The Theology of Marriage in the Ordo and Practice of the Roman Rite 

The Ordo celebrandi matrimonium of the Roman Rite[1] weaves together the many threads of a theology of marriage: marriage as covenant, permanent commitment, faithful union, and home for children.  The actual wedding brings these themes into sharper focus.  Any given wedding in the Roman Rite may employ ritual activity not foreseen in the ordo.  The practiced Rite of Marriage is more flexible than it seems on paper, subject to societal trends in wedding rituals and traditional cultural expressions.  In general, both the ordo and the wedding affirm the same fundamental theological principles of marriage in the West.  But there are exceptions.

Traditionally, marriage in the West rests on the couple’s exchange of consent.  The secular contract of marriage, a source of rejoicing in families and a building block of society, is sacralized by its celebration at church.[2]  As Edward Schillebeeckx wrote,

The Pauline idea of the church as the bride of Christ exerted an earlier and a greater influence in the East than in the West. . . .  The Western view of marriage, moreover, with its typically legal bias – marriage as a contract – played no part in the East, where more emphasis was placed on the mystical meaning of marriage and its spirituality.[3]

The marriage rite in the West may have an impoverished mystical meaning, but its incarnational motif is clear.  As the Word of God made humanity holy by becoming flesh, so the church makes marriage holy by its sacrament.

The Roman Rite makes no ritual distinction between first marriages and subsequent marriages.  If a person enters into a second marriage in the church, it is because the first partner has died or the first marriage was annulled.  In either case, the liturgy makes no adjustment.  It always celebrates the sacralization of the contract of marriage.

The theology of marriage is expressed in various components of the ritual: the ministers, the consent, the blessings and prayers, symbolic gestures and the readings.  It can also be seen in the couple’s personalization of their own wedding ceremony.

The Ministers.  It is generally understood in the Roman Rite that the bride and groom are the ministers of the sacrament of marriage.  They exchange their consent, and the priest or deacon receives it.[4]  Adrien Nocent states it this way: “In the West the principal ministers of the sacrament are the spouses themselves, who promise mutual fidelity in the presence of witnesses.”[5]

The Ordo celebrandi matrimonium does not deny this assertion, but it does not explicitly make it either.  In fact, its treatment of offices and ministries for the ceremony[6] deals entirely with the spiritual care given by pastors, not with the liturgical responsibilities of the bride and groom.

The ritual subtly affirms the role of the bride and groom in its description of the procession that opens the service.  Normally, one expects the principal minister of the liturgy to come last in the procession.  At a typical parish mass, for example, the priest who presides at the service comes last in procession.  At a wedding, however, even if the priest will preside for mass, he enters the procession in the middle.  The bride and groom are the last to enter, according to the rite.[7]

In the ring ceremony, the groom and bride give the rings to each other.  The priest or deacon blesses the rings, but the ministers – the couple – make the presentation.

The Consent.  Central to the celebration is the consent of the partners.  It unfolds in three parts.  First the priest asks the bride and groom about their intentions.  Next they exchange their consent to each other.  Finally, the priest receives the consent.

Concerning their intentions, the priest asks the bride and groom if they have come freely and willfully and if they are prepared to love and honor each other for the rest of their lives.  If appropriate, he then asks if they will receive children lovingly from God and raise them according to the law of Christ and the Church.  These questions establish the couple’s freedom, faithfulness, commitment to permanence, and openness to children.  Having ascertained these intentions, the priest invites the couple to join their right hands and express their consent.

The groom and bride exchange their consent.  Each partner promises the same as the other: “Ego, N. accipio te N. in (uxorem meam/maritum meum) et promitto me tibi fidem (servaturum/servaturam), inter prospera et adversa, in ægra et in sana valetudine, ut te diligam et honorem omnibus diebus vitæ meæ.”[8]

Alternatively, the priest may pose this sentence in question form, “Do you, N., take N., for your (wife/husband). . . ?” to which each partner responds, “I do.”

