The Vocation of Marriage

The Vocation of Marriage


When the Catholic Church teaches that marriage is a Christian vocation it is saying that the couple’s relationship is more than simply their choice to enter a union which is a social and legal institution. In addition to these things, marriage involves a call from God and a response from two people who promise to build, with the help of divine grace, a lifelong, intimate and sacramental partnership of love and life.

The Second Vatican Council teaches that “all Christians in whatever state or walk of life are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity” (Constitution on the Church, n. 40). The call to marriage is a particular way of living the universal call to holiness given to every Christian in the Sacrament of Baptism. The calls to priesthood, or to the vowed religious life, or to the single life are other Christian vocations. Along with marriage, all of them equally though in different ways, are a response to the Lord who says, “Follow me.”

The call to love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being.” In the vocation of marriage – something which “is written in the very nature of man and woman,” we see that “the love of husband and wife becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves” (#1603 and 1604).

A vocation is a personal call. It is offered freely and must be accepted freely. Attraction to a certain way of life or to a specific person can be a good sign of being called. Most often a person comes to recognize and accept a vocation gradually. This process, sometimes called discernment, is an opportunity for growth. It can be helped by prayer and guidance from trusted mentors, friends and family.

However, what begins as attraction must deepen into conviction and commitment. Those who are called to the married life should be ready to learn what their vocation means and to acquire the virtues and skills needed for a happy and holy marriage.

The vocation to marriage is a call to a life of holiness and service within the couple’s own relationship and in their family. As a particular way of following the Lord, this vocation also challenges a couple to live their marriage in a way that expresses God’s truth and love in the world.

Catholic Beliefs

Catholics believe that marriage comes as a gift from the hand of God. The Catholic vision of marriage is rooted in Sacred Scripture and is expressed in the teachings and practices of the Church. It has these main elements:

  • Marriage unites a couple in faithful and mutual love
  • Marriage opens a couple to giving life
  • Marriage is a way to respond to God’s call to holiness
  • Marriage calls the couple to be a sign of Christ’s love in the world

Marriage is the intimate union and equal partnership of a man and a woman. It comes to us from the hand of God, who created male and female in his image, so that they might become one body and might be fertile and multiply (See Genesis chapters 1 and 2). Though man and woman are equal as God’s children, they are created with important differences that allow them to give themselves and to receive the other as a gift.

Marriage is both a natural institution and a sacred union because it is rooted in the divine plan of creation. In addition, the Catholic Church teaches that the valid marriage between two baptized Christians is also a sacrament – a saving reality and a symbol of Christ’s love for his church (See Ephesians 5:25-33). In every marriage the spouses make a contract with each other. In a sacramental marriage the couple also enters into a covenant in which their love is sealed and strengthened by God’s love.

Rite of Marriage

The Catholic Church provides three different forms of celebrating the Rite of Marriage. When two Catholics are marrying, the celebration will normally take place within a Mass. The second form, which does not include a Mass, is used when a Catholic marries another baptized Christian. A third form, also outside Mass, is usually celebrated when a Catholic marries someone who is not baptized. The second and third forms are structured around the celebration of the Liturgy of the Word.

The couple chooses one of these options based on their particular circumstances in conversation with the priest or deacon who will witness the marriage vows. When a deacon leads the liturgy, which is increasingly common, the wedding is celebrated outside of Mass even when two Catholics marry.

Things to Consider for Planning the Celebration of Marriage (in the Catholic Church):

Marriage is a Sacrament!

The celebration of Marriage is not just a religious ceremony. A marriage between two Christians is a sacrament, which means it is an encounter with Jesus Christ. In a particular way, the bride and the groom, in offering their lives to each other (symbolized in their vows), pledge their selfless love for each other. This selfless love embodies and makes present the love of Jesus, who gave himself in love for his people. All who are present at a wedding can look at the bride and groom and see Jesus. More importantly, the bride and the groom look at each other and see Jesus’ love.

The Bride and the Groom are the Ministers of the Sacrament

In some ways, marriage is less about the ceremony or the sacramental celebration than it is about the daily living of marital life. The priest (or deacon) is not the minister of the sacrament. He merely acts as the official witness of the church and the state (of course if the wedding takes place at Mass, the priest is the celebrant of the Mass). The bride and the groom marry each other, and as such, they are the ministers of the sacrament. The celebration of marriage, then, ought to be a reflection of the couple’s faith and love.

Marriage is a matter of faith

As a sacrament and an action of the Church, marriage both presupposes faith and renews and strengthens faith. The process of preparation for marriage invites couples to reflect on God’s presence in their lives. In the Sacrament of Marriage, God “enriches and strengthens” the husband and wife by giving them his special gifts of grace to enable their daily living in marriage “in mutual and lasting fidelity.”

