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Jim McDermottJune 16, 2023
Photo by Wedding Photography, courtesy of Unsplash.

So you want to get married in the Catholic Church! First of all, congratulations!

But now the question is, what do you need to know? Are they going to let you play Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” as you and your partner walk out? Can you have the Mass in your aunt Martha’s vineyard? Also, what if you’ve been divorced? And how much does it cost?

There’s a lot to wonder about when it comes to church weddings, and much of it can be anxiety-producing. But information is power! Here’s a thumbnail sketch of some standard guidelines, broken into three parts: things to know before or as you get engaged; things to know if one of you is divorced; and things to know about the process of preparing your wedding with the church.

I. Things To Know Before or As You Get Engaged

What can we do to prepare to get married in the church?

Actually, yes, there are two big things you could do to help yourself even before you get engaged. If you are not already registered in the parish in which you want to have the wedding, or in some other parish, it would be a very good idea to do that. Many parishes and dioceses require proof of registration somewhere, sometimes for six months or more before the wedding date. So one or both of you should definitely be registered somewhere.

Second, if one of you is divorced but has not gotten an annulment yet, sit down with your local pastor and begin that process right away. We will cover this in a lot more detail below, but the key thing to know is this: In many cases the church is going to require an official annulment of a divorced person’s first marriage, whether or not the person in question is Catholic. Depending on the specific circumstances of that relationship, this process can take a long time. So this is definitely something you want to explore long before you set a wedding date.

How do we get the church we want for our wedding?

Some parishes get booked up years in advance, especially in the summer and fall, so try to settle on a date as soon as possible.

I want to say that doing this is as simple as contacting the parish where you want to have the wedding, seeing what dates are available and reserving a date. But I’ll be honest, when I showed this article around our staff a couple people just about laughed me out of the building. “My friends got ghosted by so many churches!” one staff member told me.

Point being: Finding a church may take some legwork, by which I mean you may very well need to use your phone to actually make calls, rather than send texts or emails. A good tip: If you send an email and you don’t hear back within a couple days, that is probably not the best way to communicate with this particular church.

This leads me to a principle couples should be aware of when getting married in the church: Wedding planning is a process that involves both the two of you and the church. Having your wedding at a church is not like renting a hall. It’s more like going to someone else’s house for dinner. They have their own traditions, some of which you may know from your upbringing, but some of which may seem strange or frustrating. This can be challenging, but when you’re in someone else’s house, sometimes you have to play by their rules.

When can I get married in the Catholic Church, and how soon?

Let’s do the second part first: Most parishes are going to require at least six months from the time you’re requesting to get married to the actual wedding date. That is done to ensure that you and the parish have enough time for all the prep work that needs to be done (which we’ll get into in Part III). Some of it is big stuff like sitting down with a priest to plan the wedding; some of it’s little stuff like filing for that new baptismal certificate. (The church requires a baptismal certificate signed no earlier than six months before the date of the wedding. The one your parents have been saving since your actual baptism will not cut it. Sorry, Mom!)

In terms of dates, technically you can get married on any day of the week. But each parish is going to have its own rules as well. Your parish might not do weddings on Sundays, for instance, or offer only a small window of time because of the weekend Masses.

Holy Days of Obligation are often discouraged, as are some other big feast days. Probably don’t aim for a wedding on New Year’s Day, the Solemnity of Mary; Ash Wednesday; August 15th, the feast of the Assumption; November 1st, All Saints Day; November 2nd, All Souls Day; during the Easter Triduum of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday; or on Ascension Sunday (which happens roughly 40 days after Easter).

Some dioceses won’t allow you to get married during Lent either, or they may ask that you hold back on some elements of the celebration in order to respect the solemnity of that liturgical season.

If one of you is divorced but has not gotten an annulment yet, sit down with your local pastor and begin that process right away.

How much does it cost to get married in the church?

It’s very weird to talk about money when it comes to the seven sacraments (of which marriage is one). In the church we believe that the sacraments are gifts from God, ways that God is uniquely present to us. You don’t charge for gifts.

But the reality is, there are practical dimensions to getting married that require money—the church staff, the paperwork, the musicians, heck, even the space. The total amount of these fees depends on the church. Most will charge you some kind of up front deposit to reserve the church, and then a larger overall fee for the total costs. That might be $1,000; it might be less, or a whole lot more. I know of one parish that charges 10 percent of the total cost of your wedding.

On the day of the wedding you should also plan to tip any musicians or soloists, any altar servers, the sacristan, the parish wedding coordinator if there is one, and the priest or deacon. Each of those people is doing you a special service, in some cases one that involves a lot of work. You recognize that by giving them something extra. If you are not sure how much to give, ask someone on the parish staff.

