An explosion of grace

Communal wedding Mass at Holy Ghost Church unites 14 Latino couples in holy matrimony                    

From staff reports

Gifts of the Holy Spirit were the ultimate wedding gifts for 14 Diocese of Knoxville couples who exchanged vows at Holy Ghost Church on June 15 in a ceremony to celebrate their full communion with the Catholic Church.

Communal wedding Masses are common in Latin American countries and are being held in dioceses around the country with more frequency.

These Masses are held where funds to cover costs associated with weddings are scarce, which is why the Church offers communal nuptial Masses as a way for couples to restore their sacramental participation and bring God’s blessings and graces into the relationships, according to the diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry.

Plans for the June wedding Mass at Holy Ghost began in January when Father John Dowling, who then was the parish pastor, asked couples attending baptismal preparation classes if they were married in the Church. Most answered that they weren’t due to the lack of financial resources.

Concerned by their answers, Father Dowling discussed the issue with Holy Ghost parishioner Oswaldo Cardenas, who leads baptismal preparation in the parish and is a member of Knights of Columbus Council 16523, and also with Elizabeth Bunker, Holy Ghost director of religious education.

Preparing for the big day

“While exploring how to respond to this need, Mr. Cardenas shared that a communal wedding, similar to ones that are celebrated in the Church in Latin American countries, might be the answer. Father Dowling then sought the help of Father John Orr, pastor at St. Mary Church in Athens and former associate pastor at Holy Ghost,” said Blanca Primm, director of Hispanic Ministry for the diocese.

“Father Orr agreed to be the celebrant of the communal wedding Mass and to offer a special one-day marriage-preparation session. The session also contained sacramental preparation since many of the couples also received the sacraments of first Communion and confirmation that day. In all, there were seven first Communions and 13 confirmations,” Mrs. Primm added.

Couples exchange vows during the wedding Mass for 14 brides and grooms at Holy Ghost Church.

Father Dowling offered Holy Ghost Church to the wedding parties at no charge. Many, if not all, churches usually charge a fee for their use by couples getting married. And a wedding reception for the couples was held at a nearby community center, put on by the Office of Hispanic Ministry, Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, and the Holy Ghost community. A team of volunteer photographers and videographers captured the Mass for the couples, and volunteer musicians provided songs for the occasion.

Couples from Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, and the United States took part in the wedding Mass, which was celebrated in Spanish by Father Orr.

Mrs. Bunker credited Mr. Cardenas with compiling a list of the couples and providing them with all the information and paperwork necessary to make their wedding day happen. It would be a special day for him and his wife as well.

“For me it was a moment of joy, grace, and happiness,” Mr. Cardenas said. “It was amazing to see my son getting married on my wife’s 50th birthday. We celebrated her birthday this way. It was the best birthday gift for her.”

Mrs. Primm said Mr. Cardenas and fellow parishioners Jose Sandoval, Jose Luis Santiago, and Antonio Dianas were also instrumental in connecting the Hispanic community to the parish office to ensure the couples complied with requirements.

For Mrs. Bunker, the wedding ceremony was spiritually uplifting and emotionally moving.

“We have to take the opportunity to be a vessel of God’s grace so that these people can receive the fullness of the faith. It can bring tears to your eyes, don’t you think?” Mrs. Bunker said.

“Although there were many reasons why the couples decided to get married at this time, it was surely the prompting of the Holy Spirit,” she added. “The most powerful thing was that they were able to receive the Eucharist again; there was a lot of grace that day. It was a moment of wow!”

Mrs. Primm and Brittany Garcia of the diocesan Office of Youth and Young Adult Ministry (Pastoral Juvenil) were asked to promote the wedding opportunity in the diocese’s Hispanic community.

Since each couple could participate in the Mass only with the authorization of their parish pastor, Marian Christiana, who retired as director of the diocesan Office of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment on July 1, reached out to priests with the specific requirements for the celebration. Seven couples were from Holy Ghost, three were from the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, and four were from Holy Cross Church in Pigeon Forge.

A gift and a blessing

“This special wedding was a gift to the couples and their families, and was a blessing to the whole diocese. The Knights of Columbus also provided an honor guard for the occasion,” Mrs. Primm said.

