

    Perhaps you’re aware (and perhaps not) that symbols and actions can mean differently in different contexts.

    However, you did it, blessing on your marriage.


    Best of luck with Dale.

    Don’t know what you’re talking about.

  38. May 12, 2009 7:19 am

    “Perhaps you’re aware (and perhaps not) that symbols and actions can mean differently in different contexts.”

    Very aware. It will also come as no surprise to you that family members and friends may pop into a wedding and bring their own context. For people to put their blogocon cred on the line talking about their weddings … let’s just say I’m aware of a root of this row.

    I’m also aware that priests don’t always have good reasons for acting and suggesting as they do. It’s good for every engaged couple planning their wedding that the Church views things like the opening procession as culture, not rubric. The least I can do with engaged couples is to tell them there’s no liturgical or theological reason for a contemporary-traditional opener for the wedding.

    “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”

    Of course you don’t.

  39. May 12, 2009 11:37 am

    I’m also aware that priests don’t always have good reasons for acting and suggesting as they do.

    Ya think?


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