In either form, the consent expresses the intention of the partners, the promise of faithfulness, love and permanence.  The consent itself makes no reference to children as the questions preceding it do.  It emphasizes the indissoluble, intentional union of husband and wife.

In receiving the consent, the priest prays that God will strengthen it.  He then states in the present tense the famous dictum of Jesus, “Let no one separate what God is joining together.”[9]

Euchology.  Of principal interest among the ritual prayers is the nuptial blessing.  In the East, this blessing is essential to the sacrament.  In the West, where the consent is essential to the sacrament, the nuptial blessing plays an ancillary role.

There are three versions of the nuptial blessing.  The last two are recent compositions.  The first, though, is based on the one from the Hadrianum[10], which adapted the prayer from the Gelasian Sacramentary[11], which in turn reworked the one from the Verona Sacramentary.[12]  All these ancient prayers concerned the bride.

Two important alterations occurred in the preparation of these texts after the Second Vatican Council.  First, the nuptial blessing was expanded to include as its object the groom together with the bride.  This change resulted from a specific request of the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy.[13]  Second, appearing most recently in the 1991 editio typica altera, the nuptial blessings all include an epiclesis for the first time in the history of the Roman Rite.

This first change underscores the mutuality of the marriage covenant.  Both bride and groom are blessed.  The same point is achieved in the description of the wedding procession, where the bride and groom enter together; in the consent itself, where the words of one partner are the same as those of the other; and in the use of two rings instead of one.

The insertion of the epiclesis shows the influence of the Eastern Rites over the revisions in Roman practice.  An epiclesis first appeared in eucharistic prayers of the Roman Rite after the Second Vatican Council, again due to the influence of the East.  The same adjustment now occurs in the nuptial blessing.[14]

The other presidential prayers in the wedding ceremony also refer to the primary theological themes.  The Missale Romanum contains three ritual masses for the celebration of marriage.  The collects, prayers over the gifts, prefaces, insertions to Eucharistic Prayer I, prayers after communion, and solemn blessings refer many times to themes like love, mutuality, covenant, unity, and children.  The primary sources for these texts are the Verona, Gelasian, and Hadrianum sacramentaries.

Symbolic gestures.  Among the symbolic gestures of the Roman rite are the procession, the joining of hands, the exchange of rings and the posture for the nuptial blessing.

The entrance procession, as already noted, ends with the arrival of the bride and groom.  The assisting ministers enter first (presumably the servers and lector).  The priest follows.  Then the bride and groom process, and they may be accompanied at least by their parents and two witnesses.  The entrance chant is sung at the same time.  This is how the ordo describes the procession.[15]

The procession expresses the role of the bride and groom as ministers of the service; the importance of the witnesses, who represent the community and whose service is essential for the validity of the ceremony; the significance of the family who have brought the couple to this day; and the voice of the church singing its praise of God.  All of this takes place under the rubric of a liturgical procession, linking this part of the ceremony with the procession that opens any other mass and signals the sacred time when a community joins together in praise and thanks to God.

When the bride and groom exchange their consent, they join their right hands.  This gesture has antecedents throughout the history of Roman culture, as far back as the first century B.C.[16]  It signifies the joining that the consent accomplishes.

Another symbol is the wedding ring.  To seal the consent, the bride and groom ask each other to receive the ring as a sign of love and faithfulness.  The priest blesses the ring just before this exchange, endowing it with spiritual, not just contractual, meaning.

For the nuptial blessing, the new spouses approach the altar or they remain at their places and kneel.  These optional postures of the bride and groom are new to the 1991 editio typica altera.  No explanation is given, and its meaning is obscure.  In the Rite of Baptism for Children, the community processes to the altar for the final prayers and blessings, so there exists another case of coming to the altar for blessing.[17]  But people generally stand for blessings in the liturgies of the Roman rite.  Even the elect (catechumens in their final preparation for baptism) stand for the prayers and exorcisms of the major scrutinies.[18]

Lectionary.  The Roman lectionary presents an impressive array of texts suitable for the celebration of marriage.[19]  Nine passages from the Old Testament, fourteen from the New Testament, seven psalms and ten gospel passages are recommended.  Generally, one selection from each category is proclaimed at a wedding.