“As Pope Francis asks us to go out to the peripheries to evangelize, we as a Church community need to reach out to cohabitating couples, many already with children, to help them to restore their access to the living grace that will allow them to strengthen their relationship and live a fuller life with their families. In his apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio, St. John Paul II addressed the issue of cohabitation: ‘This phenomenon, which is becoming ever more frequent, cannot fail to concern pastors of souls,’” she added.

Andy Chaparro and Corina Cerros, Sacred Heart Cathedral parishioners, were among the couples exchanging vows and the oldest to marry. When asked after their wedding how they felt, they replied “very good now.”

As with the other 13 couples, and many unmarried couples in the Catholic Church, Mr. Chaparro said time and money were the biggest obstacles to getting married in the Church.

“Why didn’t we marry before? For lack of money and for being immersed in so many commitments and not taking the time to stop and plan it. I would have liked a private wedding, but I took too long indeed. Thank goodness she waited for me. We are close to 60. I thought too much about what others might say or think,” Mr. Chaparro said.

He said the wedding was the best, most important thing they have done as a couple, and they are now very happy. “For us, the devil has left our house and now God has entered. I ask for the parishes to continue offering these communal weddings. I would love to see one planned at the cathedral. It is time to forget about what the people think and overcome fear. The most important thing is to receive the sacrament. Many couples need it.”

Mrs. Cerros said she liked the wedding Mass “very much,” even though it took longer than she anticipated to get to the altar rail and once there, the three-hour Mass took longer than she expected.

“Oh, it was time. It is still hard to believe that I can receive the Eucharist. I say to myself, ‘Is this possible?’ I get nervous, as if a girl who is in love. Andy and I were together for 26 years,” Mrs. Cerros said. “Prior to the wedding I was very nervous. It all happened very soon. Andy came home one day and said, ‘We are getting married!’ I loved that it came from him.”

As with most any wedding, the bride’s dress is an important element. Each bride was wearing a wedding gown while the grooms were dressed in tuxedos or suits.

And as with many brides, choosing a dress often is far from simple.

Father John Orr is joined by the brides and grooms who took part in the communal wedding Mass at Holy Ghost Church on June 15. In all, 14 couples exchanged vows during the Mass celebrated by Father Orr.

“I felt good with what I wore. Looking for a dress was very exciting. At first I thought I would love a long dress with a train, but later I said to myself that was not the most important detail. I needed something respectful and special for the occasion. My friends helped me with it as I realized the most important thing was to be there for the wedding. I felt at peace,” Mrs. Cerros said.

The youngest couple to be married at Holy Ghost was Oswaldo Cardenas Jr., 26, and Rebeca Linares, 23. They have an 8-month-old daughter. While already married, the couple desired to exchange their vows within the Church, and the communal wedding Mass offered the right opportunity.

“Although we had been married civilly, we needed to do it before God. I was happy, especially because we are going to give our daughter a good example of how it is to follow God’s Church. She is already baptized,” Mrs. Linares said.

Their daughter also influenced what her mother wore for the occasion.

“We wanted something simple. I put more emphasis on my daughter’s dress because I wanted her to see in the upcoming years that it was important to us to show that she was present in our wedding,” Mrs. Linares noted.

She said she liked how Father Orr celebrated the wedding Mass, devoting time to each couple at the moment they exchanged their vows.

Mr. Cardenas is overjoyed that he and his wife could share in a wedding Mass, in full communion with the Catholic Church and with his family in attendance.

“At last I was able to receive the Eucharist. There was some time that I hadn’t been able to. It is great to be married before God. I did like the ceremony,” he said, noting that demanding work and school commitments prevented him from marrying within the Church. “My schedule didn’t allow me to participate in the marriage prep. I work as a fireman on the weekends and Monday through Friday. Also, a few years ago I was studying and also I had two jobs at the same time.”

Sacramental grace

Mrs. Garcia called the communal wedding Mass “an explosion of grace,” where brides and grooms could celebrate their marriages upon receiving the sacraments of initiation.

