5 Weddings: Memory & Sacrament


In the fall of 2016, I was invited to five weddings, friends of mine who have honored my participation in marriage ceremonies. Each of the five couples is unique, each has its individual stories, ways of celebrating their love with family and friends, and each has distinctive religious or sacramental traditions.

In the next few weeks, I will report on these couples and provide guidance from my forty-five years of experience. There are stories to tell, the behind the scenes references to the ideas, practices, and texts that mark a wedding celebration and give identity to the sacrament and, most notably, to those who celebrate this sign of grace.


August 13 — Cheryl Ann Cecchini and Daniel James Leahy

Cheryl and Daniel – I greet you this afternoon. To our assembled guests, I welcome you, I’m Father Mike Russo.


On behalf of Cheryl and Dan, I welcome you with their parents, Dennis and Elaine Cecchini, Tom and Kathryn Leahy. For so many of you who have traveled great distances, I welcome you here to Saint Francis Solano and the Sonoma wine country.

From our program, we see before us what makes for an excellent combination: Cheryl Ann Cecchini and Daniel James Leahy, members of the Georgetown class of 2008. In effect, with this union, they have a permanent “homecoming.” Cheryl and Dan, I welcome you most especially to this moment in your lives and to the place you have for each other — in your hearts.

We join with you today, as you commit yourselves before God and this community of family and friends. I remind all of our guests that we have been invited here for a holy purpose, as witnesses/ and participants — with Cheryl and Dan entirely in our thoughts and prayers. Each of us: person to person, heart to heart — is here because Cheryl and Dan feel close to you and ask that you join with them in this sacred purpose.

Together we all thank God who brought this young couple together and asks Him always to guide their way.

Opening Prayer

Dear God,

Please bless Cheryl and Dan, this day and every day.

May their love be nurtured by you, always and forever.

May this marriage be held in Your hands and ministered unto by Your angels.

We dedicate this love to you.

May it serve your purposes; may it increase your life in us.

May Dan grow strong in Cheryl’s arms.

May Cheryl grow glorious in Dan’s love.

May the earth be brought closer to heaven through this love.

May all the world be blessed and rejoice in your love.

Now and forever. Amen



“Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!” – Saint Catherine of Siena

Dan & Cheryl, on this your wedding day, the theme of setting the “world on fire” is about your new identity that begins today. Your loving embrace is the identity you have chosen for one another now and in the years to come. In this, you have the power to set the world on fire!

I just returned from Italy and a teaching assignment at Loyola of Chicago’s Rome campus on Monte Mario. A week before classes began in June, I went to Siena to brush up on my Italian.

While I had plenty to learn at the Dante Alighieri language school, next door to our building on the Via Tommaso Pendola, there was the daily commotion of people and their horse at the headquarters of the Tartuca (the Turtle) Contrada; one of the seventeen competing neighborhoods of Siena, whose civic rivalry was focused on the Palio, that most famous horse race in the middle of Siena’s town square.

Everyone in Siena, including the students at the language school, had the Palio on their minds. The horse race, and the thousands of tourists, as well as the sheer beauty of the medieval pageant, was something like the Kentucky Derby without the mint juleps. Of course, there were other liquid refreshments to cool down the heat of summer.

One historical figure, a dominant force of nature in her own right, is Catherine of Siena, the fourteenth-century saint, who along with Francis of Assisi, are the patrons of Italy; and through her own powers of persuasion brought the pope and the papacy back to Rome, in the dark days of the Avignon papacy.

Saint Catherine once said: “Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire!” Dan and Cheryl, we are witnesses to your love on this day, as you celebrate the sacrament along with Christ, who joins you together this day and is with you both on your journey.

Today’s gospel of Saint Matthew is central to Christ’s teaching of the Beatitudes, so familiar to us. We are told to be “poor in spirit,” “peacemakers,” and “merciful.” And for these, we will merit the Kingdom of Heaven. If we can do any of these well enough, it’s the stuff of saints.

Interestingly, the four gospels have various listings, and in some cases, the phrase “Blessed are,” is translated as “Happy are the poor in spirit,” or “Happy are the Peacemakers,” in other words, there is inner happiness or radiance that can see us through even the most challenging moments in our lives.

It’s this happiness or radiance we can see in both of you today. This is an inner glow and the kind of joy that is contagious.

In the Greek Orthodox tradition, the bride and groom wear simple crowns or halo’s over their heads to signify that as a couple, they are prince and princess on their wedding day.

So on this day, and every day focus on being happy, that kind of transformative happiness, so much a sign of a sacramental union with Christ. This is your gift to all of us – that we witness to your unique friendship and love.

Of course, we have gifts as well – namely to be more than a “human resource,” the jargon of modern management; instead we are a “well-spring” of love for you. Family and friends will continue to support and provide a deep affection now and in those moments when you draw on us for help, assistance, or guidance.

