Why the Words of the Wedding Vows Matter
by David Gibson
All the “paraphernalia of a wedding day” can easily “dwarf the marriage itself,” Father Stephen Wang wrote May 2 on his “Bridges and Tangents” blog. The British priest called attention to the words of the church’s wedding vows. There can be “such a weight about them,” he said. The vows seem able to “hold their own.”
Father Wang is a theologian and a priest of the Westminster Archdiocese. He is dean of studies in London at Allen Hall, the archdiocese’s seminary.
“The words of marriage and the meaning they embody add a seriousness that young people are actually looking for,” Father Wang said. These words serve as a reminder that the woman and man “are not just creating a landscape from their own imagination,” he explained. Rather, they are “going on a journey into a vast, beautiful, awe-inspiring but unknown, uncharted and slightly risky territory.”
When I asked Father Wang why he believes the church’s wedding vows embody something young people are looking for, he responded that in his experience “most young people hope to get married one day, despite the prevalence of marriage breakdown and a general suspicion of institutions.”
For young people, it is “not just the romance of a wedding day,” he said. He thinks “they recognize that love finds its deepest fulfillment in a lifelong commitment, in giving oneself to another person without conditions, without reservation. And they know that marriage is a way of making that commitment.”
Of course, he added, “it frightens them, because commitment is frightening. At the same time it attracts them.” But he said that “the words of the wedding vows are so simple and so profound: ‘To love and honor each other for the rest of your lives. … For better for worse, for richer for poorer. … Till death do us part.’”
Father Wang said that he thinks young people “know, deep down, that love requires commitment and sacrifice, and they are longing to give themselves to something of lasting value. They also sense, perhaps without understanding why, that love demands a promise, a definitive yes, and that this promise needs to be made in public. In other words, the institution of marriage still speaks to young people with great force.”
His blog entry on wedding vows reminded me of something the U.S. Catholic bishops said in their 2009 national pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” The bishops too viewed the day of a wedding as a point of beginning for a journey into a future filled both with challenges and the promise of a life together that is larger, but perhaps different, than a couple imagined.
“‘Become what you are!’ might be a great exhortation to newly married couples, especially given the strong tendency nowadays to reduce the love of the marriage bond to only a feeling,” the pastoral letter said.
It advised couples that on their wedding day they will utter a “definite ‘yes’ to their vocation of marriage. Then the real work of marriage begins.” For the rest of the couple’s life, they will be “challenged to grow, through grace, into what they already are – that is, an image of Christ’s love for his church,” the pastoral letter commented.
A wife and husband “can cling to the unconditional promise that they made at their wedding as a source of grace,” the pastoral letter added. Of course, it said, “this will require persistent effort.”
I should note that couples who marry in a Catholic church do not compose their own wedding vows. Father Wang’s blog entry indicated that he would not judge that a limitation for them.
In his view a wedding does not require vows composed by the couple in order to remain “deeply personal.” He said, pointing to the end-of-April wedding of Britain’s royal couple during an Anglican service at Westminster Abbey: “You can’t get more personal than to say, in the first person, before 2 billion people, ‘I will.’”
It is important at a wedding to be able to see and hear what it means to enter into the institution of marriage, Father Wang suggested. It means, he said, that two people “are taking on something far bigger and more beautiful than they could ever have invented for themselves.”
Speaking about the Catholic Church’s wedding vows, Father Wang described their words as “so profound and so beautiful” that it is “simply hard to better them.”
He said, in addition, that he thinks “there is something important about entering into a tradition that is larger than yourself and freely choosing to use a set of words that you haven’t yourself chosen, since then you allow yourself to be freed from the limitations of your own vision.”
In using “the solemn words of the wedding ritual rather than their own composition,” couples are saying that “there is more to love than they yet have understood and that they choose to let this larger love possess them,” Father Wang commented.
That, he concluded, is why it is “not impersonal to use the formal words of the wedding ritual.” Instead, “it is a way of lifting what is deeply personal into something larger and more beautiful.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.