With the widespread influx of immigrants from Latin American countries to the United States, the Catholic Church in the United States is being drastically transformed historically, culturally, spiritually and linguistically. Today, according to the Pew Research Institute, approximately one-third of all Catholics in the United States are Hispanic.

As of 2012, Hispanic Catholics are on track to become the majority within the United States Catholic Church. Already, according to the U.S. Census, more than 50 percent of American Catholics younger than 25 are Hispanic. Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, chairman of the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, insists that, “Latinos will renew the spirituality and faith in the United States.”

So, priests in this newly uncharted territory known as the Catholic faith in the United States need to be educated in celebrating the sacraments for their Hispanic parishioners. For many there is the question of language, but there is much more than that.

Matrimony is one of the important seven sacraments of the Catholic Church. The rite of celebrating marriage is the same in both English and Spanish, but the traditions surrounding a nuptial Mass and the wedding ceremony are drastically different. I have celebrated Hispanic weddings entirely in English and also completely in Spanish, but increasingly there are bilingual celebrations. So, priests should learn not only the words in celebrating these types of weddings, but also the cultural traditions involved in witnessing the sacrament of matrimony for Hispanic couples.

Marriage is defined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church as “not a purely human institution despite the different variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures” (No. 1603). In effect, the married state was established by God in the Old Testament, and God himself is the author of marriage: “And God blessed them (Adam and Eve) and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it’ ” (Gn 1:28).

The basic rite is the same for any Catholic marriage; all require a bride and groom, two witnesses and a priest (or deacon, if it is not a Mass). Most of the weddings that I celebrate for Hispanic couples are Masses. Since this is an important tradition for a Hispanic family, mariachis are often contracted to play the music for the Mass. The instruments consist of violins, guitars, guitarróns, trumpets, vihuelas, accordions and harps. The musicians wear elegant black suits decorated with silver or gold embroidery. The Mass parts are sung, and the music chosen is appropriate for a wedding.

Most Significant Differences

However, one of the most significant differences between a Spanish and English wedding is the involvement of padrinos, or “godparents.” There is not just one pair, but many. The most important padrinos are those known as los padrinos de velación (godparents of vigil). During the nuptial Mass, this couple sit in the sanctuary near the bride and groom in a prominent place apart from the congregation. They provide the couple with a Bible, a Rosary and embroidered pillows to kneel on during the Mass, and before and even after the wedding, they act as mentors to the bride and groom.

In addition, there are padrinos de anillos (the rings), padrinos de arras (the coins), padrinos de lazo (the lasso rosary), and padrinos de flores (the flowers). Each couple is responsible for obtaining or, in many cases, buying their particular item required for the wedding.

As in any wedding, the rings signify the strong and lasting bond between la novia (the bride) and el novio (the groom). Often the children who carry the rings are dressed as a mini-bride and groom. Since the padrinos of the anillos buy the rings for the couple, the relationship between them and los novios is also very close.

The padrinos of the arras hold the 13 coins the bride and groom will present to each other following the blessing and placing of rings. This unusual custom comes from the Romans, whose tradition included breaking of gold or silver with one half to be kept by the woman and the other half by the man as a pledge of their marriage.

Nowadays, los arras, 13 coins are the substitute for gold and silver. These coins are first blessed and sprinkled with holy water by the priest. Then the priest removes the coins from an elaborate box and places them in the cupped hands of the groom. The priest asks the groom to repeat after him:

“(Name of bride), recibe también estas arras: son prenda del cuidado que tendré de que no falte lo necesario en nuestro hogar.”

“(Name of bride), receive also these coins: they are a token of the care that I will have for you so that we will not lack what is necessary for us in our home.” [The translation is mine.] 

Then, the groom opens his hands the drops the coins into the cupped hands of the bride.

Afterwards, the bride is given the coins and she repeats after the priest:

“(Name of groom), recibe estas arras como prenda de la bendición de Dios y signa de los bienes que vamos a compartir.”

“(Name of Groom), receive these coins as a token of God’s blessing upon us and a sign of the goods that we will share together.” [The translation is mine.] 

Then, she also drops the coins into the cupped hands of her husband.

The 13 coins are significant because they denote the unconditional love between the husband and wife. The groom pledges to place all of his goods into her care. The passing of coins back and forth is a symbol of sharing worldly goods for richer or for poorer. The bride then gives the groom the coins, promising confidence and dedication to him. These coins become one of the family heirlooms. The number 13 represents the twelve apostles plus Jesus Christ. In the Mozarabe Rite from Toledo, Spain, the 12 coins also represent the goods to be shared by the bride and groom during the 12 months of each year, while the 13th coin is their promise to share their wealth with the poor.

Padrinos of the Lazo

Then, the padrinos of the lazo are requested to come forward; they give the lasso to the priest who blesses it and sprinkles it with holy water. El lazo is a large loop of rosary beads in a figure-eight shape placed around the necks of the couple after they have taken their wedding vows. Joining the Rosary beads is a crucifix that hangs between the couple. This symbolic cord represents the commitment blessed by God that the bride and groom have promised each other.

After the vows are said, the padrinos of the lazo place the cord around the necks of los novios to show that they are joined together in marriage forever. Of course, the Rosary points to the one life the couple will share. This life, imitating a Rosary, will be filled with joyful, sorrowful, luminous and joyful mysteries. The Virgin Mary — at my church, La Guadalupe — is invoked to intercede for them throughout their shared life together.

When the lazo is placed around the neck of the bride and groom, the priest prays:

“(Names), que elunirlos con este vínculo, el Rosario de la bienaventurada siempre Virgen María, sea una inspiración para ustedes dos. Recuerden que la santidad necesaria para preservar esta nueva familia, como familia de Dios, sólo se obtiene por medio del mutuo sacrificio y amor. ¡Qué la sagrada familia de Jesús, María y José sea su ejemplo durante toda su vida!”

“(Names of Bride and Groom), may the joining together with this lasso, the Rosary of the always Blessed Virgin Mary, be an inspiration for both of you. Remember that the holiness needed to preserve this new family, like the family of God, can only be obtained through mutual love and sacrifice. May the Holy Family — Jesus, Mary and Joseph — be an example to you during your entire life together!” [The translation is mine.] 

After Mass, the married couple treasures the lazo as a keepsake. In a similar way, during the ancient Aztec wedding ceremony, the tunics of the couple to be married were tied together as a symbol of their unity. The phrase “tying the knot” comes from this tradition.

Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

After the closing prayer and before the blessing, the bride and groom present flowers to the Virgin Mary, a very popular tradition in a Hispanic wedding. When the Marian hymn is played and sung, the madrina de ramo (“godmother of the bouquet”), who is usually a young girl, takes a bouquet of roses to the married couple. Then, bride and groom together, accompanied by the priest, walk to the statue of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe and place the roses at her feet. The couple stand there in silent prayer until the hymn is completed. Then, the whole church, led by the priest, pray an Ave Maria that La Guadalupe will protect the happy couple during their marriage.

Traditional Hispanic weddings are steeped in history and the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church. Many traditions still practiced today date back as far as the Aztecs and the Spanish colonization of Latin America. These traditions are rich in symbolism and include a mixture of prayer and festivity. From the opening prayer of the Mass to the mariachi music in the recessional, Hispanic weddings are glorious celebrations of this holy sacrament of matrimony. TP 

Father Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Norristown, Pa.