What can a (secular) couple customize in their Catholic wedding ceremony?
November 8, 2010 3:39 PM   Subscribe

We are two very secular people who, for family reasons, are having our wedding ceremony in the Catholic church. What can we do within the restrictions of a Catholic ceremony to make the wedding feel like it's our own?

To smooth the path later in life with my future in-laws, we have decided to go through with the required preparation and get married in the Catholic church. If we had it our way we would probably be doing a very hipster-y ceremony in a bar or something with decor and music matching our personal style, but we decided that we could do a very personal reception and go with the parents idea of a proper catholic ceremony.

It should be noted that we're paying for all of this ourselves, so this is motivated out of interest in getting the in-laws on board with the wedding and not because they're holding the purse strings.

As we get into the planning of the ceremony itself, picking music and readings and so on (ugh, the readings!), I'm beginning to have... not exactly second thoughts about the Catholic ceremony because I still believe it's the right thing to do for us to help bring the family together, but more just irritation and disappointment at all of the restrictions placed on the ceremony. For example, in my ideal ceremony my fiance would walk down the isle to an instrumental version of a song by a musician that is very important to us, but instead the church gave us a three page document with a list of suggested "appropriate" music (all classical pieces that do nothing for me emotionally and feel more military than romantic) and said we could not choose music that was "popularly perceived to be secular," whatever that means in practice.

So basically, what can we actually make our own in the ceremony? What can we actually do that might be a little different or special?

Anonymous because her father apparently likes to google my rather unique name to see what comes up. I've read previous questions on this topic and the help somewhat in picking a reading, but I'm still looking for anything else I can do. Not sure if there will be a need, but I've set up an email to go with this question: catholicweddinganon@gmail.com
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (31 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
have a small, low/no cost, intimate "for real" wedding prior. Invite only the very closest of friends and family members who won't get upset about it. Write your own vows, find a friend who can legally officiate. This will be your wedding, the other thing will just be a silly thing you have to walk trough to appease family.
posted by edgeways at 3:44 PM on November 8, 2010 [8 favorites]

Do you have to have it at that particular Catholic church? I had a Catholic wedding, and we were allowed to basically do whatever we wanted as long as we paid the $$$ and cleaned up after ourselves. Catholic churches vary widely in their "rules" for things, so look for a less-restrictive church.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:54 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Regarding the "walking down the aisle" music - can you just submit your ideal piece and see if they even notice it may be "secular" (whatever that means)? For example, if your song was an instrumental version of a non-radio-played Radiohead song, what are the chances the people at the church will know where it is coming from?
posted by coupdefoudre at 3:59 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

said we could not choose music that was "popularly perceived to be secular,"
Not all Catholic churches are likely to have that kind of unreasonable restriction on their liturgy. You can almost certainly find yourself a more agreeable church or insist on your own piece of music with the one you've chosen---within reason, I could understand them objecting to an instrumental version of Reign in Blood or NIN's Closer. I've been to lots of Catholic weddings with all kinds of different music, played on different instruments.

You can and should make your own vows. You're pretty much restricted to scripture for the readings, but you don't have to have Leviticus or anything you object to: 1 Corinthians 13 is a pretty universal go-to for marriages.

In my country's Catholic church tradition the most unbending rules for ceremonies are actually the ones laid down by the Commonwealth Government in the Marriage Act.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 4:06 PM on November 8, 2010

I would make sure your readers do inclusive readings. a friend got married and it was all about submission to the husband and that jazz.
posted by parmanparman at 4:08 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yeah, look for a church that will be more flexible. We even had a priest who, where "creator" appeared in the prayers, let us put footnotes in the order of service with caveats about random quantum fluctuations. The in-laws, of course, were horrified :)
posted by lollusc at 4:09 PM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

Get another church and/or another priest.

Request a wedding ceremony without a mass, since the ceremony with a mass will have particular requirements about what would be read (e..g first reading from the old testament, second from the new, then a gospel reading).

