It's that time of year again! The weather is getting warmer, we've had Mother's Day and Pentecost and First Communions and Confirmations and graduations and so on, and will keep having them for the whole month.
And before you even have time to put your special event outfit away (c'mon, I know you've got one!) they'll start showing up in your mail box.
Wedding invitations. And all the many complex questions and issues and problems they bring with them.
I don't think anyone I know is getting married this year, which makes it easier for me to reflect on weddings. It's harder to step back and observe the wedding industry when you're caught up in wedding season.
You might say that wedding season got off to a big start this past weekend, with the wedding of Jenna Bush to Henry Hager. I have to say that I'm kind of impressed--Jenna's dress, while sleeveless, wasn't strapless, and both Mr. Hager and his father-in-law appear to be wearing suits, not tuxedos, a very appropriate and tasteful option that I hope will catch on like wildfire. It's not that I wish any ill to the tuxedo-renting industry, but if people whose social obligations never require them to wear a tuxedo and who therefore don't own one would quit thinking tuxedos were necessary for weddings it would be a big step in the right direction, in my mind--and if girls who see the new Mrs. Hager's gown could understand that there' s no special merit attached to dresses like these, we'd all be a lot better off in the long run (though I'm still hoping for the reappearance of sleeves).
But of course, if you were a Catholic invited to a wedding like this one, there'd be a lot of questions, especially if either the bride or groom was or ever had been Catholic. Can you go to an outdoor, non-church wedding? Can you go to a non-Catholic wedding? Can you go, but not participate? Can you participate? Is it different if the happy couple includes a Catholic who presumably ought to know better? Is it different if the former Catholic is a close relative with whom you've exchanged acrimonious words about his or her abandonment of the faith (and/or loose morals)?
These questions are above my level of expertise, but there are quite a few good resources now to find the answers. Not only are there lots of good Catholic bloggers with actual credentials blogging on topics like these, but forums have delved into the answers as well. If you can't figure out your particular circumstance, ask a good priest whom you trust for advice, and then follow his advice in a spirit of obedience.
Frequently families will confront situations like these, and in our time of declining etiquette it's a lot harder to respond to a wedding invitation with a simple refusal, even if the wedding is the out-0f-state second marriage of a cousin who has left the church and is marrying without an annulment in a Buddhist ceremony on a beach at twilight. No matter how politely you word your regrets, somebody's probably going to call you and want to know just why you aren't coming, and to tell you how this is Lulia's special day, and how dare you ruin her special day, and she wanted your son to be ring bearer, and there isn't anybody else the right age except your cousin Patrice's son who hasn't yet gotten over his irrational fear of sand, so you simply have to come. And that's when you end up being forthcoming about why you're not coming, and things get ugly. Or uglier, depending.
In a politer age, not only would a wedding under circumstances like the ones described above be considered a shameful thing by most of the family, but also no one would dream of badgering guests who said they weren't able to attend. But as the importance of marriage has declined in our society, the importance of the wedding has proportionally increased, until now it's quite common even for Catholics to exaggerate the significance of the wedding and to think and act as if it's perfectly appropriate to demand the attendance of guests, to spend lavish amounts of money--or, more likely, to incur lavish amounts of debt--on the day's festivities, and to grow sulky and complaining if things don't go Exactly According to Plan, or if the Catholic church where the wedding is to be held sets down rules forbidding the releasing of doves after the ceremony, or the lighting of a "unity" candle in the midst of the nuptial Mass.
I hope that Catholics will come to their senses on wedding matters, and even perhaps lead the way toward some sort of wedding-day sanity. Until then, perhaps a few guidelines in no particular order will help:
1. A Catholic wedding is not the bride's "special day" (nor is it her mother's special day, or her groom's special day, or anybody else's). A Catholic wedding is a sacrament. The point is to be married in the eyes of God and to receive the sacramental graces which are going to be pretty darned necessary over the next fifty or so years. Everything else is just a detail--and within those details it's important to respect that the church you're getting married in does not belong to the bride and can't be expected to allow deviations from the ritual, inappropriate music, or anything else just because the bride (or her mother) wants it.
2. A Catholic woman's wedding dress should be appropriate attire for Mass. It's not a "hot" white prom dress or an Oscar-night cleavage-baring gown. Nothing should be revealed that it's not appropriate to reveal in church. This goes double for the bridesmaids, whose attire should be modest and simple, not flashy or slinky.
3. Catholic men should consider following the president's example and wearing a nice suit. If, of course, your family is a wealthy Catholic family whose frequent philanthropic activities require you to own several tuxedos which you wear on many occasions then go right ahead and wear a tux--but for the rest of us, is it really necessary to keep dressing men in late 19th century clothing every time they're in a wedding, whether as the groom or as father of the bride or as a groomsman? Especially considering that they have to borrow the clothes?
4. Catholic families should consider seriously their budget for the wedding festivities, and not get swept up in an "everybody does this" mindset that starts with embossed cocktail napkins and ends in penury. The requirements for a Catholic wedding, from the Church's point of view, are all about whether the couple are free to marry, whether they are adequately prepared for the marriage, and whether they have been obedient to the Church's authority in seeking marriage, obtaining required dispensations and so on. There's nothing in any Church regulations about providing three hundred people with prime rib or lobster cocktail, trust me. A simple and elegant party, a gathering of family and close friends to pray for the couple and wish them well, is possible in any budget. Care should be taken that the celebration doesn't devolve into debauchery, and for heaven's sake don't hire a band if they're liable to play obscene or immoral music.
5. If you were raised Catholic, but have decided to marry outside the Church, don't badger your Catholic relatives to attend. They have good reasons not to--you have my word.