“June 15 was, in fact, filled with much grace as 14 couples, that is 28 individuals, entered into the sacrament of holy matrimony at the same hour in the same parish. During their communal nuptial Mass, about half of those brides and grooms received the sacrament of confirmation, and about a quarter of them received the sacrament of first Communion,” Mrs. Garcia said.

“There was so much grace flowing out from the sacraments that day, and I know the heavens surely rejoiced, as did all of us sitting on the pews witnessing such a remarkable afternoon. People who had not received Communion in years were now able to do so. Those who had never received Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, tasted Him for the first time, and saw that He is good. Couples that had been together for a couple of decades were now able to look each other in the eye and officially call their beloved ‘my husband’ or ‘my wife,’” she added.

Mrs. Garcia was encouraged that with the major barrier to wedding Masses—finances—removed because the one-day wedding preparation, the church, and the reception were provided at no charge, the couples were free to take part in the sacraments.

In leading the organizing of the communal wedding Mass, Father Dowling and Father Orr shared concerns about the need for more Hispanic parishioners in the diocese to have marriages blessed by the Church.

Father John Orr presides as one of 14 couples taking part in the communal wedding Mass June 15 at Holy Ghost Church exchanges vows.

“I noticed that many of the people who attended the Hispanic Mass were not receiving holy Communion and discovered that many were in irregular living situations. After realizing that many of these people had never been previously married, I decided to ask Father Orr if he would be willing to give pre-marital instruction to a large number of people and see what develops. Of course, Father Orr was happy to do so. And along with several parishioners and diocesan staff, he organized the necessary steps to accomplish our goal,” said Father Dowling, who now is pastor of St. Augustine Parish in Signal Mountain.

Father Dowling said he simply wants to see those who are not living in a married state but have no impediment to marriage to marry in the Church and be able to receive holy Communion at Sunday Masses along with their children.

Asked if he would like to see more communal wedding Masses, Father Dowling said yes and no.

“Yes if that is what must happen to help assist those who, for one reason or another, have not approached the Church about marriage and are aware that receiving Communion is unthinkable given their present situation but may not know how to rectify the situation. No if we can convince Catholics from whatever background to contact the local parish as soon as they have marriage in mind so we can take the necessary time to better prepare for one of the most sacred moments any person can experience.

“Those who attended the communal wedding Mass at Holy Ghost were obviously profoundly impacted. The entire Mass was celebrated with reverence and joy. Family members and friends were visibly moved to be part of something so significant. The Hispanic community knows how to celebrate community events, especially those that are focused on communal worship,” he said.

Father Orr said the communal wedding Mass was important, not only for the 14 couples involved who received so much grace, but also for the entire Church, “and even the saints in heaven rejoice with the holy angels.”

“Father Dowling wanted to help the Spanish-speaking parishioners of his parish who were living in sin to live lives of grace. We had spoken about reasons why some people were not receiving holy Communion, primarily because of living in sin, as if married, without the grace of the sacrament. Sometimes the excuse of not having enough money for a party is used to delay marriage. If couples pool their resources they can share expenses for flowers, cake, pictures, etc.,” Father Orr said.

Father Orr explained that the first three bishops of Knoxville have granted faculties to all priests to confirm Catholics who are 18 or older when they have been reconciled to the Church. They must already have been baptized even though they may not have been reared in the Church.

Father Orr further explained that confirmation and first holy Communion are best administered within the context of the Holy Mass. He said the nuptial Mass is ideal for Catholics who marry other Catholics, which is why the sacraments were such a vital part of the communal nuptial Mass.

But he said ecumenical marriages, such as between a Catholic and a non-Catholic Christian, or an inter-religious marriage, such as between a Catholic and an unbaptized person, are more properly celebrated outside of holy Mass, with a liturgy of the Word and the Marriage Rite, which includes the statement of intention, exchange of consent or vows, a blessing and exchange of rings, and the nuptial blessing.

The Oswaldo Cardenas family poses for a portrait that will mark the special occasion for many years to come.

Father Orr is encouraged that during the communal wedding Mass God was praised and the participants were sanctified, that couples resumed living lives of grace, that an example was given to others in similar irregular situations to “get right” with God, the Church, and the state, and that more faithful are living lives pleasing to God, lives of grace.

