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When in Florida: The Priest Who Refused My Wedding

The top-down annihilation of a developed orthodoxy into a mad-glad tambourine session seems to have been successful for a few decades. As I grow older in the Catholic Church, I’ve gradually become aware of the various effects of this post-conciliar crumble. But it’s another thing altogether experience it firsthand – especially in the sacrament of matrimony, and all the more so in one’s own matrimony.

In early 2017, I was arranging plans for the sacrament of marriage with my then-fiancée. Each of us had moved the year prior from Florida to Washington, D.C. and quickly learned that the Catholic community was much more vibrant and Catholic than in our home state of Florida. The great traditions, prayers, and practices developed over centuries have been all but flushed down the toilet across most of the Sunshine State, reduced to a wasteland of geriatric ghost-town parishes happy to place rainbow altar cloths on tables to enjoy Bugnini’s “meal.”

As for us, we had found the home for our upcoming married life, at least for a long while.

We were dead set on having the traditional Latin Mass – the same Mass that every generation of our families had been married in save our own Baby-Boomer parents, in the typical Baby-Boomer fashion. I guess you could say we’re “attached” to the traditional Mass in the same way the apostles were “attached” to Jesus and His mother as the avenue to salvation.

The irony was that were we to marry in D.C., we’d be spoiled for choice for both a beautiful church and beautiful liturgy, but our situation was not so simple. Both our families were spread across south and central Florida. As for invited friends, 99% were in Florida as well. We hemmed and hawed, we weighed the pros and cons, consulted with family, and at the end of the day, it just seemed right to marry in the homeland, at a local basilica. As well, with a curious deference to modern sensibilities (or archaic, depending on your view) we thought it prudent to settle on the bride’s hometown, where most of her family was based.

My fiancée’s home church – an example of Florida’s architecture. Just beautiful.

Considering that we needed to find a church in or near that town, but because there were no priests in the diocese trained to celebrate both forms of the Roman rite, we spent months calling friends and local monasteries in and around the diocese until we found a lovely priest both willing and able to celebrate. Logistically, this proved to be a nightmare. Having recently moved away from Florida, we had to register at a parish in D.C., then call the desired parish in Florida to coordinate with our new home parish. Then we had to coordinate with our two separate home parishes in Florida, where we had received our respective sacraments. Then add the process of getting approval for the priest we had found who was willing and able to celebrate, who was based almost a hundred miles away from the wedding venue. The logistics were so extraordinary that by the time we were able to secure and deliver the forms in the most complex coordination since Black Hawk Down, we were only a few weeks away from the wedding day.

It was at this point that I was notified by our priest that the rector of the basilica, who had approved our request months prior, had decided he no longer wanted us to be married – unless the Mass celebrated with the rite of matrimony was in the Ordinary Form. I read the letter he sent, and my heart stopped.

Here we were, in a whirlwind of ecclesiastical red tape, and the sacrament itself was now being threatened by a Catholic priest, considered in good standing, who did not want to allow a Catholic marriage in a Catholic church.

I immediately emailed the rector in the hopes of resolving the issue. I didn’t want to assume he had some irrational animus against the Extraordinary Form – perhaps it was just a misunderstanding, or there was a logistical issue. Not everyone is out to destroy and distort the Faith.

His first response was that they “weren’t equipped” to have an Extraordinary Form Mass celebrated in the sanctuary. At this point, I was beginning to have my doubts, since we were bringing all the special items needed, like altar cards, a maniple, and…the bride and groom…? In any case, I happily explained that we would supply all that was needed and assured the rector he wouldn’t have to make any kind of special accommodations and that we’d be less invasive than a wallflower. I was eager to hear his response, since I couldn’t really anticipate any other objections…but I also perceived a less than hospitable tone from someone who had started signing his messages with “Fr. Last Name” and had moved to “Rev. First Last, V.F.”

His final response was plain: “It’s very simple, Matthew. I will not allow a Latin Mass in my church.”

I’d heard of hostility to the liturgy within the church, but I’d never seen a priest respond to the traditional mass with open rancor. At this point, I could appeal directly to the bishop, although Rev. Last Name, V.F. assured me in the same stroke of his pen that the bishop would support him, and I would do well not to bother. He was right. It turns out that “V.F.” stands for “vicar forane,” a position in service to the bishop related to duties centered on liturgical life, including “assisting presbyters in matters such as ensuring that liturgies are beautifully celebrated.” The irony here is not exactly a fiddleback needle in a rainbow-colored haystack.

I hardly had time to drop my jaw before I realized that if we were going to get married, we had to find a Catholic church in the diocese that wasn’t against celebrating the liturgy within our right as prescribed by the Church. My father quickly contacted a nearby parish and explained the situation…to which the pastor graciously responded, “Celebrate in whichever form you like, of course! As long as it’s Catholic.” Now, there was the response I naïvely thought I’d hear the first time around. Praise the Almighty that nine months of planning wasn’t in vain, nor were the plans of over 100 people who were traveling out of town and the in-laws biting their hands nail to knuckle.

There’s something about spiritual attack that seems to permeate, like the multi-pronged attack of a well oiled war machine. Despite the lack of overtly supernatural experiences in our engagement, demonic influence never felt more real. Consider it: you’re spiritually preparing with your fiancée to quite literally give up your lives for each other. That’s your time, efforts, desires, willpower, assets – yes, your very life. Now add onto this the practical considerations of negotiating with fiancée, parents, and soon-to-be in-laws about both the wedding and the party thereafter, and tie it all up with a nine-month timeline for things to go wrong…and beware of icy roads ahead. (Metaphorically icy roads. Remember, this is Florida we’re talking about.)

After shuffling wedding plans to a different church ten days out, the fact that we’d actually be married after the looming question mark made it hard for me to sweat the details anymore. My mind had been preoccupied with the classic horror stories of cardinals locking congregations out of churches because they prefer their Mass with more prayers and incense. I started seriously considering that we might be forced to have our marriage confected on the sidewalk. Then again, our priest would have been denied faculties anyway, so if it hadn’t been the saving grace of the godly and hope-inspiring man who elected to marry us, who knows what our destiny would have been?

Thank God all that turned out to be only a matter of wondering. Once we secured a Catholic church with a pastor who was friendly to other Catholics, the remaining days were relatively smooth – although you can imagine the blood, sweat, and tears that go into informing a hundred family members of a ten-day-out change of venue – and the joy of certainty returned.

It was one thing to hear about those mid-century machinations at the highest levels of the Church in a city-state halfway across the globe, but it starts to mean something when a priest shows open frustration with and hostility toward Church tradition. It means something when it threatens a wedding, family relationships, and spiritual welfare. It means something when the liturgy that was offered for over a thousand years, and given freely even a few decades ago, has been suppressed to the point not only of obscurity, but of scorn and resistance by those responsible for ensuring its proliferation. It means something when this form of the most august sacrifice has become all but meaningless to both flock and shepherd.

On May 6, 2017, my fiancée and I engaged in the holy sacrament of matrimony with the Roman rite as it’s been beautifully celebrated for Catholics from time immemorial. By the time we were kneeling at the altar, I felt like St. Peter of Verona, posed before Our Lord in joyful expectation, a sizeable axe sticking out of my scalp. The blissful sacrament silenced all the gnashing from the pits of Hell and the demonic cries of fury at the beauty we conferred upon one another that day. We’ve been blessed with the grace of Him Whose yoke is sweet and Whose burden is light.

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