No Such Thing as a Perfect Wedding
Something will go wrong, but it is the marriage that matters
It is always so exciting meeting with an engaged couple to arrange their wedding date and begin the process of assessment and preparation. I find it so refreshing that they truly want Jesus and the Church to be part of their special day -— but even more so that they want him to be part of their married life.
One of my roles as the priest, apart from preparing them for this partnership of life and love, is to be there in their preparatory journey, to offer fatherly advice as needed. For example, in the initial meeting I always want them to know that this is their moment to stand on their own and make important decisions. This is not about what their mom or dad wants, but rather what they desire as a couple for the good of their marriage.
At the wedding rehearsal, typically the night before the wedding, I offer three pieces of fatherly advice. First, I tell them not to underestimate the ability to witness to God’s love. I remind them that they no doubt invited many married couples to the wedding, some of whom may not be happy. In other words, the collective flame burning in their hearts is diminished by a lack of oil (or love). I want them to know that the way they live out their marriage can actually inspire other married couples to renew and recommit.
The second piece of fatherly advice I share is to tell them not to be nervous about the wedding. The wedding is the easy part. The bridal coordinators and I will be present to essentially tell them what to do and when to do it. I tell them that if they want to be nervous about the marriage, that is appropriate, because they know not what will happen.
The last piece of fatherly advice I relate to the couple is to tell them that there is no such thing as a perfect wedding. In spite of all of the preparations, and with all due respect to checklists and wedding coordinators, something usually goes wrong. I don’t share this news to bring the couple down, but simply to ground them in reality. I also say it from 30 years of experience of officiating at weddings.
This fatherly advice also is rooted in Scripture, inasmuch as they ran out of wine at the wedding at Cana. What can possibly go wrong? Anywhere there are human beings, there inevitably will be mistakes, for none of us, including us priests, are perfect. Some of these imperfections are not even visible to the congregation on the wedding day. Nevertheless, there are moments of imperfection, some of which are even beyond one’s control.
In my 30 years of celebrating weddings, I have found imperfections to emerge as a result of the following seven factors:
Some weddings are imperfect because of lateness. For example, a member of the bridal party arrives late. I have waited a few times for the bride to arrive because of traffic or issues with the limousine. Thankfully no one has ever had to wait for me. At the rehearsal, it is always important to remind the bridal party about timeliness.
One of the first weddings I celebrated, the couple did not secure a marriage license. Thankfully, I knew someone in the marriage license bureau who was able to promptly rectify this situation.
One of my classmates was all ready to celebrate a wedding. The couple did not present the marriage license until the day of the wedding. What is more, they never opened the envelope in which it was contained. When my classmate opened up the envelope, he discovered that there was a mistake. The license was not for the couple to be married that day in his church but for a same-sex couple. Sadly, he could not have the wedding without the documentation.
There also have been weddings when the documentation from the office for matrimonial concerns or the seal from another diocese does not arrive on time. In these moments, the celebrant needs to get on the phone to secure the proper permissions and/or dispensations.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
have a website dedicated to passing
on the wisdom of the Church’s teaching on
marriage. The site, foryourmarriage.org,
offers practical tips for engaged couples,
including planning the ceremony, budgeting
for the wedding and more.
Every bride dreams about that picture-perfect day. The sun is shining, the temperatures are just right, and there is no rain, snow, sleet or hail. One February in southwestern Pennsylvania, I conducted a rehearsal for a couple who would be married the next day. It began snowing the night of the rehearsal and continued through the night. When morning came, it was still snowing, and the roads were impassable, and the parking lots were filled with snow. There was something like 14 inches of snow. There was no way we could have a wedding. Thankfully the couple had a provision in their place of venue for the reception that, in the case of inclement weather, the wedding could be moved to the following day. The only problem was that the diocese in which I serve does not allow Sunday weddings. Fortunately, I was able to secure permission to conduct the wedding on a Sunday.
One July day some years ago, it was sweltering hot and humid. The forecasters were calling for a high of 100 degrees on the Saturday in which I had a wedding. I will never forget this, because it was on the same day as my priesthood anniversary. The church is beautiful beyond words and has the third longest aisle in the diocese, but it is not air-conditioned. I told the couple that we would be happy to celebrate the wedding in the main church, but we could also do it in the downstairs church, which happens to be air-conditioned. Although there are no pews, just chairs, I told them it might be more comfortable for everyone to be in this space. While this was not what the couple planned for, it worked. And everyone was cool.
