The Prayer of the Marriage Liturgy
This October saw many of the world’s bishops and Pope Francis meet in Rome to discuss the topic of marriage and the family. We are familiar with the Church’s long-standing insistence on the sanctity of marriage, and its requirement that weddings be celebrated in Catholic churches and be witnessed by a presiding priest or deacon. But such was not always the case. In the first three centuries of Christianity, people married only according to the civil laws of the time. There would be the traditional family ceremony, but there would rarely be any church blessing of the wedding. Christian writers of the day said little about marriage, but when they did, they affirmed the goodness of marriage, urged people to marry within their community, and warned about proper behavior at wedding feasts.
In the fourth century there is strong evidence that priests, at least on occasion, would give their blessing to some weddings, not because this was required, but more as a favor to the couple. Popes of the time began to require that at least priests and other clerics who married must have their unions blessed by another priest. In fact, until well into the eleventh century, the only marriages that were celebrated inside the church building seem to have been the weddings of priests and other clergy. The custom then rapidly spread, so that eventually the Church would have authority over marriages, and the ceremonies would have to be celebrated in church buildings and officially blessed by Catholic clergy.
The liturgy of marriage has great symbolic power, as does all of our liturgical ritual. Yet we realize that a ceremony alone does not guarantee a healthy and lasting marriage. Nor is it sufficient to rely on the Church’s clear teaching about the significance and sanctity of the marriage bond. Other powerful cultural forces are at work, telling people that marriage may not be as important as once commonly believed. All parishes that I know of have excellent marriage preparation programs, required of all who plan to marry. Yet the divorce rate among Catholics remains alarmingly high. And half of all marriages this year will end in divorce. The average length of those marriages is a little over seven years. Most of these divorced people will remarry, but 60 percent of those second marriages will also end in divorce.
The U.S. bishops, along with the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals, addressed this alarming issue in a joint statement some years ago: “Our nation is threatened by a high divorce rate, a rise in cohabitation, a rise in non-marital births, a decline in the marriage rate, and a diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying, especially among young people. The documented adverse impact of these trends on children, adults, and society is alarming. Therefore, as church leaders, we recognize an unprecedented need and responsibility to help couples begin, build, and sustain better marriages, and to restore those threatened by divorce.”
We eagerly await what our bishops and Pope Francis will finally say about marriage and family life. Though it is unclear what the future holds, the liturgy of the marriage rite, well celebrated, remains with us as a powerful and forceful voice about the sanctity of marriage and the power of a healthy and holy marriage to shape the attitudes and lives of countless others.