Wedding Processions

And More on the Book of the Gospels

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Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Should both the bride and the groom be accompanied by their mother and father in the entrance procession at a wedding in the United States? The Rite of Marriage states that «If there is a procession to the altar, the ministers go first, followed by the priest, and then the bride and the bridegroom. According to local custom, they may be escorted by at least their parents and the two witnesses» (no. 20). In this rubric, what does «local custom» refer to: the custom of the parish, or the custom of the episcopal conference for which the Rite of Marriage was authorized? — A.M., Danville, Virginia

A: Regarding custom, canon law says the following:

«No. 23. Only that custom introduced by a community of the faithful and approved by the legislator according to the norm of the following canons has the force of law.

«No. 24 §1. No custom which is contrary to divine law can obtain the force of law.

Ǥ2. A custom contrary to or beyond canon law (praeter ius canonicum) cannot obtain the force of law unless it is reasonable; a custom which is expressly reprobated in the law, however, is not reasonable.

«No. 25. No custom obtains the force of law unless it has been observed with the intention of introducing a law (iuris) by a community capable at least of receiving law (legis).

«No. 26. Unless the competent legislator has specifically approved it, a custom contrary to the canon law now in force or one beyond a canonical law (praeter legem canonicam) obtains the force of law only if it has been legitimately observed for thirty continuous and complete years. Only a centenary or immemorial custom, however, can prevail against a canonical law which contains a clause prohibiting future customs.

«No. 27. Custom is the best interpreter of laws.

«No. 28 Without prejudice to the prescript of can. 5, a contrary custom or law revokes a custom which is contrary to or beyond the law (praeter legem). Unless it makes express mention of them, however, a law does not revoke centenary or immemorial customs, nor does a universal law revoke particular customs.»

While we cannot offer here an extended comment on canon law, we could say that examples of communities that can form customs are: national and local Churches; institutes of consecrated life and their provinces; personal prelatures; parishes; public associations and private associations that have received juridical personality; formally established religious houses; seminaries, etc. Therefore a “local custom” could even be that of a single parish.

The English translations do not always clearly distinguish between «ius» (law, right, justice) and «lex» (law). Strictly speaking, a community cannot introduce a law as this is the prerogative of a legislative authority. It can only introduce norms which might or might not have the force of law.

Canonists, therefore, sometimes distinguish between a legal custom, which the faithful would normally be obliged to follow, and a custom of fact which does not have the force of law.

Because of the 30-year law on forming customs, some bishops issued general decrees in 2013 abolishing all practices that were not in conformity with liturgical and canon law. This was done as a preventive measure, since 30 years were about to elapse since the promulgation of the Code of Canon Law. In this way the bishops assured that no abusive practice could lay claim to be a legitimate custom.

In a similar way the Holy See has specifically reprobated some liturgical abuses. Once more this eliminates the possibility of the abuse ever claiming to be a legitimate custom since no reprobated practice can ever enter into this category.

The rubric regarding the couple participating in the entrance procession was issued first in 1970. Marriage is one area where the Holy See gives wide-ranging freedom to a nation’s bishops to establish rites in conformity with national traditions that are compatible with authentic Christian doctrine and practice. In countries with multiple cultural traditions, the bishops, in turn, usually foresee the possibility of different usages.

It must be admitted, however, that the possibility of the priest and the couple processing together down the aisle at the beginning of the Mass has taken a long time to be accepted in some places and even today is not universal.

This form of the rite underlines the couple’s freedom as they make their marriage covenant, the fact that it is a religious celebration and that the couple themselves are the ministers of this sacrament.

It also moves away from ritual expressions that might suggest marriage customs no longer present in Western society and hailing from the times when a bride was in some fashion given away or exchanged for a dowry, by her parents.

However, even when customs, such as the dowry, die out, their ritual expressions are often reinterpreted in new and more positive ways. Thus, the presence of the couple’s parents, and not just the father of the bride, can symbolize that the sacrament unites two families and forms a new one.

This reinterpretation could also occur without changing the rites. Thus the persistence of the custom of the father walking the bride down the aisle and handing her over to the awaiting groom is probably because nobody associates it now with an exchange of property. It has acquired a different and more wholesome meaning in the common mindset, and only historians know its origins.