The Scriptures: God’s Word to you, and your word to the world

Couples are invited to choose the readings from the Bible that will be proclaimed at the wedding Liturgy. Normally three readings (one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament letters, and one from the Gospels) are proclaimed. The Church provides many choices for each, and most parishes provide resources with background on each possible choice. The Scripture is the very Word of God speaking to the Church. Couples should reflect on what they believe God is speaking to them as they enter into Marriage, and they should also consider what they want to communicate about their own faith to those who will gather to celebrate with them on their wedding day.

Vows: what you say, what you promise, what you live

The heart of the Rite of Marriage is the exchange of consent between the bride and the groom. In this moment, they, as ministers of the sacrament, express their lifelong commitment to love and honor each other, as the priest (or deacon) acts as a witness. It is often suggested that couples memorize their vows not only to experience the exchange of consent in a more powerful way, by speaking them from the heart, rather than repeating them phrase by phrase after the priest. In this they will also spend time pondering what the vows mean, and hopefully remember the words for years to come, as the words take on more and more meaning in their day–to–day love and care for each other.

Music: To stir the soul and lift the mind

Music for the celebration of Marriage not only adds beauty and dignity to the ceremony, but it has a more important liturgical function. In addition to music to accompany the procession of the ministers and the bridal party, music is an integral part of the Liturgy itself: the singing of the acclamations and responses by the assembly, hymns and songs at the entrance (gathering) and communion procession are prescribed in the Rite of Marriage. Music should reflect and communicate, above all, the mystery of God’s love in Jesus, especially as it pertains to the couple joined together in marriage.

Procession: Here comes the bride… and the groom!

What the movies depict isn’t necessarily what the Church envisions. The bride and the groom enter freely and equally into marriage, and the entrance procession symbolizes that, as the couple approach the altar to stand before the Lord. The Rite of Marriage suggests that the liturgical ministers (priest, deacon, reader, servers) lead the procession, followed by the bride and bridegroom, each escorted by “at least their parents and the witnesses.” Perhaps the groom goes first, led by his attendants and escorted by his parents, followed by the bride, led by her attendants and escorted by her parents.

Ministries: More than just the bridal party

One of the important tasks couples undertake in planning their wedding is the selection of the bridal party. Couples invite siblings, cousins, and close friends to stand by them as attendants, who show their support by their close presence. They also perform a liturgical function as official witnesses of the marriage rite. There are other liturgical ministries to consider as well: readers to proclaim the readings from Scripture and announce the intentions of the general intercessions, family or friends to present the offertory gifts of bread and wine, or perhaps even servers to assist at the altar and extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion. All of this preparation takes place as couples work with the officiating priest (or deacon), who provides guidance throughout the process.

Family + Friends = Liturgical Assembly

Couples invite their closest friends and members of their families to be part of their wedding day. That gathering also represents the community of the Church, as they surround the couple with their encouragement and their prayers. Above all, it is an occasion for worship: in celebrating the sacrament, the couple, together with their family and friends, forms a liturgical assembly, who stand before the Lord with hearts open to his loving power.

Above all, pray!

The wedding liturgy (whether celebrated at Mass or apart from it) is an act of worship. As such, it is a time to offer praise and thanks to God for his gifts, and to seek his continued blessings and help in your lives. In particular, thank God for the gift of your spouse, and pray to the Lord to bless you and guide you together as you become witnesses of his love for each other and for the world.

Is it true that an annulment does not affect the legitimacy of a married couple’s children? Or that Natural Family Planning can be an effective method for regulating the number and spacing of children? (The answer to both questions is “YES.”)

Many couples wonder what, exactly, the Catholic Church teaches about important moral issues, like:

How does the Church view divorce?

The Church believes that God, the author of marriage, established it as a permanent union. When two people marry, they form an unbreakable bond. Jesus himself taught that marriage is permanent (Matthew 19:3-6), and St. Paul reinforced this teaching (see 1 Cor 7:10-11 and Eph 5:31-32). The Church does not recognize a civil divorce because the State cannot dissolve what is indissoluble. See Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2382-2386.

Are divorced people excommunicated from the Catholic Church?

No. Divorced people are full members of the Church and are encouraged to participate in its activities.

May a divorced Catholic receive Holy Communion?

Yes. Divorced Catholics in good standing with the Church, who have not remarried or who have remarried following an annulment, may receive the sacraments.

What support does the Church offer to divorced persons?

The Church understands the pain of those caught in this situation. When divorce is the only possible recourse, the Church offers her support to those involved and encourages them to remain close to the Lord through frequent reception of the Sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, p. 287). Many dioceses offer programs and support groups for divorced and separated persons. Catholic Divorce Ministry, The Beginning Experience, and Journey of Hope are helpful resources.

I am a divorced Catholic who would like to remarry in the Catholic Church. What do I need to do?

Unless your former spouse has died, you will need to obtain an annulment.