These texts also explore a variety of theological themes.  For example, Genesis 1:26-28, 31a speaks of parenting.  Jeremiah 31:31-32a, 33-34a proclaims God’s covenant.  Romans 15:1b-3a, 5-7, 13 summons the virtue of hospitality.  Ephesians 2a, 5:25-32 announces the mystical marriage of Christ and the Church.  Psalm 128:1-5 extols family life.  John 15:12-16 includes Jesus’ command to love.

However, there are also some unusual stories about weddings, chosen because they are biblical, but somewhat strange to today’s Western culture.  For example, Genesis 24:48-51, 58-67 tells the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.  Abraham, at age 136, lost his wife Sarah at age 127.  He sends a servant to find a wife for his son Isaac.  The servant brings camels and treasures to Abraham’s homeland, where he asks God to send the future bride to the local well.  The servant plans to ask her for a drink and see if she will offer the camels a drink as well.  If she does, the servant tells God, he will know that she is to be the bride of Isaac.  All this happens, and the servant brings Rebekah back to meet her future husband.  Isaac sees her, takes her into his tent, and makes her his wife.

Western couples today get engaged differently, and priests and deacons hope that two people will spend more time together than Rebekah and Isaac did before getting married.[20]

Overall, though, the wedding lectionary offers ample choices for the couple preparing the ceremony with care.

The Wedding.  The Rite of Marriage and the lectionary express common theological themes.  Consequently, the wedding does too.

But weddings engage other resources besides the liturgical books.  Couples have attended the weddings of their friends.  Their families have traditions.  They face cultural expectations.  Each couple brings personal preferences to the celebration of the wedding day.  Sometimes the couple’s adaptations to the ceremony echo the theology of the official ritual, sometimes they show a poor understanding of the ritual, and sometimes their adaptations conflict with it.[21]

The wedding procession rarely takes place as the Rite of Marriage describes.  More commonly, the groom’s parents and the bride’s mother are seated before the procession begins.  Then the assisting ministers and the priest enter – frequently from the sacristy, not along the main aisle.  Then the groomsmen appear from the sacristy and stand on one side of the sanctuary.  The procession of bridesmaids comes down the center aisle.  Finally, the bride enters down the same aisle, escorted by her father.  He presents her to the groom and takes his seat.  Meanwhile, no hymn is sung: the organist plays a march.

The practiced ritual emphasizes the disparity of the two families from which the bride and groom come, and the father’s role in handing the bride from his family to the groom’s.  As practiced, the wedding procession jars with the culture, where the bride and groom make the decision to marry on their own and where they share friends and attend each other’s family events long before the wedding.  The idea that the father plays a major role in the wedding is medieval and quite repugnant to modern Western sensibilities, but the traditional wedding procession remains in force, robbed of its meaning, establishing an unsettling false tone at the start of a ritual where sincerity should dominate.  The procession from the ordo is more appropriate to the church’s theology of marriage (highlighting the ministerial role of the groom and bride) and to Western society’s struggle for equality of the sexes (by having both enter together).  But surprisingly few couples find the proposed procession appealing.

Further, with instrumental music instead of congregational song the procession becomes an object to be watched, rather than a ritual for participation.  Again, from the beginning of the ritual, the procession sets a false tone.  It excludes the very people who play an active role in witnessing the exchange of consent and supporting the couple by their prayer.

The ministers of marriage in the Roman Rite are the couple who exchange their consent.  Yet, many Roman Catholic families see it differently.  They sense the priest is the minister, as in the Eastern rites.  Most Catholics would be surprised to find out the bride and groom administer the sacrament to each other.  They believe the presence of the priest is essential for a valid wedding.  It is not uncommon to meet resistance from the family if the priest delegates the wedding to a deacon.  In some circumstances when only one of the partners is Roman Catholic, the ceremony may take place in a setting apart from a Roman Catholic church and without a priest or deacon.  Canonically, the wedding is valid if the proper paperwork preceded it, but if the priest is not there, the family will still wonder if the ceremony “counted.”

