TRIANGLE, Va. — To enable those on the periphery to participate in the sacrament of marriage, John Heffernan, OFM, celebrated a special Mass at St. Francis of Assisi Church. Five men and women were joined in marriage at a communal celebration — something done widely in Central America and common in neighboring Virginia parishes with large Spanish-speaking communities. It was a first for the parish, said John who described the benefits of the ceremony.
The community marriage celebration was a way to be married in the church for those whose finances and schedules present challenges in arranging a traditional wedding. All of the participants were immigrants of Spanish-speaking countries.
John, who lives at Holy Name College, Silver Spring, Md., said the event was joyful for both him and for the participants — natives of Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador. Roughly 15 percent of the Triangle parish is of Hispanic background, he added.
Each couple participating in the Mass proclaimed their vows individually, a requirement of the ritual, he said. “The rest of the service — the blessings, giving of rings, exchanging of coins — was done as a group.”
The idea for the community wedding arose from the parish’s Spanish prayer group for which John is moderator.
“Some members were aware of several couples who had not been canonically married,” he said. “Some were civilly married, some not. They desired to share the Eucharist. Because affording a wedding was an issue for all of them, they asked me to pursue a communal celebration.”
“Much of the preparation was done as a group,” John added. “This was a very economical opportunity for the couples. The prayer group offered to provide the music, to decorate the church and to organize a reception afterward. Each couple contributed one quarter of the normal parish offering.”
The Mass took place on Feb. 13, the day before Valentine’s Day, and not long after northern Virginia was hit by winter weather that affected the plans of the participants.
“In early February, there were two blizzards in Virginia,” said John. “Schools were closed most of two weeks and many people stayed home from work.”
One of the couples told John that “after nearly two weeks without working, they couldn’t afford the children’s clothing and wanted to postpone. It was then that I realized how much this celebration was a financial solution for these couples. They made it clear that they were otherwise fine and would celebrate their marriage at a better time.”
“Satisfaction for me came with the relative simplicity of the liturgy and the collaboration,” said John, who spent more than two years in Peru, living and working in the Lima area and in the jungle near the Andes. “An involved couple helped to organize the wedding couples and all were willing to accept little accommodations that seemed to benefit everyone.”
“All the couples seemed to put aside some details for the happiness of everyone,” added John, who said he was deeply happy by the way the ceremony went. “It had a generous and joyful spirit. There were a few funny moments as I mixed up a name here or there. The atmosphere was happy as well as dignified.”
Matrimony is a celebration of a parish community at its finest, according to John. “This community celebration was indeed a parish event. It was for the well-being of all congregants.”
“Group weddings are not uncommon in Latino communities,” said Provincial Vicar Lawrence Hayes, OFM, former pastor of St. Camillus Parish in Silver Spring. “I was very happy to hear that such a Mass was celebrated at our Triangle parish. This type of ceremony highlights the communal dimension of the sacrament and truly is a way to respond to people, respecting their lived reality, which pastorally is so important.”
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.