Unholy matrimony

A friend who is a priest told me this story.

A young couple were engaged to be married in a Catholic church. They had a request. They wanted to write and recite their wedding vows. The vows would be lighthearted, rhyming in Dr. Seuss fashion.

Uh, no, said the priest. The Catholic marriage rite did not allow for “I take you for my wedded wife, I do, I do, for my whole life,” or whatever they had planned to say.

After they were pronounced man and wife, they wanted to depart from the church in a choreographed number to a rousing dance tune. Again, the priest said no. Novelty is appropriate at a reception party, not in church.

The wedding day arrived and the couple, somewhat resentful, recited the traditional vows. But as the couple turned to head down the aisle, a recording of the rousing dance tune was blasted from the choir loft, and the bride and groom wiggled down the aisle to the door. The betrayed priest fumed. He told the couple that their deliberate defiance was unacceptable. He would personally go to the archdiocese and have their wedding annulled. It was clear, the priest said, the couple lacked the maturity required for Catholic marriage.

Over the years, I have heard similar stories of Catholics wanting it their way when it comes to weddings. For example, getting married on a beach, not in a church. Or liturgy pulsing with pop music or hits from Broadway shows. (I attended a Catholic wedding where “Sunrise, Sunset” from “Fiddler on the Roof” was played as the bride came down the aisle.) Perhaps the worst was the story my mother told of going to a wedding where the groomsmen squirted the bride and groom with Silly String as they emerged from the church, getting some of the string on a statue of the parish’s patron.

It is easy to see how a pastor would put the kibosh on these requests. But showbiz production value, with spotlights, curtain drops and club music, is not a part of a Catholic wedding, which are fewer and fewer each year in the United States.

The statistics are startling. In 1970, there were 426,000 Catholic weddings in the U.S. By 2013, that number had dropped 64 percent, to 154,000, according to statistics kept by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. The pace has accelerated, as Catholic weddings nationwide have dropped 40 percent since 2000. This is at the same time that the Catholic population in the U.S. has gone from 49 million to 77 million.

Emma Green, writing about these phenomena in The Atlantic, reports that the Millennial Generation is the least religiously affiliated of any American generation. The popularity of nontraditional weddings may be “an early sign of a generational shift ... with more and more people finding meaning beyond the walls and words of a church.”

Or it could be that as the culture has grown secular and less sacred, so have weddings.

A few years ago, I attended a wedding expo. It was at the height of popularity for the “Bridezillas” reality TV show, and I thought it would make good column fodder. One image I have not shaken was a display by a wedding photographer who had a huge black and white photograph of a bride and groom before the altar at St. Catherine of Sienna Church, tongue kissing.

“Ah, blending sacred and profane,” I told him.

“People kiss in church — you know that, right?” he said.

“Kiss like VJ Day in Times Square?”

“It’s how they feel,” he said.

Well, there ya go. You can have a marriage bound by Christ, or Silly String, silly music or general silliness. It’s all about how you feel.

J.D. Mullane writes from Pennsylvania.