“Oh No, They’re Just Doing A Catholic Wedding”

We hear a lot about how our contemporary society devalorizes marriage, or is destroying marriage. That’s by no means untrue, but our society doesn’t, say, despise marriage (yet?); rather, it has some bizarre and distorted ideas about it that lead, almost unwittingly, to the decadence of the institution. (Nobody’s happy about the 50% divorce rate, for example–even though most people are typically totally unwilling to take steps that might address the situation.)

One of the most symptomatic aspects of this distortion is the institution of the American wedding (now spread all around the world via pop culture) as an extravaganza feast. The extravaganza feast American wedding is a consequence of the idea of marriage-as-capstone rather than marriage-as-foundation, and an icon of the now-dominant hedonic vision of marriage.

Christian and Catholic culture has been slow to push back against this institution, because the idea of the wedding as a big feast has a long history in Christendom, to say the least. The Christian big-feast wedding exists for very different reasons: basically as a symbol of the community’s engagement in the marriage institution (something which goes against our contemporary understanding of marriage). And there’s a temptation to say “Well, we think marriage is a really big deal, so let’s make a big bash!” which I think is short-sighted. In a culture trending indifferent-to-hostile towards Christianity, we have to witness through our actions, especially public, to the countercultural character of our faith. And, frankly, there’s the age-old reason that we always want to show off our wealth when we can.

Through our witness, we should witness to our different understanding of the wedding. Let’s make it so that, just like being Catholic isn’t about one hour on Sunday, in our culture “Catholic wedding” stands for more than a Mass.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions (and they’re just suggestions):

  • Low-key. This is the first, and obvious one. Let’s keep things low-key. Off-the-rack, second-hand wedding dress (you’re only going to wear it once! (my wife wore a second-hand dress, and she looked absolutely gorgeous)). No need for uniforms for the best men/bridesmaids (American innovation!). Etc. etc. Generally try to be not only cheap but resourceful: for our wedding, we used a friend’s restaurant as the reception area. It wasn’t just cheap (they charged us for the catering but gave us the space for free), but wonderful to be hosted by friends rather than some “corporate” venue. Not everybody has friends who have a restaurant, but the idea of leveraging your community to do things cheap would be good. Extra points: if you can afford a big fancy wedding, give the delta between what you can afford and what you can spend to a good Catholic work. 🙂
  • Potluck. Now, this might not work for everyone, but if you can work it out it would be a great symbol.
  • Foot washing. I’ve seen this on a couple blogs, and I completely endorse this. I wish we’d had that idea for our wedding. The Biblical symbolism works perfectly: foot washing is a symbol of the Eucharist, and the major symbol of the Eucharist in the Bible is…a wedding feast! Extra extra bonus points: reciprocal foot washing. (More Eph. 5:21, less Eph. 5:22!)
  • Possibly: wedding gifts to charity. Now, I’m saying this tentatively. The tradition of wedding gifts is precisely linked to the marriage-as-foundation conception: when you get married, you’re just starting out in the world, and so you need your community’s help to set up the household. God knows we needed ours when we got married. But if you don’t need the wedding gifts, ask your friends to give to a worthy Catholic cause instead. Finding some other way to involve works of mercy and service to the poor in your wedding would also be a good idea, but I have nothing specific there–please help me. BONUS EXTRA IDEA: a few Catholics with some computing chops should set up an online wedding registry site that rebates its affiliate fees to charities. Have your cake and eat it too.
  • And finally… relax! The grace of the sacrament is conferred ex opere operato. As to the rest–it’s just a party! “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?” Bridezilla is a heretic.
  • And finally, an idea that has a great traditional pedigree and always works: elope!

What are some other ideas for counter-cultural Catholic weddings?


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  • JohnMcG

    I wonder if it would hammer home the point to do wedding ceremonies at actual Sunday masses, as I prefer Baptisms to be practiced. That yes, this is a big deal, but something that happens in the context of a community, and the entire Church has a stake in it. This would have the added benefit of exposing everyone in the community, particularly already married couples, to marriages more frequently so they could reflect on their own weddings and marriages.

    Obviously, this idea would be going into some pretty strong cultural headwinds, but I think could move us in the right direction.

  • Anna

    I like this. My main tip for keeping things low-key would be holding the reception in the parish hall or activity center (assuming you’re at a parish where this is an option). It forces you to be more casual–you can make it look nice but it won’t look like a top-of-the-line venue–and for my wedding, that fact made the whole thing more relaxed and kid-friendly. It also saved us money, meaning more money for catered food, wine/beer, and extra guests: going cheap where most people spend half their budget means extra resources for the factors that make a wedding a community feast.

    • All great tips, thank you.

    • James

      The best weddings I have been to have been low-key ceremonies with nice, but not ostentatious, parties. The best reception I remember was when the couple rented out the back half of a bar in downtown Charleston, SC. They served bar food hors’d’overs and had an open bar tab. Total was well under $10,000 (for a Charleston wedding!) and everyone had a great time.