If your priest or deacon is someone you’re bringing in from out of town, it’s also customary to pay for his travel costs and a hotel room for the weekend.

(Pro tip: Give someone in your wedding party or family the job of handing out your tips. Trust me, on your wedding day your mind will be elsewhere.)

Can we get married in the church if one of us isn’t Catholic?

Yes, you absolutely can. It is very common, in fact. The Catholic partner will be asked to agree that any children the couple have together will be raised as Catholics, with the non-Catholic partner being made aware of the same. Then the parish has to fill out some paperwork. That’s it.

Two important notes: Despite what you might fear or find online (or perhaps in some parishes), there is no requirement that a non-Catholic convert  to Catholicism in order to marry a Catholic. In fact, many places will actively discourage non-Catholics from converting right before their wedding. A relationship with God is something that is meant to develop naturally. Insisting people convert forces that relationship, which is good neither for their faith nor their marriage.

Is it a problem if one of us is not Christian or doesn’t believe in God?

Nope. It’s the same as above.

What if we’re already civilly married? Can we get married in the church, too?

The church welcomes couples who have been married in civil ceremonies to have their vows blessed. The official term for this is a “convalidation.” All the same rules governing any other couple getting married apply, and just like for a wedding, a convalidation can involve anything from a private ceremony to a full public Mass.

Having your wedding at a church is not like renting a hall. It’s more like going to someone else’s house for dinner. They have their own traditions, some of which you may know from your upbringing, but some of which may seem strange or frustrating.

II. Things to Know if One or Both of You is Divorced

Talking about divorce is hard, even in the happy context of remarriage. It brings up difficult experiences and feelings and potentially a lot of anxiety.

Here’s the first thing to say, and the most important: The church today recognizes that sometimes marriages fail, and it wants to support you through whatever suffering you carry as a result.Sometimes the legal language the church uses around divorce and remarriage can seem cold or analytical; it tends to talk in terms of whether a past marriage was “valid,” which can make it seem as though it’s saying your prior marriage never happened or was somehow illegitimate.

In point of fact, the church has such a high respect for the commitment of marriage, its starting point is to accept the religious validity of a marriage, whether it happened in a Catholic ceremony or not. As such, in working with people who have been divorced, the church tries to find some evidence to overcome its initial presumption that the marriage was valid. An “annulment” is a declaration by the church that a prior bond of marriage was for some reason invalid and the people involved are free to remarry in the Catholic Church.

In some dioceses or parishes you may very well find priests or staff who speak mostly in this language. At times that can be alienating or upsetting. But I want to say it again, the church’s fundamental belief is that you are loved by God and the commitment you and your partner want to make is a cause for great celebration.

When it comes to understanding annulments, there are many good resources to help you understand and navigate the process. Here’s an explainer on annulments by America’s Jim Keane, from 2021, and stories of people’s experiences seeking an annulment from Simcha Fisher.

There are two basic scenarios: In the first, there’s some kind of problem in the form of a prior wedding that means the church does not recognize it as valid. The most common version of this is a Catholic getting married in a civil ceremony or a religious service of another faith. If a Catholic gets married in such a service without filing for a dispensation from the church, the church does not recognize that marriage as valid, and with some paperwork the person will be free to remarry in the church.

In the second, there is no obvious problem, and the person involved—whether Catholic or not—has to go through a formal process of petitioning the church to annul their past marriage. This involves first a written declaration by the person seeking an annulment detailing why they believe the church should grant it. It is then followed by a lengthy questionnaire in which the petitioner is asked to go into detail about everything from their childhood through to their experiences with their ex-spouse. And their ex will be asked to provide testimony about their marriage as well.

The church asks for all this information so that it can best judge whether there was something in the relationship that can be used to annul that marriage. In 2015 Pope Francis issued new rules to make the annulment process faster and cheaper, but even with these changes the annulment process can take months or even years.

If you are not already registered in the parish in which you want to have the wedding, or in some other parish, it would be a very good idea to do that.

III. Things to Know About the Process of Preparing for your Wedding in the Church

Once we have a church, what should we do for a Catholic wedding?

