NOTE: This article was written while the old Code of Canon Law was in effect. Canon 1062 of the new Code states: A promise of marriage, whether unilateral or bilateral, called an engagement, is governed by the particular law which the Episcopal Conference has enacted, after consideration of such customs and civil laws as may exist. While there is no obligation to have a betrothal ceremony some Catholics may desire to do so. This article is provided to offer suggestions for those interested in becoming engaged in church.
An age-old and excellent engagement ceremony is found in Father Weller's translation of the Roman Ritual.1 The Queen's Work reproduces the rite in a pamphlet published by this writer under the title: Your Engagement Should Be in Church,2 as does the Catholic University in the author's doctoral dissertation: The Betrothal Contract in the Code of Canon Law.3
In the Oriental Church, both the contract and the ceremony have been ordinary practice for centuries. Recent codification of Eastern marriage legislation specifically treats of solemn espousals in canons six and seven of the newly codified oriental law.4
From Roman law sources, espousals were always understood as "the mention and promise of future marriage."5 Pope Nicholas I defined them as "pacts of promise of future marriage."6 The Code of Canon Law today regards betrothals as either bilateral or unilateral contracts, accordingly as they are mutually agreed on by both parties or made by one and accepted by the other party.7 St. Thomas referred to the engagement as a "quasi-sacramental."8
The Engagement Ceremony
Officially speaking, there is no prescribed ritual for betrothals. Since, however, the engagement is so closely allied with the Sacrament of Matrimony, it is most fitting that it take place in church, preferably at the communion railing. Because Father Weller includes the ceremony in his translation of the Roman Ritual, it would be wise to adopt it. The Holy See does not permit the introduction of any new liturgical ceremonies on private authority. The ceremony is as follows:
1. The priest (vested in surplice and white stole) with his assistants (vested in surplice) awaits the couple at the communion table. At hand are the stoup with holy water and the altar missal. As the man and woman come forward with the two witnesses they have chosen, the following antiphon and psalm are sung on the eighth psalm tone:
Antiphon: To the Lord I will tender my promise: in the presence of all His people.
Unless the house be of the Lord's building, in vain do the builders labor.
Unless the Lord be the guard of the city, 'tis in vain the guard keeps his sentry.
It is futile that you rise before daybreak, to be astir in the midst of darkness,
Ye that eat the bread of hard labor; for He deals bountifully to His beloved while they are sleeping.
Behold, offspring result from God's giving, a fruitful womb the regard of His blessing.
Like arrows in the hand of the warrior, are children begotten of a youthful father.
Happy the man who has filled therewith his quiver; they shall uphold him in contending at the gate with his rival.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now, and forever, through endless ages. Amen.
Antiphon: To the Lord I will tender my promise: in the presence of all His people.
2. The priest now addresses them:
Beloved of Christ: It is in the dispensation of Divine Providence that you are called to the holy vocation of marriage. For this reason, you present yourselves today before Christ and His Church, before His sacred minister and the devout people of God, to ratify in solemn manner the engagement bespoken between you. At the same time you entreat the blessing of the Church upon your proposal, as well as the earnest supplications of the faithful here present, since you fully realize that what has been inspired and guided by the will of your heavenly Father requires equally His grace to be brought to a happy fulfillment. We are confident that you have given serious and prayerful deliberation to your pledge of wedlock; moreover, that you have sought counsel from the superiors whom God has placed over you. In the time that intervenes, you will prepare for the sacrament of matrimony by a period of virtuous courtship, so that when the happy and blessed day arrives for you to give yourselves irrevocably to each other, you will have laid a sound spiritual foundation for long years of godly prosperity on earth and eventual blessedness together in the life to come. May the union you purpose one day to consummate as man and wife be found worthy to be in all truth a sacramental image and reality of the union of Christ and His beloved Bride, the Church. This grant, thou Who livest and reignest, God, forever and evermore.
3. The priest now bids the couple to join their right hands, while they repeat after him the following:
In the name of our Lord, I, N.N., promise that I will one day take thee, N.N., as my wife, according to the ordinances of God and holy Church. I will love thee even as myself. I will keep faith and loyalty to thee, and so in thine necessities aid and comfort thee; which things and all that a man ought to do unto his espoused I promise to do unto thee and to keep by the faith that is in me.
In the name of our Lord, I, N.N., in the form and manner wherein thou hast promised thyself unto me, do declare and affirm that I will one day bind and oblige myself unto thee, and will take thee, N.N„ as my husband. And all that thou hast pledged unto me I promise to do and keep unto thee, by the faith that is in me.
4. Then the priest takes the two ends of his stole and in the form of a cross places them over the clasped hands of the couple. Holding the stole in place with his left hand, he says: I bear witness of your solemn proposal and I declare you betrothed. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. As he pronounces the last words, he sprinkles them with holy water in the form of a cross.
