Sacrament, Not Just a Ceremony: Photographing a Catholic Nuptial Mass

Frances and Ian at St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows

My faith is important to me, although I can best describe myself as an imperfectly practicing Catholic.  I attend Mass weekly, try not to go too long between confessions, and help out with my diocese using my photography.  I am afraid, however, I am not the type to rigorously pray the Rosary, nor have I ever done a novena.  Sometimes I feel bad for not making a greater effort.  I regret to say, I am unlikely to be named the patron saint of anything after my death.

But what I do greatly love is to see the beauty of a Catholic nuptial Mass.  Sure, wedding photographers joke that if you are shooting, say, a Baptist wedding, you had better be on your toes because it is going to last 5 to 6 minutes.  But a Catholic wedding?  Relax – you’ve got an hour, at least!

All joking aside, it is not a time to relax.  It is a time to anticipate and appreciate moments within the liturgy that make it a glimpse of Heaven for us mortals on Earth.  In fact, one of my brides recently told me, that she felt at ease knowing I was her photographer because I “know” the Mass and since her faith was such an important time of her life, it was important that be reflected in her wedding photographs.

First, let me say that I do NOT write this in any way to imply a Catholic couple is somehow “lacking” if they have just the ceremony and not the full Mass.  That option is open to them, simply to have the marriage part – some readings from Scripture, followed by the exchange of vows and rings – and forego the Mass, where after being married, the ceremony continues to include Communion.  There are good and valid reasons to have the shorter ceremony.

Let me give you some background.  For Catholics, marriage – or, as we say around the holy water font, Holy Matrimony – is one of our Sacraments.  Yes, Sacraments with a capital “S.”  These are not simply “ceremonies,” but physical manifestations of God’s Grace.  So, if you’re invited to, say, a child’s Baptism, that is not simply a christening or a naming ceremony, but the child’s formal entry into the Catholic Church, the expunging of original sin, and the beginning of their life as a member of the Body of Christ.

Holy Matrimony has a special origin.  Christ performed His first public miracle at a wedding reception, in Cana.  Despite not getting a “+12” on His invitation, He nevertheless showed up with His Apostles and thus the wine was depleted.  His Mother, the Virgin Mary, called her son out on this (good Mom!).  He instructed the wine steward to fill jars with water and He changed the water into wine, to be served to the guests.

And did you know, the priest does not “marry” the couple?  No, Father is there to witness their union – the couple actually act as ministers to each other, and bestow the Sacrament upon each other.  So, for a Catholic, it is more than “I do” and “I do.”  He makes her his wife, she makes him her husband.

And all in the setting of a church.  Catholics cannot get married on the beach, or in a park.  It must occur within a church (yes, of course there are exceptions in exigent circumstances, but the fact that it is a destination wedding to Barbados is not one).  Which is good because most Catholic churches reflect my faith’s appreciation for the “smells and bells” – that is, they are gorgeous.

I recently had a wonderful opportunity to photograph a wedding in such a location.  St. Mary of the Seven Sorrows is the oldest Catholic church built in Tennessee, in 1845. Located in downtown Nashville, right by the state capitol building, it was erected by the first Bishop of Nashville, the Reverend Richard Pius Miles, whose tomb is in the back of the church.

And it is absolutely lovely.  And let me tell you, the setting is made even lovelier when you have a couple who hold firm to their faith and celebrate their love in it, as Frances and Ian did.  These are images from their wedding and as academicians, I suspect they will appreciate a teaching moment.

I liked how their nuptial Mass was a combination of things seen in the traditional Latin Mass and the “regular” Mass established with the 2nd Vatican Council.  As an example, the priest celebrated the Mass ad orientam, meaning towards the East, towards the altar, rather than standing behind the altar and facing the people.  Do not think of this as his turning his back on the people – rather, in this position he leads the people in worship to God.

As with any Catholic Mass, it begins with the Liturgy of the Word, which means scriptural readings and a sung psalm.  It is a point of honor to be asked by a couple to recite one of the readings or sing the psalm.

After the Gospel is read, the priest gives a Homily, or sermon, addressed to the couple.  He reminds them of what they are about to do for each other, and how that Sacrament does not end at the altar but continues throughout their lives together.  And, of course, how their faith can help them each day.

And now comes the actual marriage.  The couple make their vows to each other.  The priest then blesses their wedding rings, and the bride and groom exchange them.  And now – they are husband and wife.

Wait a second, is that it?  Nope – now comes the Liturgy of the Eucharist.  The gifts of bread and wine are brought to the altar (again, it is a point of honor to be asked by the couple to do this) and the priest then consecrates them, turning them into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.  Yes, actually.  In the Catholic faith, although they retain the physical appearance of bread and wine, we believe it becomes the True Presence.  It IS Jesus, y’all!

