One of the most beautiful aspects of wedding ceremonies is how sacred traditions vary across cultures and religions. For Catholics, marriage, also known as holy matrimony, is considered a religious sacrament and it often involves specific, time-honored rituals. Before couples can get approved for a Catholic wedding, they may be required to submit certain documents, participate more in church activities, and go through an intensive marriage preparation process with a priest.
"The major portion of the marriage preparation is to sit down and to get into what the church teaches about marriage. In our diocese it’s a six-month required waiting period," says Father Paul Scalia, the Episcopal Vicar of Clergy at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington. He recommends, however, that couples save more lead time—nine months to a year—for marriage prep. "There’s a whole program of marriage preparation directed towards the couple examining certain areas in their lives that they hadn’t before. Some of it is also the technical, canonical, or legal aspects necessary for the church."
Meet the Expert
Father Paul Scalia is currently the Episcopal Vicar of Clergy at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington in Virginia. He is the author of That Nothing May Be Lost: Reflections on Catholic Doctrine and Devotion and Sermons in Times of Crisis: 12 Homilies to Stir Your Soul.
In the Catholic faith, the church is considered a sacred place where Christ is present, and since matrimony is believed to be a covenant with God, the only place a wedding ceremony can be administered is indoors, inside a church "to emphasize the sanctity of the ceremony itself," explains Scalia. So unlike many other religious and civil ceremonies, Catholic weddings do not allow outdoor venues. If you've always wanted an outdoor component to your wedding, the alfresco portion of your event may have to be reserved for the reception. Luckily, Catholic churches are majestic so lean into the beauty of a church wedding!
Another major difference from other ceremonies is that, in Catholic weddings, couples don't write and recite personalized vows. "We have set vows because marriage is something very specific and, for us, the vows make the marriage," says Scalia. (Similarly, those iconic wedding scenes in movies where a priest asks if there are any objections to the wedding? Those never happen in Catholic ceremonies!)
If you're planning a Catholic wedding, keep in mind that different dioceses may have different requirements. Some parishes are stricter when it comes to documents, and some priests may prefer a more intensive couple coaching. So, it's best to reach out to the parish where you intend to get married, especially if you're getting married somewhere other than where you live, to know what these requirements are.
For couples looking to wed in a Roman Catholic Church, here are the things you'll need to consider when planning your ceremony.
Typically, the couple desiring to be wed will schedule an interview with the priest prior to Pre-Cana (or pre-wedding) as the first step toward walking down the aisle. Many aspects of your wedding may be affected by a decision to get married in the Catholic church—your dress, your bridal party, venues, among others—so meet with your parish priest right away.
"The first thing that the couple should do if they want the wedding approved by the Catholic Church is contact the parish priest before anything else," says Scalia. This is the perfect time to raise questions on the specific requirements of that parish in terms of documents, to schedule sessions with the priest, and to establish other logistics like possible dates, how to book the church, and more.
It is likely that the priest conducting your marriage prep will be different from the priest officiating your wedding for multiple reasons: schedule discrepancies, changes in parochial assignments, and, the most important, destination weddings or a wedding in a place other than where you reside. The priest conducting your marriage prep should be the one who is most frequently accessible to you geographically.
Interfaith marriages also need to be disclosed to the priest during this interview. Though there is no obligation for the non-Catholic to convert, Scalia says the Catholic has an obligation to raise the children as Catholics and the non- Catholic needs to be informed of that.
If you're planning a destination wedding, coordinate immediately with the priest from the parish where you intend to get married and ask what the requirements are to make sure you cover all of them with your designated marriage prep priest.
After the initial meeting, a couple will undergo the Prenuptial Investigation, an individual interview conducted by a priest under oath. "The purpose of the investigation is to establish their understanding of four basic [tenets] about marriage: you enter into it freely, it’s permanent, it’s exclusive, and it’s open to children," says Scalia.
Because the institution believes that marriage is a permanent covenant with God, parishes tend to be strict about remarriage so this is where priests confirm that neither party had been previously married. If you or your partner were married before and the marriage did not end in an annulment, or if the ex-spouse is not deceased, some churches may not perform the ceremony. If this is the case, talk to the priest about your possible options because certain legal steps may be required before a couple can proceed.