I went to a Catholic wedding recently without a mass, but where the priest was really over the top with the heternormativity (without ever actually mentioning gay marriage) throughout the ceremony. This may be less of a political issue where you are if only straight couples can marry there and so your priest may not feel the need to go on and on about how God wisely made men and women to complement one another. If this is a concern, you may want to vet the text of the ceremony ahead of time.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 4:14 PM on November 8, 2010

Just be careful. Messing around with a ritual that in-laws consider sacred does not sound like a good way to win them over. If you can't follow the protocol without hypocrisy or irreverence, why do it? Much better to have a sincere and secular ceremony.
posted by philokalia at 4:25 PM on November 8, 2010 [12 favorites]

A Catholic Wedding in a church is a specific kind of ritual with a long tradition. I would recommend that you try to adapt to this ritual for the segment which takes place in the church, and express your innovations and personal interpretations for the reception.

(Lord knows enough wedding receptions could use some innovation).
posted by ovvl at 4:39 PM on November 8, 2010 [5 favorites]

Is there a Newman Center in your area? I get married in a small Newman Center chapel by a Monsignor who talked about Buddhism the entire homily. I also walked down the aisle to a trombone playing a Gershwin tune, and when my sister, the Maid of Honor, was signing the marriage certificate, she loudly asked the small congregation "I'm not buying them a car, am I?"

Newman Centers are often...different.
posted by oflinkey at 4:41 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Look for small opportunities of wiggle-room. My husband is not religious, and he selected the music for our Catholic ceremony. I'm guessing we would have run into problems if we picked music that was popular or contemporary, but he looked for older music and lesser-known hymns (most of which were actually Anglican, but if they're not well known the music minister at your church might not know that or care). For example, a lot of women are walking down the aisle to Jupiter from Holst's The Planets, which is related to the hymn I Vow to Thee, My Country (or O God Beyond All Praising). So we used the hymn version for my procession. We also used some pretty traditional instrumental music - Trumpet Voluntary and Cannon in D. For our exit, we used Handel's Sing with Joy. That might give you some ideas, although they may not be up your alley, at least they're some options that might not be in the typical booklet of options. You might be able to use more contemporary music prior to the ceremony - if you're trying to work in something a bit quirky and unique that they won't allow in the formal ceremony.

For the readings, we had a booklet of options to choose from, and we just picked the ones that avoided sentiments that we disagreed with. We had Genesis 2:18-24, 1 John 4:7-12, John 15:9-12. Those focused more on the importance of love and joining of the couple. My husband isn't Christian, but on some days loosely believes in a Creator, so we tried to pick readings that focused more on God the Father than on Jesus. I would expect that as long as you stick to the traditional format (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament, Gospel), you might be able to get away with any Bible passage as long as you can explain to the priest why it suits you as a couple.
posted by Terriniski at 4:50 PM on November 8, 2010

Here's a good OT reading for a wedding which isn't too heavy on the God stuff:

Song of Songs 2:8-10, 14, 16; 8:6-7
Hark! My lover-here he comes springing across the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. Here he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices. My lover speaks; he says to me, “Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! “For see, the winter is past, the rains are over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth, the time of pruning the vines has come, and the song of the dove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines, in bloom, give forth fragrance. Arise, my beloved, my beautiful one, and come! “O my dove in the clefts of the rock, in the secret recesses of the cliff, let me see you, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and you are lovely.” My lover belongs to me and I to him. He said to me: Set me as a seal on your heart, as a seal on your arm; for stern as death is love, relentless as the nether world is devotion; its flames are a blazing fire. Deep waters cannot quench love, nor floods sweep it away.
posted by ocherdraco at 4:55 PM on November 8, 2010 [7 favorites]

Will this keep them off your back though, or is this just the first in a continuing series of things that you give ground on to make nice with the in-laws? Think about whether the in-laws are people that can really be pleased.

