Washing of the feet, communion given by the spouses... What do these new rituals of Christian marriages mean?

Washing of the feet, communion given by the spouses… What do these new rituals of Christian marriages mean?

First there was the choice of location, as an evidence. A wedding in the heart of nature, in the Chevreuse valley (Yvelines), in the shade of an imposing century-old oak tree. Cindy and Florian Gilbert, market gardeners by trade, who will celebrate the first anniversary of their union on July 9, could not imagine a setting more in keeping with their daily connection to nature. “The wind, the light, the sun, the smell of the undergrowth… The choice of site touched many of our guests”, testifies Florian. These newlyweds who define themselves as “non-practicing Catholics” did not wish to “impose a mass” on some of their non-believing friends and family members. So they imagined a celebration that resembles them. They asked a priest friend to whom they explained their project: “We don’t want a sacrament, it’s a little too solemn. A consecration would be enough for us.” What do they mean by that? The priest, who questions them about this, perceives the desire for the sacred, for transcendence behind the formulation. He offers them to live a time of prayer in nature without imitating a Christian marriage. “Something that goes beyond us, with an open mind, without the too formal framework of religion”, summarizes Cindy. And the young market gardeners wanted to substitute a handing over of gifts to the traditional exchange of wedding rings – which had taken place the same morning at the town hall. Cindy offered olive seeds to Florian who gave her a terrarium in return (1). “We have thus anchored the roots of our love by turning them towards the future, towards life”, explains Florian.

Room for creativity

Reclaiming the Christian rites of marriage arouses treasures of inventiveness. For many, even in the eyes of Catholics committed to the Church, it is no longer conceivable to fit into a pre-established mold which should not be departed from. Make room for creativity! Father Gabriel Ringlet, former vice-rector of the Catholic University of Louvain (Belgium), is very attentive to this thirst for new meaningful rituals. Founder of a “School of Rites” (read box at the end of the article), he notes: “In our time, traditional religious places are less frequented, because the rite has become ritualism. A large number of people do not find themselves in too classic celebrations where they do not understand the meaning of the gestures. The will to ‘inventing new rituals reflects a great requirement and a strong spiritual thirst.

For Benjamin and Servane Chabroux-Vinson, this personalization of marriage has resulted in the great care given to the words spoken, exchanged and explained. That of God in particular. During the celebration of their union in 2017, they asked two lay people to comment, in addition to the priest, on the Gospel chosen, that of the blind Bartimaeus (Mk 10, 46-52). “This choice was in the direction of an opening. Given the number of priests in decline, the Church is called to reconfigure itself, and the laity can make beautiful comments”, believes Benjamin. The celebrant priest also agreed, at the request of the spouses, to rewrite the Eucharistic prayer so that it leaves room for the marriage commitment and also resonates with the chosen Gospel. “We wanted words close to the Eucharistic prayer for children, which I find beautiful, because it is simple and accessible to as many people as possible”, continues Benjamin. Their wedding mass was marked by a short time of exchange in the preamble. In a small hubbub, everyone introduced themselves briefly to an unknown bench neighbor. And communion was distributed by the spouses themselves. “Another way of indicating that we wish, as lay people, to be actors in the Church, stakeholders, at its service.”

Invent, personalize… how far? If he recognizes that “there can be variations in the celebration of marriage”, Mgr Philippe Bordeyne (2), president of the Pontifical Institute of Theology Jean-Paul-II for the sciences of marriage and the family, recalls the limits of wanting to customize (3) the event at all costs. According to him, it is good to set safeguards and not to scatter in a multitude of original gestures. “It is not so much a question of adapting the rituals as of understanding them. The future spouses are led to make choices between the different formulas for the exchange of consents and the nuptial blessing. It is worth repeating , a bit like in the theater. Rather than multiplying liturgical finds, the theologian invites us to “rediscover the beauty of traditional ritual words. Which is possible with good preparation for marriage”.

A meeting to witness

For their part, during their preparation, Aurore and Franck Bourdeaut immediately hear a call… to creativity. From the very first meeting, the Jesuit priest who accompanies them asks them a seemingly harmless but meaningful question: “Who is the Christ whom you invite to your wedding?” This question calls out to engaged couples. At first uncertain about the celebration of a Eucharist in addition to the sacrament of marriage (read the box below “With or without mass”), they finally answer in the affirmative. “We said to ourselves: since we are commemorating the Last Supper, we are going to do it from the beginning to the end, explains Franck. We had heard a priest say how much the Eucharist was inseparable from the washing of the feet. We therefore chose to wash our feet, as we do on Maundy Thursday. A gesture of service and mutual respect. Then we set the table on the altar by unfolding the tablecloth on which the offerings were placed. And we raised , with the priest celebrant, the consecrated bread and wine.” Without forgetting the choice of the spouses’ prayer, the words of Saint Ignatius sung in the first person plural: “Take Lord and receive our freedom, our memory, our intelligence, and all our will.” A way of making their whole being vibrate with the spirituality of the founder of the Jesuits who has nourished them for a long time.

Marriage is also an opportunity to take an assembly to witness. Thus, the friends of Aurore and Franck who attended the celebration ten years ago confided to them on several occasions how much this washing of the feet had touched them. Cindy and Florian, for their part, still smile thinking of the “little trick” they played on their guests. “They did not know at all what this ceremony would be. We caught up with them with our Catholic values! Perhaps it is a form of pedagogy to bring the greatest number of people back to the beautiful message of Christ. And ourselves , during this celebration in the middle of nature, we felt “picked up”!”

(1) A small shrub confined under a bell that can accommodate animal life.
(2) Philippe Bordeyne has just published
Families in search of God, Ed. du Cerf, 168 p. ; €19.
(3) Adapt a commercial product (in general) by personalizing it.

At the School of Rites

Created in 2020, at the Priory of Sainte-Marie in Perwez (Belgium), the School of Rites and Celebration has been a great success. This 48-hour training is open to everyone, Christians or not, for those who wish to officiate at celebrations. Concerning Christian marriage, Father Gabriel Ringlet insists on the choice of the Gospel: to encourage the bride and groom to ask themselves how this text can upset their lives. Reflection is encouraged on where and how to arrange the liturgical space. Moreover, the words of welcome, the prayers, the formulas of commitment are carefully worked out. “The newlyweds are inhabited by a deep word that goes beyond them, notes Father Ringlet. The role of the celebrant is to help this word come into the world.”

→ Information: leprieure.be/ecole-des-rites

Catholic marriages in sharp decline in France

The number of marriages celebrated in France by the Catholic Church is falling sharply. The latest available figures show only 23,484 unions in 2020, but that year many marriages had to be canceled or postponed due to the health crisis. In 2019, 44,951 couples said “yes” to church. They were 122,580 in 2000. The trend will have to be reassessed in the next year or two given the post-Covid catch-up.

Source: Statistics.

With or without mass

The sacrament of marriage consists of the exchange of consents and the nuptial benediction. The exchange of wedding rings is an additional sign of the love that the spouses promise each other. However, it is absent from the ritual in some countries. For example, in Africa, the bride and groom sometimes give each other kola nuts instead of rings. The bride and groom can choose to receive this sacrament during a mass – with the Eucharistic prayer, the consecration of the offerings and the communion – or without a mass.

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