Encouraging the Sacramental Celebration of Marriage

All starting points are valid.


Paula Podest Ruiz and Carlos Cuffardi Elorriaga are typical of many couples. They are in their 40’s. They got married civilly in 2012 and have two daughters, Rafale and Isabela. They would have liked to get married in Church but had never got around to it.

Paola and Carlos work as flight attendants with Latam, the Chilean airline. On 18 January, 2018 they were both rostered to work on the same flight. That day turned out to be a day to remember. Their flight had Pope Francis on board as he travelled to the final stop on his visit to Chile.

During the flight the couple asked Pope Francis to bless their rings. They got chatting. The Holy Father had met Carlos on a previous flight, but this was his first time talking to Paula. They explained to the Pope that they had decided to get married in Church in 2010 and had completed their pre-marriage course. However, the Church was destroyed in an earthquake and their plan had to be abandoned.

The Pope listened. They assured him that they were free to marry and that the sacrament was important to them. Pope Francis made an extraordinary suggestion. Why not get married here and now! A shocked Paula and Carlos said yes. It was a simple ceremony. The marriage took place outside of Mass. There were no flowers or other trappings – just the essentials. They were both dressed in their airline uniforms, the witnesses were two other passengers and the handwritten certificate was signed by the Pope.

A few days later, the Pope gave his customary press conference as he returned to Rome. Inevitably, the question of Paula and Carlos’ wedding was raised. The Pope responded that having chatted to the couple, he concluded they had made a loving commitment to each other for life. All the requirements for a sacramental marriage were fulfilled, so why not go ahead.

The Pope added that the sacraments are for people. This principle has always informed his ministry. While he was archbishop of Buonos Aires, Pope Francis urged his priests to make the sacraments as freely available as possible. As Pope, he has simplified the nullity procedure to help people in a second relationship receive the blessing of sacramental marriage.

Paula and Carlos’ wedding at 11,000 metres highlights key aspects of the celebration of the sacrament of marriage which we may have lost sight of:

  • Like most sacraments, marriage can be celebrated outside of Mass. If the Eucharist is part of the life of the couple it is fitting to celebrate their marriage during Mass. However, if they have drifted away from practise of the faith, does it make sense to celebrate their marriage during Mass? Many priests and people have had disheartening experiences of congregations at nuptial Masses being totally unfamiliar with the liturgy and the responses. It is possible to celebrate a beautiful liturgy around the rite of marriage itself;
  • Sacramental marriage need not cost money. The core of the celebration of marriage is the couple, in the presence of the priest and two witnesses, committing to love each other with limits. There are lots of accretions that may well add to the beauty of the celebration but are not essential. It is primarily a moment of prayer and loving commitment;
  • The Catholic Church has a definite preference for sacraments to be celebrated in Church. However, exceptions are possible. Canon 1118§2 states ‘The local ordinary [bishop] can allow a marriage to be celebrated in another suitable place.’ The Pope simply give permission to Paola and Carlos to marry in the circumstances in which they found themselves.

How might Pope Francis’ principle ‘The sacraments are for the people’ help us in Ireland? In 2020, 35.8% of marriages in the Republic of Ireland were Catholic ceremonies. In the 1990’s, that figure was 90%. This dramatic change reflects an increasingly secular Ireland as spirituality ebbs. Could sacramental marriage be reduced to a memory before long?

How can we encourage couples to embrace marriage as a sacrament? Some Catholic couples choose a non-religious celebration of marriage because it is convenient. Many of such couples are people of faith. Some couples might opt for a sacramental marriage at their home or at their reception venue, if that were permitted. It is too easy to dismiss couples who appear to choose convenience over sacramental grace as lacking in faith. Maybe as Church we need to go the extra mile to reach out to people. Venue matters much less than loving commitment or the grace of the sacrament. Faith is a life-long journey that thrives on encouragement. All starting points are valid.

Sacraments are for the people. Seeds of faith cry out for nourishment. Might the response of Pope Francis to Carlos and Paula’s desire to receive the grace of the sacrament be an invitation for us to think anew.


Albert McDonnell

Radharc na nOileán Pastoral Area.

Clare Champion Article 24th of June 2021