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Why is the Church Involved in Weddings? - 8th February 2015
Why is the Church involved at all in marriage, the most foundational of human institutions? After all, marriage was around a long time before the Church. Early Christians entered into marriage according to local customs and culture, just like everyone else. The only difference was really one of attitude as Christians began to appreciate that the loving union of husband and wife was not only about individuals and families but also about the love of God shown in Christ.
As late as the ninth century, Pope Nicholas I proclaimed that marriage by mutual consent was accepted as valid without any civil or Church ceremony. From the eleventh century the Church required all secular weddings to be blessed by a priest and, eventually, to take place in a church.
It was not until the twelfth century that an established wedding ceremony developed and that marriage took its place among the Church’s sacraments. In the same century, Pope Alexander III decreed that the basis for a valid marriage was the couple’s mutual consent and that this consent established an unbreakable marriage contract.
The logical conclusion of this understanding is that the minister of the sacrament of marriage is the couple, not the priest. The couple administer the sacrament to each other; the role of the priest is as a witness.
The catechism spells out the central role of the Church in the celebration of Christian marriage:
The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life. (CCC 1661)
The Catholic marriage rite provides for a dignified ceremony that is warm yet solemn and worthy of the occasion. In words, actions and symbols, it encourages reflection on the meaning of Christian marriage by all who participate in the ceremony. It witnesses to an understanding of married love which is much deeper than that often promoted by society.
The love that unites the bride and groom invites all present to reflect on and wonder at the mystery of human love and to perceive that God’s love for us is something like this, only much greater. The loving communion that exists between a husband and wife is the clearest sign and indication available to us of the extent to which God loves the human family.
Just as married love is a commitment to grow in intimacy, to permanence and to fidelity in good times and in bad, so God's love for us is all these things. Yet our understanding of marriage as a sacrament goes even further than this. Not only do a couple mirror or reflect God's love, they embody the presence of Christ in a unique way.
In Catholic marriage, the wife and husband commit themselves to being a sign of Christ's love to the community of faith. The community, in turn, offers its support to the couple as they journey through life. It is also the responsibility of the community to support and nurture marital vocations and to call all couples to ever-greater heights of faith and love.