  • TheReluctantWidow

    Great suggestions. When my late husband and I married, we were working and on our own. We felt it was our responsibility to pay for our own wedding expenses. That made us thrifty. We had our entire rehearsal dinner, wedding, and honeymoon (out-of-town requiring plane tickets but still in the US) for less than $5700. We paid for bridal party expenses too because we felt it was unfair to ask them to travel to our wedding and also pay for their attire. We held our reception in the parish hall, after lunch but before dinner so we could save expenses. We both had large families so there were about 100 people in attendance though there were 300 on the guest list (my mother’s doing). We were wise about our splurges. We hired a photographer but not a videographer. We ordered the best cake in town but skipped on alcohol. We had a DJ but no hired limousine. You get the picture. Weddings do not have to cost upwards of $20K or more. We used the money we saved to pay the downpayment on our first home.

  • tt

    Our wedding cost about $5000 four and a half years ago. You don’t have to spend $20,000 to have a nice wedding. We had a buffet dinner at our reception in that budget. Here’s the thing, though, in spite of what everyone insists about having a big wedding dinner–we didn’t do it to show off. We didn’t do it because we thought we deserved a big feast. We didn’t do it because culture told us to. We did it because (wild idea coming, hold onto your hats) we had loved ones coming from far and near and we wanted to serve them a nice meal since they would be hungry. It is called hospitality and it is still a gospel value. The real devaluing of marriage happens not when people (gasp!) feed their guests (without making them bring the food–and sorry, you don’t invite people to a party then make them bring the food) or have lovely decorations. It happens when couples forget about the ceremony, forget that the sacrament is the most important part. The current wedding culture is not a problem because of its hospitality. It is a problem because so many couples are more interested in making a personal statement with a “theme wedding” that has a hokey, silly ceremony where characters and costumes (not tuxes and bridesmaid dresses) are more important than prayers and vows.

  • DeirdreMundy

    One really counter-cultural, anti-bridezilla, very Catholic move– Welcome children, with all their messiness, at your wedding and reception. Just like you plan on welcoming them to the marriage,,.,

  • Emily Taylor Carden

    As recent college grads 7 years ago, we had a cheap wedding (didn’t feel cheap to us, though – if all you have is five grand, and the wedding takes all of it, it feels pretty darn expensive!). We had my fellow choir members sing and play instruments, and my choir director’s cover band played the reception for cheap. I had the cake made at a grocery store bakery by a nice Russian lady. And – piece de resistance – my girlfriends all chipped in and worked to make the food for the reception. People said it was one of the most relaxing and happy weddings they had been to – I think mostly because it was so small and everyone was helping out.

    • That’s amazing. That’s basically our story (down to the price tag), except that a friend who has a restaurant was able to cater for cheap.

  • oregon nurse

    I love movies and books about 18th and 19th century England. I’m always amazed at how low key the weddings were. Usually just a very small group attends and it’s usually a weekday in the morning. If there is any food served, it’s a breakfast.

    The thing I really destest is how popular ‘event’ weddings have become in the US. The couple wants to do something unusual or some kind of ‘first’ to get themselves noticed. The wedding becomes secondary to the event, so much so that I often wonder if the engagement didn’t come about just because there needed to be a reason to perform the event!

  • BTP

    No. Catholic need not mean cheap. How about these ideas:

    White dresses are a Protestant innovation, go with blue

    Hire singers — real ones, not volunteers — to do an extended Gregorian or Taize program prior to Mass

    Bride and groom process together

    You evangelize by making the wedding beautiful and counter-cultural. Foot-washing is self-conscious and inauthentic. You want faithful? Make it beautiful.

    • Or… white symbolizes virginity and purity just as it does in the baptismal garment, the first communion dress, the pall at a Catholic funeral, and the garments worn by the saints in heaven in St John’s Revelation. I like the white dress and think it works just fine with a Catholic Mass, but if you don’t, then don’t do it.

      • 1- The white dress tradition comes from Anne of Brittany, who married the King of France and wanted to represent her region. Since then, the white has come to symbolize NOT virginity, but the state of grace. Before that, the dominant color was red, simply because your most expensive dress tended to be your red dress.

        2- Low-key is not the same as cheap. And yes, a beautiful liturgy is always appropriate.

        3- I think we’ve forgotten the dramatic extent to which the marriage-as-capstone, symbolized by the extravaganza wedding, has corrupted the society. This needs to be something that is repudiated and rejected.

        • BTP

          Well, according to Wiki — caveats noted — the white dress was popularized by Queen Victoria. Is white appropriate? Sure. But I officially declare blue to be more Catholic! Let it be written!

