17 Catholic Wedding Traditions and Rituals, Explained

Here's what you can expect to see at a traditional Catholic vow exchange.
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
by
Hannah Nowack
Hannah Nowack The Knot Senior Weddings Editor
Hannah Nowack
Senior Editor, Weddings
  • Hannah writes and edits articles for The Knot Worldwide, with a focus on real wedding coverage.
  • Hannah has a passion for DE&I and plays an integral role in ensuring The Knot content highlights all voices and all love stories.
  • Prior to The Knot Worldwide, Hannah was the Social Media Editor at Martha Stewart Weddings.
Updated Apr 01, 2022

Wedding ceremonies are not only a chance to celebrate a couple's marriage, but they're also a time when many to-be-weds choose to honor their culture, religion or heritage through the inclusion of meaningful wedding traditions. Weddings in the Catholic church are no different—they are generally highly traditional affairs where couples partake in many rituals and sacraments as laid out by the leadership of the Catholic church. If you're in the throes and wedding planning and trying to decide what Catholic elements to include in your wedding, or you've been invited to a traditional Catholic wedding for the first time, consider this your ultimate guide.

In this story:

Catholic Wedding Ceremony Traditions FAQs

Especially for guests attending a Catholic wedding ceremony for the first time, the tradition and structure of the event, and not knowing what to expect, can feel daunting. With insights from some of our go-to wedding experts and pros, we're taking a look at Catholic wedding frequently asked questions to prepare you.

What can guests who aren't members of the Catholic church participate in?

"Non-Catholic guests should still feel welcome to attend a Catholic wedding mass of a close friend or family member," explains wedding expert Jen Avey, VP of Marketing for Destination Weddings Travel Group. "Depending on their comfort level and their own religious beliefs, guests can show their support by simply being present in the chapel, or choosing to partake in the statements of faith and/or hymns (songs). If Holy Communion is being offered, members of the Catholic church may be able to participate, however, non-Christians are welcome to participate by simply offering a sentiment of peace. Be sure to check the ceremony program to see if the couple provided any details as to what to expect, so you can decide to proceed as you feel most comfortable."

How long is a Catholic wedding?

The length of the ceremony depends on whether the to-be-weds decide to partake in a full Catholic Mass or an abbreviated version of the ceremony. A full Mass may take more than an hour because of the various liturgical elements included.

What should you wear to a Catholic wedding?

As with all guest dress code questions, it's best to stick with whatever guidelines the couple puts forth in their invitations or on their wedding website. Generally speaking, however, Catholic weddings are formal affairs and your attire should align with the gravity of the matrimony. It is generally encouraged that guests dress modestly. If you're wearing a dress that leaves much of your upper body exposed, a shawl or wrap could be a good addition to your ensemble.

Can you personalize Catholic wedding traditions?

"It's important for couples to know that a typical Catholic ceremony generally doesn't allow for a lot of extras, like personalizing the exchange of wedding vows," wedding expert Amanda Donaho of Amanda Donaho Photography. Ultimately, the priest presiding over the wedding will be the one to dictate the extent to which a Catholic wedding ceremony can be tailored to fit a couple.

If having a traditional ceremony, but also adding personalization is important to you, expert Nora Sheils, of Rock Paper Coin and Bridal Bliss suggests couples consider having two wedding ceremonies. "Many couples find getting married in a Catholic church very important to them, but don't want to have their guests in a church for over an hour to witness it, especially if many don't practice the faith. Instead, we've planned Catholic ceremonies a few days (or weeks, or months!) prior to the festivities so they can have their sacred sacrament."

Catholic Prewedding Traditions Explained

Catholic engagements are generally expected to last a full year. During this time there are some prewedding traditions that typically take place for couples planning a Catholic wedding ceremony.

Catholic marriage rites vary from church to church so to-be-weds should partner with their priest throughout wedding planning as they prepare for their Catholic wedding ceremony. The priest will guide the couple through several preparatory steps ahead of the wedding. Notably, if one of the to-be-weds hasn't partaken in the sacrament of Confirmation within the Catholic Church, they may need to complete that rite ahead of the wedding.

Official wedding announcements, known as Banns of Marriage, may be posted in the church bulletin for the three Sundays prior to a couple's wedding.

Pre-Cana

Pre-Cana is the marriage preparation course, or prewedding counseling, that couples must partake in if they wish to be married in the Catholic church. The name comes from the Bible story in John 2:1-12 which is known as the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, where, according to the text, Jesus Christ performed the miracle of turning water into wine.

This wedding preparation course is usually either a weekly class or an intensive weekend program. During this time, couples have the chance to delve into many topics relating to marriage and married life, from spirituality and commitment to other details like financial topics. Ultimately, the goal of Pre-Cana is to equip both to-be-weds to enter into marriage as prepared as possible with realistic expectations of the commitment they're making to each other.

Catholic Wedding Traditions Explained

Catholic weddings are highly liturgical affairs steeped in lots of tradition. As such, there is a fairly standard format for Catholic wedding programs. Wedding professional Stephanie West of Stephanie West Photography explains that at a Catholic wedding ceremony "there are songs, readings, communion, signs of peace, and a homily but then the Sacrament of Marriage takes place. In this, there is the Rite of Marriage which includes wedding vows, consent, and exchanging rings." Each of these elements of the marriage ceremony is included for very intentional reasons.