In the United States, confusion concerning the minister of marriage is strong because the priest or deacon also exercises a civic role.  The clergy who preside at the wedding ceremony for the Church are recognized by the State as its minister.[22]  One ceremony seals the civil and ecclesial union.  Since the priest or deacon is the minister of the State, people assume he is also the minister of the sacrament.  In addition, the wedding license, issued by the counties of the states, is to be signed by the two witnesses and by the priest or deacon.  The couple, the primary ministers of the Church’s sacrament, do not sign the civil license of their own wedding.

In the first form of the consent, the ritual text indicates the groom and bride make this statement to each other.  In actual practice, however, they generally repeat it phrase by phrase after the priest or deacon.  Thus, even though the Western theology of marriage stresses that the bride and groom are the ministers, in practice, they do not often exchange their consent in either form without the mediation of the priest or deacon.

In a related matter, the wedding mass is commonly and erroneously thought to be essential to a Roman wedding.  A priest or deacon may preside at a wedding without mass.  It is the consent that marries the couple, not the mass, but many Roman Catholics sense that a wedding without mass is not a valid wedding.

Most Catholics in the West affirm the Western theology that marriage is a secular reality, but made sacred by the Church.  The Eastern Rites have an expressive theology of marriage starting from the mystical union of Christ and the Church, but most Catholics in the West find that idea hard to grasp.  Rarely do couples choose scripture readings expressing this mystical concept.  And although the prefaces and blessings of a wedding eloquently evoke the symbolic divine union, the words are poorly understood by the gathered Western faithful.

The parents of the couple have a special role, and most Roman weddings have them honorably and formally seated just before the procession begins.  Still, the liturgy of the Roman Rite expresses their role even better, allowing all the parents to take part in the procession with the couple.  Sadly, many engaged couples have multiple parents and step-parents, making this gathering of parents awkward.  Another option, provided by the rite, is that all the parents are seated ahead of time, and the bride and groom enter as equal partners.  But this still has not found favor among couples.

The symbolic gestures of the ordo are quite expressive, but many couples ask for additional ones.  Most popular is the unity candle.  Typically, a candle and two smaller tapers are set on a stand in the sanctuary prior to the ceremony.  The mothers of the bride and groom may light the taper before the ceremony, and then sometime after the exchange of rings, the bride and groom take the tapers and light the candle, burning now as a sign of their unity.  The ceremony is popular at many weddings; there is nothing particularly Christian about it.  The ordo does not include it, probably because the procession, the joined right hands, and the rings are meant to carry the weight of the same symbolism.  Still, many couples prefer to include the candle.

Surprising to many, there is no nuptial kiss among the symbolic gestures in the Roman Rite.  The highlight of the celebration of matrimony is the consent, and there is no reference to sealing it with a kiss.  If the wedding includes mass, the exchange of peace, which is optional at any other mass, is included with the rubric, “Tunc sponsi et omnes pacem et caritatem sibi invicem significant.”  But in a wedding without mass, no peace and charity is offered.  Some priests and deacons invite the couple to kiss anyway.

Before the procession, it is common for friends of the couple to light candelabra in the sanctuary.  Candles are to be lit before any ritual in the Roman Rite, but there is never any formal ceremony to it.  Most Catholic parishes tolerate the lighting of candles before the wedding procession, but the specific meaning of this ritual is not clear, apart from involving a few more friends in the wedding.

The texts of the wedding should be those drawn from the liturgical books, but sometimes couples ask for the reading of some nonbiblical literature or the singing of secular songs.  Both these requests work against the Western theological principle that the church ceremony sacralizes a secular event.  The request for secular texts tends to neutralize the very theology of marriage the Roman Rite promotes.

