June 20, 2014

Couple’s love and faith lead them to embrace Church’s great gift in sacramental marriage

Brad Smith and Jessica Sullivan hold hands as they stand near the altar of St. Monica Church in Indianapolis, where they will be married on June 21. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

Brad Smith and Jessica Sullivan hold hands as they stand near the altar of St. Monica Church in Indianapolis, where they will be married on June 21. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

(Editor’s note: Marriage has become an even greater focus in the Church and the archdiocese this year. Noting that marriage and the family are “in crisis,” Pope Francis will lead a meeting of the Synod of Bishops on the issue in October. And Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin has recently made it an archdiocesan goal to “strengthen marriage and family life.” With that greater focus in mind, The Criterion begins a continuing series on marriage. This week, our story focuses on the subject of Catholics getting married in the Church.)

By John Shaughnessy

After meeting through an online dating service, Jessica Sullivan and Brad Smith had the same feeling following their first date.

They both were attracted to each other. And they both liked knowing they could “just be themselves” with each other.

Still, beyond their initial attraction, there was one special quality that both of them were seeking in a relationship for it to become serious.

“It’s the first time being with someone whose faith is just as important to her as it is to me,” Brad says. “It is definitely an important part of the connection.”

The bond between Brad and Jessica will be blessed on June 21 when they are married at St. Monica Church in Indianapolis.

“We’re very much looking forward to it,” Jessica says. “It’s important to us to be able to have our ceremony in front of family and friends and before God—to make it official and have that blessing.”

Like many couples, Jessica and Brad have chosen to be married in the Catholic Church. But that choice is no longer a given among Catholics across the country and the archdiocese.

A decline in marriages in the Church

According to a 2011 analysis in Our Sunday Visitor, a national weekly Catholic newspaper, “the number of marriages celebrated in the Church has fallen from 415,487 in 1972 to 168,400 in 2010—a decrease of nearly 60 percent—while the U.S. Catholic population has increased by almost 17 million.

“To put this another way, this is a shift from 8.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 1972 to 2.6 marriages per 1,000 Catholics in 2010.”

Statistics from the archdiocese reveal a similar trend. The total number of marriages in the archdiocese in 1997 was 1,415. Mostly declining through the years since then, the total number of marriages in the archdiocese was 1,002 in 2013. (From 1997 to 2013, the number of Catholics in the archdiocese decreased from 219,247 to 218,505.)

One reason “for the declining numbers of marriages in the Church” is that “a smaller percentage of Catholics are choosing to marry at all,” noted the 2011 analysis by Our Sunday Visitor.

“The percentage of Catholics indicating that they are married dropped from 79 percent in 1972 to 53 percent in 2010. Among Catholics ages 18 to 40, this percentage dropped from 69 percent to 38 percent during this period,” the analysis stated.

Another contributing factor seems to be a shift in attitude among unmarried Catholics about getting married in the Church.

The analysis cited a 2007 survey conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington. The survey revealed that only “46 percent of unmarried Catholics who indicated some likelihood of marrying in the future said it is ‘somewhat’ or ‘very’ important to them to marry in the Church.”

Those results reflect a lack of understanding of the great gift that the Church offers to Catholics who get married in a church, say Church officials. (Related story: Marriages meet God in ‘best and most beautiful celebration of all’)

‘A sense of God’s loving presence’

“The Catholic Church normally requires weddings to take place in a Catholic church,” according to the website, www.ForYourMarriage.org, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Explaining that requirement, Paulist Father Larry Rice states on the website, “The Church expects that a wedding, being a solemn and sacramental event, should occur in a church—in sacred space. We Catholics take this notion of sacred space very seriously. That’s why being inside a church feels different from being somewhere else. An atmosphere of peace, reverence and respect is important to us, so that all will feel welcome, and so that a sense of God’s loving presence permeates the place.”

The priest continued, “We believe that weddings are sacred moments, which should ordinarily happen in the place where the bride or groom worships, with their families and their faith community. A church isn’t just a set or backdrop for a wedding; rather, a wedding is an expression of a faith community’s joys and hopes.”

The website also shares this view from the Church: “A couple who wants to hold their wedding in a place other than a church needs to obtain permission from the local bishop. Such permission is usually given only for serious reasons.”

The Church’s approach to weddings comes from Christ instituting the sacrament of marriage, says Father Patrick Beidelman, executive director of the archdiocese’s Secretariat for Spiritual Life and Worship.

“As with all the sacraments, Jesus instituted the sacrament of marriage to enable us to advance in the Christian life and ultimately to enjoy the fulfillment of the promise of salvation,” Father Beidelman says.

“If we’re called to marriage, the Lord gives us the sacrament and we celebrate that ceremonially in the rite of marriage. That rite of marriage is, as with all sacraments, a beginning point. You avail yourself of the grace to live out the call as Christian husband and wife.”

‘A powerful moment’ in marriage

Scott and Katherine Seibert experienced that grace when they were married on Aug. 8, 2009, in St. Pius X Church in Lombard, Ill., in the Joliet, Ill., Diocese.

“I remember at one point during the Mass, after we said our vows, we sang the litany of saints before the statue of the Holy Family,” Scott Seibert says. “That was a powerful moment for me—the realization that along with the family and friends that were gathered to witness our wedding, we have the support of the entire communion of saints.

“In particular, we have the support and the guidance of the perfect family—the Holy Family—to guide us, be with us, support us and pray for us. I knew at the moment that God had given us all that we need to have a successful marriage.”

The 27-year-old Seibert recently joined the archdiocese as the marriage and family enrichment coordinator, a newly created position in the Office of Pro-Life and Family Life that is part of Archbishop Tobin’s approach to strengthening marriages and families.

Seibert says that getting married in the Church set the foundation for the approach to marriage that he and his wife have with their two daughters, ages 2 and 6 months.

“I look at our own marriage—just the understanding that our marriage isn’t about us, our life isn’t about us,” he says.

“There are the graces that come from understanding our marriage as a sacrament. The Church offers the education and the formation that our marriage is a sacrament. It’s a visible sign of the invisible reality of God’s love—the unifying love between a man and a woman that God has for all creation.”

Celebrating a commitment

For Jessica Sullivan and Brad Smith, there was no hesitancy about getting married or getting married in the Church. Both in their early 30s, they were engaged nine months after their first date.

“We’re a little bit older. As we dated, we were looking for a commitment,” says Jessica, who at 33 is one year younger than Brad. “We met each other’s parents within two weeks of us meeting.”

While Jessica is Catholic and Brad is a non-denominational Christian, they found common ground in their faith—and helping each other to deepen their faith. (Related story: Church’s blessing shared across different cultures, religions)

“He didn’t develop his faith until his early 20s,” Jessica says. “It was at a time in his life when he was thinking, ‘What’s this all about?’

“For me, having grown up Catholic, it’s very easy to take my religion and my faith for granted because it’s always been there. And to meet someone who didn’t find their faith and grow in their faith until later in life, I saw he had a much deeper appreciation for it.

“For me, it jump-started a deeper appreciation of my faith. To explain things to him about being a Catholic has really helped me know and appreciate the traditions we have.”

One of the traditions she appreciates most is getting married in the Church.

“The very first thing we decided when we got engaged is that it would be a religious service,” Jessica says. “Having grown up Catholic, it was very important for me to get married in a Catholic church. It made the most sense in terms of my personal journey. I also knew the Catholic Church would be welcoming of Brad, and that was important, too.” †


Related story: ‘God helps take a little weight off our shoulders’

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