Love is in the air


It might have made for a great headline and photo opportunity, but parish priests across social media were raising their eyes heavenwards at the story of the impromptu wedding conducted by Pope Francis between a steward and stewardess on the papal flight over Chile today.

While clergy are always grateful when a happy couple has chosen to plight their troth in a Catholic church, ensuring that their union is sacramentally binding, the last thirty years of the ever-burgeoning wedding industry means that many couples are increasingly treating churches and clergy as though they are just another customer-facing business and as such, priests and deacons find themselves subject to increasingly wild and whacky demands.

My husband is fortunate to look after two photogenic Catholic churches in the Surrey hills, both of which are close to local wedding venues. Many engaged couples from the London area who can’t afford the extortionate cost of a wedding in their vicinity thereby decide to book at one of these (still expensive venues), before then hunting around for a church in the locality and alight across ours, not least because the various venus have informed them of our presence, if they are wanting a religious service.

With the date booked, they ring up, asking questions like “we’re booked to get married on x date and we’re just thinking about the church, does yours have bells?”. Or, “I’d really like a religious element to our ceremony, I’m getting married to a Zoroastrian in a civil ceremony but I’d like it to reflect my Catholic roots, so could Father please come out and do some kind of blessing at Ye Olde Countrie Manor”.

To my non-Catholic readers, these requests all sound perfectly reasonable, surely the church should be glad of bums on seats etc, but trust me, they will leave Fr gnashing his teeth in frustration, because the business of getting married in a Catholic Church, especially if it’s not your local parish church, is far from straightforward, requiring reams of paperwork and preparation.

Before telling the bride about bells, or whether or not she can have specially trained owls fly down the aisle to deliver the rings (yes really, and no, Hedwig is not welcome on our turf and neither can Father dress up as Dumbledore, and I don’t think that the organist has a copy of the theme of Harry Potter), the first question is ‘are you and your fiancé both baptised Catholics and are you free to marry’? We might then get down to the nitty gritty of explaining that the couple will need to have the permission of their parish priest to marry here and all of the other legal and canonical formalities before opening the diary to check if the date is even free.

It’s not inconceivable then, that this in-flight wedding is going to open the door to “well Pope Francis did it, why can’t I?” To which of course, your parish priest is going to consolidate his reputation as being a rigid ogre, by pointing out that he does not  possess the same authority as the pope, these were exceptional circumstances and enquiring whether the bride and groom have similarly seen their local church destroyed in an earthquake.

But your parish priest is, or at least should be, robust enough to cope with the unrealistic expectations of engaged couples who stopped attending church once they had made their First Holy Communion. Weddings and marriages are ripe opportunities for evangelisation and so any diligent Father will do his best to make sure that they are properly prepared for their momentous lifelong commitment which goes far beyond the day itself.

The trouble with Pope Francis’ cute little stunt, is that it does somewhat trivialise the nature of marriage; weddings ordinarily ought to take place in a place of worship and ideally include a Nuptial Mass.  This is a solemn and reverent sacrament and as the dear old book of Common Prayer used to say, a Holy Estate which “therefore is not by any to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God”. I’m not sure Cranmer had a pressurised compartment, 36,000 feet in the air, in mind.

And lest we be in any doubt, this absolutely was a stunning bit of PR. Why? Because as a loyal son of the Church, there is no way that the Pope, or indeed any parish priest, would summarily agree to marry a couple on the spot, who came to him to ask that he bless their civil union.

You’d need to know whether or not they were both baptised Catholics (although perhaps his Petrine office could automatically dispense with any disparity of cult, regardless of whether or not he knew about it), you’d need to know that they were both free to marry, i.e. that none of them had ever been married before (which needs checking out) and you’d at least want to have a little chat with them. Maybe check that the two children that Paula Podest Ruiz and Carlos Ciuffardi Ellorriag had begat in their eight years of civil marriage had been baptised and were being raised as Catholics and also maybe invite them to have made their confession, as Catholics ought to do before they enter into the sacrament?

