Marriage preparation

Welcome to all couples preparing for marriage. This page is particularly meant to help Catholics prepare for their wedding. Each priest does things a little differently, of course, so be sure to check with yours regarding what I’ve got here. Of course, if I’m the priest who is presiding your wedding, pay close attention! :-)

Marriage preparation takes place in 4 parallel streams: (1) legal preparation, (2) ceremony preparation, (3) pastoral preparation, and (4) preparing the party and honeymoon.

Legal preparation

As your priest, I help you to prepare the legal documents required for both the Church and the government. You will need to supply certain information, and for Catholics this includes a fresh copy of your baptismal certificate. What does “fresh” mean? It means that it must be dated within 6 months of your proposed wedding date — the one your parents got when you were baptised as a baby does not count. Non-Catholic Christians *can* bring an older baptismal certificate (including one from childhood). Non-baptised persons need merely bring a birth certificate. Your priest will let you know what other documents you may need to provide.

Most people are aware of this already, but it deserves mention nonetheless: the Catholic Church does not do a marriage if one or both members of the couple have been previously married and the other spouse is still alive. This case usually arises when someone has (unfortunately) suffered a divorce and now wants to get remarried — the Catholic Church does not recognize divorces granted by the government, as we believe that marriage is ultimately under God’s jurisdiction, not the government’s, and so the government simply does not have the power to dissolve a marriage. The Catholic Church does recognize, however, that sometimes the things that caused the first marriage to ultimately break up were actually present from the very beginning, in which case it begs the question: did that marriage ever really have a chance in the first place? In such cases, the Church can declare that the original exchange of vows was invalid, the practical consequence of which is that the person *can* get married in church if they wish. If either you or your fiancée has been previously married and has not yet obtained a declaration of nullity from the Church, tell your priest right away and he can get you started on the annulment process. You must be aware, however, that even if you have a case, the length of time for the process can vary from a few weeks (for very simple cases, based on technicalities) to a couple of years.

Sometimes a couple comes for marriage, but they are in fact already legally married because they originally got married in a non-Catholic ceremony, but without the prior OK of the Catholic Church. This changes things, but only slightly: the ceremony that we use is called instead a “convalidation”, because we actually take the original vows and renew them in the context of a Catholic ceremony (making it a valid marriage in the eyes of the Church). Many people know of this as “having our marriage blessed”, and I’ve known a lot of couples who obtained a lot of spiritual benefit from it. Legally, the main difference is that we do not prepare any legal documents for the government, because they have already been done; but we do still prepare the legal documents for the Church. Your priest can guide you through the nuances of this process, and it has already been my pleasure to guide couples down this route of obtaining God’s special blessing for their marriage — it really is a unique moment.

One thing couples getting married in Quebec need to discuss is the matrimonial regime they will choose. A “matrimonial regime” means the rules that will govern the way the property owned by the couple will be managed. There are two possible regimes in Quebec: partnership of acquests and separation as to property. The Church does not mandate one regime or the other, but we do take an interest in knowing that YOU are aware of these possibilities and are making an informed choice with regards to them (we want you to go into marriage with your eyes open). The Chambre des Notaires has some additional basic information, and a couple should consult a notary to see which case best applies to them.

Another thing couples need to consider is whether or not they will have a medical exam in preparation for their marriage. This is not required by either the Church or the government, but again it involves going into marriage fully informed. Why would a couple want a medical exam? In the past this was primarily to check for infertility, but today an emerging reason is to check for genetic diseases. It is possible, for example, for a person to carry the gene that causes cystic fibrosis and yet not be sick. If such a person marries a person who also carries the gene, however, their children could be born with a disease that could kill them before they turn 20. No one would blame a couple for having second thoughts about marriage in such a case. If there is some history of genetic disease in your family tree, some sort of testing might be in order for the both of you.