          Budget is always a factor and something like potluck may be necessary given those constraints. But, as a “great symbol,” I must disagree. The opposite of a vulgar, expensive, blowout wedding is not a cheap wedding — it is an authentic wedding.

          A good place to start being authentic is to consider eliminating those “traditions” that are recent innovations. That’s all I’m saying.

  • …even though most people are typically totally unwilling to take steps that might address the situation.

    What would you have in mind? I think this was just an off-hand remark, but I’m still curious. (I’m not inclined to think that your list is directly intended to address this question, but if it is I’d like elaboration.)
    Personally–but based on statistics–I’d suggest marrying later in life. That’s usually a good indicator. But I’ve heard a lot of Catholics speak against it, so I’m wondering what you think.

    • Here, I was mostly thinking about no-fault divorce laws. But this is a very complex and broad topic, we could talk about it endlessly.

  • sullibe

    Just a suggestion, but I would say the first things needed in having a counter-cultural Catholic Wedding, would be to 1: remember that Marriage is a Sacrament where God bestows his grace and therefore actually having A Mass for the wedding, where the couple enters into the union, receives the Body and Blood of Christ and makes a commitment that this union includes God and Christ is necessary. 2: remember that the wedding itself is not for the couple. While it is about the couple, the wedding ceremony is for the community (friends, relatives, etc…) to pledge to give their witness and support to this newly unified-by-God couple. 3: The sharing of a meal (which is what Communion during Mass is,) is a common theme with Christ in the Bible, and an important one. Whatever the budget, unifying the aforementioned community by sharing a meal, at a reception, with them is a symbol of their being part of the lives of the newlyweds.

    That’s my two sense. But I’ve been wrong before.

  • Charles

    As a Director of Music for 43 years, I’ve witnessed the ridiculous cultural curve the Event Wedding (and Quincenera’s) has taken. Elsewhere in blogdom I’ve advocated the really not so radical notion of folding the exchange of vows, rings (no paraliturgical stuff like Unity Candle/sand, arras/lasso/Bible) and other pertinent prayers and blessings INTO a scheduled Vigil or Sunday Mass. If one really wants to emphasize and evangelize the sacramental nature of matrimony, the “real” community ought to be present.
    Of course, this is met with great skepticism, even from liturgical know-it-alls but, it is routinely done elsewhere around the planet and the couple would be making a very clear statement of their own piety. Austerity and humility is what all event Masses seem to be in great need of since V2.

    • IRVCath

      What’s wrong with arras? They’re a very traditional part of Catholic weddings in Filipino culture, and derived from the medieval Spanish practice. The custom is even older than the present Extraordinary Form.

      • Charles

        Whoa, Mr. Javier, hold yer horses there. Nowheres in my comment did I imply nor state anything was (inherently or intrinsically) wrong with arras, or the other paraliturgical actions mentioned. However, in your own statement you admit that arras is a custom, or a practice. Those are sacramentals, but not of themselves integral to the actual sacrament.
        The other error you made was excising that mention from the whole of my proposal, that the wedding be celebrated within the context of a regularly scheduled Sunday or Vigil parish Mass. In that context, the weight of time for padrinos or couples to insert the customs properly would be unwieldy, cumbersome and burdensome upon the larger community present. Just as would any time alotted a couple to offer a Marian devotional as is quite customary in the USA.
        You have to remember that the author of the original article specifically asked for “counter-cultural” proposals. So, my proposal is essentially counter cultural to the “wedding industry” models found in the “This Mass is all about us!” modem that’s burgeoned over the last four decades. The use of customary sacramentals at specifically scheduled weddings is still kosher, provided the presiding cleric has no objections.
        In addition, the folding of the wedding vows/rings/blessings into a parish Mass solves the somewhat oddly new mandate to have the Gloria sung at wedding Masses.
        Hope that clarifies.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    I direct a schola cantorum and my wife is an organist, so we naturally put much more sweat into the wedding liturgy than we did into the reception. My choir sang the chant Proper and the diocesan music director was our organist for the Ordinary. At our request she played Bach’s “In dir ist Freude” for the recessional. I think it succeeded, because a friend of ours wrote this at the time:

    “But the nicest part was the mass–it wasn’t a triumphal “look at me
    ’cause I’m an attention whore!!!” entrance…the whole thing was very worshipful–DEFINITELY a nice change
    of pace.”

    For the party, renting the parish hall for a buffet dinner from the least-expensive local caterer and improvising decorations from a hobby store went a long way to keeping it fun but thrifty.

  • Says who? I’ve met morally relative liberals who are *extremely happy* about the divorce rate and the ability of women to dump all those useless men and kick them to the curb.

    Maybe that’s a difference between France and the United States, but here we’ve had 40 years of “men are evil and useless and women are better off without them”.

    • Sure, these people exist. But I don’t think that actually describes most people.

      • It only describes the propaganda that has been taught in public schools in the United States for over four decades. It’s a wonder we have any Catholics left.