Common Wisdom: ‘I Do’

I am no longer startled when handed a program as I enter a church wedding. The first time it happened I thought the usher gave me the church bulletin and I wondered why. Now I am accustomed to this ceremonial accessory.

A veteran of weddings where earnest brides and grooms pen flowery vows, I detect that this practice is on the wane. Less confident about writing skills, and less enthusiastic about Kahlil Gibran, couples today are returning to Scripture. I always hope the lector friend will not be reading Song of Songs, or Saint Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, but I am usually disappointed. Since lector friends tend to be better friends than lectors, it is probably just as well familiar passages are chosen.

But back to the programs. I find myself actually looking forward to them. Heretofore, one had to be content staring at the altar and periodically craning one’s neck in hope of spying the wedding party about to set forth down the aisle. Now there are mini-bios to read on everyone involved in the production, which weddings have become.

Weddings on a modest scale are becoming endangered species as a quick scan of newspaper announcements reveals. What strikes the eye instantly is the lengthening list of bridal attendants. Numerical strength guarantees an impressive procession but runs afoul with the decision to include everyone in sanctuaries which are short on accommodation.

Crowding, however, is the second problem. With all the meticulous attention to wedding details, it is disheartening to attend those Masses where apparently no one bothers to mention at rehearsal the solemnity which should accompany the joy of a Nuptial Mass. Time does not seem taken to acquaint non-Catholics with the rubrics of participation, or to give a refresher course to Catholics who literally may be out of practice. It is incongruous to see Catholics of all ages in the congregation kneeling at appropriate moments while young, physically fit attendants sit in the sanctuary, even at the Consecration, barnacled to chairs. They are not, after all, Siskel and Ebert in the balcony. They occupy holy space. It is particularly absurd for attendants to wear formal attire while exhibiting careless behavior. Not to mention the message it sends to non-Catholic guests. In braver times we would have called it scandalous. Of the Nuptial Mass a Protestant friend said to me with good-natured envy, “What a ceremony! You’d really feel married.” Indeed.

The contemporary wedding is nothing if not organized. Coordinating a plethora of features crucial to the success of a memorable day drives many a mom and bride-to-be to secure professional help. A few years ago I noticed a lady with blue hair bustling about the vestibule, straightening the bridal train, issuing instructions to a docile assembly of those about to process, all the while maintaining a fixed smile. I learned she had a title: she was The Wedding Consultant. Her control, however, does not extend to photographers, who frequently roam the church like paparazzi seeking Princess Di. One particularly obnoxious fellow burst onto the altar before Mass and whirled around to face the congregation for a group shot. He then loped up and down the aisles turning suddenly with a reptilian hiss to catch the attention of guests who must look, in the album, like deer caught in headlights.

The bride’s freedom to concoct her own fashion show was never better. As a bridesmaid, my daughter was invited by one adventurous bride to “wear pink.” Any pink. Unconcerned about a collision of hues, the bride wound up with a unique processional palette, from pale to shocking pink. At the other end of the color spectrum are brides who assign their bridesmaids uniform black, which looks funereal to me but chic to a younger generation.

In a society where anything goes, it is encouraging to note couples choosing church. Marrying on horseback, or in hot air balloons (which tried the affection of guests) seems to be over. The church wedding is favored, although some traditional symbolism is forsaken. Only a few curmudgeons in the congregation experience discomfort at the sight of a bride swathed in virginal white, when it is common knowledge she and the groom set up housekeeping two years ago. As always, the sacrament is springboard to a social event. Lately, it is introduced into lives already shared. If no longer the key, it remains the seal.

I was married in a large San Francisco church. Including the priest, there were eight of us present. Three thousand miles away my father was in poor health and my mother reluctant to fly alone. As an only child, I was pained by the reality they could not be with me. Similarly absent were my prospective parents-in-law, due to a crisis in the life of one of their nine children. We were encouraged by our selfless families, nevertheless, to marry in San Francisco, honeymooning as we journeyed back to them in New York, where my husband would begin medical internship. It made sense, because money was limited. I am amused and amazed at the spectacular honeymoon plans of today’s newlyweds. Money seems no object and so many singles have “done” foreign capitals it is necessary to search for exotica, for the unexplored. A local twosome left last month for the Galapagos, light years removed from our crossing America in a Volkswagen bug.

I was denied a Nuptial Mass because marrying a non-Catholic at the time removed the privilege. The ceremony was brief and without fanfare. There was no procession, no blue-haired lady, no photographer. It was late afternoon, the church was still and unlit except for a small area near the altar. I remember it as an intensely private moment, which I wanted it to be. When I got past the awful absence of my mother and father, I felt quiet joy. Undistracted, I made my vows in the silence of a church I never entered again, lest the precious memory of that day be disturbed. I would not exchange the intimacy of that ceremony for any of the beautiful extravaganzas I’ve witnessed through the years since then.

Walking away from church, my brother-in-law asked with thinly veiled hostility, “Well, are you going to love my brother or your church?” Both, I replied. And I do.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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