Each person in the couple must choose a witness for their marriage. This is required by both Church law and civil law. Usually these witnesses are the best man and the maid of honour, but it does not need to be done this way. Consult your priest if you have any questions about this.

Finally, it is possible that you may want to be married in a parish, but that you do not live in the territory of that parish (for example, wanting to get married in the parish where you grew up). It is possible to do this, but because you are under the jurisdiction of a different parish, the parish priest of your current parish may need to be consulted. If you live in another diocese, an additional consultation with that diocese will need to be made. Again, the priest preparing your marriage with you will guide you through this process.

Ceremony preparation

Together with your priest you will have the chance to craft your Catholic marriage ceremony. The first step is typically to choose marriage readings, which consist of a first reading (with an accompanying responsorial psalm), a second reading, and a gospel reading (with an accompanying gospel acclamation). Most of the time the readings are chosen from the ordinary selection, but if your wedding is scheduled within the 7 weeks following Easter you would choose from the special Easter selection of readings. The best way to choose these is for each member of the couple to read over the possibilities independently, noting which ones they like and don’t like, and then to compare their selection; this is then brought to the priest for additional discussion and clarification. The choice of readings should be based on something more than taste, however. Keep in mind that this is the Word of God that will be pronounced in Church. In picking these readings, you have an opportunity to share your vision of marriage with your friends and family, and to use the words of God to do it. What dimension of marriage do you want to emphasize and declare to everyone else in the church? What do they need to hear? It is your chance, as a couple, to be prophets for all those you love who will be present.

After picking the readings, it is important for the couple to choose the prayers for their marriage ceremony. Before doing this, however, they (along with the priest) need to decide what kind of ceremony they will have: with a Mass, or without a Mass? The Catholic tradition offers both possibilities, and both are perfectly legitimate. While there are many possible reasons why a marriage might be celebrated without a Mass, the key reason is if one or both members of the couple ordinarily cannot receive communion (e.g. if he or she is not Catholic, or has not had First Communion yet, or because of circumstances of life in which either or both members of the couple ordinarily cannot receive communion). Because marriage is a sacrament of unity, it would be a counter-sign to have the two be joined through the vows and then, only a few moments later, have only one receive communion while the other stands by. Your priest will let you know which ceremony is most appropriate. With regards to the actual prayers of the ceremony, two downloadable packages are available, one for a marriage with Mass, and another for marriage outside of Mass.

Once the readings and prayers have been picked, it is time to select readers to proclaim these during the ceremony. You may have up to 4 readers, 3 for actual Bible readings and 1 for the intercessory prayers. If you have any questions regarding the suitability of a person for doing the readings (e.g. a person is not Catholic), consult with your priest.

Because there are so many wedding customs throughout the world, the marriage ceremony is an inherently flexible one. If you wish to have some special consideration for your linguistic or cultural background, it should be possible (in principle) to accommodate such a request. For example, you may wish to have a reading in another language, or to have specific cultural customs such as crowning, the exchange of coins or the lighting of a special candle, included in the ceremony. Feel free to discuss such possibilities with your priest.

With regards to music, there are many different parts of the celebration where music is appropriate and desirable. Of course, this varies depending on the specifics of your ceremony, so you will need to discuss this with your priest. As a general principle, however, keep in mind that the Church favours live music, especially singing, over pre-recorded music. This is because the purpose of the music is to praise God, not simply to provide a pleasant background. If you are looking for musicians for your wedding, your priest can likely offer you a list of recommendation. I typically recommend the Solau Singers (Laura Beauchamp and Sonia Castiglione), who have kindly offered the following demos: Amazing Grace, Ubi Caritas, and So wahr die Sonne scheinet.

With regards to the decoration of the parish church, this will depend of course on where you are getting married — consult the priest for more specific directions. Decorations normally do not need to be overly ostentatious, however, as the fact that you are having a wedding in church already speaks for itself. Keep in mind that Catholic weddings, as a rule, are ONLY celebrated within a parish church — it is a ceremony performed before God, and so it takes place in a house of God.