The permanence of this custom is probably an example of a widespread local custom beyond the law and not, strictly speaking, contrary to the law. In this case, however, we are dealing with liturgical and not canon law. It would not be a legal custom, as the newer rite is always available and nobody is obliged to follow the older practice or even to have a procession at all.

In the case of marriage there could also be other legitimate customs that are strongly ingrained in a particular ethnic tradition strongly present in a diocese or parish. Even when it is not a question of law, I think that many priests have experienced how sensitive marriage celebrations can be. Both tact and firmness are required to accept what can be accepted and explain why some elements cannot be admitted.

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Follow-up: A Place for the Book of the Gospels

A deacon from Florida asked an interesting question in light of the Aug. 20 column on the Book of the Gospels.

He wrote, «We’re in the process of building a new church, and there will be a chapel of reservation, with the tabernacle in the center of it, with chairs arranged in a 360-degree floor plan. One proposal of design for the tabernacle contemplates a hexagonal design with different scenes from the Old Testament and the New Testament, with Eucharistic significance on each of the sides. I was thinking that one of the six sides could be an appropriate place to hold the Evangeliary, which would be taken before the beginning of the Mass to be taken in procession to the altar. In my humble opinion, this would be a much better place than the drawer in the sacristy where the Book of Gospels remains on weekdays, when it is not used. On top of that, it would make the perfect pairing between Gospel and Eucharist suggested by the Council Fathers when they proclaimed the Presence of the Lord while the Word is being proclaimed. Would this be against any liturgical recommendation?»

In most cases where I have seen a permanent place set up for the Gospel or the whole Bible, it has usually been at a side altar in older churches or either near the ambo or near the baptismal font. The former practice is that recommended by the U.S. bishops in their document «Built of Living Stones.»

«62. Our reverence for the word of
God is expressed not only in an attentive listening to and reflection upon the Scripture, but also by the way we handle and treat the Book of the Gospels. The ambo can be designed not only for reading and preaching, but also for displaying the open Book of the Gospels or a copy of the Scriptures before and after the liturgical celebration.»

I would recommend following this suggestion as the most appropriate solution.

Although there is no express prohibition to placing the Book of the Gospels near the tabernacle, in the case you propose, say, on a ledge of a hexagonal base or column that sustains the tabernacle, it is not recommended anywhere. I do not deny it might be a possibility, but it is probably not the best solution either symbolically or practically.

If the proposal was to somehow have the Gospel placed directly against the tabernacle, then I would not consider it a good idea. I think this would actually detract from both and be a constant source of distraction to those who visit Our Lord. Even though the spiritual and catechetical motivations behind the initiative are certainly sincere, it would inevitably seem to many people a lack of respect for the Lord’s real presence in the tabernacle. Some might even interpret it as promoting an incorrect equivalence between the Lord’s substantial real presence in the Eucharist and his analogous, but not substantial, real presence during the liturgical proclamation of the Word.

In other words, I think the two areas should be related but separate in order to do justice to both.

Meanwhile, pursuant to our comments regarding a place for the Book of the Gospels, an Australian reader noted that this procession was common, and with some special characteristics in Masses for Children, as indicated in the Directory for Masses with Children issued by the Holy See in 1973. It must be noted that this directory refers above all to Masses in which the majority of participants are children in or around the age of first Communion. The text says:

«33. In view of the nature of the liturgy as an activity of the entire person and in view of the psychology of children, participation by means of gestures and posture should be strongly encouraged in Masses with children, with due regard for age and local customs. Much depends not only on the actions of the priest, but also on the manner in which the children conduct themselves as a community.

«If, in accord with the norm of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, a conference of bishops adapts the congregation’s actions at Mass to the mentality of a people, it should take the special condition of children into account or should decide on adaptations that are for children only.

«34. Among the actions that are considered under this heading, processions and other activities that involve physical participation deserve special mention.

«The children’s entering in procession with the priest can serve to help them to experience a sense of the communion that is thus being created. The participation of at least some children in the procession with the Book of the Gospels makes clear the presence of Christ announcing the word to his people. The procession of children with the chalice and the gifts expresses more clearly the value and meaning of the preparation of the gifts. The Communion procession, if properly arranged, helps greatly to develop the children’s devotion.»

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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Fr. Edward McNamara

Padre Edward McNamara, L.C., è professore di Teologia e direttore spirituale

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