What exactly you’ll be asked to do in order to get married in a certain parish depends on their rules and those of their diocese. But here are some basic things that you can expect:

First, you’ll be asked to do a “prenuptial investigation.” This is a conversation with a priest or deacon that is used to make sure that there are no “impediments” (that’s church-speak for “obstacles”) to your desire or ability to get married in the church. You’ll be individually asked things like: Have you been married before? Are you being pressured to marry in any way? Do you have mental health or addiction diagnoses that are not being treated? Are you registered in a parish? Are you living together? How often are you going to church? How long have you been together? These questions cover a wide variety of topics. (This form from the Diocese of Brooklyn gives a great picture of the kinds of things that you might be asked. Many dioceses have their own paperwork, which may each have different questions, posted online.)

Be assured that this conversation isn’t an audition process; the church isn’t trying to find problems in your relationship. The investigation is supposed to be there to help and even protect you and your future spouse. It’s a chance to bring to the surface any possible religious or bureaucratic obstacles, so that they can be dealt with, and a chance to ensure that there is nothing and no one that might be pressuring you or your partner to get married.

But the fact is, every diocese is different in terms of what they might ask. And every priest or deacon is different as well. I have heard of prenuptial investigations in which people are asked inappropriate personal questions, like whether you and your partner have had premarital sex, or where the “interrogator” attempts to insist on courses of action that are well beyond their purview. Even today you hear stories of priests or deacons who tell couples who have been living together for years that they must move out and live apart for at least six months before the wedding, as though practically speaking that actually makes any difference in the dynamics of the couple’s relationship, other than to increase their stress in what is already an incredibly stressful time.

All of this is contrary to the purpose of the investigation. A cleric is neither a cop nor a bouncer. It’s probably a mistake that we call this “an investigation” in the first place. But it’s worth mentioning this, because the fact is you may end up dealing with someone like that. (Obviously, if you know the person doing the wedding it’s a lot less likely, though even there, sometimes you can be surprised.)

So going into that conversation, which again, you will each do one-on-one with the deacon or priest doing the wedding, you should be prepared. Which is to say, you should take some time to think and pray about what you’re comfortable sharing, and what you find is really only a matter of conversation between you, your partner and God. Ultimately you need to trust your conscience on that.

Also, if you’re aware there might be an obstacle to a church wedding or you have a concern, you need not wait for the investigation to set up a meeting. Bring your concerns forward as soon as you want.

You’ll also be asked to produce some documents. If you’re Catholic, you’ll need fresh copies of your baptismal record and confirmation record. In some dioceses you may also be asked to provide affidavits from two witnesses for each of you attesting to the strength and soundness of your relationship. If one or both of you has been divorced you’ll be asked to produce a record of annulments as well.

Then, you’ll be asked to complete a prenuptial program. This is referred to as “Pre-Cana,” which refers to a story in the New Testament where Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding at a place called Cana. (He’s unfortunately not available to do other weddings at this time.)

Catholic marriage prep programs can take a number of different forms. There are retreats where you spend a weekend with other Catholic couples preparing for marriage, like Engaged Encounter. Some dioceses provide online or other kinds of activities.

The bottom line is, the church wants you to do some kind of preparation before your wedding that will help you get ready both spiritually and practically for being married.

Some dioceses also encourage a relationship inventory. This is a survey you and your partner fill out individually and then compare answers. You’ll answer questions about how you see marriage and life, with the idea being that your answers will help you learn new things about each other and where you’re each coming from. You’ll hear some joke that this is a compatibility test; in fact it’s more of a “Have you talked about this?” exercise. Expectations are funny things; you often don’t even know you have them until they are not met. As a result, asking “What are your expectations of married life?” can sometimes be a lot less useful than asking people more specific questions about things like children, money and family.

In some dioceses this is an exercise you do just with your partner. In others you end up having a follow-up conversation with a parish staff member or the priest, which, like the prenuptial investigation, can make you feel like you have to be super careful about what you say, lest that church person see something they don’t like and shut your wedding down. In general, that’s not how this exercise is used. It really is just there to help you and your partner learn more about where you’re on the same page and where there might be some gaps you want to be aware of. But if you’re at all anxious about what you can say, the prenuptial investigation is a good bellwether.

Finally, you’ll need to actually plan the wedding. What readings do you want? What music? Who’s going to do the readings? Who’s going to bring up the gifts? This is the time to talk all of this through.

It’s also a time to let the presider know if you have concerns about the wedding, and to let him know about any facts or issues in your families that might be relevant, i.e. half your family is not Catholic; your parents are divorced; someone recently died; or there’s a big family feud going on. Knowing these kinds of details will help the priest or deacon prepare the Mass in the way that is most welcoming to you and your families. It can also help him to run some interference for you. Weddings are wonderful, beautiful, joyous occasions, but the months beforehand can also sometimes bring out some craziness in family members!

There’s a lot to wonder about when it comes to church weddings, and much of it can be anxiety-producing. But information is power!

