ASK FATHER: Catholic betrothal rite, ceremony

From a reader…


Have you ever heard of “betrothal ceremonies” in the Roman Rite prior to entering into marriage? Asking for a friend…

Once upon a time the notion of “betrothal” was far more rooted in both secular and religious consciousness (often not separable).    In the West, betrothal certainly goes back to the Jewish two-fold betrothal – which itself establish a legal joining – and marriage.

Betrothal was so serious that breaking betrothal was a breach of promise which could result in a financial penalty beyond the return of the dowries.

In the Catholic Church, betrothals were considered binding.  In the time leading up to the actual marriage ceremony, the fact of the betrothal would be publicly announced in the reading of “banns” from the pulpits of parish churches and posted in a document near the doors of the church.

There is no prescribed rite for betrothal.  However, there is one available through Angelus Press, which is going to be pretty “traditional”, if that is what you are looking for.

The process of courtship and betrothal and marriage was a serious and carefully observed custom.   From the movies, think about the scenes from The Quiet Man with the great John Wayne (bless him, probably St. John Wayne given the way he died) and Maureen O’Hara. (US HERE – UK HERE)  In The Godfather, Michael is interested in a girl in the village.  He very formally asked the father permission to see the daughter, there is a huge lunch with all the family, and they go for a walk… with all the women following right behind (… followed by guards ironically carrying una lupara).

We should keep in mind that these rituals formed marriage and society long before the mania of “romantic love”.  Families would agree to form bonds and marriage were part of the glue.  There were practical reasons to marry, as well as the “romantic”.  It worked.  These practices remind us of a few salutary things.

First, love is a choice, an act of will.  You choose love.  That forms a basis far more secure than ooey gooey eye gazing of luhv.

Second, marriage is a foundational building block of society.  We have to know who people are and how we are related.  It is not merely a private matter, it is public.

Third, God made marriage.  We don’t have a right to twist it out of recognition.  We hurt ourselves and society by doing so.

I would like to see more betrothal ceremonies.  Even more, we need a lot more preaching about the purpose of dating, of courtship and then of love, which is charity.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. WmHesch says:

    One of the more beautiful parts of the betrothal ceremony (and I’m not sure its origin) is the couple kiss the Cross on the first page of the Canon in the altar Missal

  2. APX says:

    We used to have several brothal ceremonies before Mass on Sundays, but since we got a new priest they don’t happen anymore.

    For those who may be interested:

  3. Ernesto Gonzalez says:

    Hello Father:

    Don’t forget about the Order of Blessing an Engaged Couple found in the Order of Celebrating Matrimony. The first number of the introduction implicitly compares it to a betrothal. While I have never presided at one, I have been present, and it was nice.

    It would be great if these were to become more common.

    Thank you as usual,
    Father Ernesto

  4. Suburbanbanshee says:

    The Sarum Rite’s nuptial Mass included a betrothal ritual… About three minutes before the marriage, that is.

    See, a lot of the Germanic tribes required public betrothal that included an exchange of gifts between the groom and bride (or a presentation of brideprice, or a presentation of dowry). Suitable gifts included symbolic numbers of coins, knives or swords, rings, belts, etc. This had often been the legal form of tribal marriage, too. So having the betrothal at the same time and place as the marriage Mass made everything legit, but having it take place off to the side chapels or on a porch kept the gifts from disrupting Mass.

  5. sibnao says:

    May I just second that last observation? Considering that most people in any ordinary parish will be those who are married, were married, or plan/hope to be married, preaching on marriage could take place even as frequently as once a month.

    Do pastors not preach on marriage regularly because they are pretty sure that it is old hat for most people? Or do they feel like they can’t preach on it since they do not have first-hand experience? Do they think that there is little to be said about it, except to reaffirm that it is a sacrament, that it is permanent and open to life?

    If I could grab the ear of my bishop (God bless him), and he miraculously asked my thoughts, I would tell him that very few people sitting in the pews understand how serious it is to make vows, how important it is to understand what you are promising, how highly God regards the procreation and proper education of Christian children, and what self-giving entails in Christian life. The couple should not hear it for the first time spoken plainly during the homily at their wedding Mass!

    Anything we can do to show the seriousness, the high adventure, the really solemn and mystical contract that a couple is entering into — well, that should be encouraged. Let’s pull out all the stops. At least as much as we do when they go to prom in high school, anyway!

  6. JesusFreak84 says:

    There’s a PDF online of a Betrothal ceremony here: It’s different than the Angelus one, but I think the point still comes across.