Every priest has a slightly different policy regarding taking pictures during a marriage ceremony. The photographer you select should be one who is familiar with a Catholic ceremony, so that he or she treats the ceremony with proper respect. To be honest, though, problems typically crop up more with videographers. A photographer can pop in, take a picture, and pop out; videography, on the other hand, has to run more or less continuously, and so is often very intrusive. Couples are also disappointed with the results, because apart from being very expensive, video is also very unforgiving: it picks up every time you scratch your nose, every time somebody yawns during the priest’s homily (not that that ever happens :-), the background sound of somebody’s cell phone ringing, and so on. Many couples today choose to create a DVD slideshow of the best photos from the wedding and reception, and add their own background soundtrack, as part of their thank-you gift — and it makes a really nice video as well. For myself, I want to make sure you have wonderful souvenirs of your day, but I also want you to be well informed about the kinds of choices you are making, based on my experience.

As the wedding day approaches it is important to have a wedding rehearsal. The date and time will be arranged with your priest. I do my rehearsals the Wednesday or Thursday before the wedding, around 6:00 p.m. (never the Friday, as there is too much stress at that point). Because the rehearsal often takes place during the supper hour, couples nowadays often hold a special dinner after the rehearsal. If you plan on doing this, don’t forget to invite the priest as well — he probably hasn’t eaten either!

Pastoral preparation

Having a wedding ceremony is like planting a seed, which will then grow and bear fruit during the lifetime of the subsequent marriage. The time of pastoral preparation is a time of “preparing the soil”, getting it ready for the planting of that seed so that it has the best chance to grow well. As such, it includes a number of different steps.

Once a couple has gotten engaged, the Church offers a number of spiritual supports in the form of special blessings. Some family traditions include having an engagement party, and if you choose to do this it is nice to invite the priest to come and pray a short blessing over the couple, asking for special grace from God to help them prepare well for their marriage. It is also possible to do this kind of prayer in church, and it can be as simple or as fancy as you like. It is also possible to ask the priest to bless the engagement ring, which is another way of asking God for his help and protection during this time of preparation.

Greg and Marwa

Apart from periodic meetings with the priest, the Catholic Church insists that a couple undertake a marriage preparation course. Every diocese has a different range of options for this course, but for myself I personally recommend the Engaged Encounter program here in Montreal. Sometimes couples feel that they don’t need to take a marriage preparation course, but I’ve never known a married couple to regret having taken one. The key is to go into it with an open heart, knowing that the people there are interested only in helping give your marriage the most solid foundation it can have.

While it is not a universal practice, many priests (myself included) require couples to take a special training session in human fertility. Most couples today have at least a basic familiarity of how babies are made, but while they know something of the mechanics of sex, they are often quite ignorant of how fertility really works. As a seminarian I had a special training in natural family planning techniques, and I find it silly that I often know more about how a couple’s fertility works than they do. The Catholic Church takes the issue of fertility (and its opposite, contraception) very seriously, because we have seen too many marriages founder because the spouses slowly began to see each other as objects rather than respecting themselves and each other fully, even in their fertility. Taking this fertility training course at least gives you the possibility to better plan the number and spacing of births in your family, and helps each member of the couple grow in respect for each other.

In cases where the couple is of mixed religion, the Catholic party will receive special instruction regarding his/her responsibility to continue to practice his/her faith, as well as to ensure the Catholic religious education of the children. The non-Catholic party will be informed of these special obligations, and so it behooves the couple to have a serious and frank discussion regarding how they plan the religious upbringing of their kids. The priest can help a couple discern this, based on his experience of previous marriages. In addition to this, if the non-Catholic party is from a religion where polygamy or (relatively) easy divorce is possible, he or she will be asked to renounce these things in favour of the Catholic view of the unity and indissolubility of marriage. We cannot proceed to a marriage, for example, if the husband is not willing to renounce his “right” to have a second, third, or fourth wife.

