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Ben and Katharine Volker wanted a Catholic wedding. But they faced a logistical challenge. Their reception, to be held at Baltimore’s American Visionary Arts Museum, was slated to take place late in the day and the only option for a church ceremony would have left their guests with several hours of downtime.

Unsure what to do, the couple remembered attending another wedding at a nearby hotel. Even though the ceremony was outside a church, a priest had served as the celebrant. Perhaps their ceremony could also be held at their venue while maintaining the religious components that were so important to them?

Graduates of Catholic schools and active in their local parish, Mr. Volker, who works in sales, and Dr. Volker, a pediatric psychologist, said that it was important to them and their families that their wedding be sacramental in nature. Which is why they were grateful for a change made by church officials in Baltimore five years ago that permits priests to celebrate weddings outside churches and chapels, a still relatively rare practice in the United States.

“That let us have the timeline for the day that we wanted while still preserving the Catholic aspect, which was important to us,” Dr. Volker told America.

Weddings historically had served as an opportunity to “evangelize and re-engage” young couples, but that chance was being lost when brides and grooms bypassed the church altogether.

In 2018, the Archdiocese of Baltimore announced that it would launch a three-year trial period that permitted Catholics who wished to hold a wedding ceremony outdoors or in secular spaces to keep their special day sacred. Previously, like in most U.S. dioceses, Catholic weddings in Baltimore could usually only take place in churches and chapels. With changing attitudes toward religion, and the popularity of outdoor ceremonies growing, that meant fewer Catholic weddings.

Catholic weddings decline accelerates during Covid-19
Catholic weddings decline accelerates during Covid-19

The Rev. Steven Hook was one of a handful of priests in the archdiocese who initially pushed for the change. He told America that he had noticed the increasing numbers of young couples, even some with strong connections to the church, choosing to get married outside the institution.

“The younger generation is disenfranchised, or disconnected,” Father Hook said.

Weddings historically had served as an opportunity to “evangelize and re-engage” young couples, he added, but that chance was being lost when brides and grooms bypassed the church altogether when planning their ceremony.

Father Hook said he had heard of couples who were not opposed to a Catholic wedding but who preferred to exchange vows outdoors, perhaps along the nearby Chesapeake Bay, at a beloved family home or even in the same venue that would host the reception. He felt the church was losing an opportunity to engage with these couples.

“They never even called the church to inquire,” he noticed.

Data backed up Father Hook’s observations.

More than 425,000 couples married in the church in 1969. By 2014, even though the population of Catholics had increased significantly, that number was down to about 148,000. During the first year of the pandemic, it fell further, to under 100,000.

More than 425,000 couples married in the church in 1969. By 2014, even though the population of Catholics had increased significantly, that number was down to about 148,000.

Diane Barr, the chancellor of the Baltimore archdiocese, said the change in policy has been greeted with enthusiasm from many priests and married couples. She noted that couples who invite a priest to celebrate a sacramental wedding in a secular space are still required to attend wedding preparation classes, known colloquially as pre-Cana, providing touch points with the church. And the policy grants couples greater flexibility when planning what can be a stressful day.

“It’s been really successful,” Dr. Barr told America, pointing to a survey undertaken after the first year of the pilot program. “Some priests indicated that they brought entire families back” to the church after the wedding.

According to data provided by the archdiocese, in the first four years since the policy was enacted, the number of Catholic weddings taking place at venues outside a Catholic parish ranged from about 14 percent of all weddings in 2018—170 requests of 1,200 total—to 31 percent in 2021.

Like other Catholic dioceses, the church in Baltimore continues to see a dip in the total number of weddings. There were more than 1,500 in 2011 and that number has more or less fallen each year since, down to 833 in 2022, according to data from the archdiocese. But supporters of the change said the goal is not necessarily to boost the number of Catholic weddings, but to work with young couples to help them live out their faith on an important day.

The Rev. Joshua Laws has seen firsthand how the change has affected weddings.

