A Sorta Catholic’s Very Catholic Wedding

Photo credit: © Anthony Vazquez Photography Photo credit: © Anthony Vazquez Photography

I am a Sorta Catholic. Growing up in New Jersey, I was raised Catholic and went to 12 years of Catholic school. But as a comedy writer living in Los Angeles, being Catholic is not a huge part of my deal. I only go to church on holidays or when the world feels particularly grim. I usually give up something lame for Lent, like “being hard on myself.” I practice what I call “Chipotle Catholicism”: I go down the line picking and choosing the parts of Catholicism that appeal to me (charity, Pope Frank, spooky stories about saints) in order to create a custom-made spiritual burrito.

So two years ago when I got engaged to a fellow Sorta Catholic, I assumed we would have a Sorta Catholic wedding. We would get married at a fancy hotel or in one of those woodsy fields where Pinterest people get married. I would walk down the aisle to a cool, meaningful song and be married by our funniest friend. The ceremony probably would not mention Jesus. Maybe God, but God would be called something vague like The Universe, as not to make anyone uncomfortable.

When I told my mother my vision for my wedding, she got on a plane and flew across the country just to spit in my face.

Where did I come up with this crap? When you get married it is in a church with church music and your aunt reading “Love Is Patient.” A priest does the ceremony, you repeat after him and then once it is done, you have a relaxing, 20-hour break until your reception at the Knights of Columbus.

So where did I come up with this crap?

Los Angeles.

Now I know what you’re thinking: L.A. sucks. And it does. When I moved here four years ago, my realtor tried to talk me into renting the guest house of a pornography director who grew marijuana in his garden and had a pet wolf. But outside of the occasional L.A. nonsense, the people I have met out here are truly wonderful: kind and funny and smart. And regardless of background or religious affiliation, they all have fancy, cool weddings.

If my mother was going to force me to have a Catholic wedding (“Which I am!” she flew across the country again to scream), it was going to be a Sorta Catholic wedding.

So if my mother was going to force me to have a Catholic wedding (“Which I am!” she flew across the country again to scream), it was going to be a Sorta Catholic wedding.

The Venue

We started looking for churches in New York City. As anyone who has ever attended a Catholic wedding knows, there is never a seamless transition between the ceremony and reception. Because most churches have 5 p.m. Mass on Saturdays, they require wedding ceremonies to take place at 3 p.m., giving all of your guests a nice three-hour window to spend at a hotel bar and then arrive at your reception ready to fight and act weird.

When I raised this as a concern to my mother, she rolled her eyes. “They can take a nap or go to Starbucks.”

I called dozens of churches. Would anyone be willing to marry us at a more reasonable time? But every church lady in Manhattan had the same answer: “No.” One Dana Carvey character hung up on me for not knowing that “Mass is at 5:30 but Father has confessional hours prior and you have some nerve thinking he’s going to move them for your wedding!” I was beginning to think I was not the first annoying bride who called inquiring if she could bend the rules.

We settled on a church in midtown that my mother had fallen in love with after her visit there. Running out of time, I booked it sight unseen. I flew home a few months later to check it out, and when I got there, I was surprised. I don’t know what I was expecting, but this was a church. Not one of those new-age, modern churches with clean lines and lots of light—the kind that could be a church but could also be an Apple store. This was a church with stone floors, crazy-high ceilings and stained glass. Granted we were seeing it with all the lights off on a cold February night, but the vibe was less “chill wedding” and more “the Coronation of Pope Celestine V.”

The Church of St. Paul the Apostle
Tracey Wigfield's very Catholic wedding ceremony (© Anthony Vazquez Photography)

I did not like it. As usual, my mother thought I was just being difficult. “It’s classic and beautiful. Why can’t you like nice things like Kate Middleton?”

And why couldn’t I? Why did any of these little things matter? It was just a wedding. I had always quietly judged women who got super into planning their weddings, women who threw fits because the Chiavari chairs they ordered were supposed to be champagne and not rose gold. I would smugly shake my head, “Girlfriend, it ain’t about the Chiavari chairs.” These women clearly had bigger issues going on that they were not interested in addressing. But that was not me. Sure, I was having bi-weekly meltdowns, not just about the Catholic parts of the wedding, but everything: the invitations, my dress, the Chiavari chairs that I did not order in rose gold—why would I ever do that unless I was purposely trying to make the table look like disgusting trash from hell?! No, I was different. I was just trying to plan a nice wedding, and everyone was getting in my way.

The Music

And that was the kind of chill headspace I was in when Bev the Church Music Director (name changed to protect the innocent) came into my life. My fiancé and I had talked about music that we wanted at the ceremony, in particular a George Harrison song that had special meaning to us. Trying to be helpful, my fiancé offered to email Bev about our selections. His email was met with a list of four classical songs from which we could choose. I nixed all four immediately (boring, boring, spaghetti sauce commercial, Looney Tunes). Surely, if I could explain the situation in person, Bev would understand and let me have my way. “But she said these were the only choices,” mumbled my husband-to-be, his eyes searching for a nearby exit from the room/this impending marriage to a crazy woman. I told him, “Well, we’ll just see about that!”