Holy Communion is then taken by the couple, followed by Catholics in the congregation.  After Communion is distributed, the priest concludes the Mass and introduces the couple as the newly married spouses.  They head away from the altar and on to the reception! 

Okay, so what must a Catholic couple and a photographer know?

Processional: here comes the bride.  Flash allowed.

To begin, this is a sacred liturgy.  It is not just a ceremony.  That means certain protocols must be followed.  Most churches allow a photographer to use flash ONLY when the bride is coming down the aisle (the processional) and when the couple is leaving (the recessional).  Once she joins the groom at the altar, flashes off.  For many older – and lovelier – churches, this means that your photographer has to have a good, professional grade camera that is able to handle the lower light, as many such churches can be dark.

And always look for the groom's reaction!

Because it is a sacred liturgy, the pastor of the church may place restrictions on where the photographer can go.  I have found this will vary from church to church, and even priest to priest.  One thing that is definite, however, is that no photographer or videographer is allowed in the Sanctuary.  What is the Sanctuary?  At the least, it is the area around the altar, and the couple will be married there.  Think standing behind the altar is a great shot?  Think again – that is a "no go” zone.  Some priests consider the entire raised area to be off limits, even if the far sides may be a good twenty feet away from the altar.  Some churches don’t want the photographer moving about during the Mass.  Some churches restrict the photographer to the very back.  In any case, review whether there are restrictions beforehand with the priest or the church’s wedding coordinator.  I have built a lot of trust with various parishes and priests because I am respectful of the Mass.

Have respect for the sacred.

And I will say, in my opinion, that respect extends to when the priest lifts up the Host and the Chalice during consecration, the moment when we say it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ.  For a devout Catholic couple, I think it is a special moment to be before their Lord.  I do so quietly (my Canon 5D Mark IIIs have a "quiet" shutter setting), and with a long lens, so I am not near the altar.  And I do so while kneeling, which is the appropriate position for Catholics at that moment – not always easy when I have 20+ pounds of gear around my neck.  That being said, if I am asked not to do so . . . I don’t.

Consecrating the Host

Every photographer knows that a standard shot is when the couple exchanges their first kiss.  Ah, but when will they do so during a Catholic Mass? Well, guess what – there can be three times when it will happen:

  1. After the exchange of vows and rings.
  2. After the Consecration but before Communion, when the priest or deacon says, “Let us offer one another the Sign of Peace.”
  3. When the priest introduces the couple after concluding the Mass.

In short:  be ready!

Other moments to look for:

During the readings, couples tend to exchange darling glances at one another, especially if they are not seated next to each other because they are not yet married.

When the “Our Father” is recited by everyone, people may hold hands.  Sometimes, there can be a moving composition, as this bride holding both her new husband’s hand and her father’s hand.

Sara holds Josh's hand, and the hands of her father and stepfather, at her wedding last summer while reciting the Our Father.

During the Sign of Peace, people will be hugging and kissing.  The couple will often come down off the altar to offer the Sign of Peace to their parents.

The word "catholic" means "universal," so depending on the culture or ethnicity of a couple, certain non-liturgical customs may be incorporated into the nuptial Mass.  As an example, in the Filipino culture, the godparents of the couple will place a lace veil over the head of the bride and around the shoulders of the groom.  A similar thing is done with a special "lasso" in the Mexican culture.  If one of the couple is not Catholic, a nod to their faith tradition may be included - I have even heard of one priest who allowed the traditional chuppah of a Jewish wedding present, as a nod to the groom's Jewish faith.

At Carrie and Alvin's wedding last year, the groom's Filipino culture was used.

Also, I notice an old tradition is starting to come back – after Communion, the couple will lay flowers at the church’s statue or shrine of the Virgin Mary, to ask for her intercession (that is, her prayers) for a good marriage.  This moment may also be accompanied by that old chestnut that is guaranteed to have mothers dabbing their eyes, the lovely hymn “Ave Maria.”

Bekah and Shea pray before the statue of Our Blessed Mother during their wedding in June.

So, that old advice to “sit back and relax?”  Forget about it!  The term “smells and bells” refer to the fact that the Catholic Mass will use candles, music, vestments, bells, and maybe even incense to engage all the senses in worship.  But that means there are beautiful sights within the context of a nuptial Mass that a photographer can capture. 

The nuptial Mass is filled with tradition and nuances.  And that is why I love photographing them.

If Christ can perform His first miracle at a wedding, shouldn’t your photographer appreciate and work to capture its uniqueness?

By the way, if you are a Catholic couple planning a nuptial Mass, I have a special offer for you:  you can book my Collection 1 for the price of Collection 2.  I think of it as part of my stewardship with the Church.