Our wedding was the best wedding my mother-in-law ever had. She even wore white. There are a lot of other horrible details that I won't bore you with. My wife and I both wish that we had had the wisdom to do our own thing for the wedding. At the time, we were both still students and the fact that her parents were going to pay for the wedding really swayed us.

Ten years later and it is still somewhat sad for my wife and me. But on the other hand, we're happily married and just celebrated our 10th anniversary. Yay!

I agree with the advice to have your own private party / ceremony and just do the catholic stuff for the show. But then again, I also agree with the advice that if you don't want to go along with the strictures that entails, then don't do it. But if you both don't give a crap about that, then just totally let it go and bend like a reed in the wind...

My view is that you should do what you want and what will make you happy. If some people refuse to be happy because of that, that's their own fault. You can't control people's behaviors. If they want to be bitter and judgmental people, let them.
posted by reddot at 4:58 PM on November 8, 2010 [4 favorites]

Mod note: folks if you have comments that aren't answering the question, please feel free to email them to the OP at the address helpfully provided. thanks
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 5:16 PM on November 8, 2010

1A. If at all possible, find a priest who knows one or both of you personally or is willing to get to know you. If not, try a Newman Center as suggested above or try to find a priest who belongs to an order rather than to a diocese. If you are set with a specific church (like her home church), a priest from an order can still get permission to conduct a ceremony there. If you are in NJ/DE/PA/Northern VA/NC, I highly recommend the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales. They are very practical priests.

1B. Seriously, the priest is key. Someone who sounds like he knows a little bit about you when he gives the homily. Someone who does the Catholic ceremony but understands that not all your guests are Catholic or Christian or religious at all. The kind of guy you think might have fun getting his party on at the type of reception you're planning to throw.

2. My now-husband and I selected our readings first. We did the same thing as Terriniski-- went through the workbook of wedding readings and ruled out all the ones we disagreed with, then went from there. We have friends who did Catholic weddings and used readings not from the book.

3. After we picked the readings we borrowed a hymnal from church and sat down with a musically-inclined friend to pick the songs. Many hymnals have an index in the back where you can look up readings to find songs that match the themes. Again, we have friends who used instrumentals of more popular songs with appropriate themes.

4. Write your own intentions (aka Prayers of the Faithful). Use the basic format: "[insert intention here], we pray to the Lord." If you phrase things well you can work in whatever you want with a sly wink-nod to your friends. Supporter of gay marriage? "That all those who find their God-given love be able to experience the joys of marriage, we pray to the Lord." Then smile to yourself as everyone says, "Lord hear our prayer."
posted by scarnato at 5:19 PM on November 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Definitely check into a different parish. As people have said, there's a lot of variety from place to place.

Also, it's entirely possible to have a "secular" wedding and then have your marriage officially recognized/blessed by the Church in a small ceremony. Everyone wins!
posted by corey flood at 5:25 PM on November 8, 2010

We are not religious and had a Catholic ceremony because that is my wife's tradition.

For the readings, it really doesn't have to be that bad. From the booklet we got of choices for each moving part in the liturgy, the bit from St. Paul about how great love is in 1 Corinthians 13 (mentioned above) is pretty great, actually, and not religious. For the Gospel, the one about Jesus changing water into wine at a wedding is a bit goofy if you're in a mood to laugh at religion, but it does have a good pro-drinking message.

We also had secular music when my wife walked in: the Promenade from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition." No complaints from the organist/priest/anybody else.

Also, people understand that getting married in the Catholic Church means you don't have infinite latitude, so don't worry about people making too many conclusions about you guys from the features of the ceremony that don't seem to be things you would pick on your own.
posted by rustcellar at 6:34 PM on November 8, 2010

This may be a little counter-intuitive, but if you aren't a believer in the faith, then the ceremony and its parts should have no meaning for you. In objecting to aspects of the ritual, you are giving those aspects meaning you either do not believe in or do not observe.

At that point, the ritual becomes a series of meaningless gestures for you. There's no reason to object to any of them, since for you they are meaningless. At that point, you are simply performing a certain ritual to make your family happy, and why not?