I was not asking to walk down the aisle to “Who Let the Dogs Out.” I just wanted a sweet, tonally appropriate pop song.

My mother and I showed up at Bev’s office ready for a fight. Bev, a small, smartly dressed church lady, very politely explained that this was a traditional church and therefore had traditional standards. She handed me the list again. I did not want the list. What was the big deal? I was not asking to walk down the aisle to “Who Let the Dogs Out.” I just wanted a sweet, tonally appropriate pop song. But Bev wasn’t budging. My mother tried to explain that in the parish where I grew up standards were a little more...relaxed. It was not unusual at a special event for the church musicians to “have a little fun,” maybe pull out an Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “Oh, well, not here,” purred Bev. “A man once asked me if he could play a Rolling Stones song at his father’s funeral. I guess it was his father’s favorite song,” she chuckled at the memory. “I told him, absolutely not.”

Excuse me, Bev? Now, I know I am not the one whose paycheck is signed by J. H. Christ and Associates, but this felt like a wild abuse of power. If God flows through everything good and joyful on this earth, God would absolutely be on board with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” That song has even got a choir in it! God can’t get enough of choirs! And surely God would not begrudge a grieving man who wanted to honor his dad.

After throwing a pretty embarrassing crying fit in her office, I stormed out, resolute. In the planning of this wedding, there were many battles that I ceded. I couldn’t say my own vows. Fine. I couldn’t get married in a Pinterest field. Whatever. But The Battle at Bev Run was not a battle I was willing to lose. Church music was the hill on which I had chosen to die.

I couldn’t say my own vows. Fine. I couldn’t get married in a Pinterest field. Whatever. But church music was the hill on which I had chosen to die.

My campaign raged on over email. Back and forth we went. I would suggest a song, and Bev would refer me back to the list. Little by little I ceded ground. Fine, a pop song was out of the question, but what about a different classical song? Something less stodgy and serious? Maybe, teased Bev. What did I have in mind? I researched classical music, pouring over YouTube clips, consulting musician friends. Finally I found a church-appropriate, classical, Bev-proof piece and sent it to her. She emailed back: “I don’t have an arrangement for that. What about a song from the list?” Who taught this woman to negotiate? Sun Tzu? I was getting nowhere.

The Epiphany

A month before the wedding, my fiancé and I attended pre-Cana. Initially, I balked at the idea. I was too busy for this, between my full-time job as a TV writer and my part-time job as a Wedding Tantrum Thrower, plus the shifts I had picked up as a Florist Antagonizer. Being so busy, I did not love the idea of wasting a Saturday in a school gymnasium listening to some Catholic power-couple talk about the rhythm method.

But the thing they don’t tell you about pre-Cana is—it’s kinda fun. Sure, there was an elderly Korean couple who spoke about sex with the in-your-face confidence of a Cosmo magazine editor, but the rest of the speakers were pretty normal. It was basically just a daylong religion class full of easy quizzes and little art projects. One of the worst parts of being an adult is there are not any “easy classes.” Kids in school get to balance math and history with religion and art, but for adults, it’s just work and taxes and submitting health claims. Maybe that is why people like taking Buzzfeed quizzes and going to those weird places where you pay to drink wine and make pottery.

We were coming into the home stretch of pre-Cana and, for our last exercise, the priest told us all to stand and face our spouses-to-be, holding hands. The priest would say vows and we would repeat them. “Yikes,” I joked, pretending to yank at my collar, “this feels a little too real.” My fiancé and I took each other’s hands, and as we started repeating the vows, saying them in unison with the 60 other couples in the gymnasium, something weird happened. I started crying. I had cried a lot during the past few months, but this was not a tantrum over the price of gold embossed napkins. This was an emotional catharsis, the kind of deep tears reserved for a Pixar movie you watch a little drunk on an airplane. My fiancé was concerned. Why was I crying?

Why was I crying? Because I realized I was getting married. Feels like I could have used context clues to figure that one out sooner.

Why was I crying? Because I realized I was getting married. Feels like I could have used context clues to figure that one out sooner, but somehow it had not occurred to me. Like really occurred to me. We were embarking on this giant, life-changing life change. And it was both terrifying and comforting because we were not doing it alone. We were doing it with one another. And with the 60 other couples that had just listened to an ancient Korean man talk about how he likes to have sex on his birthday and with the billions of people who had done this before us and who would do it after we were long gone. It was one of those moments that strikes you and makes you feel both very big and very small at the same time.

Then, the epiphany: “Girlfriend, it wasn’t about the Chiavari chairs.”

