Fainting grooms, pushy in-laws, groomsmen in kilts, crying ringbearers … it’s all part of a day in the life of a priest in the Milwaukee Archdiocese, where more than 1,600 marriages took place last year.
The average Catholic priest will be part of more weddings in one year than most people attend in a decade – and, perhaps surprisingly, make awfully good wedding planners themselves.
“I tell people – kind of facetiously – I’m an expert on wedding cake,” said Fr. Patrick Heppe. Though he is now the archdiocesan vicar for ordained and ecclesial ministry, he spent many years as a parish priest, including a 20-year stint as the pastor at what is now the Holy Family Catholic Community in Fond du Lac. Fr. Heppe estimates he has presided over the marriages of about 20 couples per year since his ordination 38 years ago; do the math, and that’s well over 700 nuptial Masses.
“I enjoy it, actually. You talk to a bunch of priests, a bunch of ministers, and weddings usually come up as one of the things they really don’t like to do,” he said. “One of the guys said, ‘I’d rather do a funeral any day, rather than a wedding – because they don’t fight with you!’”
Fr. Alan Jurkus, retired pastor of St. Alphonsus Parish, Greendale, also expresses a fondness for officiating at wedding ceremonies, while acknowledging the task is often among a clergyman’s least favorite.
“I’ve really enjoyed them,” he said. “I’ve had 99 percent just wonderful couples.”
Fr. Patrick Burns, associate pastor at St. Charles Parish, Hartland, has only presided over a handful of weddings in his two years of priesthood, but feels that witnessing this sacrament is a powerful testimony to the nature of Christian self-sacrifice. A wedding, he said, is “a powerful opportunity to see a beautiful act of love.”
“The moment of their vows is a powerful witness,” he said. “In a world that is afraid of commitment, these two people promise their lives to each other. They don’t know what the future will hold, they often don’t know a whole lot about life, and they each come with their own wounds and imperfections. However, in that moment, they become like Christ and the church. They offer themselves to each other.”
The sacrament may be beautiful no matter how the ceremony turns out, but oftentimes, there are memorable bloopers that make their way into the couple’s big day.
Big day disasters
Both symbolically and functionally, the Catholic wedding day usually centers around the couple’s exchange of blessed rings. Thus, any snafus involving those two essential gold bands tend to be particularly memorable.
“I had one couple that, we were in the preparation process and they got their rings plenty of time in advance and took (them) down to the safety deposit box at the bank,” recalled Fr. Heppe. “So on Saturday morning they go down to the bank to pick up the rings, not realizing that the bank vault isn’t open on Saturday. They were just beside themselves. And the guy who could override the timer was out of town. So we didn’t do a ring ceremony.
“The wedding party went down to the local candy store, and they have candy on a plastic band that fits around your finger, so at the end of the ceremony, when everything was over, I made a comment about that and the wedding party all turned around and held up their hands with these candy rings on their ring fingers to tease (the bride and groom).”
Fr. Dennis Dirkx, pastor of St. Robert Parish, Shorewood, also experienced a ring mishap.
“I had this wedding, and they had the rings tied into the pillow that the little boy brought up,” said Fr. Dirkx. “They said allyou had to do was pull this one string, and the rings will come off. I did – and they didn’t. It went into a knot. So here we are, the maid of honor is trying to untie this knot and it’s not working, and you’ve got all of this dead silence. Finally, I just looked up and said, ‘Does anybody have a scissors here?’”
In sickness and in health
“There was a wedding I had and at the rehearsal I didn’t recognize the bride because she was so sick,” recalled Fr. Jurkus. “She perked up pretty well for the wedding. But the dad (of the groom), he was a physician. And on the day of the wedding, he came he said, my son is really sick today – he’s throwing up and I’ve used every trick in my bag and he’s sick … I’ll do the best I can, but just know he’s not going to be really well. Anyway, we found a container in the sacristy – an ice cream bucket – and we had it under my chair in case he threw up.”
Well, wouldn’t you know during the second reading he looks at me and he expands his cheeks like, here it comes, so I had the server graciously kneel in front of him. He pukes in the bucket, we carry it out, and I have to tell you, I had so much fun with that later on, with the whole for better or worse, in sickness and in health in the vows.
