By Father Edward McNamara, LC
ROME, 05 February 2013 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: In some places married couples are sometimes invited to renew their wedding vows during Mass. Has the Church given norms on how this should be done? When is it appropriate and what format should it take? — J.D., Leeton, Australia
A: The universal Church has not proposed any ritual for the renewal of marriage vows either within or outside of Mass.
At the same time, the Church offers great leeway for national bishops' conferences to prepare their own Rites of Marriage and submit them for approval by the Holy See.
Through this process several countries, especially in North and South America, have included in the Ritual for Marriage a rite for the renewal of vows, especially on the 25th and 50th anniversaries.
These rites make a slight but significant distinction between the original vows and the renewal of the ongoing marriage commitment. In the United States the formula of vows is slightly different from the original formula, in order to reflect a spiritual renewal. In Canada, on the other hand, it is the priest's introduction that explains the meaning and reasons for the renewal of the original formula. There are also different moments for the renewal. In some countries the renewal on jubilee anniversaries is done after the homily; in others it follows the Prayer after Communion.
The reason for these slight but significant changes is because in an essential way there is no such thing as the "renewal of the marriage vows." The exchange of vows is seen as the sacramental form and is thus essentially unique for the same couple. Through their consent the spouses mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable and perpetual covenant in order to establish marriage (see Canon 1057.2 of the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism, No. 1638).
It is true that Catholics annually renew their baptismal promises, priests their ordination commitments and many religious their vows. But these promises are complementary to the sacrament and do not constitute the sacramental form itself. Nobody is ever baptized or ordained anew for devotional purposes.
This is why it is important that such renewal formulas be carefully framed and should avoid any expression that might hint at actually renewing the original sacramental bond. A fairly good example can be taken from an English-language ritual used in the 1960s:
"Renewal of the Marriage Vows
"The jubilarians join their right hands and repeat after the priest, the man first:
"I, N.N., reaffirm my marriage vow of twenty-five (fifty) years ago, and rededicate myself in the same spirit that I once took you, N.N., for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part.
"The woman next repeats the same formula; after which the priest says …."
Besides the renewal of the vows the Church has several other ways of honoring perseverance in married life.
The Roman Missal has three special Masses for anniversaries, especially for jubilees. The Book of Blessings contains several beautiful prayers and blessings for married couples both within and outside of Mass.
These latter texts may be used anywhere in the world, whereas the renewal of vows within Mass may be used only where it is officially incorporated within the ritual books or has been specifically approved.
From what I have been able to gauge from simple anecdotal observation, the practice of renewal of marriage vows seems prevalent above all in the Americas. It appears to be less common in Europe.
* * *
Follow-up: Renewal of Marriage Vows [2-19-2013
In the wake of our Feb. 5 column, several readers pointed out that the latest official edition of the Rite of Marriage has a sort of renewal of vows.
A reader from Washington, D.C., wrote: "Your recent column stated that 'The universal Church has not proposed any ritual for the renewal of marriage vows either within or outside of Mass.' But the Ordo Celebrandi Matrimonium, editio typica altera (1991), does include in Appendix III:
'Ordo benedictionis coniugum intra Missam, occasione data anniversarii Matrimonii adhibendus.' This appendix recommends that on the main anniversaries of marriage, e.g., 25th, 50th, or 60th, a special remembrance of the sacrament may be held within Mass. This includes inviting the couple to renew before God their commitment to live a holy married life. The 'renewal' then includes the exchange of a formula between the couple: 'Blessed are you, Lord, for by your goodness I took N. as my wife/husband.' And then both together pray a prayer of renewal. A blessing of the rings may also follow. And following the Our Father, there is a special blessing which the priest bestows. Thus, it would seem that the universal Church has indeed proposed such a renewal of commitment to married life, though the terms 'renewal of vows' — as you pointed out — is avoided."
This is correct, of course, although it is not, strictly speaking, a renewal of vows but rather a blessing — and in my original answer I desired to stick to this precise theme.
Another reader, this time from a new spiritual community originating in France, wrote about the group's experiences in offering retreats to married couples.
"My husband and I have been now for almost 35 years members of a community in France. One of the major areas in our community life is also liturgy. We are running in the center of France a quite big retreat center, opened 30 years ago. Right from the beginning, a priest from another new community has been with us, with a very special charism toward couples. We have had hundreds of these retreats so far, and very soon (almost right from the beginning) have felt that, at the end of a strong, deep, re-sharpening time for a couple, those who could should be invited at the conclusion of Mass to renew their vows before a priest or a deacon. This is very simply proposed; they are invited to do so after the Creed and the prayer of the faithful, before the offertory. They come to the altar, where the appropriate ministers are waiting for them. We invite them to hold each other's hands and to address each other with their own words, with the purpose of reformulating their promise of love for the future, in the presence of an ordained minister. In the meantime, the congregation will sing and pray silently for them. This can be a challenge, both for those coming up and doing it (and we have always had great testimonies after) and for those not doing so (it is always a shock, but a beneficial shock, because all will gain ground to their hearts in due course). I know that most new communities do the same."
Although what is described here is not liturgical as such, it is in fact very close to the blessing proposed above in the new Rite of Marriage. This rite could also be profitably used at the end of such retreats.