Catholic weddings are full of time-honored traditions, but they're more than just a few Bible verses and a priest officiating. With so many faith-based customs and intricacies, it's easy to get a bit lost in translation if you're unfamiliar with the religious scripts. Luckily, there are certain elements you'll see over and over again, so we've turned to Catholic wedding expert Stephanie Calis to break down those key components. Now, whether you’re a bride-to-be or wedding guest, you'll know exactly what to expect when you sit down in that pew.
Meet the Expert
Stephanie Calis is the editor in chief and co-founder of Spoken Bride, a wedding-focused lifestyle blog and ministry for Catholic brides and newlyweds. Calis is the author of the Amazon bestseller Invited: The Ultimate Catholic Wedding Planner and a former professional speaker for Catholic Youth.
First up, here are some frequently asked questions surrounding Catholic weddings.
- What should I wear to a Catholic wedding? "The Catholic Church doesn’t give rules about wedding dress codes," explains Calis. "But church weddings are typically more formal events." You will need to take your cue from the invitation, time of day, and type of reception to follow. Men should at minimum wear a shirt and tie, and women should err on the side of modesty and bring a shawl to drape over their shoulders for the church ceremony.
- Will the ceremony always be in a church? To have a truly Catholic wedding, you'll need to be in a Catholic church. Calis explains that many dioceses require a marriage to take place in a physical church as they are "settings intended for worship and prayer" that ensure the real presence of Jesus Christ. Some couples can submit a request to have a wedding outdoors or elsewhere, but exceptions are few and far between.
- How long is a Catholic wedding ceremony? A Catholic wedding ceremony traditionally includes a full mass and communion, all of which can take up to an hour. Some to-be-weds choose to only have a Rite of Marriage ceremony (which doesn't include a mass), which can last between 30-45 minutes.
- Will the newlyweds kiss? "Probably," says Calis. "Though the kiss is not a part of the religious ritual, it is something that is widely practiced and part of most ceremonies."
- Should I bring a gift? Gifts for the newlywed couple are common at Catholic weddings. While you would not present the couple with a wedding gift at the ceremony, you can bring it to the wedding reception or have it shipped to their home.
Read on for the nine biggest components of a Catholic wedding ceremony.
First, the groom and the best man enter from the side of the church. Then the bridesmaids and groomsmen escort one another up the aisle, followed by the maid of honor, who enters alone. And last, but certainly not least, the bride and her father (or another male family member) make their grand entrance.
Calis explains that there is a second option where the bride and groom enter the church with their wedding party and priest, either together or with their respective parents. "These are old traditions of the Church that reflect the significance of the bride and groom’s role in the ceremony," says Calis. "Whatever the couple’s choice, processional options are all morally neutral and a matter of preference."
The Priest's Greeting
The priest greets the wedding guests and invites all to join in singing an opening hymn (or song), usually "Gloria." Once complete, the priest will say an opening prayer for the newlyweds. The assembly remains standing from the processional through the hymn and opening prayer. Once the priest has finished, they may be seated.
Liturgy of the Word
The Liturgy of the Word is comprised of several readings recited by either the priest or friends or family members designated by the couple. It begins with a reading of a passage from the Old Testament. Often, couples choose a reading from the book of Genesis, which contains the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. Next, the cantor and entire congregation will either speak or sing from the Book of Psalms.
Responsorial psalms are the congregation's reaction to the word of God, with the cantor singing the verses and the congregation singing the responses (essentially the chorus). This is followed by a friend or family member reading from the New Testament and the priest reciting a passage from one of the Gospels. After the readings is the homily where the priest will reflect on the readings and marriage. The assembly stands only for the gospel and remains seated for all other readings.
Rite of Marriage
These are the vows. They serve as both a declaration of intent and consent by each entity receiving the marriage rites. The couple can memorize and recite the vows to one another, read the vows from the book, or have the priest read them and respond with "I do." Wording may vary from church to church, but they tend to follow a similar pattern. Some priests might allow couples to write their own vows or add a few lines to the traditional ones. The assembly will stand for the duration of the entire Rite of Marriage, or vow exchange and proceeding ring ceremony.
After the vows, the rings will be exchanged and the priest will bless them as symbols of love and fidelity. Each partner will then slide the ring onto their newly minted spouse's ring finger, completing the ceremony. "The priest might invite the couple to exchange a kiss here, during the sign of peace, or at the conclusion of the ceremony," says Calis. Some regional customs also include the exchange of coins, or las arras matrimoniales.
If the couple chooses to partake in a nuptial mass, this is the part where the wedding ceremony starts to take on the feel of a Sunday mass. This begins with the altar being prepared for the Liturgy of the Eucharist, or communion. Special family members or close friends may be chosen ahead of time to assist in the offertory, or presentation of gifts of bread and wine to the priest.
An offertory song accompanies these actions while a collection, or basket for money donations, is passed around the assembly. The priest will then deliver the Eucharistic prayers. "The Liturgy of the Eucharist involves the priest praying the prescribed words of the Church over the bread and wine (called the consecration)," says Calis. "Which Catholics believe actually becomes the body and blood of Christ." The assembly may sit for the presentation of gifts but will kneel for the Eucharistic prayers.
Lord's Prayer and Sign of Peace
The entire congregation stands and either recites or sings the Lord's Prayer in unison. The newlyweds will then kneel before the altar to receive their nuptial blessing from the priest. The assembly may join in silent prayer extend their own blessings to the couple. The guests and wedding party then exchange a sign of peace by shaking hands and saying, "Peace be with you."
Also called the Eucharist, communion represents the Last Supper where Jesus broke bread with his disciples before his death. Guests will leave their seats to line up before the priest and wait for their turn to receive bread and wine. Only Catholics can partake in this particular tradition.
"Non-Catholic guests or those not prepared to receive may come forward for a blessing, with arms crossed over their chests, or may choose to stay seated [or kneeling] and silently express good thoughts or prayers for the couple," explains Calis. Lining up before the priest with arms crossed communicates that you are unable to receive the consecration but can accept a blessing, preventing any miscommunication.
Nuptial Blessing and Dismissal of Congregation
The guests will stand as the priest recites a final prayer, or concluding rite, and blesses the new union as well as the entire congregation. At this moment, the marriage license may be signed, but that may vary depending on the couple's preferences. The priest will then dismiss the assembly.
From this point, the recessional, or exit from the ceremony, takes place in the reverse order of the processional beginning with the newlyweds and bridal party. The recessional may sometimes include the ministers too, and it is usually conducted to a song of the couple's choosing. A wedding reception, or cocktail hour, will usually commence shortly afterward.