Aaron Lane of Aaron Lane Pro DJ Entertainment goes on to note that "A Catholic wedding Mass is exactly like a regular Sunday Mass, with the addition of the Rite of Catholic Marriage. The Rite is what recognizes the union in the eyes of the Church, and actually confers on the couple the Graces of the Sacrament of Marriage. Catholics believe these graces, as we read in the Bible, greatly assist the couple by providing spiritual help in their marriage and their commitment to God and each other, and help to live out the vows proclaimed during their wedding ceremony."

1. Head To The Church

Most Catholic wedding ceremonies take place in a Catholic church. Generally, the couple chooses their home church, but they may opt for a family church or a church that holds a special connection for them. If you want to hold your Catholic wedding ceremony somewhere other than a Catholic church, you'll generally need to write to your bishop for permission.

2. Entrance Rite

If the couple is following Catholic wedding traditions, there are two options for the processional. The first option is for the priest and servers can greet the wedding party, bridesmaids and groomsmen at the door of the church, entering with the priest and servers first, followed by the wedding couple. Alternatively, the priest and servers can enter on their own and take their places in the sanctuary before the wedding couple enters, greeting them when they arrive at their places. Once everyone has arrived and taken their places, the priest leads everyone in the sign of the cross once the processional song has finished.

3. Introductory Rites and Opening Prayer

Catholic or Roman Catholic weddings begin with a greeting and an opening prayer by the priest, naming the couple and asking for God's blessings on their wedding day. "Couples will have to decide if they want to hold a Catholic ceremony with or without Mass, which will include Holy Communion and other elements that could last up to an hour or longer," explains Avey. If proceeding with a Nuptial Mass, the priest will then lead the guests in a hymn.

4. Nuptial Mass or Celebration of Marriage

If both members of the wedding couple are Catholic, they may opt for the full Catholic wedding ceremony Nuptial Mass. The Nuptial Mass includes several readings from the Old Testament and New Testament, as well as hymns and psalms. "Typically, there are 2 readings at the beginning of the ceremony. These are done by friends or family selected by the couple," explains Donaho. After that, the priest offers a homily, which typically includes readings and teachings on marriage and love. If the couple opts to skip the Nuptial Mass, they'll have what's called a Celebration of Marriage, which begins with the Liturgy of the Word.

5. Liturgy Of The Word

The readers (often family members) read Bible passages selected by the couple and preapproved by the priest, followed by a short sermon about marriage given by the priest.

6. Rite Of Marriage

The entire congregation stands as the couple takes their vows, declaring their commitment to each other. Actual vows vary between churches, but the basic wording is: "I (name), take you (name) to be my wife/husband. I promise to be true to you in good times, in sickness and in health. I will love and honor you all the days of my life."

The priest then blesses the couple, joins their hands together, and asks, "Do you take (name) as your lawful wife/husband, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and cherish until death do you part?"

7. Exchange Of Rings

After the couple responds, "I do," to the vows, the best man generally gives the bride's ring to the priest, who blesses it and hands it to the groom to place on the bride's finger. Then, the maid of honor hands the groom's ring to the priest, who blesses it and hands it to the bride to place on the groom's finger. Each may say, "I take this ring as a sign of my love and faithfulness in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit."

8. Lasso and Arras

Many Hispanic Catholic weddings will also include the lasso ceremony and the arras ritual. Each of these rituals are unity ceremonies to further represent the couple's bond through matrimony.

9. Catholic Wedding Conclusion Without Mass

If the ceremony takes place without a Mass, the ceremony concludes with nuptial blessings and a final prayer from the priest. He then tells the congregation, "Go in peace with Christ," to which they respond, "Thanks be to God."

10. Catholic Wedding Conclusion With Mass

If the ceremony includes Nuptial Mass (which adds about 15 minutes to the service), the Mass proceeds with the following Catholic wedding traditions. The order may vary slightly, depending on the church, but you can expect each element to be present.

11. Offertory

This is when the altar is prepared for communion, also called the Liturgy of the Eucharist. The couple, or other treasured guests, may be chosen to help in the preparations, and then the priest delivers the Eucharistic Prayers over the bread and wine for communion. In some Catholic weddings, the bride places flowers on the shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary as musicians play "Ave Maria." This rite can be done either before the processional or after the recessional.

12. Lord's Prayer

The guests participate in reciting the Lord's Prayer taken from Matthew 6:9-13.

"Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

13. Nuptial Blessing

For this blessing, the wedding couple kneels or stands before the altar, and the priest offers a blessing for the couple.

14. Sign of Peace

The priest invites the wedding party and the guests to share in a sign of peace (typically a handshake) and the words, "Peace be with you," with the people standing nearest them.

15. Holy Communion

The priest breaks the host (bread) while the guests sing, and communion is distributed to the newlyweds, then the guests, often with the help of servers. Guests who are not Catholic may be offered a blessing by the priest instead.

16. Blessing and Dismissal of the Guests

After communion, the ceremony concludes as it would without a Mass. A final blessing is offered to the married couple and the guests, and everyone is dismissed with "Go in peace with Christ." Guests respond with, "Thanks be to God."

17. Recessional

The wedding couple leads the recessional out of the church, followed by the wedding party, then the servers and, finally, the priest.

After the ceremony has concluded there will be a wedding reception. The Catholic church generally has set times when they will host Mass so there may be a gap of time between the conclusion of the ceremony and when the reception takes place.

Watch Now

Up Next
  • Classic Catholic wedding ceremony in St. Louis, Missouri.
    Catholic Wedding Program Template: Wording & Info