The end which I propose to myself in the present essay is an explanation of the marriage ceremony and the Nuptial Mass, that the reader may better understand them; may learn more clearly their beauty and appropriateness; appreciate more highly the graces which they convey to the souls of those who worthily participate in them, and by that means conceive a greater love and reverence for them. The mystic ceremonies of religion are not so attractive to the minds of many Christians in this material age as they should be, and are not sufficiently studied; and hence it is not to be wondered at that many persons make little account of neglecting or dispensing with these sacred rites and fountains of grace which holy Church has prepared for those who are about to enter the married state. Yet, considered merely from a natural point of view, and altogether apart from the importance which faith teaches man to attach to it, the question of marriage is one demanding the most serious reflection. The very intimate and life-long association of one person with another, which the bond of marriage supposes and obliges to; the attendant temptations and dangers; the training of a family, with all the privations, trials, and sufferings inseparable from it, under the most favorable circumstances; and the countless accidents which checker the life of everyone, are points which common prudence for bids us to pass over lightly. But when in addition to these are included the obligations which religion imposes on the couple in relation to each other and to the children with which Almighty God may and most probably will bless them, matter is presented for still more serious consideration. It is true, indeed, that the sacrament of matrimony is an abundant and never-failing source of grace; but it is so to those only who receive it worthily, and live according to the laws which it imposes. How few there are who perfectly observe those sacred laws!
He who seriously reflects on these points will not be surprised that God in His infinite wisdom should have made matrimony the subject of special legislation in the world’s infancy, in the very groves of Paradise; nor that the Church should from the earliest times have devoted her special attention to seeing that her children entered into that union with the proper dispositions and according to the ceremonies which she, guided by the Holy Spirit, had prescribed. Few matters have received so large a share of her attention. Read ecclesiastical history, the writings of the saints, fathers, and theologians, the decrees of councils and the utterances of Sovereign Pontiffs—all manifest her zeal for the purity and sanctity of marriage, and at the same time show the waywardness of the human will when excited and blinded by the basest and most unruly passion of the heart, of man. But so far from victory having declared for the Church, the struggle is waging more furiously in the present than it did perhaps at any previous period. Scarcely had the illustrious Leo XIII. ascended the throne of Peter than he found it necessary to raise his voice in solemn admonition to Christians to conform themselves to the wise regulations which the Church has established. And if attention is directed to the instructions which the Holy See sends to the bishops of missionary countries like ours, it will be seen that by far the greater number have to do with the sacrament of matrimony. Happy is it for society that there is still one authority respected on earth, although it be only by the few. What is marriage outside the pale of the Church? A contract, or the semblance of a contract, subject to the caprice of the basest passion that tyrannizes over the heart of fallen man—this and nothing more. It may truly be said that there is no longer any respect for the bond of marriage except in the Church. It goes for the saying that a divorce can anywhere be had for the most flimsy pretext, and the laws are so framed in some States as to put a premium on crime. Nor need it be wondered at that some Catholics, breathing this pestilential atmosphere, should long for freedom from a restraint so galling to rebellious nature.
But the circumstances of the Church, not only in herself but also in her surroundings, must be taken into consideration when we attempt to account for the distaste which many persons have for the Nuptial Mass and the blessing which accompanies it. The Church among us is still in many respects in its infancy; until recently it was impossible to surround the reception of the sacraments with that external pomp which delights the Christian heart; and in not a few places this is true even at the present day. Hence it is that many persons have grown up ignorant or but indifferently instructed in regard to some of the most touching and beautiful ceremonies of religion. But without further preface let us approach the subject that is to engage our attention, and for which I beg the young reader’s careful consideration.
When a person enters the religious life he or she has half a year’s time as a postulant, and two years as a novice, all of which are spent in the learning and practising of the rules and usages that are afterward to become obligatory; but when one is married, as St. Francis of Sales remarks, there is no novitiate. Two persons unite themselves together for life, and, of course, they expect to live long lives, say at least fifty years, together; and this in the most intimate relationship known on earth, and one that can never be dissolved, for “what God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”1 And how little do the two often know of each other before marriage? Their main object then is to show off all their good qualities to the best advantage and conceal their weak points. When they are united, however, the realities of life begin to present themselves; but it is then too late to retrace their steps. Hence the necessity of the most mature deliberation, and of calling down all the blessings of Heaven.