In addition to the prenuptial investigation, the church will need to confirm what they learned through affidavits. The couple will assign two people each to testify, via a notarized document, that they meet the four basic tenets of marriage.
The Code of Canon Law explains that marriages should be held at the parish of either the bride or groom, which is why many couples opt for a church in their hometown. Other couples might opt to become members and parishioners of their local church prior to beginning the planning process. Create a checklist of requirements from your local church as well as a schedule to make sure there are no surprises later on.
Matrimony requirements can vary from church to church. Many will require proof of baptism, communion, and/or confirmation. Most churches will have records of participation in these sacraments, so you can request a copy from the specific church where you had the sacraments. If that's not possible, don't worry! Many priests will allow affidavits from two witnesses per sacrament.
Priests who conduct marriage prep typically have a file of all submitted documents. If you're getting married in a different parish, it's the priest's role to send out the documents to the parish where the wedding will be held about a month and a half before the wedding date.
After submitting documents, couples will then undergo Pre-Cana, which is the required marriage-preparatory program provided by the church. Depending on the diocese, the Pre-Cana program may have different permutations of the following requirements: multiple sessions with a priest, attendance in a mandated activity like a conference or a retreat, and/or more active involvement in the church.
The biggest chunk of Pre-Cana is the sessions with a priest. Aside from guiding the couple on what the church teaches about marriage, in these hour-long counseling sessions, couples will be asked about current and potential issues in the relationship including handling finances, navigating future in-laws, social behaviors, or any issue that could be an impediment to faithfulness or fulfilling one's role as a spouse.
If the priest finds any "impediments" to marriage or to fulfilling the spousal role, he has the prerogative to recommend a session with a psychologist to address certain issues before moving forward with the marriage prep.
"In our diocese, we require four meetings with the priest, at least," says Scalia. Typically, couples schedule this once a month. Couples are also required to attend one conference conducted or endorsed by the diocese. Some priests will also try to link up an engaged couple with a married couple from the same parish to be a sort of mentor couple.
Prior to determining a wedding date, you'll want to ensure you have a calendar of holidays and events from your church. There are many holy days and other observed holidays that you may not know about, which can affect church availability.
"Technically a couple can get married just about any day except Holy Thursday, Holy Friday, and Holy Saturday, but the question is, practically speaking, when can they have a wedding mass. A wedding mass is a particular kind of mass. It can only be said when there’s not a bigger feast like a Sunday or Easter," says Scalia. Parishes that are bigger tend to have more masses on Sundays, which may mean a Sunday wedding is unlikely.
Almost all churches require more modest cuts and garments. If you're getting married in a Catholic church, you may have to rethink plunging necklines, sheer panels, deep-back gowns, and high slits. Just reserve these silhouettes and designs as a second dress at the reception!
Also, some of the more conservative churches require shoulders to be covered. Ask about this prior to dress shopping—but don't stress too much. If you've had your heart set on a strapless or thin-strap gown, you can select a complementary shawl, wrap, or cover to wear while in the church and incorporate it into your bridal look!
Many times the Catholic Church will request that the maid or matron of honor and best man be of the Catholic faith. Be certain to inquire about this and how it may or may not affect your bridal party before assigning roles. Similarly, some couples tend to flout convention and assign more gender-fluid roles. Confirm with your priest if you can have a Best Woman for the groom and a Man of Honor for the bride instead.
Determine if you would like a full mass or a shortened ceremony. Depending on your preferences, you might have more or less flexibility in structuring your ceremony, the readings, speakers, etc. Get a clear explanation of this prior to planning your ceremony.
"Just about every Catholic parish has its own policies on that," says Scalia. "You want them to take pictures but you also don’t want to interrupt the sacredness of the event. The photographer intrudes when it becomes a photoshoot instead of the liturgy." Some individual priests may have rules about flash photography, while some may restrict photographers from going beyond certain points in the church, he says. So be sure to confirm with your priest and, if possible, have him brief the photographer before the wedding.
Typically there will be an organist and a singer or a choir. Coordinate with the priest if you want a string quartet or other performers. Because most Catholic ceremonies are usually in the form of a mass, outside performers will have to play certain hymns that are part of the religious celebration. Also, you need the priest's approval if you want a specific, non-church song to be played during your wedding. The priest will confirm if and when the song can be performed during the ceremony.