The pastor of the Catholic Community of South Baltimore, a consortium of three merged parishes, Father Laws said he celebrates about three dozen weddings each year—and that half now regularly take place outside a parish.

In the four years since the policy was enacted, the number of Catholic weddings taking place at venues outside a Catholic parish ranged from about 14 percent of all weddings in 2018 to 31 percent in 2021.

When a couple approaches him, Father Laws said, they first discuss the venue. If the archdiocese has previously granted permission for a Catholic wedding to take place there, the process moves ahead seamlessly.

If the location is new, the pastor gathers information about the venue and writes a letter to church officials. Sometimes the request is straight-forward, like when a couple wishes to be married in the chapel of a Catholic university. Other times, it can be more complicated, such as a backyard wedding or a ceremony in a public park. Weather-related contingencies must be taken into account, the location must be reverent in nature, which means no bars or amusement parks, and because of church rules about parish boundaries, weddings at sea are out of the question. But in nearly all instances, the archdiocese approves the requests.

“There’s more paperwork that we have to do, but in my experience, it’s really been worth it,” Father Laws told America.

The ceremonies usually include music, readings from Scripture, the exchange of vows, prayer and a short reflection from the priest. Wedding Masses are not permitted outdoors, but the ceremony itself is still sacramental.

Father Laws said couples trying to navigate faith complexities with family and friends might not want to hold their wedding inside a church. The opportunity to have a sacramental marriage elsewhere can alleviate anxieties.

Sometimes, seeing a priest at a non-traditional wedding site, at least in terms of the Catholic Church, prompts guests to reconsider their views.

“There are a ton of people who just don’t feel comfortable in church buildings, for a lot of reasons,” he said. “So couples choose to get married outside of the church building, thinking it’s going to be more welcoming to all of their guests.”

Sometimes, seeing a priest at a non-traditional wedding site, at least in terms of the Catholic Church, prompts guests to reconsider their views.

“My experience has been that it helps people who are on the fence about [having a Catholic wedding] at least reconsider it,” Father Laws said. “Because I think one of the narratives out there is that the church is just bogged down with rules and obligations.” A priest’s presence, he said, challenges those notions and “encourages people to give the church another look.”

Father Laws said many of the venues where he has celebrated weddings over the past few years, while not necessarily sacred ground, have nonetheless felt sacramental, whether because of the natural beauty, the witness couples provide to passersby or simply the ability to incorporate into the wedding a place special to the couple. He remembers one wedding, held at a hotel situated at the city’s inner harbor, with the water and skyline providing a stunning backdrop to the wedding of two Baltimore natives.

For Katharine and Ben Volker, the opportunity to “preserve the Catholic elements” of the wedding ceremony while successfully confronting logistical challenges, made their wedding all the more special.

“They really love the city and they wanted their wedding to kind of be a way of blessing Baltimore,” Father Laws recalled. “As we’re listening to Scripture readings, listening to them exchange vows, you look out and see the whole city right there. It just made sense.”

Several people interviewed about the Baltimore policy said that word is still getting out. Jennifer Virts, a wedding planner with Moore & Co. Event Stylists in Baltimore, told America that Catholic couples are often surprised when she tells them about the possibility for a ceremony to take place outdoors or at a venue.

“We have had several couples comes to us who want to get married in a Catholic ceremony but who also like the idea of getting married outside,” Ms. Virts said. “They’re a little torn.”

When she says that it is possible to do both, many couples proceed down that route. “A lot of our couples really like the idea that they can have the best of both worlds,” she said.

Today, Baltimore remains one of just a handful of Catholic dioceses that regularly allow for Catholic weddings to be celebrated outside a church. For Katharine and Ben Volker, whose wedding was celebrated by Father Laws in 2021, the opportunity to “preserve the Catholic elements” of the wedding ceremony, as Katharine put it, while successfully confronting logistical challenges, made their wedding all the more special.

And that is how Father Laws sees the impact of the policy change.

“We’re adding to the richness of the sacrament of marriage,” Father Laws said. “This is just adding to the beauty of it.”

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