Let it be supposed that after a sufficient acquaintance A young man and woman have mutually agreed to marry; that their parents have been informed, and proper regard paid to their authority; and that the pastor of the church has been notified in due time, the banns proclaimed, and no impediments discovered, and the hour for the solemn ceremony approaches. Being Christians, they are resolved to comply not only with the essential laws, but also with the wishes of holy Church, and enter into their union with the Nuptial Mass and Blessing.
Before proceeding to speak of the Nuptial Mass and the benediction which accompanies and forms a part of it, the reader must be reminded that the latter is entirely distinct from the ceremony of marriage and the sacrament of matrimony, each of which is perfect without it.
The Nuptial Mass takes its name from the object for which it is celebrated, and consists, as has just been said, of the Mass with the special blessing for the married couple. Certain questions here present themselves for solution before we can proceed to consider the Mass in itself. And first, For whom can the Nuptial Mass be celebrated, and to whom can the Nuptial Blessing be imparted? In answer we must first say that it cannot be celebrated in the case of a mixed marriage; for such a marriage cannot even take place in the church. “The Nuptial Benediction is not to be given when either of the parties received it in a previous marriage; but where it is usual to give it in all cases in which the female was not previously married, the custom, according to the rubric, may still be retained. The benediction, from its form, seems directed chiefly to the female, and hence probably the custom, as well as the sanction given to it. ... It is to be observed that the benediction is not to be withheld at the second marriage unless it was given at the first, and therefore may be given to a widow who did not receive it at her previous marriage, whatever may have been the cause of the omission.”2 We are to conclude from this that, although the husband may receive the blessing more than once, where custom permits it, the wife cannot receive it the second time. The reason of this appears to be that the Church expects it always to be received at the first marriage, and this marriage represents more perfectly than any subsequent one the union of Christ with His spouse, the Church.
It may be further asked, Where is the Nuptial Blessing to be received? O’Kane replies (No. 1092): “The Nuptial Benediction can be given only in the church, according to a decree of the Sacred Congregation; but this is because, according to another decree, it can be given only at Mass. Such, at least, is the opinion of Cavalieri, who further maintains that if there be an oratory annexed to the house where the marriage takes place the Nuptial Benediction may be given at the Mass celebrated there. Suppose, then, that a marriage is for some sufficient reason celebrated in a private house, and that there is at the same time permission to say Mass there, it would appear to us that the Nuptial Benediction may, and should, be given.” Permission to receive the Nuptial Blessing in a private house, it is clear from the above, is ruled by the permission to say Mass there. Where the latter is permitted the former is also allowed.
When can the Nuptial Blessing be received? This question admits of a threefold reply: as regards the occasion, the season of the year, and the dignity of certain solemn feasts. As regards the occasion, whatever customs or privileges may have obtained in other times or countries, a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, dated June 23, 1853, and another of August 14, 1858, forbid the Nuptial Blessing to be given except in the Mass. There is a benediction, distinct from that found in the Nuptial Mass, given in the ritual of certain European countries, which may be imparted at any other time.3 But with this we are not concerned, there being no such blessing given in the ritual prescribed for the use of the clergy in this country. In the second place, as regards the season of the year during which the Nuptial Blessing may be given, it can be imparted at any time except during what is called “the closed time,” which extends from the first Sunday of Advent to Epiphany, and from Ash-Wednesday to Low Sunday, inclusive.4 I use the expression “Nuptial Blessing” instead of “Nuptial Mass,” for, though the blessing can be given only at Mass, it may be imparted, as we shall see, at another than the Nuptial Mass, on feasts when that Mass is not permitted to be celebrated. Marriage being an occasion of joy, it is the wish of the Church that her children should not, without grave reasons, contract it during penitential seasons; and, although its solemnization is also forbidden on the great festivals that immediately follow these times of penance, it would appear to be because the Church would wish that the Christian heart should be so occupied with the thought of God as to forget even the lawful pleasures which this miserable world affords. The sacrament of matrimony can indeed be received at any time of the day or year; but it can not be solemnized, that is, received with the Nuptial Mass and Blessing, during the “closed time,” nor is it in the power of the bishop to dispense from that law.5 The Council of Trent and the Roman Ritual earnestly exhort those who, for any reason, have been married without the Nuptial Blessing not to live together until they shall have received it, the intention of the Church being that they should not consummate their marriage without this salutary blessing; and, according to a decree of August 14, 1858, they could not receive it if they had lived together in the same house even for one day. But a decree of the Congregation of the Holy Office, dated August 31, 1881, has made a radical change on this point, declaring that it is to be granted “to such as did not receive it at the time of marriage, from whatever cause this may have arisen—even if they petitioned for it after living a long time in the married state, provided that the woman, if a widow, had not received it at a previous marriage. Moreover, Catholics who did not receive this blessing on their marriage should be exhorted to ask for it as soon as possible.” Although the reception of this blessing is only a matter of counsel, not binding, most probably, under pain of sin, as O’Kane remarks, still it shows the mind of the Church, and the importance she attaches to the Nuptial Blessing; and it is, at the same time, a rebuke to those—and they are not a few—who make light of this source of divine grace.
