Parish reaches out to encourage cohabiting couples to marry

St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac will host a joint wedding in August, inviting couples from the parish and across the Archdiocese of Detroit who have been cohabiting to "experience God's mercy through the sacrament of matrimony." (CNS photo)

St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac will host a joint wedding in August, inviting couples from the parish and across the Archdiocese of Detroit who have been cohabiting to “experience God’s mercy through the sacrament of matrimony.” (CNS photo)

St. Damien of Molokai to host joint Spanish wedding Mass in August

Pontiac — If the sacraments dispense grace, then the sacrament of matrimony dispenses it twice. The problem is, too few Catholics are taking advantage of the graces of wedlock at all.

Since 2001, the Archdiocese of Detroit has seen a 47 percent decrease in the number of Catholic marriages — a far steeper decline, even, than the number of Catholics registered in archdiocesan parishes.

The problem has become so acute that one Pontiac parish recently found itself unable even to find enough married Catholic couples to serve as godparents and sponsors.

“That was pretty alarming to all of us,” said Fr. Jacob VanAssche, associate pastor of St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac.

Fr. Jacob VanAssche

Fr. Jacob VanAssche

“Recently we’ve been shocked by the number of people who can’t be godparents and sponsors because they are in an irregular situation,” Fr. VanAssche said. “They are either living together or are civilly married, or one of them married in a previous situation. Sometimes things get so complicated.”

So, in response, the parish is hatching a hitching plan.

On Aug. 27, St. Damien is inviting any couple who wants to take part in a joint wedding Mass and finally tie that long-awaited knot.

During the Year of Mercy, Fr. VanAssche is describing it as a way for couples “to come and experience the mercy of God through the sacrament of matrimony.”

“It’s going to be a way for our couples who have been living together for many years — some who have children, some who have only been civilly married but not married in the Church — for them to come forward and enter into a sacramental union and experience the fullness of God’s grace through the sacrament,” he said.

When Fr. VanAssche originally had the idea, he wasn’t quite sure how to present it.

“It came through the fruit of prayer. I brought it to a staff meeting and asked ‘What do you think about having a Year of Mercy wedding?’ But it’s like, how do we say that? Do we have a ‘merciful wedding?’” Fr. VanAssche said. “So I’ve been joking with people, ‘Please, experience the mercy of God through the sacrament of matrimony. Trust me, once you get married you’ll be begging for His mercy.’”

The light sense of humor has been key to helping make the idea come across as non-judgmental as possible, said Fr. VanAssche, who added the parish’s pastor, Fr. Jim Kean, is “100 percent supportive.”

“You’ve just got to kind of make fun of it a little bit to burst that bubble of shame that surrounds some people,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Look, every single one of us are sinners. We all need God’s mercy.’ But we are all one step in God’s mercy away from being saints.”

The concept of a joint wedding is not foreign to the Church, either. In 2014, Pope Francis presided over the wedding of 20 couples in a joint Mass at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Because St. Damien is a predominantly Hispanic parish, the wedding Mass will be in Spanish. Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron has agreed to celebrate the Mass, Fr. VanAssche said, and Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda will give the homily.

To find potential couples, Fr. VanAssche said the parish used its own records to identify and contact unmarried parishioners who’ve had children baptized or those who’ve registered at the same address under different last names.

So far, eight couples have stepped forward to participate, but Fr. VanAssche is opening the invitation to any couple throughout the archdiocese who’s interested. Before it’s all said and done, he wouldn’t be surprised to have dozens of new marriages at summer’s end.

“This past weekend I talked at all of our Spanish Masses to help publicize this and really spread the message,” Fr. VanAssche said. “The phones have been going crazy in a good way the last couple days.”

Though the Mass will be in Spanish, any English-speaking couple that wants to participate is more than welcome, he added. And if the project is successful, the joint wedding concept could be repeated for English speakers at another time.

St. Damien is not charging couples or asking for donations, but is working with neighboring parishes to try to arrange for marriage preparation, a communal penance service and possibly even a reception with cake following the ceremony.

The parish is working with potential couples on gathering the necessary documents, including baptismal certificates and lack-of-form annulments. Although couples who need to apply for a full annulment won’t be able to participate in the joint wedding, Fr. VanAssche said the parish is still eager to work with them regardless.

He said the idea isn’t to be pushy or intrusive, but to offer the option in a way that lets people know the parish cares.

“I’m not sitting up here in the pulpit pointing you out and saying, ‘You wicked people,’” Fr. VanAssche said. “We want to do everything we can to help you out. We’ve got to meet them where they are. It’s not a perfect world.”

Joint wedding at St. Damien of Molokai Parish

St. Damien of Molokai Parish is inviting unmarried couples from across the Archdiocese of Detroit to take part in a Spanish-language joint wedding Mass on Aug. 27. A preliminary schedule is as follows:

April 16: Couples invited to meet with priests to gather necessary documents and ask questions

May 21: A day of spiritual and marriage preparation hosted by Movimiento Familiar Católico (Catholic Family Movement)

Aug. 22: Wedding rehearsal at St. Damien of Molokai Parish in Pontiac

Aug. 25: Communal penance service at St. Damien of Molokai Parish

Aug. 27: Wedding Mass and reception with Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron and Bishop Arturo Cepeda



Couples interested in taking part are encouraged to contact Fr. Jacob VanAssche at [email protected] or (248) 332-0283.