“The dad gave the server 50 bucks,” he said, “‘Anybody who has to carry my son’s puke out deserves this.’”
His first wedding that took place in Phillips, in the Superior Diocese, shortly after his ordination to the diaconate, was also memorable, recalled Fr. Dirkx.
“It was the year that movie came out – ‘Romeo and Juliet.’ Remember the wedding scene in the movie, where they kneel way down in the sanctuary and exchange their vows? This couple decided that that’s what they really wanted to do. I said, fine – but it was in the summertime and it had to be like 95 degrees in church. The groom passed out – face-down in the sanctuary. They had to revive him. Nerves and heat – that really did him in,” said Fr. Dirkx.
Trends come and go
Most veteran priests have seen the ebb and flow of trends in weddings over the years. From unity candles to sand ceremonies, Broadway music and the onslaught of wedding coordinators, what’s in vogue one moment is quickly déclassé the next.
But it’s always up to the priest or liturgical director to have the last say on what will and will not be allowed in a wedding held in a Catholic church.
“Hopefully, the wedding celebration you have today will be just as significant and just as meaningful in 10, 20 years from now because you chose the right things and really reflected what this is all about,” said Fr. Heppe. “And that’s why the church is kind of strict on this whole thing…. When I was first ordained in the late ’70s, early ’80s, it was kind of like, everything goes. And some of the stuff was rather trite.
“People like ‘Evergreen’ (theme song from ‘A Star is Born’). The verses say ‘love soft as an easy chair.’ You know what, I’m sorry – I presume your love is a little more significant than an easy chair,” said Fr. Heppe.
And sometimes, the priest just has to say no. Fr. Jurkus remembered one particularly opinionated wedding coordinator who tried to take over the rehearsal – always run by the priest or deacon. She also wasn’t a fan of the altar.
“She came in and looked at the church and said, ‘Can you move that big stone table up front? That’s going to detract from the flowers,’” he said. “Finally, I stopped and talked to her and said, ‘You know what, you see these doors? These are the doors to the church. The other side of the doors are the brides’ room and the lobby; that’s where you work. But once you come in here, you don’t have anything to say.’”
Priests ‘offer’ little free advice
Most priests agree, however, that there could be no greater matrimonial misstep than that of forgetting what the wedding liturgy really is in the first place. More than just a carefully staged production, the sacramental aspects involved in the ritual are buttresses for the marriage itself, deeply impactful experiences that will provide a foundation for the rest of the couple’s life together.
So when Fr. Heppe encountered couples who only saw his church as a glorified event hall, he didn’t turn them away – but instead used it as a teaching moment for young couples on the cusp of happily-ever-after.
“If you are active in your church, you pray together, you are active in your faith, the divorce rate goes down to .08 percent,” he said. “Your faith does not do only good things between you and God but does good things between couples and families.”
Fr. Heppe also said he recommends couples use readings and music meaningful to them personally, and to their faith journey. He also suggests putting the readings, or portions of them, on the refrigerator to be used as mealtime prayers whenever the couple eats together.
“Early on in my priesthood, there were more marriages in church, as opposed to now,” said Fr. Dirkx. Ordained for almost 44 years, he said St. Robert Parish averages about 15 weddings per year, as opposed to about 35 just 10 years ago.
“We’re trying to find ways to pastorally deal with that situation,” said Fr. Jurkus. “I have never, ever refused a wedding on the phone, except one where the person called up and said, ‘We’d like to rent the church and rent the priest.’ I said, ‘We’re really not a rental deal, would you like to come in and talk?’ (They replied) no, we’re just looking for something to use. I’ve always said, let’s come in and talk.”
“To me, the important part of all this is that the couples are here and I have an opportunity to try and help them see the beauty of the faith and of their sacramental commitment to each other before God,” said Fr. Burns. But when he has the chance, he likes to recommend a deeper reflection on the true meaning of the act itself.
“I always tell our high school students that the beach or some of other non-church ‘wedding’ is the least romantic way to go,” he said. “Getting married in a church is not only a basic expectation (in ordinary circumstances) for a valid Catholic marriage, but it’s also the most romantic possible setting. Every Catholic church building is a physical reminder of the most incredible love story of all: that Jesus handed himself over for the sake of the church.”