With regard to the third question, it may be said that, apart from the “closed time,” the Nuptial Mass may be celebrated on any day, with a few exceptions, and on these exceptional days the Nuptial Blessing with the commemoration of the Nuptial Mass may be inserted, with the sole exception of the vigil and feast of Pentecost, with the two following days; and the same would appear to apply to the feast of the Ascension and Corpus Christi.6 And although on the commemoration of All Souls the celebration of a Mass for the living is not permitted, yet the Nuptial Mass may be celebrated, according to a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, dated September 7, 1850; and, though this decree is not promulgated, it is yet authentic.7
The many privileges which the Church grants to the Nuptial Mass are an evidence of the earnest desire she has that her children should avail themselves of it. No one doubts her devotion to the souls in purgatory; but she grants, as we see, far greater privileges to the Nuptial Mass than she does to that for the dead, even in cases where the body is present. The antiquity of the Nuptial Mass is no less an evidence of the importance the Church attaches to it, being anxious, as she is, that those from whom her ranks are to be recruited should be enriched with special blessings for the discharge of their onerous duties. Pope St. Evaristus, who ruled the Church at the beginning of the second century, ordained, in accordance with apostolic tradition, that marriage should be celebrated publicly, and with the blessing of the priest;8 and, although this is not conclusive evidence that the blessing meant was that found in the Nuptial Mass, it is probable that it was one similar to it, both on account of the importance the Church has always attached to the sacrament of matrimony, and also because Tertullian, who flourished but a century later, speaks of marriage with the Mass as a custom common among Christians.
Inasmuch as we are not here treating of the sacrament of matrimony, but only of the Nuptial Blessing, as one of the sacramentals, much is omitted that would other wise be both interesting and instructive.
The marriage should take place immediately before the Mass. This Mass, it is to be noted, the priest is not bound to offer for the intention of the contracting parties, unless he has been requested to do so. Formerly the rituals of different countries were not uniform with regard to the vestments in which the priest should appear for the performance of the ceremony; but according to a decree of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, dated August 31, 1867, the priest is to be vested as for Mass, except that he does not put on the maniple, which is to be placed on the altar till the ceremony is over.
We have now to examine the Nuptial Mass, with the blessing that forms a part of it, omitting, however, those portions that are common to every Mass. The Introit is taken from the 7th and 8th chapters of the Book of Tobias, and from the 127th Psalm; and reads thus: “May the God of Israel join you together: and may He be with you who was merciful to two only children: and now, O Lord, make them bless Thee more fully. V. Blessed are all they that fear the Lord: that walk in His ways. Glory be to the Father, etc. May the God of Israel,” etc., repeated. The following is the Collect or prayer: “Graciously hear us, almighty and merciful God, that what is performed by our ministry may be abundantly filled with Thy blessing. Through,” etc.
The Epistle is taken from that of St. Paul to the Ephesians (v. 22-33); and however much its ideas may differ from those of the present day, they give the only correct basis upon which human society can be firmly established in any age. “Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the Church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore, as the Church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the Church, and delivered Himself up for it: that He might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life, that He might present it to Himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the Church: because we are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament: but I speak in Christ and in the Church. Nevertheless, let every one of you in particular love his wife as himself: and let the wife fear the husband.”
The Gradual, recited during the greater part of the year, is composed of the following verses of Scripture: “Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine on the walls of thy house. Thy children as olive branches round about thy table. Alleluia, alleluia. May the Lord send you help from the sanctuary, and defend you out of Sion. Alleluia.”
