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A modest wedding proposal: when tens of thousands of dollars are spent on a one-day wedding celebration, the spiritual significance of the event can get lost. It's time to make some big changes so the wedding represents the true blessings of marriage.

WHEN PEOPLE CHAT ABOUT WEDDINGS they've attended, what do they mention? The color of the bridesmaids' dresses? The readings or songs? Eye-catching decorations? The meal? Perhaps a unique souvenir, such as a CD of the couple s favorite music? Or the release of live butterflies to mark the occasion?

While many people voice concerns about the institution of marriage today, its greatest threat receives little attention. True understanding of sacramental marriage is diminishing, but ironically it's wedding customs themselves that undermine it the most. Despite the church's efforts to focus on the spiritual significance of the day, the consumer mentality that dominates our culture also pervades the sacrament.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church has encouraged couples to personalize the ceremony with readings and hymns of their own choosing, which can be quite meaningful. But who could have predicted the concurrent rise of the "wedding industry," relentlessly promoting the ideals of "perfection" and "uniqueness"? The Association of Wedding Professionals International estimates that last year alone $85 billion was spent on weddings in the United States. Even for faith-filled, actively practicing Catholic couples, it can be difficult not to get swept up in that kind of whirlwind.

Though our own (relatively simple) wedding took place 15 years ago, my husband and I regularly reflect on these matters because of our work with engaged couples at our parish. Increasingly I believe that our culture's overemphasis on the wedding day as the pinnacle of one's life impoverishes our understanding of marriage as a lifelong covenant. While a joyous celebration, the wedding is just the stepping off point for the journey. The essence of marriage lies not in any peak experience but in the everyday. Changes in the marriage ritual itself, to more clearly contrast the sacramental aspects from the secular, would benefit the entire church.

A REVISION OF THE RITUAL MAKES EVEN MORE SENSE CONSIDERING that certain wedding customs, such as the father "giving away" the bride, the bridal gown, and flowers, originated in early Roman times. The civil government controlled marriage for hundreds of years, even after Christians were granted religious freedom in the fourth century. No particular Catholic marriage ritual emerged until after the 11th century, and then the church's requirements focused on the presence of witnesses.

The church now considers Matrimony a sacrament of vocation and commitment. The marriage ritual should express these themes more explicitly and eliminate secular pageantry. Such a shift could be accomplished by changing the entrance procession and attire, by liturgical participation of the bride and groom, and by putting the reception in the context of our faith.

At many parishes, when babies are to be baptized during the Sunday liturgy, the parents, child, and godparents are part of the entrance procession, joining the presider, servers, crossbearer, and so forth. A similar procession at weddings would better resonate with the sacramental significance of the ceremony than a parade up the aisle of the couple's friends arrayed in formal attire. Instead of a "wedding party" at all, the bride and groom could each select one witness or perhaps jointly choose a married couple whom they admire to serve as "sponsors." The witnesses or sponsors would wear typical dress clothes. Eschewing secular finery, the bride and groom would don a symbolic garment like an alb, the white robe worn by liturgical ministers, deacons, and priests. The wearing of such a vestment, which evokes Baptism, would locate marriage within the context of church life and stand in sharp contrast to cultural practices.

At First Communions and Confirmations, those receiving the sacrament frequently participate in the liturgy by bringing up the gifts, reading petitions, or distributing Communion. But at most weddings the bride and groom sit in their seats passively watching, like benevolent monarchs viewing their subjects--despite the fact that the couple administers the sacrament of Matrimony to each other in the priest's presence. Marriage, as are all sacraments, is directed to the mission of the church.

To express this reality, it would seem more meaningful for the couple to fulfill a liturgical role such as distributing Communion or leading the Prayers of the Faithful. Then, almost from the moment of their marriage, together they actively minister to others, a much more empowering start to married life than observing.

MARRIAGE PREPARATION PROGRAMS SELDOM ADDRESS directly the planning of the wedding reception. In our work with engaged couples, it may come up indirectly, as part of a discussion about communication or in-law relations. Consumer culture insidiously posits that the reception must somehow "compensate" the guests or keep up with the latest trend. Given the cost of receptions today, the church must support families by sharing what their faith has to say on this matter. Not only is it poor stewardship for parents or the couple to incur serious debt or to delay the wedding far into the future for the sake of a one-day event, it's simply not in keeping with a sacrament.

In contrast to cultural expectations, we must help couples see the wedding reception as an extension of the eucharistic table and a preview of the heavenly banquet, where the fellowship of those present takes on greatest importance, not externals such as flowers, favors, or music.

What if potluck receptions were the norm? Besides cutting typically high costs, they would allow the couple to be ministered to by their family and friends at the celebration. As with funerals, parishes might develop a special ministry group to help orchestrate these arrangements. At many times in marriage, the couple will need to reach out and seek the support of others. How beneficial for them, having been ministers at the liturgy, to then receive loving care in this manner. Additionally friends and family would gain a tangible way to demonstrate their support for the couple, a role that already is mentioned in the ceremony.

THESE PROPOSALS OBVIOUSLY REPRESENT a sea change in wedding practices and surely would be met with a lot of resistance. But they fit well with a current project of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. Called the National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, it is designed to strengthen the institution of marriage. A key focus will be creating guidelines for educating people about sacramental marriage throughout life rather than simply during engagement. Renewing our understanding of the wedding ceremony and reception could be accomplished over time by beginning with young people.

Theologian Richard Gaillardetz, author of an insightful book on the spirituality of marriage titled A Daring Promise (Crossroad), has called sacramental marriage one of the most countercultural things the church has to offer the world, and I couldn't agree more. Marriage has been the greatest blessing of my life, never simple, but always deeply satisfying, offering constant nourishment of who I am yet also challenging me to grow. Although cultural and sacramental practices are presently confused, I fervently hope for a paring back of the trappings so that the real meaning of the wedding might shine forth.

By PEG CONWAY, a writer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.
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Title Annotation:sounding board
Author:Conway, Peg
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 1, 2006
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