One of our most recited prayers ends with “as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be”. Its focus is God, which is just as well, because just about everything else changes constantly! This is also very true of many of our religious practices. But, we are inclined to believe that everything about faith and religion has remained more or less the same since the time of Our Lord!
There have been many changes to the way the Catholic Church celebrates the sacraments. Many of the most dramatic changes, especially in the celebration of the Mass, have taken place in the last 50 or so years. I was reminded of the way the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage has changed when I was given a copy of an old photograph of the inside of the Cathedral in Cork. The photo was taken around the time my late parents got married in 1958.

Their wedding day was, in most respects, similar to that of other couples from West Cork who were getting married around the same time. Neither Cupid nor Valentine was on the invitation list – because there was no list! The most obvious difference was that their wedding ceremony was held in Cork even though they were both from Drimoleague parish. Their wedding was in Cork because my mother’s cousin, Canon Jim Kelly, was administrator of the Cathedral Parish at the time. In those days, apparently, it was common practice for the couple to travel to the priest rather than the other way around! Aside from the venue, the remainder of the day was like any other wedding of the time but very different to today’s weddings.
The wedding ceremony was held in the early morning. There was no special Mass. The couple and their guests attended the ordinary timetabled morning Mass of the parish. Naturally, the regular Mass-going people of the Cathedral Parish also attended the Mass. They were used to weddings being part of the daily Mass and would not have taken any special notice. When Mass finished, the priest came down to the altar rails, the couple approached with their witnesses and the Rite of Marriage began. The wedding ceremony itself would have lasted about 10 minutes. There was no music, no bridal march, no readers, no photographer and no fuss! The common practice of the time was that the church ceremony was followed by a wedding breakfast!
During the intervening years, it became common practice, though not universal, to unite the celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage more closely with the Sacrament of the Eucharist. When my parents got married, these too sacraments were also celebrated but they were celebrated one after the other. The renewal of the way the church conducts worship, which took place after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, brought about a closer union between the two sacraments. So it became common practice that almost every couple celebrated the Sacrament of Marriage during Mass. The basic part of the thinking which led to this change was the desire to emphasise the connection between the two sacraments: at Mass, we celebrate and make present the saving bond between Christ and his people; at a wedding, we celebrate and bring about a lasting, loving commitment between a bride and groom.
The practice of most couples having Mass as part of their wedding day has been more common in Ireland than elsewhere. This has probably been influenced by, in the first place, the strong devotion to the Mass among Irish people, and, secondly, the fact that most couples getting married in Ireland were both Catholics and committed to the Eucharist in their weekly lives. Both of those factors are now changed and, inevitably, this is influencing the way couples celebrate and approach the Sacrament of Marriage.
There is a noticeable increase in Ireland in the number of weddings where one of the people getting married is from a different country, a different religious tradition or none, or where one or both parties is unsure about having the Eucharist as part of their wedding day. It is also true that a significant percentage of the guests at any wedding ceremony will not be regular churchgoers or familiar with the Eucharist. While this may be relatively new in Ireland, the Catholic Church in other countries has been familiar with this for a long time. Hence, we don’t need to create new solutions for what is a new pattern for us.
At the same time, many couples who may not be part of the regular Sunday congregation want their marriage to be blessed by Almighty God and to be recognised by the Catholic Church as well as by the wider community. Hence, some couples now plan their wedding day with the church ceremony consisting in a celebration of the Sacrament of Marriage without Mass. This is a perfectly valid option and it may be the most suitable option for many couples.
In practice, however, when the Rite of Marriage without Mass is celebrated nowadays there is little resemblance to the ritual followed by my parents! The couple can plan the celebration with their priest celebrant and it includes almost all the elements of participation which people are accustomed to when marriage is celebrated with Mass. So, for example, it is still appropriate to have music and singing as part of the liturgy, to have readers proclaim the Word of God and lead the Prayer of the Faithful, to have the usual processions and lighting of candles, to have a couple exchange their vows, and to have the priest pray the nuptial blessing. In other words, the celebration can be solemn, prayerful and grace-filled.
Couples are already choosing this option for the church part of their wedding day. Priests are also happy to help couples to prepare for this ceremony and to officiate with them. They also acknowledge that this option for the wedding day may also reflect more faithfully the lives of the couple and their friends and families, and makes for a more relaxed celebration for the priest and the congregation. It is also the Rite of Marriage which may become more familiar as the number of priests continues to decrease as this Rite of Marriage may be led by a permanent deacon.

(Published in the Southern Star Feb 2009.)