It’s wedding season and the wedding planning business is booming. The wedding planning book business is no exception. If you search “wedding planning” in Amazon.com’s book section you get over 12,000 results! However, most of these books do not address any of the essentials of planning a Catholic wedding ceremony. The Catholic Wedding Book: A Complete Guidebook by Molly K. Hans and Fr. William C. Graham seeks to fill that void.
The book aims to be a practical guide to Catholic wedding planning. It walks its audience through the basics of planning a Catholic wedding liturgy using a light, welcoming tone which readers who feel intimidated at the prospect of planning a religious ceremony may appreciate. The book does not aspire to be a spiritual guide; a reader looking for spiritual guidance or explanations of the meaning of the sacrament of marriage and Catholic traditions may want to look elsewhere.
The Catholic Wedding Book begins by addressing the bride and groom, encouraging the couple to look upon the wedding preparation as a chance to prepare for marriage itself. This is a great time to hone communication and learn the art of compromise. The book then proceeds to explain the role of the rest of the “cast”: the parents of the bride and groom, the priest, and the wedding party. While much of this section is designed to be humorous rather than instructive, there are some nuggets of good advice, particularly regarding interaction with the parish priest if the couple does not already have a friendship with him.
The book then turns to the roles of the “crew”: the musicians, readers, ushers, junior members of the wedding party, altar servers, and the photographer. The authors make the point that a wedding is a ceremony, not a spectacle, and that the Church is God’s house, not a photography studio. The section on ushers is especially helpful.
Some advice is then given regarding “costumes.” Specifically, the authors give permission for the bride to splurge on her wedding dress but to be practical and flexible in the requests she makes from the wedding party.
Next the book addresses the ceremony itself: choosing a Church, decorations, the procession, music, and the planning of the liturgy. Here the authors offer some explanation of the significance of the sacrament. They make clear that a wedding, specifically a Catholic wedding, is a public commitment and not a private affair, telling the bride and groom that, “As a sacrament, your marriage is a visible and tangible sign to all the world of God’s love” (60). Because this commitment takes place within a Catholic liturgy, it is shaped by Tradition and by the rules of the parish. For example, the sacrament must take place within a church (not on a beach or other venue) and each parish has different guidelines regarding the participation of non-Catholic ministers and decorations. These rules may be difficult for the couple to understand, but they exist for the couple’s benefit and that of the community supporting them.
The remainder of the book helps the reader select the most fitting prayers for the Rite of Marriage (including the vows), to choose meaningful Scripture readings, and to execute the paperwork required by the Church. It also offers some brief comments on the rehearsal, marriage preparation, and etiquette with guests. The authors intend to equip couples to handle many of the “nuts and bolts” of planning a Catholic wedding and successfully achieve that end.
The most worthwhile and helpful part of The Catholic Wedding Guide is the latter half in which the authors walk the reader through the selection of prayers for the Rite of Marriage and the readings. The prayers and the Scripture readings themselves are printed in their entirety in the book and each Scripture reading is preceded by a short reflection by the authors. This section will undoubtedly help engaged couples simplify and enjoy the process of planning their wedding liturgy.
The primary weakness of the book is its lack of emphasis on the spiritual and theological significance of marriage. The authors seem to have intentionally chosen not to spend much time explaining the Church’s teaching on marriage. This may have much to do with the fact the first edition of the book was published in 1988 (the current edition was published in 2007), before the widespread dissemination of the Theology of the Body.
The Theology of the Body is the series of Wednesday audiences given by Saint Pope John Paul II which explain the identity of human beings in terms of love. He described marriage as an imaging of God’s Trinitarian love, an icon of Christ’s love for the Church, and a vocation—or call—to take up your cross and follow Jesus Christ through the radical love of another person. As the teaching has become more popular, many Catholics have become more familiar and comfortable with the theological language of marriage, and eager to learn about marriage’s theological significance. The authors’ decision to limit teaching on the meaning of marriage may be off-putting to readers who are looking for spiritual in addition to practical guidance.
This cursory treatment of spiritual matters pertaining to marriage may be more appealing to Catholics who are unfamiliar with Catholic teaching and traditions, Catholics who have been practicing inconsistently, and non-Catholics who are marrying Catholics. The book makes a specific effort to reach out to mixed faith couples directly in its second chapter and it addresses topics pertaining to them throughout, such as whether or not to have the Eucharist as part of the wedding ceremony.
When addressing such topics the authors try to err on the side of accommodating non-Catholics. For example, they recommend that the Eucharist not be a part of the liturgy if either bride or groom is not Catholic. Some readers may appreciate this intent to accommodate, but others may find their treatment of the Eucharist dismissive specifically because the authors do not offer an explanation of its meaning and the reasons that marriage is normally celebrated within the context of a Mass.
The humor of the book may be another point of division. Some readers may appreciate the author’s attempts to be witty and light-hearted. Others may find that some of the jests border on irreverence.
Ultimately, any book of this type may have a hard time satisfying all Catholic readers and The Catholic Wedding Book does not strive to be the complete and definitive guide to the sacrament of marriage. The book seeks to appeal to busy readers who are looking for a functional tool to help them plan the details of a Catholic wedding ceremony without much attention to the theological meaning behind those details. Readers who are looking to delve more deeply into the spiritual dimension of marriage may be better served by another book.
About the Reviewer:
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer and editor. Caitlin holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.