5. Thereupon he blesses the engagement ring:
V. Adjutorium nostrum in nomine Domini.
R. Qui fecit caelum et terram.
V. Domine, exaudi orationem meam.
R. Et clamor meus ad te veniat.
V. Dominus vobiscum.
R. Et cum spiritu tuo.
Oremus: Omnipotent Deus, creator et conservator humani generis, ac largitor aeternae salutis, permitte digneris Spiritum sanctum Paraclitum super hunc annulum. Per Dominum nostrum Jesum Christum, Filium tuum: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus, per omnia saecula saeculorum.
Et aspergatur aqua benedicta.
V. Our help is in the name of the Lord.
R. Who made heaven and earth.
V. O Lord, hear my prayer.
R. And let my cry come unto thee.
V. The Lord be with you.
R. And with thy spirit.
Let us pray:
O God Almighty, Creator and preserver of the human race, and the Giver of everlasting salvation, deign to allow the Holy Spirit, the Consoler to come with His blessing upon this ring. Through our Lord, Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee in the unity of the Holy Spirit God, for endless ages.
The ring is sprinkled with holy water.
6. The man takes the ring and places it first on the index finger of the left hand of the woman, saying: In the name of the Father, (then on the middle finger, adding): and of the Son; (finally placing and leaving it on the ring finger, he concludes): and of the Holy Spirit.
7. The priest opens the missal at the beginning of the Canon, and presents the page imprinted with the crucifixion to be kissed first by the man and then by the woman.
8. If Mass does not follow (or even if Mass is to follow, if he deems it opportune), the priest may read the following passages from Sacred Scripture:
Tobias said: I will not eat nor drink here this day, unless thou first grant me my petition, and promise to give me Sara thy daughter… The angel said to Raguel: Be not afraid to give her to this man, for to him who feareth God, is thy daughter due to be his wife; therefore another could not have her… And Raguel taking the right hand of his daughter, he gave it unto the right hand of Tobias, saying: The God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob be with you, and may He join you together, and fulfill His blessing in you. And taking paper they made a writing of the marriage. And afterwards they made merry, blessing God… Then Tobias exhorted the virgin, and said to her: Sara, arise, and let us pray to God today, and tomorrow, and the next day; because for these three nights we are joined to God; and when the third night is over, we will be in our own wedlock. For we are children of saints, and must not be joined together like heathens that know not God. So they both arose, and prayed earnestly both together that health might be given them.
R. Thanks be to God.
At that time, Jesus said to His disciples: Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abide in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit; for without me you can do nothing. If any one abide not in me, he shall be cast forth as a branch, and shall wither, and they shall gather him up, and cast him into the fire, and he burneth. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you shall ask whatever you will, and it shall be done unto you. In this is my Father glorified; that you bring forth very much fruit, and become my disciples. As the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you shall abide in my love; as I also have kept my Father's commandments, and do abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy be in you, and your joy may be filled. This is my commandment, that you love one another, as I have loved you.
R. Praise be to thee, O Christ!
9. Lastly, the priest extends his hands over the heads of the couple and says:
May God bless your bodies and your souls. May He shed His blessing upon you as He blessed Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. May the hand of the Lord be upon you, may He send His holy Angel to guard you all the days of your life. Amen. Go in peace!
Competency Of Bishops And Pastors
Except for the "local ordinary" (the bishop and the vicar-general), only the pastor is officially competent to witness a betrothal contract.13 Delegation to another priest, even the assistant in the parish, is disallowed in code law.14 However, any priest may act as a private witness, provided another private witness signs the contract with him, lay or clerical.15
In the absence of positive legislation, any priest may likewise assist at the liturgical ceremony described above, since the ritual is not mandatory.16
Advantages Of The Engagement
Priests would do well to encourage a Solemn Betrothal and discourage marriage, if possible, when:
1. Military service will separate the groom from his bride very shortly after, if not before, the marriage. An engagement in church will insure fidelity and a partner (to a degree at least) without the inexorable and permanent effects produced by matrimony.
2. Pursuit of higher education is contemplated by one or both of the contractants. Experience points to the hardships, material and moral, accompanying student husbands, wives and parents.
3. Immaturity, emotional, physical and moral, present in either or both parties. The engagement can serve as a useful period conducive to the necessary growth of the still infantile and puerile couple.
4. Uncertainty and vacillation experienced by either party in regard to the choice of consort, the willingness to assume the burdens of the married state here and now, or the like.
5. Well grounded fears harbored by any of the parties, the pastor and parents included, about the outcome and success of the marriage.
There is much to be gained and little to be lost by an engagement--in church.
1 The Roman Ritual, translated by Weller (Milwaukee: Bruce), I, 583-593.
2 Chester Wrzaszczak, Your Engagement Should be in Church (St Louis: The Queen's Work), pp. 22-29.
3 Chester Wrzaszczak, The Betrothal Contract in the Code of Canon Law (Washington, D. C.: CUA Press), pp. 154-159.
4 Canon 6, # 1: "The promise of marriage, even though bilateral, or in the nature of a mutual espousal, is null in both fora, unless made before
5 Momsen, Digesta Iustiana Augusti (Berlin), I, 656, n. 1.
6 Responsa, ad Consulta Bulgarum, C. III (Paris: Mansi), XV, 402.
7 Canon 1017, # 1.
8 Suppl. q. 43, art. 1, ad 6.
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