If it means nothing to you, and everything to them, why not do it for them?

That's not to say that you can't make the ceremony a bit more personal or enjoyable for yourself. Music-wise, might I suggest some gospel-era Dylan? Plenty of love songs there which may or may not be about Jesus, and the priest should have no objection to. Should.

Good luck.
posted by Capt. Renault at 6:38 PM on November 8, 2010

have a small, low/no cost, intimate "for real" wedding prior. Invite only the very closest of friends and family members who won't get upset about it. Write your own vows, find a friend who can legally officiate. This will be your wedding, the other thing will just be a silly thing you have to walk trough to appease family.

I would recommend against this - we had friends who did the same thing (for different reasons) and it really left some people with a bad taste in their mouths when the truth came out.
posted by Lucinda at 6:41 PM on November 8, 2010

We got married in a Catholic cathedral and the organist played my college fight song as the post-communion music (all doodly and reverent-sounding, but it was the fight song). No kidding! (We also used Ode to Joy as a recessional, and probably Trumpet Voluntary as the processional but I don't actually remember.)

We picked readings from the entirety of the Bible, not just what was in the workbook, and I did my own translation of the first reading since I didn't like the standard translation. We had the sermon delivered by a female Methodist minister. The entire ceremony was gender-inclusive (the priest warned us he wouldn't do "man and wife" or "GOD IS A MAN" and if we weren't on board with equality we needed a different priest). We wrote all our own intercessions.

The only thing they were obnoxious about was the flowers, they had 8 zillion rules for flowers, but I didn't really care because I don't really see the point of decorating an already-pretty building. (Oh, also, the rules said I couldn't have a dog as the ring bearer.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:52 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

You've made the decision to have a Catholic Mass for the sake of your in-laws. If you start trying to customize it too much, it's quite possible that it won't feel catholic ENOUGH for your in-laws. This part of the wedding ceremony isn't really about you - that's what your reception is for.

You can choose other music and ask if that would be okay. The suggested work book exists as a model but is not necessarily the only required music that can be preformed. You could write your own vows but there's something classic about traditional ones (and, again, your in-laws might not like innovation in that bit). All of this pertains to the parish, its priest, and the relationship they have with their wedding liturgy. There is a spectrum and you need to find out where your priest and parish sits.

If you don't have a good relationship with the priest, develop one. My guess, from your question, is that this isn't your church and you do not have a relationship there. Rather, you are just another one of those couples asking for the church's blessing without actually planning on becoming part of this individual congregation. Talk to the priest, mention your concerns, but (above all), take seriously what the priest says, engage them, and listen to them. Act and communicate like you're not there to try and change that individual parish into your own form of worship. Parishes can have flexibility on music, some (as noted above) on the readings, and others have flexibility when it comes to the prayers, etc. Figure out where your priest stands on those things, find out those things that the individual parish feels really define them, and find out what things your in-laws need to make your wedding ceremony feel catholic enough for them. Then work around that. Don't act like having this catholic ceremony is as big of a imposition on your life as you really feel that it is.

But if you're having a ceremony in your in-laws catholic church, Lord help you. Just hand the workbooks to your mother-in-law and have her make the decisions.
posted by Stynxno at 7:22 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

An awesome priest can definitely help, as recommended above. Do you have friends who can help, by playing an instrument and/or singing, to make it a bit more personal? Choose important people to do your readings, and try to put your own spin in writing the prayers of the faithful (subtly push for gender equality or whatever social issue is your thing -- careful wording can make it sound reverential AND subversive).
posted by pised at 7:49 PM on November 8, 2010

If you have a space for a hymn to be sung by the congregation, I suggest "This is My Song." Yes, it's addressed to God, but it's a prayer for inclusiveness and understanding, which you can personally interpret not only as a prayer for peace among nations, but among all people, whatever identities they may have.

