The Good, The Bad and The Catholic

Surviving your Catholic Wedding

Pop quiz: May a Catholic couple get married on the beach? May the bride boogie down the aisle to a modern tune?

Bemused? Things are changing fast in the wedding business.

From 1857 to 1957 American weddings would have looked fairly similar: Most couples got married with family and a few friends present, followed by a nice lunch afterward; grand weddings were reserved for the wealthy elite. But starting in the 1960s—and then really picking up steam in the 1980s—the wedding industry took on a life of its own. From rings to registries, videographers to wedding planners and welcome baskets to party favors, getting married is a $161 billion industry. Engaged couples, priests and wedding guests are struggling to keep up.

Videographers and welcome baskets, you might ask? Yes, all are becoming standard fare at the more than 2 million weddings across the country each year. And in 2007 Catholic nuptials aren’t immune.

Sure, weddings are about tulle, flowers and celebratory suppers with friends and family. But it’s important that we not forget that it is a sacrament—a sacred promise in front of God and the parish community— that is the reason for this celebration.

In wedding guides and magazines, you’ll read about all sorts of different ideas for your ceremony. But for Catholics, it’s your parish priest who will be your best guide—and who, in the end, will have the final word on the details, local and ethnic customs and devotions included in your wedding ceremony.

Still, no matter how focused you are on those holy vows, there will be a lot of distractions along the way. For those of you considering a walk down the aisle anytime soon, here’s a guide to navigating the good and the bad of nuptial trends.

  1. Life’s a Beach
    From Palm Beach to Aruba to Disney World, traveling into a fantasy-wedding world is perhaps the biggest national trend in weddings. Some 10-15% of weddings are “destination weddings”—weddings held away from the couple’s hometown, usually on a beach or held outside at some other scenic locale. Catholics must marry in an actual church, so the castaway-esque nuptials are not an option. “Because the intimate connection between the sacrament of marriage and the community of faith, it is most appropriate that marriage be celebrated where the community gathers, namely the parish church,” says Rev. Eric Andrews, CSP, pastor at the John XXIII University Parish. While there may not be cocktail umbrellas, this is actually a blessing: Getting married in a church is a less nerve-wracking choice. If it rains, there’s a roof.

  2. Greeted with Gifts
    Your guests expect to be welcomed by a basket of goodies, already waiting for them in their hotel room, with items you and your fiancé have selected to ease the transition into the festivities. Popular items include the state fruit, local baked goods, a map, instructions about the weekend’s events and miniature bottles of rum or vodka with mixers alongside. A spin-off of these welcome baskets are “bathroom baskets”—toiletries placed in the men’s and women’s bathrooms during the wedding reception itself, just in case guests would like to brush their teeth or freshen up. Not everyone is on board with this new trend: “Bathroom baskets?” one father-of-the-bride exclaimed when reviewing the budget for the upcoming nuptials. “I don’t want to pay for their deodorant!”

  3. The Family Processional
    The tradition of the bride escorted down the aisle by her father is losing some popularity. It’s perfectly fine for the bride to be joined by both her parents as she walks down the aisle—or even by her future husband. Rev. Tom Richstatter, O.F.M., Th.D., professor of sacramental theology at St. Meinrad School of Theology, says he encourages couples to have a liturgical procession of families to symbolize that the separate families and the creation of a new one. “We’re often more governed by what we see on TV than what really speaks to us. The sacrament of marriage is a public vow that the couple is making with their families and the congregation. This is a nice way to focus on the family element,” he says. And according to Patricia Hladysh, co-founder of, some couples are choosing to greet their guests together before the Mass and then to process down the aisle together. “They prefer to approach the altar as a united couple with their parents following to also signify the uniting of the two families.” Still, there are many ways that the processional can occur, and who walks with the bride can be a hot-button issue for some. It’s something you should discuss with your priest early on the in planning stages to avoid last-minute surprises.

  4. Haute Couture
    According to the 2006 American Wedding Study, conducted by the Condé Nast Bridal Group, Americans spend more than $7 billion on wedding gowns, tuxedos, bridesmaids’ dresses and other wedding attire. And the bride’s dress is the centerpiece of the fashion show: Gowns reminiscent of Queen Victoria’s reign are increasingly common, say wedding planners, and “cathedral-length veils are very popular, too. There is an opportunity to make a dramatic statement walking down the aisle with a beautiful view floating behind the bride,” reports Ellen Kostman, a wedding planner with Sidekick Events in New York City.

  5. Get with the Program
    A Catholic nuptial Mass is a new experience for many wedding guests. And for those unfamiliar with a Catholic ceremony, it can be a confusing and boring hour. To remedy this, brides and grooms are turning to professional wedding program providers to create a more interactive experience. “Couples being married in a Catholic wedding host a double celebration. First and foremost they will be the ambassadors of their parish as they host the most important element of their wedding day festivities – the ceremony itself,” says Mrs. Hladysh of The website that features wedding programs, along with advice for engaged couples. The company gets the necessary permissions to reprint the music and texts, and works with the parish priest to make sure everything meets local standards—all for a price: Programs run about $2 each.

  6. Popular Music
    In an attempt to personalize and modernize the marriage ceremony, couples frequently request “modern” (read: post 1850s) music at their Mass—and priests occasionally comply. At St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, however, brides and grooms are given a CD with their limited options for organ music during their Mass; no ifs, ands or buts. Other parishes may take a more progressive view: “It depends on the song,” says Fr. Andrews. “Sometimes it can be worked into the prelude music. But one bride was very serious about processing down the aisle to ‘Someday My Prince Will Come,’ and I had to say no. People might laugh.” Jeremiah Clarke, Bach and Beethoven are turning over in their graves.

  7. Unity Candle
    There’s a heated debate within the American Catholic Church about the use of a symbolic unity candle at wedding ceremonies. In this ritual, the parents of the bride and groom each light separate small candles and then the newly married couple takes the flame from their family’s candle to light a larger single candle as a representation of the new family that they have created. Some liturgical theologians worry that the unity candle might conflict with the Easter candle, meant to represent Christ’s presence at the ceremony, while many parish priests allow the ritual as a useful image of oneness. “It’s a symbol that speaks to people,” says Fr. Richstatter. “And brides and grooms don’t have much to actually do in the ceremony, so I rather like it.” Again, the decision about a unity candle will be up to your parish priest, and local customs will apply.

  8. Favorite Favors
    At the end of the reception, it’s now become common for guests to receive party favors, as if they were attending a child’s birthday celebration. Popular favors include a slice of wedding cake to go, or even measuring spoons with the couple’s name and date of their wedding. Also available: Cookie cutters in your graven image and monogrammed tissues.