He encouraged all faithful to be familiar with St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris consortio and said a potential problem of having a communal wedding Mass for those who are approaching the altar from an irregular situation is the normalization of irregularity. But he emphasized that St. John Paul II in Familiaris consortio calls for priests to help the irregular become regular.

“Hopefully others will follow the good example of the good people who publicly, liturgically, sacramentally pronounced their holy vows of marriage, either in due course (best practice) or in convalidation. I can imagine that this will help future generations in that perhaps a grandfather was convalidated many years after his civil union, a father was convalidated within the first five years of a civil union, so will the grandchild not cohabitate, enter a civil union without the benefit of the grace of the sacrament?” he said.

Honoring Wedding Traditions

The 14 couples who were married June 15 at Holy Ghost Church were from the Hispanic/Latino community, and the communal nuptial Mass was celebrated in Spanish.

The Hispanic/Latino community has very special traditions that are normally included in their wedding celebrations and were part of this wedding Mass, too.

The Arras
The blessing and giving of arras (coins) takes place after the exchange of rings. The husband takes 13 coins in his hands and gives them to his wife, saying “receive these arras as a pledge of God’s blessing and a sign of the good gifts we will share.”

Then the wife does the same, but this time giving the 13 coins to her husband. Although there are several versions of the significance of the number 13 in the giving of arras, most often heard is that the 13 coins represent having one coin per month every year for the family to live on and have their needs met, and the 13th coin is what is meant to be shared with the poor or less fortunate. The symbolism of this tradition represents the promise of the husband and wife to share their goods with one another. It is the symbolic moment to proclaim “What is mine is now also yours.”

The Lazo
Another tradition is the blessing and placing of the Lazo (wedding garland, which is usually rope or a large rosary) around the couple. This takes place before the nuptial blessing.

The spouses remain at their place and kneel, and two close friends or family members of the couple place the Lazo over the head of the wife and over the shoulders of the husband, thus symbolizing the bond that now unites them together.

Presentation of flowers to the Blessed Virgin Mary
Giving flowers to the Virgin Mary is not actually part of the Rite of Marriage as are the Arras and Lazo. But since many couples have a devotion to Mary, this is a tradition widely practiced by many cultural communities in our parishes. This takes place before the final blessing.

The couple will bring a flower (or more often a bouquet of flowers) to the statue of Mary in the church to ask for her intercession and to recognize and honor her on their wedding day as their Heavenly Mother. The Ave Maria is often sung during this moment, as happened during the Holy Ghost communal wedding Mass. The 14 couples went one by one to offer their flowers to La Virgenand to consecrate their new marriage to Our Lady’s maternal care.

The Reception
As with any special life event, a good celebration is sure to follow. After the Holy Ghost communal wedding Mass, a reception was held nearby at the Christenberry Community Center. A team of Holy Ghost parishioners, including some of the parents of the couples getting married, planned the initial details of the reception. Joining in putting on the reception were the Diocese of Knoxville Office of Hispanic Ministry and Pastoral Juvenil Hispana and their leaders, Blanca Primm, Brittany Garcia, and Rocio Gonzalez. This reception not only brought together the 14 couples but also the community, with generous donations of time, talent, and treasure from individuals, companies, ministry groups, parishes, and diocesan offices. It offered food, with an eight-tier cake, dancing, toasts, flower-tossing, a photo booth, speeches, laughter, and plenty of photos. The Office of Hispanic Ministry rented the community center. Osmar Creations Event Center lent the white tablecloths; a parishioner of the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus donated the wedding cake; St. John Neumann Church lent tables and chairs; Trader Joe’s donated bouquets of flowers; the Holy Ghost charismatic renewal group, Caminando hacia la Nueva Jerusalén, provided food; Holy Ghost ministry Cristo Rey provided the sound system and music; and Holy Ghost Knights of Columbus Council 16523 members in full regalia were present, as was seminarian Robbie Bauman.

Brittany Garcia, Blanca Primm, and Bill Brewer contributed to this report.

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