I once carried out a survey of priests in a deanery conference regarding weddings and funerals. People generally would see a wedding as a happy occasion, something to enjoy, while funerals might be seen as events to be avoided. The priests in my circle were asked which they preferred to be involved in leading – weddings or funerals. The reply was unanimous: funerals.
One priest put it like this: “at funerals, people really want us to be involved, we have something to say, we contribute something that helps. At weddings, we just seem to be in the way.” Another priest suggested a ratio: he would preside at ten funerals in preference to one wedding!
I am not sure what Irish priests generally would think of this summary, but it certainly resonates with me.
Weddings are hard going. People are tense; all family difficulties are close to the surface. Families which have experienced marital breakdown often have an array of husbands, wives, ex-wives and partners: who is talking to who?
The people attending the wedding are unfamiliar with the surrounding of a church and often unsure how to act. (This also applies to the bride and groom in a growing number of cases, and even to their parents.) Stock Mass responses receive a quiet response, or none at all.
Other professionals share the sacred space with the priest and the marrying couple; photographers, videographers, musicians. Some are impeccably behaved and respectful of the sacred surroundings, others less so (and doubtless, they tell stories to each other of the oddities of priests also). Flowers can enhance the occasion when tasteful and simple; when less-sensitively arranged, they can become a hedge on top of the altar, over which the priest has to peer wearily while standing on his tippy-toes!
And yet, even with all these handicaps, priests can do a lot to keep the wedding celebration prayerful. A tip I learned from a colleague always seems to defuse tension. Instead of personally welcoming all and sundry to the celebration at the start of Mass, the priest can invite those in the church to briefly greet each other – even crossing to the other side of the aisle to welcome strangers and make them feel at home. A little gesture like this can go a long way to taking the tension out of the air.
When less tense, people may feel like praying. Silence helps too. In those moments when prayers are said for the couple, at the start, middle and end of the Mass, the priest can invite people to pray in their hearts for the couple for a few moments – and for themselves. Particularly after Communion, talking to God quietly is a must, but the priest saying the Mass has to gently draw people into the silence. People are not used to it any more. Who knows, the priest may re-introduce some people to the God from whom they have grown distant — which would probably make God fairly happy too!
A successful marriage…for a priest
To make a good job of a nuptial Mass, the priest has to be in the right frame of mind. A priest who is tired can be cranky and will very likely get into a row. Priests are wise to schedule nothing else on wedding days; the best support other parishioners can give is to insist their priest relaxes (something not every parishioner sees as an aim in life!). Put it another way: be nice to your priest, so that he can be nice to others — and keep them in the Church you love.
Expensive way to ‘tie the knot’
A recent issue of The Phoenix reports on ructions in the Humanist Association of Ireland (HAI) regarding the approval of wedding celebrants to officiate at humanist weddings (i.e. ceremonies with no mention of God). What caught my eye was the information that the humanist celebrant’s guideline fee is €475 to €500 (though this includes a €70 fee to the HAI). The Phoenix wisely comments that “Most parish priests charge a lot less”.
(In fact, parish priests charge nothing at all, but they hope people will be take into the account the work priests put in, when they freely make a donation.)