The Catholic Sacrament of Matrimony
The Catholic Church distinguishes between a legal marriage and the Sacrament of Matrimony. The Sacrament of Matrimony involves two baptized people, one or both of whom are Catholic, becoming husband and wife through a sacred covenant with God and each other.
If the non-Catholic was baptized in a non-Catholic church, she needs documentation verifying Baptism. If she is unbaptized, unchurched, or of a non-Christian religion, she needs to get a special dispensation from the local bishop, which the priest or deacon performing the ceremony can obtain.
Getting ready for matrimony
In most dioceses, Catholics who want to marry are asked to meet with a priest or deacon at least 9 to 12 months before the wedding. During this Pre-Cana period, the priest or deacon offers practical financial and emotional advice to the couple, as well as instructions on the spiritual nature of marriage and Natural Family Planning (NFP). The Catholic Church wants to prevent impulsive, shotgun weddings, or anything done in haste, rashness, or imprudence because matrimony is for life.
If either the bride or groom has been married before, they must seek an annulment of that marriage in order to receive the Sacrament of Matrimony. An annulment declares that a marriage was never a valid sacrament in the first place, usually because one or both of the partners did not enter into it with good faith and intentions. An annulment does not affect the legitimacy of any children.
Making a wedding a valid sacrament
A valid Sacrament of Matrimony requires the presence of a priest or deacon, a bride and groom (no same-sex marriages), and two witnesses of any religion. The bride and groom are the real ministers of the sacrament, because their “I do’s,” make them husband and wife. The priest or deacon is just an official witness for the Church — necessary, but still just a witness.
In addition, both partners need to pledge that the marriage will have the following characteristics:
Permanent: Unto death. You can only receive the Sacrament of Matrimony once unless your spouse dies.
Faithful: No adultery.
Fruitful: Open to the possibility of children if God wills it.
Saying “I do” during a ceremony
Most Catholic weddings take place during a wedding Mass. Vows are exchanged as part of the Mass itself. If either the bride or groom isn’t of the Catholic faith, the Church usually suggests a wedding ceremony without Mass. And when a Catholic couple gets married in a civil or non-Catholic ceremony, they need a convalidation ceremony to make their marriage valid in the eyes of the Catholic Church.