4. Church Building
The church in which I have been pastor for the last 10 years has undergone considerable restoration. There has been scaffolding inside and outside of the church at various times. Early on in my term as pastor, there was scaffolding on the entire façade. It was not a pretty backdrop.
It happened that a groom called me the week of his wedding and asked if I could have the scaffolding dismantled for his wedding. I told him it took days to build and that the work was not completed. On the day of the wedding, he and his wedding party, along with the bride, posed for photos in front of the scaffold-covered façade with hard hats on. That is what I call making lemonade out of a lemon.
5. Accidents and Mishaps
Early on in my priesthood I remember going to pray with the bride. She was in a bus with her bridal party. Just before entering the Church, as I led them in, the maid of honor stepped into chewing gum. It was a mess.
Another time, I went to pray with the groom and the best man before the wedding. After the prayer, I asked if they had the rings. The best man opened a case with the rings. The groom then said that somewhere from home to the church they lost a setting in the bride’s ring. He said not to say anything, because the ring was insured and would be replaced. I told him that I was going to tell her immediately, because the first thing any bride does when she receives the ring is extend her hand and gaze at the new piece of jewelry. I took one of the wedding coordinators with me to tell the bride. She took it like a champ.
One Saturday afternoon I was working at my computer when, lo and behold, at 3:15 p.m. (weddings begin at 3 p.m.), my parochial vicar called me from the sacristy. I said, “Aren’t you doing a wedding now?” He said, “Dave, that is what I need to talk to you about. Can you come over?”
I darted over to the rectory to discover that the groom had not arrived due to illness. He had a migraine and was unable to lift his head up. The organist went into an impromptu concert as we all waited. Finally, the groom arrived at nearly 4 p.m. I helped him down the side aisle, and my assistant officiated at a very brief, albeit memorable, ceremony.
At one wedding, the bride became sick and had to leave the altar. Once again, an impromptu concert ensued. She made it back into the sanctuary but was unable to exit. She returned to the sacristy, where we called the paramedics, and she insisted on taking a selfie while on the gurney. She would eventually make it to the reception.
And every year there are at least a handful of weddings where someone faints. My experience is that the one who faints is usually the maid of honor. At one wedding, I saw that the maid of honor kept slouching in the kneeler. At one point in the homily, I asked, “Are you OK?” She nodded affirmatively, but seconds later she fell backwards. She was dehydrated. We were able to lead her into the sacristy, where she proceeded to drink five bottles of water. This happens frequently in the church to which I am assigned, as there is no air conditioning.
7. Clerical Error
At times we clergy can be the source of a wedding imperfection. Maybe it was something we said or the way we said it that left a bad taste. I remember in one of the first weddings I celebrated, I invited the people to stand before the bride arrived. I found out after the fact that is a no-no.
One time I introduced the couple at the end of Holy Mass using the bride’s last name instead of the groom’s. As clergy, we certainly are not exempt from imperfection.
Perhaps my greatest and most embarrassing error came on the first weekend of using the newly revised ritual for marriages. I celebrated what I thought was a beautiful wedding. Following the Mass, the bridal party returned to the sanctuary for photos. The mother of the bride approached me and said, “Father, that was a beautiful wedding. But why did they not say their vows?” I gave a knee-jerk response indicating that they said their vows. And then I rewound the tape in my mind, and I could not remember that part of the ritual. With a sense of embarrassment I admitted that I mistakenly omitted them. It was easy to do, as I was using a whole new marriage ritual. I immediately gathered the bride and groom and bridal party together and apologized for the mishap. I then proceeded to correct the problem. I also made a note in the marriage file of the omission and the fact that it had been fully rectified, so as to insure for the record that the marriage was valid and licit.
For 30 years, the lesson I have been teaching couples is that there is no such thing as a perfect wedding. In teaching this lesson, I have come to learn an even more important lesson — namely, that there is no such thing as a perfect priest. But how amazing it is that God works through our imperfections to impart his grace? At the end of the day, it is just as important for us priests to be grounded in reality and to know that, even as hard as we may try, we are not perfect.
FATHER DAVID J. BONNAR is editor of The Priest magazine.