It's sung to the tune of Sibelius's "Finlandia."
This is my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
And sunlight beams on clover-leaf and pine.
But other lands have sunlight too and clover,
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
Oh, hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine.
I believe it's #437 in the United Methodist Hymnal, if you can find one.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:28 PM on November 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

nthing what everyone else said about finding a helpful priest. Or, really, just talking to the one who is going to marry you about this.

Another opportunity for making it "yours" is the prayers of the faithful. We wrote our own prayers that covered lots of things we felt were important, including the obvious (family and friends and the start of our married life), but also included things about the world we felt were important (prayers for those who were without loved ones; those suffering from genocide or other forms of hatred).

When looking for readings, I also suggest you find a searchable bible online and check out things involving "friendship". We felt like having a reading about the importance of friends helped to include those who were there and not religious/catholic/whatever. Ours was from Sirach. I also suggest 1 Corinthians verses 4-11, which talks about how everyone is different but that's okay (at least, that's how we decided to take it, YMMV, of course).
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:22 PM on November 8, 2010

When my wife and I married, we were in a similar situation. I am an atheist, my wife grew up catholic. I wanted a simple small wedding, maybe on a beach or someplace romantical. She wanted a church wedding, and her mother wanted to turn it into a giant family reunion.

We were both surprised at what we had to pay for the service, at the silly required premarital counseling, and all the ridiculous rules about what music we could and couldn't play.

Ultimately thought, we realized it wasn't about us, it was about our parents and their families. So we just rolled with it. Some guy in a dress is going to talk about Santa Claus or whoever for a few minutes. So what? Roll with it.

We made the reception ours by choosing a fun place with ample booze and a good sound system. By the time the dancing started all the churchy people had gone home.
posted by device55 at 9:44 PM on November 8, 2010

Small remote-control vibrators: she has your remote and you have hers, and hope you're not on the same frequency as the neighbor's garage door.
posted by pracowity at 11:14 PM on November 8, 2010

Do you get to pick whichever reading the priest has to do his sermon about? I totally recommend Genesis 24:10-27, which is all about the laborious task of watering camels and how it enables Abraham's manservant to find a wife for Isaac.

Believe me, I survived a Methodist wedding where the pastor chose to lecture us on the watering habits of camels and the backbreaking labor thereon and how it equated to committment in marriage for twenty minutes and it was Discovery Channel-tastic and, to this day, it's the only thing Mr. F remembers about his brother's wedding. Your friends will mention the Camel Thing for years to come.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 4:58 AM on November 9, 2010 [2 favorites]

Find a Catholic college and see if you can use their chapel: they'll probably be more flexible than a older parish priest. I have been to a few weddings in college chapels (two of three were alums), and it's nice.

We got married in my wife's childhood parish church, but we brought in a a priest (who used ot be in that parish but had since been reassigned). We got grilled by the pastor a bit beforehand, but then it was fine.

That "clanging gong" reading always makes me giggle.
posted by wenestvedt at 9:04 AM on November 9, 2010

We used an alleluia based on Leonard Cohen's version, and got a lot of compliments on it. Also, acoustic music from popular artists can also be used in the processional a lot of times.
posted by ejaned8 at 9:17 AM on November 9, 2010

I was raised Catholic, and I have been apart of more liturgy planning meetings than I can count.

In my experiences with Churches in the DC/Baltimore area, they are fairly flexible on the songs, readings, etc. Technically all that is required is the ceremony, and you don't even need to do a full mass with communion. You can choose the songs and the readings, and you can insist on gender-inclusive language, which the church shouldn't have a hard time with, unless they are total jerks.
posted by frecklefaerie at 10:52 AM on November 9, 2010

I strongly suggest not having a Catholic wedding if neither of you are actually Catholic. You won't ultimately gain from doing something insincere, even if you feel pressure from your in-laws. In the end, who is getting married, you or your in-laws? It's not their decision, it's yours. Be yourselves.
posted by KMH at 7:25 AM on March 9, 2011

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