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Ordained in 2011, Father Friel served for five years as Parochial Vicar at St. Anselm Parish in Northeast Philly. He is currently studying toward a doctorate in liturgical theology at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.
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“In the 17th century came the crushing blow which destroyed the beauty of all Breviary hymns. Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644) was a Humanist. In a fatal moment he saw that the hymns do not all conform to the rules of classical prosody.”
— Fr. Adrian Fortescue (d. 1923)

The Historic Adaptability of the Marriage Rite
published 11 December 2016 by Fr. David Friel

T IS FREQUENTLY argued that the Council of Trent, as part of the Counter-Reformation, sought to universalize Roman liturgical practices. In the case of the Missale Romanum, this seems clearly to be the case, as the missal of Pius V was formulated to take the place of any missal not in use for two-hundred years or more. Whether this universalizing tendency is true, also, of the marriage rite is less clear.

Matrimony has always been celebrated with greater leeway for adaptation than other Sacraments, largely on account of its pre-Christian history as a purely domestic and civil affair. For certain, Trent decreed that marriage is a Sacrament and that it must be celebrated in church, in the presence of a priest. But Trent also left room for local adaptation (“earnestly” 1 so).

The marriage formula contained in the Missale Romanum of 1570 is so bare that the austerity, itself, almost implies that it was meant to be the bare minimum to which local customs would be added. Notably, the Rituale Romanum was not published until 1614, nearly half a century after the Missale Romanum of the same council had been promulgated. During those intervening years, all that was provided was a Mass formulary in the 1570 missal. Even after the publication of the Rituale, “one must doubt that it was ever intended to be used as it stood.” 2 Evidence shows, in fact, that local customs continued to be used in the period before the Rituale was published and even afterward, up until the late nineteenth century. 3 In the case of the marriage rites, therefore, it seems that the major force in the standardization of the liturgy was not so much the Council of Trent as it was the influence of later Ultramontanism.

The praenotanda of the 1969 marriage ritual that emerged from the reforms of the Second Vatican Council is unlike any of the rituals that preceded it, and there are two developments that are particularly interesting. First, the 1969 ritual stresses the opportunity for making adaptations to the rite even more strongly than had Tametsi, Trent’s decree on matrimonial law. Whereas Tametsi gave vehement encouragement to retain local customs, the Vatican II ritual takes it a step further, making allowance for customs to be added, altered, or even omitted from the rite.

The 1969 ritual provides for the addition of material that would supplement the formularies of the questioning and the consent (praenotanda, article 13), as well as the option of crowning or veiling the bride (15). It further permits the inclusion of customs from cultures in missionary lands, saying that “whatever is good and is not indissolubly bound up with superstition and error” should be “sympathetically considered” (16). In terms of alteration, the 1969 ritual permits the adaptation of the questions before the consent and even the vows, themselves (13). Additionally permitted is the rearrangement of various parts of the marriage liturgy (14). As regards the possibility of omissions, the ritual grants permission to eliminate the joining of hands or the blessing and exchange of rings, if they are not in conformity with the practice of the people (15). Perhaps most dramatically, it affords to conferences of bishops the prerogative of preparing an entirely new rite of marriage, insisting only on the exchange of consent before the priest and the giving of the nuptial blessing as necessary conditions (17).

These various allowances show a clear stress on the possibilities of adaptation. One of these allowances, however, is unlike the others, namely the permission to incorporate the crowning or veiling of the bride into the ceremony (15). What is unique about this permission is that the crowning constitutes in another rite the form of the Sacrament. The bridal veiling has a long history in the Western rites, but the crowning in most of the Eastern tradition is understood to constitute the Sacrament.

The second significant development of the marriage rite promulgated following the Second Vatican Council is the special consideration it gives toward non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics. To begin with, different forms of the ritual are provided for cases wherein one of the parties is a non-Catholic Christian or even unbaptized. Still more, the praenotanda give pastoral advice for occasions when non-Catholics and non-practicing Catholics might be among the congregation. The introduction advises priests in this way:

Show special consideration for those who take part in liturgical celebrations or hear the Gospel only on the occasion of a wedding, either because they are not Catholics or because they are Catholics who rarely if ever take part in the Eucharist or who apparently have lost their faith. Priests after all are ministers of Christ’s Gospel to everyone (9).

These instructions are an open admission of the post-Christendom situation of the Western Church. This admonishment to the priest also shows evidence of a ritual that has become self-aware of its historical development. Originally the purview of families in secular celebrations, the marriage rites were gradually subsumed into the sacramental authority of the Church. It is an unsurprising result, therefore, that weddings later grew to be occasions on which non-practicing Catholics and non-believers would frequently be present in church. In this pastoral encouragement of the 1969 ritual, we find an acknowledgment of new realities in the modern age.


1   Vehementer, as it appears in Trent, session 24, chapter 1.

2   Mark Searle & Kenneth Stevenson, Documents of the Marriage Liturgy (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992), 184.

3   Kenneth Stevenson, To Join Together: The Rite of Marriage (New York: Pueblo Publishing, 1987), 100.