Why the Location of a Catholic Wedding Matters
by David Gibson
This February 2010 article is part of a series of archived “Marriage Today” posts.
“When we talk about a ‘church wedding,’ we really mean it,” Bishop Paul Swain of Sioux Falls, S.D., said in his column for the January 2010 edition of The Bishop’s Bulletin, published by the Sioux Falls Diocese.
People “get married in the strangest places, like the Super Bowl,” Bishop Swain wrote. He recalled once reading about “a couple getting married while parachuting from a plane with a clergyman in tow.”
However, Catholic weddings are not like that. Bishop Swain discussed the reasons “the location of a wedding is very important” for the church. “The proper and ordinary place for the celebration of a Catholic marriage is in a parish church,” he said.
Priests sometimes are asked “whether a wedding can take place in a park, or overlooking a lake, or in the back yard of a home.” But, said the bishop, “the answer is no. While church law allows a bishop to grant permission for a wedding in a ‘suitable’ place other than a church, such permission is rarely given.”
The reason for this is based both on what a marriage is and what it is not, Bishop Swain’s column suggested. “In the Catholic Church a wedding is not simply an act of the bride and groom alone.” Neither is it “a private event for the couple to which friends are invited.”
Rather, marriage is “an act of the Church itself,” and “for baptized couples, it is a sacrament,” Bishop Swain said. “Marriage in the Catholic Church is not simply a contract between two parties,” but instead “is a covenant establishing a lifetime partnership for the good of the couple and for the procreation and education of children.”
Marriage “is a response to the call of God to the vocation of married life,” Bishop Swain continued. He said, “To marry is a significant, sacred and serious act.”
It is to protect the sacred nature of marriage that the church “has established a certain form to which marriages must conform,” said the bishop. One requirement is “that the promises and vows be exchanged before a bishop, priest or deacon, who receives the consent of the parties” in the church’s name and gives the couple the church’s blessing.
The wedding of two Catholics “may take place in the parish of either the bride or the groom,” Bishop Swain said, adding that “with appropriate permissions and for good reasons, weddings may be held in other parishes,” for example, the parish in which the bride or groom was raised.
Furthermore, the marriage of a Catholic and a baptized non-Catholic today is “celebrated in the church,” not in the rectory as once was the case, he noted. He pointed out that “for good reason and with a dispensation from the bishop,” the marriage of a Catholic and non-Catholic “may be held at a non-Catholic church.”
When the marriage takes place in a non-Catholic church, the reason may be that this location “has importance to the non-Catholic,” or it may have to do with achieving family harmony or recognizing “a close relationship with a non-Catholic minister,” Bishop Swain explained. He said that in these cases, “Catholic marriage preparation remains a requirement.”
While culture today often focuses on “the parties and the pictures” associated with a wedding day, this day “more importantly” is one “of solemn commitment when a man and a woman establish with God’s blessing a partnership for life,” Bishop Swain said. The celebration afterward “can be enjoyed in many locations,” he added, but “the exchange of vows should be conducted in a way and at a place” that reflects the “significant and sacred meaning” of marriage.
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.