My blog neighbor Fr. Mike Duffy notes that it’s that time of year again: the season for weddings and First Communions. Unfortunately, as Fr. Duffy notes, these events are often the very definition of a “mixed blessing”:
I would never want to be cold or discourage anyone from coming to Church. But I do hope that anyone who comes to a church ceremony would be respectful. Unfortunately, some people don’t know how to compose themselves in Church any more. I’ve found those experiences to be incredibly discouraging. As someone who loves the Church and her sacraments it’s hard to fathom how people can act in church as though they are at a ball game.
The good father has some advice on how he has learned to handle these things:
- Before each of the First Communions here at my parish the pastor leads the congregation in the Rosary. It helps to calm every one down and reminds them they are in a sacred space.
- Immediately prior to the beginning of Mass at First Communions and Confirmations we remind everyone to put their cameras and phones away.
- I try and remind the congregation before any big celebration that they are in church and should maintain a prayerful atmosphere to the space we are in. Unfortunately this doesn’t always work. I’m still not sure how to keep the ceremony prayerful when members of the congregation talk through out the Mass or especially during the distribution of Holy Communion.
The wedding party turned up for the rehearsal on the Friday and, as usual, people were in high spirits, but in this case there was some rolling of eyes and poor behavior from some of the non Catholics. I was told by one of the assistants that they were mocking the Catholic Church and making light of what was going on.
So, as I conducted the rehearsal I explained about the Catholic view of marriage and discussed God’s love and our human loves and what the different elements of the ceremony actually meant. Then, the next day, as the wedding began I welcomed everyone and explained that we call this ceremony the “solemnization of marriage” and that, while it is a joyful event, it is also a solemn religious ritual. I explained that God is present here and I invited them to join in with the prayers and treat the ceremony as solemnly as possible so that it would be as beautiful and meaningful as possible for the bride and groom.
The marriage went on, and I noticed that everyone actually responded. People who had been casual and slouchy were standing erect and tall and silent. They had put their cameras away. They knelt reverently and listened carefully to the readings and homily. They were caught up in the ceremony–and this was especially noticeable amongst the non-Catholics.
Then when it came to the blessing of the rings the ten year old boy stepped forward with the rings pinned to a pillow and he was weeping freely. I looked across and saw that one of the beefy groomsmen was also wiping away a tear. The matron of honor was weeping and so was another bridesmaid. Now I know people always cry at weddings, but this was quite extraordinary and I sensed that what was making them weep was a real and tangible presence of God–and that their awareness of his presence was empowered by the fact that they took my words about the solemnity of the ritual seriously.
How beautiful it is, and how necessary, therefore for all of our sacraments to be celebrated with sacred solemnity.
Solemnity? What’s that? I think too many of our faithful have forgotten.
I had a harrowing experience a couple years back, at a baptism involving a whopping 14 babies — a personal record for me. Add in the parents, godparents, grandparents, relatives and hangers-on, and we had a couple hundred people filling the pews. Some were clearly not Catholic; many had not set foot in a church in years. As the baptisms commenced, families would gather in the aisle to pose for pictures, chat, laugh, coo at the baby. It got to be ridiculous. And rude. When I completed the baptisms and needed to continue with the rest of the rite, I literally had to scream to get everyone’s attention and try to bring things back to order. It was nuts. But I learned my lesson. I now begin every baptism with a cautionary word: “We are in the presence of God, in His house,” I remind them. “This isn’t a catering hall or an amusement park. And this isn’t a party. It’s a celebration, yes. But we are celebrating a sacrament. What is about to happen here is something sacred. Remember that. Please. And please act accordingly. Respect God, whose house this is, and respect the other families who are here for this sacrament. No running on the aisles. Don’t act like paparazzi taking pictures of Britney Spears. Stay in one place. And remember to act like you are in church. Because you are.”
It’s amazing to me that things like that have to be said. But they do. I haven’t had any problems since.
Weddings are another matter. Among some people, there’s the temptation to turn the ceremony into a frat party. (I once heard of a bride who was so drunk on her wedding day that she threw up as she processed down the aisle.) But the biggest problem we encounter at my parish is tardiness. We charge a late fee ($150) if the wedding doesn’t start on time. But if you’re spending 20 or 30 grand on the big day, that’s peanuts, and it doesn’t discourage people from arriving for the ceremony 30 or 45 minutes late. If they’re really late, it’s not uncommon for us to have to change a Mass into a ceremony, to get people out of the church before the 5 p.m. vigil mass on Saturday night. (Generally, we won’t have a wedding after 3 p.m. for that reason … but when they don’t show up until 4, well, that’s a problem.)
So yeah: I understand exactly the sort of thing our blogging priests are talking about. And I suspect you do, too. But in an age when fewer people are going to church, what can we expect? It makes all of our jobs harder.
I can only echo what Fr. Mike said at the end of his post:
It can be very discouraging when it seems as though no one else in the church gets what is going on. But then there are those celebrations that truly remind us what we are doing there. The couples that truly get it. The kids that attend Mass regularly. In the end, every Mass is perfect. Jesus Christ is present, the couple is married, the person is buried, the child is confirmed. Would that we could all attend Mass in a respectful and dignified manner. Would that we all realize just what is going on. It all starts with me. It all starts with you.