Can we pick whatever songs and readings we want for our wedding?

The answer to this question depends on two things. First, do you mean church music and readings from Scripture? If you’re hoping to play Elton John or read from The Secret, probably you’re out of luck. Most churches are going to insist on nothing but church music during the service, and they’re definitely going to insist that your readings be from Scripture (although you may be able to do something like a Mary Oliver poem as a post-Communion meditation).

This goes back to remembering a wedding is not the same as renting a hall: You’re getting married in a church. As such, they’re going to ask that the songs and readings reflect that.

(Also, it’s worth noting, if you choose to get married on a big Catholic feast day like Pentecost Sunday, you’re probably going to have to use the readings and even music for that feast at your wedding.)

Now, you might want to make the argument that this or that song has great spiritual significance for you. I get that. I’ve spent the last 20 years writing about the spiritual significance of zombies and people  with   laser  swords. I am here for the sacred in the secular. But this is not an argument you’re often going to win when it comes to weddings. (In 2017 the TV writer Tracey Wingfield wrote a very funny piece about her attempt.)

Also, you’ve got a whole reception to come where you can pick some special songs and moments. So if there are some things that you don’t get to do in the church, whether it’s a song or some special blessing you want, do it at the reception.

Can we get married in the Catholic Church outdoors? So this gets a little bit interesting. If one of you is not Christian, yes, you can get married in a location outdoors or in a location that is not a church. You just need to get a dispensation from the Catholic Church to do so. The priest and parish you’re working with should be able to help you with that.

If you are both Christian, most dioceses in the United States require that you get married in an actual church or chapel. There are a few dioceses that allow outdoor weddings, including the archdiocese of Baltimore, which has seen very positive results from its decision to try allowing weddings in other locations.

Do other exceptions get made? Yes, but it requires special permission from the diocese, which can make getting them more complicated.

But again, you likely will have a reception after the wedding that you can hold anywhere you want. If you find the outdoors sacred or special to you as a couple, and you’re willing to brave the elements, you could do your reception there.

Or, if an outdoor setting is that important to you, you could have a civil wedding with a justice of the peace outdoors, then have your vows blessed in a church by the priest at another time. Some couples will instead do a small Catholic service with the priest in the church beforehand, such as the day before the outdoor celebration, which then becomes a renewal of vows.

I think there’s a lot of good reasons to get married in the church. But I’ve also been to civil weddings that were incredibly beautiful, ones that taught me new ways of thinking about marriage and presiding at weddings.

Can we include other rituals in our Catholic wedding, like the Celtic ritual of handfasting?

Possibly. Again, it depends on the parish, your idea and also sometimes on the amount of time that may be required. Adding 5 minutes to a wedding for a lovely ritual that speaks to the hopes of the couple and the love of God may be fine. Adding 15-20 minutes for different traditions probably won’t go over well.

So listen, we respect the church and everything, but we really want some things that the church doesn’t normally do. But the thing is, my family really wants us to get married in the church. Isn’t there something that can be worked out for them?

When you get right down to it, this is one of the most common questions people today ask. Many couples say: We are not that into church ourselves, but our families are, and we love them so here we are.

You may think this is you doing right by your family, but from the church’s perspective, your wedding is about the two of you and God. If you want a Catholic wedding for yourselves, great, but then you have to respect the church’s way of doing things. (Or put another way, you have to be able to trust that the church actually knows what it’s doing when it comes to weddings, and that having church music and scriptural readings, etc. will actually help make this occasion more meaningful and more spiritual for you.)

If you’re really just doing this for your parents, you may be able to find a church that will accommodate you. But it might also be time to have a conversation with your family about who you are and what you want. Let’s be honest, these are not easy conversations to have ever, let alone when your folks might be footing the bill! But from the church’s point of view, you feeling forced to have a church wedding is actually a bad thing for your relationship with God and the church. A faith experience is to be sought, not coerced.

Also, sometimes families’ desires for a church wedding come out of old ideas that the church doesn’t adhere to any more. Not getting married in the church does not mean God is not present at your wedding or does not bless your union. It does not mean that your marriage is somehow less sound. (Feel free to give this article to your families if you need help convincing them.)

Obviously as a priest, I think there’s a lot of good reasons to get married in the church, some of which may be hard to appreciate until they’re actually experienced. (A conversation with someone else who got married in the church might help.) But I’ve also been to civil weddings that were incredibly beautiful, ones that taught me new ways of thinking about marriage and presiding at weddings.

So make the choice that’s right for you. God will be there and will be blessing you no matter what.

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