Now we don’t know precisely the nature of the conversation which took place, but is it really likely that the Pope would just marry someone on the spot, having taken their word for it, without having checked out the necessary, like whether either of them had been married and divorced before. I mean, it might be just a tad awkward if an ex spouse were to unexpectedly pitch up in the media over the next few days, claiming their union wasn’t valid.

Much as Papa Francisco likes to rip up the rule books  I can’t see him agreeing to wed a couple without having  confirmation of their freedom to marry. or without the most rudimentary of checks. Here’s the other thing. Said couple were rostered on the same flight together. What a coincidence. It rarely happened to any of the married couples on the airlines for whom I worked, and indeed for obvious reasons of health, safety and making sure that any dependents didn’t lose both their mum and dad,  married couples were rarely deliberately rostered on the same flight.

The groom’s best man happened to be the airline’s CEO, who was traveling on the flight. What a coincidence! Even more fortunate was that Pope Francis just happened to have a pair of beautiful matching rosaries kicking about in the pockets of his cassock to be able to give them as gifts!

So how likely is it that this couple just happened to be crewing this flight, along with the airline’s CEO, who just chummily stood in as a best man in front of the assembled press? In the days, when this humble commentator was a flight attendant ferrying the great and good, as well as politicians and celebrities about, approaching them for autographs or favours would be a sackable offence, but the couple just thought they’d chance it and sidle up to the Pope and ask them to bless their union. Something that he was unable to do, because it wasn’t actually a union which he could bless.

This smells suspiciously like a PR stunt. Especially when one considers that the couple had been married for 8 years, albeit civilly and could easily have approached a priest for their marriage to be convalidated. Being charitable, I suspect that what happened was that they had their date booked in the Cathedral in Santiago, the earthquake and tsunami hit and destroyed the church,  the preparations were in full swing and they decided it would be easier and simpler to have a civil ceremony and maybe do the religious bit later,  given that the save the dates had gone out. And then, as happens, life got in the way. My guess is that they weren’t what the Catholic online community would consider as ‘serious Catholics’ but I’m not going to make uncharitable assumptions about their faith or whether or not they were regularly attending Mass and so on.

With all that in mind, I still think that this sweet little ceremony at altitude isn’t such a bad thing. Why? Because it highlighted that if you are Catholic, you are not married in the eyes of God and the Church if you have a civil ceremony. It was a nice piece of Evangelisation with the Pope reportedly telling the couple, ”This is the sacrament that is missing in the world, the sacrament of marriage. I hope this motivates couples around the world to marry.”  I hope it does so too, but preferably not in a smelly aircraft after a period of cohabitation. For those who asked why he couldn’t have just blessed the couple, the Catholic Church doesn’t do wedding blessings. It’s all or nothing. Though he could of course, have invited them back for a private ceremony at the Vatican later in the year.

The whole thing may have been pre-arranged, but the couple obviously had a pang of conscience and wanted to make their marriage right in the eyes of the Church. And Francis duly obliged. Which seems to me to be the very essence of pastoral accompaniment, bringing people back where they ought to be. They received the grace of the sacrament, had an extremely special moment with the pontiff, 15 minutes of fame and glory and an experience they will treasure for the rest of their lives. Good luck to them, may they enjoy a long happy and fruitful marriage.

And as for a PR stunt it was just gold. There I was thinking that the Vatican’s communications department really need to pull their fingers out and what do we have? A lovely little interlude to take our minds off the child abuse scandal still rocking Chile and the relatively low-turnout for the pontiff. Something to warm the cockles of the hearts. Love is the air, couple on cloud nine, the opportunities for social media memes and witticism are endless.

Lest Greg Burke, the Vatican Comms Director gets too complacent, it seems that someone is off-message.  He has contradicted the couple’s account that the spontaneous ceremony was the pope’s idea, and has told the press that “it wasn’t the pope’s idea, but he was happy to do it”. Hmm. Happy to marry a couple whom he knows next to nothing about? Whatever you say squire!

Anyone who raises reservations about the whole process – they are obviously the grumpy sourpusses we hear so much about. Couple get married by the Pope. What’s not to like? At least we’re no longer talking about the scandal of the Holy Father handing out papal honours like party bags to pro-abortion activists.