Kudos to J.D. Long-García for his August 22 story in America Magazine on community weddings at a church in Mesa, Arizona. The story offers what I believe should be a priority among many US parishes, particularly those with a strong Hispanic presence: namely, a new approach to weddings and to marriage ministry.
He describes the scene at Queen of Peace Catholic Church:
The 24 couples roar with laughter. They are sitting next to each other in pews. Some are in their 20s, but others are in their 40s and 50s. Some couples have been living together for years already. Some are in common-law marriages, while others are civilly married. With their families, they easily fill 25 rows of pews on the north side of the sanctuary.
He points to some of the reasons why this ministry is necessary:
Catholic couples choose community weddings for a variety of reasons. Many of them have been civilly married for years and want to be married in the church to receive Communion. In some cases, they feel unwelcome because of their marital status and have fallen away from the church. Parishes in a number of dioceses, including Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago, offer community weddings as a way to bring them back.
The community weddings are also free, meaning that those who cannot afford a large ceremony still have access to the sacrament.
Community weddings are pastorally sensitive, mission focused, and a blessing to the Church today. First, they respond to a clear need: many couples who are poor find themselves shut out of formalizing their marriage. We know, for example, that marriage in the US has become something that college-educated people do, while poorer people are less likely to marry.
Second, as the story points out, the invitation to marry in the Church provides people with a new avenue of deepening faith within the communion of the Church. Long points to the story of Lillian and Nelson Fuentes: she was Catholic and he was not. Theirs is a story that sounds very much like what Saint Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 7:14, that a man can become holy through his wife:
“God had a plan,” Mr. Fuentes laughs, explaining that thanks to Ms. Fuentes, he eventually started attending classes as part of the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. “I started learning about how the church was founded and other things, and my doubts just started falling behind.”
Third, this ministry enhances parish life. In the case of Queen of Peace, it has enlivened the community, which because of the ministry now has a monthly movie night that offers avenues for conversation about married life. The couples who participate grow as a community centered in the Church’s theology of marriage.
It is worth recalling that the practice of the sacrament of marriage in the early Church probably looked something like what Long describes here. Rather than being an intramural affair — that is, a private ceremony for Catholics whose lives were circumscribed by Church laws — marriage was a ceremony by which the Church blessed the marriages that their members had contracted under Roman law. In many cases, the marriage was the avenue of entry into the Church. Adults seeking to enter the Church went through a catechumenate and then had their existing marriages blessed by a priest in the presence of the congregation. (The banns of marriage are a vestige of this practice; an announcement had to go out to insure that the people were not already married.) (For an extensive history of marriage in the Church, see Theodore Mackin’s trilogy on the subject.)
Pope Francis’s well publicized convalidating of a marriage onboard a plane was a response to the same basic pastoral issue: the difficulty of marrying within the Church. The solution proposed here — making marriage a regular part of a parish’s celebrations — is an important one.