How could I not see it before? All the fits and the fights and agonizing over stupid details were just a distraction. A distraction from the simple, unavoidable truth: I was getting married. For real and forever.

Rather than confront the enormity of what was happening, I poured my fears into wedding planning. My mind went to Bev. Poor Bev! She was right. Getting married was serious business. It should happen in a serious place, scored by a serious song written a long-ass time ago.

And you can’t sorta do it. It’s like being Catholic. Or having a kid or climbing Mount Everest or doing anything worth doing. You can’t sorta get married.

After my realization at pre-Cana, everything felt a little lighter. Things went wrong on our wedding day, as they always do. It rained. The church accidentally mixed up the reading we chose so my brother-in-law read “Love Is Patient” after all. People got drunk and weird. But overall, the day was perfect. Special and joyful, with a ceremony that would have made Pope Celestine V himself say, “Damn, this is, like, super Catholic.”

Luis Gutierrez
1 month ago

I cannot remember when was the last time that I heard Ephesians 5:21-33 read in a Catholic wedding. Wonder why...

Robert Klahn
1 month ago

You should have held out for another acceptable to the church song.

I would bet there are more than four acceptable choices. Most likely she gave you the four choices she liked best.

ed gleason
1 month ago

Too many Traceys.. so we gave up marriage prep 15 years ago after 25 years . The 5 small discussion groups all insisted they should let the 'nuns' do the pass on of the Faith . I yelled 'no nuns are left so therefore no pass on to your precious one child '.
Ed & Peg

Carol Hendrick
1 month ago

And after all this, surely you need to tell us the song they let you use!? I think we all have stories like this but I'll spare us all. Music ministry in the Catholic Church is quite a um, interesting issue. Congrats to you both.

Tom Mohan
1 month ago

In our years of marriage prep it became difficult with a steady increase in those preparing for a wedding rather than a sacrament. However, there were always breakthroughs like Tracey described and "for real and forever" says it all. A sense of humor is a huge advantage in life and marriage. Congratulations to the newlyweds. This was hilarious!

John Halloran
1 month ago

While the idea of a "church" wedding is good, and with proper instruction and parish guidelines, can be a wonderful experience, this article struck me as extremely odd, in two very important ways:

1. Only 4 songs from which to choose? And no mention of anything assembly related? I am the director of the San Antonio Archdiocesan Chapter of the National Association of Pastoral Musicians. I also currently direct my parish's Spanish Mass music ministry and oversee the Music and Liturgies at Padua Place, an assisted-living facility for priests who require medical attention. So, I think I am qualified in this area. This was just wrong. It's incorrect Liturgical practice and it does nothing to include the bride and groom in the planning of the Liturgy for their wedding. Yes, Marriage is a Sacrament, but exploring the options and understanding why we do what we do is very important for the development of the prayer life of the couple.

2. Choosing a church long-distance... Why not the parish in LA, with her current friends, etc. I get the fact that she didn't go to Mass regularly, but this would have been an excellent way to connect with her local parish and priest and explore Marriage in the context of community - with the people who will be sharing the journey.

And, maybe this is cultural, but why not an evening wedding Mass, after the parish Saturday evening Mass? And why the hours long break between an afternoon wedding and dinner? You can't serve an early dinner? By the time the wedding party and guests would get to the reception, I would imagine it would be 5 p.m. (for a 3 p.m. wedding)... and dinner would be served about 6, I would think. At least, that's how it usually works here in San Antonio.

Ari Mack
1 month ago

I don't think "sorta" Catholics should marry in the Church until they have a true understanding of Catholic marriage and know exactly what they are promising and entering into. That's part of what contributes to such a high divorce rate among Catholics, a lack of understanding of the Catholic sacrament of marriage. For what it's worth, our very Catholic, not sorta-at-all wedding preparation was terrible. I'm glad that meditating on the vows reached you on a deeper level. The music director should have pointed out that weddings are a public, liturgical service and the music should respect that. (I am a classical musician, and we couldn't even pick some of the music we wanted in our very Catholic, no sorta-at-all Catholic wedding.) I hope the grace of the sacrament is helping you on your way to the fullness of our rich faith, rather than staying in "sorta" territory.

Barry Fitzpatrick
4 weeks 1 day ago

Wow! Music ministers are a breed apart, end of comment.

Mike Evans
3 weeks 6 days ago

This is why parishes have pre-marriage preparation programs. Time to confront oneself with what each of us really believe and understand about making a sacred life-long commitment. Too often it's just about music, flowers, the Dress, brides' maids and groom's men. And then the competitive "reception." I recently attended a Jewish wedding. No doubt at all, Jewish people know weddings and how to solemnly and fully celebrate - all day long! Same goes for Spanish, Greek and other weddings that last more than 1/2 hour. Or 10 minutes at the courthouse. Or 45 minutes in a garden where the flimsy rented chairs sink into the grass and the wind blows out all the candles while the minister and couple mumble nice "conversation that no one can hear.

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