By definition as a sacrament, Holy Matrimony consists primarily of God’s own act of joining a man and a woman together in a life-long covenant – for “what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Matthew 19:6). In this installment, we will consider the ritual for matrimony and how this joining of man and woman is brought about and the proper effects of marriage as a sacrament in the life of the couple.
The primary element (and outward act of the sacrament) of marriage is the exchange of consent by the couple – or what are more familiarly called the “vows.” In giving consent, each person, beginning with the bridegroom, publicly declares the giving of themself to their spouse, promising to be faithful in all circumstances until death. In addition to the consent, the rite also includes an exchange of wedding rings and a blessing prayer called the “Nuptial Blessing,” which is said by the clergyman who witnesses the vows. However, it bears emphasizing that the exchange of consent confers the sacrament – not the blessing.
In the ritual book called the “Order of Celebrating Matrimony,” three forms of the rite of marriage are given, but only two which are properly sacramental. For a marriage to be sacramental both the bridegroom and the bride must be baptized. The first two forms of the marriage rite are essentially the same, with the primary difference being that one is used for weddings “within Mass” and the other for those “without Mass.” Wedding Masses are strongly encouraged when both the bride and groom are Catholic – as their common reception of Holy Communion further celebrates their sacramental union. However, when a Catholic marries someone who is baptized as a Christian and is not Catholic, the wedding without Mass is utilized so as not to cause confusion over Holy Communion. As there are occasions when a Catholic person seeks to marry someone who is not baptized, a third and distinct form of the ritual (that also includes the vows, the rings, and the blessing) is used to bring about what the Church calls a “good and natural marriage.” Such a marriage is understood as being in accord with what God created, but without the fullness of the sacrament grace. (Please note, such marriages become sacramental automatically if and when the non-baptized person receives baptism, even if that is long after the wedding). This third form of the rite is used in right situations since sacramental grace is only able to be conferred upon those who have the disposition to receive it – that is, the baptized.
The primary effects of marriage are well summarized in paragraph 1661 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved his Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life.” As the primary end (or goal) of marriage is the “procreation and education of children,” the conjugal love that couples share is understood as both to strengthen the bond of the couple and to generate of new life – life both through offspring of their union and life as what they themselves share in their marriage bond, witnessing to this love and handing it on in the family (what it often called the “Domestic Church”).
In the next installment, a closer look more closely at the couple as both the ministers and recipients of the sacrament will be given – showing why the consent is essential.
For further reading: In the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the paragraphs 1621-1658 speak of the marriage rituals, the differences between marriages of baptized versus those that are not, as well as the effects of marriage.