In some cases, a Catholic is coming for marriage who has not yet had their Confirmation and/or First Communion. In other cases, the person is not a Catholic but would like to become one, in part for the sake of the unity of the family. Depending on the time frame, it may be possible for these steps to be taken as part of the marriage preparation itself. Your priest can help you in this regard. I myself have already had the honour of helping future spouses complete their Christian initiation, and in my experience it becomes a real celebration for everyone involved.

In the week leading up to your marriage, usually just before or after the wedding rehearsal, each member of the couple is encouraged to celebrate the sacrament of Reconciliation with the priest. The idea is to remove any possible spiritual barrier due to sin, so that God’s grace can flow into each person without any blockage. Non-Catholics, of course, do not go to confession in this way, although the possibility of a confidential spiritual and moral discussion is encouraged. Your priest will arrange the details with you.

Reception and party preparation

One key part of marriage preparation, of course, is the planning of the reception and party, as well as (of course) the honeymoon! Quite frankly, we priests don’t really want to have too much to do with this — we have quite enough to do with everything else already mentioned. There are just a couple of things I’d like to bring up, based on my experience.

First of all, if you get a wedding planner to help you with all the preparations (as many couples have started to do), don’t let the person take over. In particular, let the person know that the priest outranks the wedding planner for considerations around the wedding ceremony. I’ve already heard horror stories of wedding planners trying to tell the priest how to do his job, when the wedding planners don’t actually know anything of the purpose of this, that, or the other part of a wedding celebration. Wedding planners can be very helpful, but don’t forget that a planner works for you, not the other way around.

Next, if you want to have some sort of theme for your wedding, please consider the element of tradition in your planning. A fad for a while, for example, was to have a medieval-style wedding. There is nothing wrong with this in principle, of course, but it can wind up dominating the moment such that people start to forget why they are there. Another thing to keep in mind, of course, is simple good taste. Bridesmaid dresses, for example, should strive for beauty and elegance — just say no to skankiness! Again, the Church does not want to micro-manage the details of your wedding planning (we just don’t have the energy for it), but it does mean that if we *do* have a point to raise, we do ask you to consider it seriously. Trust me, we priests see it all eventually, and we are interested only in the beauty of your day.

Finally, don’t forget to invite the priest to the reception! It is not always possible for him to attend, especially if he has more than one wedding that day, but speaking personally I like going to the reception, as it is a good way to mingle with new people and to get to know them. If you do invite the priest, though, on behalf of all my brother priests out there I do ask one favour: as you plan seating arrangements, please seat the priest according to who he might like to sit with, and not according to who might like to sit with him (or according to where you can place one of the few people who comes without a date). While I do mean this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, please don’t forget that the priest is a stranger at your reception: sitting him next to your eccentric aunt who you know is only going to talk nonsense all night, or with your uncle who has issues with the Church and can’t wait to sound off on the priest, is NOT an act of charity! I know, I’ve been there!

Looking to the future

The difference between a wedding and a marriage, of course, is that the first is a moment in time, while the latter continues “till death do us part”. Your married life will have many special moments in it — the purchase of new homes, the birth of children, the celebration of marriage anniversaries. Each of these can be consecrated by God in a special way. So keep in touch! Personally, I love to bless homes, to bless and baptise babies, and to preside the renewal of vows on an anniversary. And, as a special extra for the couples I’ve married, I invite them back once a year for a special “married couples reunion” in August. It is a way for us to stay in touch even after the day of the wedding, and to keep the lines of friendship and communication open. At the very least, you are guaranteed to have somebody to sign your passport application form :-) and who knows what other forms of assistance and life enrichment the Church can provide you. After all, the Church doesn’t just believe in marriage, it believes in YOUR marriage. I pray for all the couples I’ve married, that they may be happy, holy, and prosperous. May your marriage bring you all these blessings!