I am divorced. I am not a Catholic but I plan to marry a Catholic. We have been told that I need to obtain an annulment before we can marry in the Catholic Church. I do not understand this since I was not married in the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding. Any question of dissolution must come before a Church court (tribunal). This teaching may be difficult to understand, especially if you come from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage. Some couples in a situation similar to yours have found it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. To go through the annulment process can be a sign of great love for your intended spouse.

What is an annulment?

  • “Annulment” is an unfortunate word that is sometimes used to refer to a Catholic “declaration of nullity.” Actually, nothing is made null through the process. Rather, a Church tribunal (a Catholic church court) declares that a marriage thought to be valid according to Church law actually fell short of at least one of the essential elements required for a binding union.
  • A valid Catholic marriage results from five elements: (1) the spouses are free to marry; (2) they freely exchange their consent; (3) in consenting to marry, they have the intention to marry for life, to be faithful to one another and be open to children; (4) they intend the good of each other; and (5) their consent is given in the presence of two witnesses and before a properly authorized Church minister. Exceptions to the last requirement must be approved by church authority.
  • Why does the Church require a divorced Catholic to obtain a declaration of nullity before re-marrying in the Church?
  • The Church presumes that marriages are valid and lifelong; therefore, unless the ex-spouse has died, the Church requires the divorced Catholic to obtain a declaration of nullity before re-marrying. The tribunal process seeks to determine if something essential was missing from the couple’s relationship from the moment of consent, that is, the time of the wedding. If so, then the Church can declare that a valid marriage was never actually brought about on the wedding day.
  • What does the tribunal process involve?
  • Several steps are involved. The person who is asking for the declaration of nullity – the petitioner – submits written testimony about the marriage and a list of persons who are familiar with the marriage. These people must be willing to answer questions about the spouses and the marriage. The tribunal will contact the ex-spouse – the respondent – who has a right to be involved. The respondent’s cooperation is welcome but not essential. In some cases the respondent does not wish to become involved; the case can still move forward.
  • Both the petitioner and the respondent can read the testimony submitted, except that protected by civil law (for example, counseling records). Each party may appoint a Church advocate who could represent the person before the tribunal. A representative for the Church, called the defender of the bond, argues for the validity of the marriage. After the tribunal has reached a decision, it is reviewed by a second tribunal. Both parties can participate in this second review as well.
  • How long does the process take?
  • It usually takes 12 to 18 months to complete the entire process.
  • How can a couple married for many years present a case?
  • The tribunal process examines the events leading up to, and at the time of, the wedding ceremony, in an effort to determine whether what was required for a valid marriage was ever brought about. The length of common life is not proof of validity but a long marriage does provide evidence that a couple had some capacity for a life-long commitment. It does not prove or disprove the existence of a valid marriage bond.
  • If a marriage is declared null, does it mean that the marriage never existed?
  • No. It means it was not valid according to Church law. A declaration of nullity does not deny that a relationship existed. It simply states that the relationship was missing something that the Church requires for marriage.
  • If a marriage is annulled, are the children considered illegitimate?
  • No. A declaration of nullity has no effect on the legitimacy of children, since the child’s mother and father were presumed to be married at the time that the child was born. Legitimacy depends on civil law.
  • I do not plan to re-marry. Why should I present a marriage case?
  • Some people find that simply writing out their testimony helps them to understand what went wrong and why. They gain insights into themselves. Others say that the process allowed them to tell their whole story for the first time to someone who was willing to listen. Many find that the process helped them to let go of their former relationship, heal their hurts, and move on with their lives. A person cannot know today if they might want to marry in the future when crucial witnesses may be deceased or their own memories may have dimmed.
  • Why does the Catholic Church require an intended spouse, who is divorced but not Catholic, to obtain an annulment before marrying in the Catholic Church?
  • The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding for life. The Church requires a declaration of nullity to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union preventing it from being a valid marriage.
  • This is often a difficult and emotional issue. If the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, it may be hard for them to understand why they must go through the Catholic tribunal process. Couples in this situation may find it helpful to talk with a priest or deacon. To go through the process can be a sign of great love of the non-Catholic for their intended spouse.
  • My fiance and I want to marry in the Catholic Church. He has been married before and has applied for an annulment. When can we set a date for our wedding?
  • You should not set a date until the annulment has been finalized. First,his petition may not be granted. Second, even if the petition is eventually granted, there may be unexpected delays in the process. Many pastors will not allow the couple to seta date until the petition is officially approved.
  • How much does it cost?
  • Fees associated with the process vary within the U.S. Most tribunals charge between $200 and $1,000 for a formal case depending on how much the diocese subsidizes the work of the tribunal. Fees are typically payable over time, and may be reduced or even waived in cases of financial difficulty. Other expenses may be incurred when consultation with medical, psychological, or other experts is needed.
  • How do I start the process?
  • Your parish can provide the information and forms that you need to get started.
  • Cohabitation

It’s no secret that many couples are cohabiting, that is, living together in a sexual relationship without marriage. Currently, 60% of all marriages are preceded by cohabitation, but fewer than half of cohabiting unions end in marriage.