By far the most commonly requested biblical text for marriage is 1 Corinthians 12:31-13:8a.  Paul’s hymn to love immediately resonates with the engaged.  Paul, however, intended his words for the Christian community, not engaged couples.  The couple should hear this passage as a challenge to love other people, not just themselves.  Still, no other passage in the bible quite captures the emotion of the couple as this one does.  Most couples find the array of lectionary options disappointingly devoid of sentiments congruous with theirs.

The equality of the sexes is much prized in Western culture.  Men will often joke with women about the expectation that the bride will “love, honor and obey” the groom.  Many men are surprised to learn that the word “obey” is not part of the consent, and that the groom promises the bride absolutely everything she promises him.  Still, the preparation and expenses for the wedding typically fall unfairly to the bride and her family.

Some ethnic issues arise, from having the bride visit the statue of the Blessed Mother to enlacing the couple with a giant rosary.  Sometimes the meaning of these symbols has become obscure, but they retain some force by their repetition from one generation to the next.[23]

The theology of marriage in the Roman Rite is quite expressive both in the ordo and in the wedding.  At times, the expression falters, but on the whole it affirms the basic goodness of marriage, its mysterious participation in divine realities, and the sacred nature of Christian union.

[This article first appeared in Ephrem’s Theological Journal 8/2 (October  2004) 125-133]

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[1] Editio typica altera, Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1991.

[2] Paul speaks of a Christian marrying “in the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 7:39.

[3] Marriage: Human Reality and Saving Mystery, (London: Sheed and Ward, 1965), p. 344.

[4] In extraordinary circumstances, where ordained clergy are not readily available, the Holy See, the Conference of Bishops and the diocesan bishop may all consent to appoint a lay minister to witness the ceremony (Ordo celebrandi matrimonium, 25).

[5] “The Christian Rite of Marriage in the West,” Handbook for Liturgical Studies IV: Sacraments and Sacramentals, ed. Anscar J. Chupungco (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 2000), p. 275.

[6] 12-27.

[7] Cf. 46, for example.  As will be shown below, however, this rarely occurs in practice.

[8] 62.  The consent is given in the vernacular languages, of course.

[9] Cf. Matthew 19:6; Mark 10:9.

[10] Le Sacramentaire Grégorien: ses principales formes d’après les plus anciens manuscrits, ed. Jean Deshusses (Éditions Universitaires Fribourg Suisse, 1979):I:838.

[11] Liber sacramentorum romanae aeclesiae ordinis anni circuli (Sacramentarium Gelasianum), ed. Leo Cunibert Mohlberg (Rome: Casa Editrice Herder, 1981): 1451.

[12] Sacramentarium Veronense, ed. Leo Cunibert Mohlberg (Rome: Herder editrice e libreria, 1978): XXXI 1110.

[13] Sacrosanctum concilium, 78.

[14] Nocent questioned this (p. 300).  He acknowledges the value of including an epiclesis in the Roman marriage rite, but wonders why it appears in the nuptial blessing, which is not regarded as essential to the sacrament, instead of in the consent, which is.  However, the consent is made by one partner to the other.  It is not addressed to God.  Perhaps the priest’s reception of the consent could have included a reference to the Holy Spirit, especially in the text where the priest says, “Dominus benigne confirmet” (64).

[15] 46.

[16] Nocent, 277.

[17] Ordo baptismi parvulorum, editio typica altera, (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1973): 67.

[18] E.g. Ordo initiationis Christianæ adultorum, editio typica (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1972): 162.

[19] IV:801-805

[20] See Paul Turner, Preparing the Wedding Homily: A Guide for Preachers and Couples, (San Jose: Resource Publications, 2003), p. 19.

[21] The adaptations described here are commonly experienced by Roman Rite parishes in the United States of America.

[22] There are exceptions.  For example, any church minister performing a wedding ceremony in the State of Hawaii must be personally delegated to do so by the State.  Most states give a blanket permission for all ministers, but some states require additional approval.

[23] See, for example, Don y promesa: Costumbres y tradiciones en los ritos matrimoniales Hispanos (Portland: Oregon Catholic Press, 1997).

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