There is a question that we banter about sometimes in jest which goes something like this: “How late can you be for Sunday Mass and still make it count?” The discussion usually starts off with talking about the individual parts of the Mass, i.e.: homily, readings, Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the importance of each part. Then, the discussion backs up to how important worshipping through music is, and the importance of being present to our Lord right from the very start.
In the end, the conclusion is always that all of it is important because ultimately it is about our being fully present at church and our relationship with Christ, not simply checking off an attendance box. In my 23 years of rushing kiddos out the door to church, I can certainly sympathize with the inevitable last-minute catastrophe. However, the underlying premise to this question is how we are growing in our relationship with Christ and completely giving of ourselves, not simply meeting a minimum standard.
Recently, a colleague sent me an article from the Washington Post titled “‘Super easy’: Couples can officiate their own wedding in the District.” It was about the latest trend in weddings happening now called a “self-uniting marriage: a ceremony in which one member of the couple getting married acts as the officiant.” Self-uniting marriages are currently allowed in Wisconsin, and approximately seven other states, including the District of Columbia. These weddings are conducted by the couple without the presence of an officiant. The states that recognize this type of do-it-yourself wedding do not guarantee that the marriage will be recognized under all contexts.
In our current culture, where we have available to us virtual doctor visits and DIY legal forms, etc., it is easy to see why this would be attractive to some couples. The Washington Post article begs the question: why is it important to have a wedding in a church after all? If it is this easy, why wouldn’t everyone do it?
Some basic theology about the sacrament of matrimony in the Catholic Church would tell you that it is actually the couple who administers the sacrament to each other. What this means is that each sacrament has to contain two parts: “form,” which is the couple exchanging the words of consent (I do), and “matter,” which is the couple giving of themselves totally to each other through the consummation of the marriage.
This isn’t the same as a self-uniting marriage because the Catholic Church has elevated marriage to the level of a sacrament, which means that it has a supernatural element to it. That beautiful ceremony isn’t just a simple exchange of vows, but rather a sign to all those present of something greater, namely, how God’s love for his people can be visibly seen in the love between the spouses.
Sacraments are visible signs (something we can see) of an invisible reality (something outside of us) that imparts grace (can give us extra help from God). “The sacrament of matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life.” (CCC 1661)
Christ loved his bride (the church) so completely that he gave everything he had to her, even his own life. The couple stands before the same altar on which Christ lays his life down each time we go to Mass. The consent the couple gives in that moment before the priest isn’t just sweet words but rather their commitment to emulate this same love to each other. The priest/deacon doesn’t just passively witness this, but is specially consecrated through holy orders to give the sacramental blessing of the church so the couple has the strength to continue until death do them part. Marriage in the church is both a natural institution and a sacred union because the couple enters into a covenant which is rooted in God’s plan for creation.
Once a person starts to unpack what is behind the Catholic sacrament of matrimony, it is apparent that there is so much more to it than the couple saying vows to each other. Through the church, a couple is given all the graces needed to keep Christ and his example of love in the center of their marriage. Just like Sunday Mass, it is rooted in our relationship with God and just doing what it takes to get by each day.
A good question to ask is, would others see God in our marriage? There are numerous resources to help with marriages in our diocese if needed, but the best way to start is simple — invite Christ, who is the best example of love, back into the center of your relationship, and to continually draw upon the graces of the sacrament, which began on your wedding day.
Tremblay is Marriage and Life Ministries director for the Diocese of Green Bay.