by the Rev. Charles H. Allen, S.J.
Every professional has that one special moment when he feels that all of his training, his experience and his intelligence is put to the test. If only he can survive that test, the lives of so many other people will be the better for it. The soldier finds that moment on the battlefield, the surgeon in the operating room, the policeman at a crime scene, the fireman in the midst of a blazing building. I, as a priest, find my moment of greatest challenge at wedding rehearsals.
Now, to the eye of the uninitiated, the wedding rehearsal must seem like a very prosaic event: happy in-laws greeting each other warmly, a dozen or so bestmen and bridesmaids sullenly obeying the priest's pleas to form a straight line, a giggly young couple trying, without much success, to look serious as they promise life-long fidelity to each other, and finally a nice meal in a local restaurant. Would that it were so!
Jesus instituted the sacraments in order to give us the gift of God's grace, God's assistance. And he so distributed them that they would be there for us always at the times of our greatest needs: the moment of birth into this life, the time of forgiveness after a sin committed, the first steps into adulthood, the final departure from this life, and, of course, the beginning of one's vocation.
The wedding rehearsal is the beginning of a twenty-four hour period which will culminate in the sacrament of matrimony and the commitment of two people to live their lives together until death do them part. These are words that we have heard so often that we can easily ignore the difficulties that lead up to them and the great need for God's assistance to make them ring true.
One of my first challenges at a rehearsal is with the in-laws. How much easier it would be to have a wedding if only the couple were present. In my naivete as a young priest, I was amazed at how many parents are not totally supportive of their son's or daughter's choice for a life-long mate. They seem to be even less enthusiastic about all the other in-laws whom their son or daughter is about to bring into the family. Often times, at a wedding rehearsal, I have found myself acting more like a Secretary of State than a priest, moving back and forth between the two families, trying to build up some feeling of mutual friendship that will carry them through the next twenty-four hours.
My next problem is with the friends of the couple and with the materialism which surrounds the modern day American wedding. Over the years I have developed a series of rules which I share with the couple as we prepare for the wedding day. The most important of these rules is: the happiness of your friends is directly proportional to the smile on the face of the bride as she walks down the aisle.
Over and over again I emphasize to the couple that they should not be worried about whether their friends will be impressed by the quality of the wedding gown, the abundance of flowers on the altar, the length of the stretch limousine, the number of hours that the bar remains open, the volume of the band, or the cut of beef served at the wedding banquet. No, hopefully their true friends are impressed by only one thing: the happiness of the bride as she walks down the aisle of the church.
My final problem is with the couple themselves. Within the next twenty-four hours they will engrave in stone - or at least on a wedding license - a commitment which will last a lifetime. The problem is that for most couples the actual moment of the sharing of those vows is so filled with pomp and circumstance that they hardly know what they are saying.
Maybe that's why I love the rehearsal so much. For in the quiet of the church on the evening before the ceremony with just a few close friends and family nearby, they pronounce those precious words of commitment to each other. It is not the sacrament itself, but even the preparing for the sacrament is a very beautiful thing.
Jesus has given us the sacraments in order to give us God's grace. In our society it is hard to imagine a moment more in need of God's grace than the moment of marriage. I only hope that in my work as a priest, especially in preparing the couple for marriage and most especially at the wedding rehearsal, I have, in some small way, been a channel for that grace.