The Gospel is taken from that of St. Matthew (xix. 3-6): “And there came to Jesus the Pharisees tempting Him, and saying: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? Who answering said to them: Have ye not read that He who made man from the beginning made them male and female? And He said: For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they two shall be in one flesh. Therefore now they are not two, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together let no man put asunder.” The Offertory is also from the Sacred Scriptures: “In Thee, O Lord, have I put my trust: I said, Thou art my God: my lot is in Thy hands.” The Secret prayer is couched in these terms: “Receive, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the gift which we here offer up in behalf of Thy holy law of marriage: And as Thou art the Giver of the work, be Thou also the Disposer thereof. Through Our Lord,” etc.
Immediately after the Pater Noster, the first part of the Nuptial Blessing is recited over the married couple, who come forward and kneel at the foot of the altar. The priest, turning round to them, prays: “Be propitious, O Lord, unto our supplications, and graciously assist Thine own institution, which Thou hast ordained for the propagation of mankind: that the union made by Thy appointment may be preserved by Thy aid. Through Our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, etc.
“O God, who by the might of Thy power didst create all things out of nothing; who when the beginnings of the universe were set in order, and man was made to the image of God, didst ordain the inseparable assistance of woman, in such wise that Thou gavest beginning to her body out of the flesh of man, teaching thereby that what it had pleased Thee should be formed of one it should never be lawful to put asunder; O God, who didst create the bond of matrimony by such an excellent mystery, that in the covenant of marriage Thou wouldst signify the sacrament of Christ and His Church; O God, by whom woman is joined to man, and society, as ordained from the beginning, is furnished with a blessing, which alone was not removed, either in punishment of original sin or by the sentence of the deluge; look mercifully on this Thy handmaid, who, being now to be joined in wedlock, earnestly desires to be fortified with Thy protection. May it be to her a yoke of love and peace; may she marry in Christ, faithful and chaste, and be an imitator of holy women. May she be amiable to her husband, like Rachel; wise, like Rebecca; long-lived and faithful, like Sara. May the author of sin have no share in any of her actions. May she remain constant to the faith and commandments: united to one spouse, may she fly all unlawful approaches; may she protect her weakness by the strength of discipline; may she be grave in bashfulness, venerable in modesty, learned in heavenly doctrine. May she be fruitful in offspring, approved and innocent; and may she arrive at the repose of the blessed in the heavenly kingdom; and may they both see their children’s children, even to the third and fourth generation, and arrive at their desired old age. Through the same Jesus Christ, Thy Son,” etc. At the conclusion of these prayers the Mass continues as usual.9 The Communion prayer is: “Behold, thus shall every man be blessed that feareth the Lord: and mayest thou see thy children’s children: peace upon Israel.” The Post-Communion is: “We beseech Thee, O Almighty God, to accompany with Thy gracious favor what Thy providence hath ordained, and preserve in continual peace those whom Thou hast joined in lawful union. Through Our Lord,” etc. Immediately before the ordinary blessing given in Mass is the concluding one of the Nuptial Benediction. Like all the special prayers of this Mass, it includes three petitions: fecundity, peace, and everlasting happiness. It is addressed to Heaven in these words: “May the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you, and may He fulfil His blessing upon you, that you may see your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation, and may afterward have everlasting life, without end, by the help of Our Lord Jesus Christ, who, with the Father and the Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth God, world without end. Amen.”
Such is the Nuptial Mass and Blessing, ordained in her maternal solicitude by holy Church for her children who are about to enter into married life—a life enriched, indeed, with many graces for those who enter it with the proper dispositions, but strewn for all with more than ordinary trials and temptations. Happy are they whose early training and spirit of piety prompt them, on realizing the existence of these trials and temptations, to fortify themselves with the graces of the Nuptial Mass and Blessing, and to call down upon the new path they have entered the plentiful dews of heavenly benediction!
1 St. Matthew, xix. 6.
2 O’Kane, Supplement to the “Notes on the Rubrics,” Nos. 1089, 1090.
3 De Herdt, vol. iii. N. 278.
4 Council of Trent, sess. xxiv., chapter x., De Reformatione Matrimonii.
5 Decree S. C. R., February 6, 1858.
6 De Herdt, vol. iii. N. 285.
7 S. Alphonsi, “Ceremoniæ Missæ,” Schober, p. 286.
8 Roman Breviary, October 26th.
9 The couple are earnestly exhorted to communicate, by a decree, S.C.R., March 21, 1874.