Last month I highlighted some important topics that engaged couples should discuss before getting married. For example, the priest, deacon or parish specialist who is preparing them to receive the sacrament of holy matrimony can expect that they have agreed upon issues like child rearing, finances, household chores, intimacy, recreational activities, the amount of time spent with family and friends, politics and religious practices, just to mention a few.
As the actual date of the ceremony approaches, the preparation focus shifts from the couple’s marriage years to their wedding day. Here again communication is vital. After more than 35 years of officiating, I have accrued some critical items every pastor should clarify before conducting the church rehearsal which is usually scheduled for the evening before the wedding day itself. Since this could be the first time the entire wedding party and parents are meeting, what might be a stressful event can be made into a peaceful hour if these protocols are in place.
Strange Attendees: Is there anything “odd” about invited guests that the pastor should know prior to the wedding? For example, a groom had an Aunt Matilda who was a bit strange but harmless. Whenever she was invited to a marriage ceremony, she came dressed in the same wedding gown she wore during her own wedding. The groom assured the pastor that she would sit quietly in the last pew, not walk down the aisle and not shout “I do” in answer to the vows. The pastor needs to know if he will see two women dressed as brides in church or about any other disconcerting behaviors that could happen.
Pew Seats. If the parents of the bride are separated or divorced and have new partners, will they sit together or apart in church? This is important whether her father will be walking the bride down the aisle or if both parents will be escorting her. Ditto for seating the groom’s folks.
Candles. Apart from the ones on the altar, will there be other “lit” candles involved? For example, in some evening weddings lighted candles can be set on pew ends or in the bridesmaids’ bouquets. Although this enhances the atmosphere, before purchasing these options be sure to ask the pastor about fire laws and insurance coverage. There are electric flickering candles that look just as real as lit candles but do not pose any hazards.
Rice or Bird Seed. Throwing rice at the newlyweds as they emerge from the church is a custom that still continues today in some places. This action dates back to Roman times and was symbolic of wishing the couple joy and abundant fertility. However, some residual effects must be taken into consideration. Rice does not dissolve easily and becomes slippery for people entering the church at subsequent hours. Replacing the rice with bird seed is assumed to rectify the problem. In fact, seeds attract rodents. If the couple insists that friends will arrive with either rice or seeds, they should be prepared to pay an additional fee to the church’s maintenance crew for the post-ceremonial cleanup.
Emotional Support Animals (ESAs). Parishioners most graciously welcome blind persons led by guide dogs. However, the recent phenomenon of taking unregistered ESA animals into church can present legitimate concerns. If the couple has invitees whom they know will be bringing non-housebroken, barking, biting or shedding pets among the congregation, they should ask the pastor if a fee for day-insurance and/or vacuuming services will be required.
White Carpet Runner. Florist bills will be huge. Some companies try to persuade couples that a white carpet throw runner must also be purchased for the church. This is not true and in fact is not a good practice. Why? A white runner does not offer color contrast for photos of a bride dressed in white. More importantly, all bridesmaids and groomsmen walk in first and only then is the runner rolled out from the bottom step of the altar to the church doors, just prior to the bride’s entrance. Very often this runner can cause the bride to trip.
If the couple insists on having a runner, they should be sure to alert the organist during the rehearsal about this. On one occasion, the musicians were not told in advance and began playing the wedding march as two groomsmen proceeded down the nave together to unroll the runner. Upon seeing two men walking down the aisle to the tune of “here comes the bride,” the congregation broke into gales of laughter and the sacrament went from serious and sacred to comical and crass. To the couple’s dismay, that incident was the most-talked-about, unforgettable scene of the entire day.
Out-of-Town Musicians. If Aunt Tilly plays the organ at her home parish in Picayune, Mississippi, then why not in Minot, North Dakota? Ask the pastor about this. If his church organist is salaried, this may not matter. If providing music is an on-call hire, then a fee may be required to have the organist present for the rehearsal to instruct Tilly about how to turn on the console but not be present for the ceremony itself.
Alcohol. On Dec. 5, 1933 Congress ratified the 21st Amendment which repealed prohibition. This is not the case for Catholic Church weddings. Alcohol is not permitted in the sacristy by ushers cheering the groom nor among the bridesmaids toasting the bride while sitting in the stretch limo parked outside prior to the ceremony. The reason is because marriage vows must be professed by a man and woman who are sober. Intoxication invalidates the requirement of free choice and full consent.
Pre-rehearsal Rehearsal. To eliminate confusion during the actual wedding rehearsal and to honor the wishes of the couple, I discuss the details of the ceremony with the bride and groom before the actual rehearsal itself. I escort them into the church and physically enact how I will conduct their rehearsal. I do this so that they can make any changes which they want for their wedding.
Then I emphasize that I am in charge during the rehearsal and only I will give the instructions about how the ceremony will unfold as I put the couple’s wishes into practice. If parents, relatives or Aunt Tilly interrupts me with “this is not how we expected it to be done…or shouldn’t you be doing it this way?” then I will turn to the bride and groom and ask whoever is related to the interrupter to take the person aside and explain that Father will not proceed with the wedding if anyone interferes with what has already been decided by the couple. After all, this is the couple’s ceremony, not an opportunity for relatives to orchestrate the wedding they always dreamed of having but missed out on for whatever reason.
On-time Arrivals and Photo Ops. Weddings rarely happen in a vacuum or in the middle of the afternoon in the middle of the week. More often than not there are time constraints because of subsequent Masses or Saturday Confessions. Therefore, the bride and groom must be punctual. If taking professional still photos is a concern, the following policy will alleviate any fears.
I ask photographers and videographers not to cause a distraction during the sacrament by climbing all over the altar. Instead I promise I will be available to re-pose any significant moments afterwards. This actually allows for a cleaner photoshoot in which lighting and facial expressions will be far more photogenic than those that occur during the rite itself. Most photographers agree that this is a far less intrusive and far more professional option.
Can you think of anything else that the pastor should know ahead of time before hearing a couple exchange vows? If so, let me know. After all, last-minute surprises only add more stress to the already stressful moment when a man and a woman freely offer fidelity and exclusivity to one another for the rest of their lives.
Father Pagliari's monthly Holy Homework column can be found at https://www.cny.org.
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