  7. APX says: We used to have several brothal ceremonies before Mass on Sundays


  8. APX says:

    APX says: We used to have several brothal ceremonies before Mass on Sundays

    BETROTHALS! Damn autocorrect on my phone.

    Considering that most people in any ordinary parish will be those who are married, were married, or plan/hope to be married, preaching on marriage could take place even as frequently as once a month.

    How about no (unless it comes with frequent reminders to parents about their duty to rear their children and actually parent their children and teach them proper behaviour). There are many people in parishes who are not married, some by choice, others through no fault of their own, or are divorced, yet when was the last time you heard a priest address what the Church teaches on celibacy dedicated to God or on the trials of those who are divorced, or those who want to get married, yet have never been able to find a spouse and likely never will?

  9. Grant M says:

    Blooming autocorrect.

  10. Kathleen10 says:

    APX, lol!

  11. PTK_70 says:

    @sibnao….I understand the spirit and intent of what you are suggesting and I am right there with you. How forgettable are the homilies constructed of dreamy and detached theological musings, which do little more than tickle the ears!

  12. Nan says:

    There’s a betrothal ceremony on Byzantine Rite, which had moved yo the entryway of the church, on the couple’s way in for the crowning ceremony. Betrothal is an impediment to marriage, which may be one reason it has moved to immediately before the crowning.

  13. James in Perth says:

    As Nan and others have mentioned, the betrothal immediately precedes the wedding in the Byzantine churches. As a practical matter, it is just one step in the wedding but technically different.

    Since our wedding was going to be overseas and we were moving there, my wife and I were betrothed in my parish church. It was a small family affair but we had music and readings.

  14. stephen c says:

    what sibnao said …

    and, with respect to John Wayne – there is something to be said for those of us who have little (or no) doubts about the truth of Christian faith trying to convert our doubting friends to the truth, and to not stop trying as long as they have the breath of life in them. John Wayne – who is reported to have died, at long last, a fervent, doubt-free Christian – had such friends, apparently, until his last days. I often forget to try and cheer up, encourage, and convince the doubters, in real life. As a fortunate non-doubter (but a lazy Christian, sadly) I will try to do better in the future.

    (also – today is Patriot’s Day – I appreciate the fact that he (Wayne) flew around on unreliable planes, time and time again, to support the troops during WWII – yes I know he did not serve as a soldier in WWII, and was mocked by some foolish people for it: looking back in a long perspective, I am sure those of his friends who said he would have preferred to volunteer as an enlisted man or accept an officer’s commission, were telling the truth… I don’t think he talked about it much. Admiral Fletcher, and David Niven, in different contexts (look it up if you are interested) were not that talkative either – Fletcher was famous for making difficult decisions in terribly risky and existentially crucial naval battles and not responding to his subsequent critics …. Niven was never criticized for his war efforts as a “commando” or infantry officer ( I forget which he was) but when, after that war, star-struck reporters asked him to tell stories about his military days he said, in more eloquent words than I can remember, how dozens of men in his unit died and since they could not talk about their days in the war he wasn’t going to either – I think he said something like that, or more like this: every time he thought he should tell a war story, even a short one, he thought about the 700 dead men in his unit and therefore thought about 700 reasons why he wouldn’t, or didn’t think he had the right to – well, he said it much better than that).

    I was going to make this comment longer by explaining the research I did on the crash rates of those USO-sponsored type planes that Wayne flew in so many times, and I was going to add some personal touches regarding guys I knew in the military (and in my family – including a Bataan death march survivor and a Normandy invasion private, a 26 year old Jewish guy from the Bronx) (not to mention other family members from a few later wars, not so big but just as deadly to the guys who died) and in my small circle of friends – some of them with brutal memories of the fear that you feel when there is a war, and you are there, and the people who are trying to kill you are good at killing, sometimes very good, better than the people back home would ever believe – all of whom, probably, instinctively would have been ready to argue with people who simplistically criticized John Wayne for not enlisting or accepting an officer’s commission …. but if you have read this much, you can figure out what I was going to say on your own, probably.

    I realize this is a post about weddings and marriage, and my comment is 95 percent about something else. Well, it is (for me) always interesting to join a conversation about the long progression from where people were when they did not know what is true to where they were when they found out. Everybody’s life has the sort of details God cares about, everybody faces death either alone or with someone at their side, once or many times,sometimes that is easy to see, sometimes not.

    I promise my next comment here will be shorter!

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