Dan and Cheryl, Saint Catherine writes: “Be who God meant you to be and you will set the world on fire!” Today, I speak for all of us, we see the “glow!”

I’d like to conclude this homily with a few words from Pope Francis, and read a quote from the “Joy of Love,” his most recent reflection about married life.

Now the pope can be at the same time both convenient and very profound – and here he is very accessible.

Recently, an Italian woman came up to the pope and asked the Holy Father to keep her son in his prayers. The mother related that her son, who is over forty years of age, still lives at home with her and her husband, and is not married. But, in fact, the son has a girlfriend after twenty-years of courtship.

The pope, in reply to this situation, said to the woman abruptly: “Stop washing his clothes and pressing his shirts.” In other words, this will get him out of the house and give him an incentive to make a decision about life.

So this is an example of a very practical pope, but here are his more profound words, “A Matter of the Heart.”

Marriage is the experience of belonging entirely to another person. Spouses accept the challenge and aspiration of supporting one another, growing old together, and in this way reflecting God’s own faithfulness.

At the same time, such fidelity would be spiritually meaningless, were it merely a matter of following a law with obedient resignation.

Instead it is a matter of the heart, into which God alone sees.

Every morning, on rising, we reaffirm before God our decision to be faithful, come what may in the day.

And all of us, before going to sleep, hope to wake up and continue this adventure, trusting in the Lord’s help.

In this way, each spouse is for the other a sign and instrument of the closeness of the Lord, who never abandons us: “Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”




Wedding Notes

Here’s my commentary about the sacrament of marriage, and how the liturgical celebration gives voice to the great love that brings couples and their family and friends together. Now I have to admit, most Catholic priests are the least qualified to make comments about marriage, but maybe I can bring you to the altar, and then you become the expert.

One thing to remember, it’s “their wedding and not ours,” not the priest, the parents or grandparents. The couple must make the marriage and its ceremony theirs, and in fact, they are celebrants of their love, and we are their witnesses. Take a look for Father Miles O’Brien Riley’s book “It’s Your Wedding — Not Theirs.” You can find it on Father Miles takes the stance of enabling young couples to begin married life by making choices, a practice they will be doing for the rest of their married lives.

So my ideas come with my years of observations and participation in the lives of couples preparing for this all-important event, one that defines lives.

Over the next few weeks, I will provide comments about what’s “best practice” and pass along a few tips about tone, sentiment, and how to make a public event, both meaningful and memorable.

For Cheryl and Dan’s Nuptial Mass on August 13, the introduction and opening prayer  were adapted from Marianne Williamson’s “Illuminata: A Return to Prayer.” (page 261). The response “Psalm 1” and translation came from “Into the Garden: A Wedding Anthology” by Robert Hass & Stephen Mitchell. To my mind, the best volume of poetry and prayers available for the ceremony itself, or at the various gatherings that mark the overall celebration.

While the homily draws on my own experience, the quotation from Saint Catherine of Siena came to my attention from the sermon delivered by the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London, on the occasion of the marriage of Prince William to Kate Middleton in April of 2011.

View this ceremony. Only the British royals can create such an event, it’s an “occasion of state.” Listen to the homily, and take careful note of the prayer written by William and Kate, it’s a beautiful touch. One that couples could write themselves, most appropriately for the Prayer of the Faithful or the “Bidding Prayers.”

From my own observation, while the ceremony is the very “high church,” the prayer language works so well and is so accessible. Compare this language to the newly published Roman Missal, which simply fails based on poetic language and translation.

For Dan and Cheryl’s wedding, I ended my homily with a quote from Pope Francis’s exhortation, “The Joy of Love.” One thing about the pope, he truly gets it!

Of his three significant encyclicals and exhortations, so far, he has written what’s on his mind, namely evangelization, the environment, and the state of marriage and family life. As the most experienced “parish priest” to have become pope, he knows first hand how we engage with young couples as they prepare for marriage, may well determine their future participation in the life of the church.

While the “Joy of Love” is written primarily for married people or those engaged to be married, it is also a primer to all those priests, deacons, and laywomen and men who minister to young couples. Strange as it may be, behind the scenes in many parishes, young couples may have to fight for attention amid the other details that occupy parish life.

Consequently, the sacrament of marriage may not be given enough emphasis. When couples approach the priest or the parish secretary, procedures, rules, schedules, and costs appear to be the first order of business, and maybe not a sincere welcome.

We live in a world where couples come to a new city and are not living in the parishes or communities where they were brought up. They come from more diverse backgrounds, and many more are technically “mixed marriages,” meaning that only one of the partners is a Roman Catholic. Added to this, the schedules of working adults attempting to meet the “pre-Cana conference” requirement are complicated enough.

In a San Francisco parish, a former pastor simply asked the couple’s address, and should the couple have the same mailing address, he refused to even consider presiding at their wedding. Two years ago, amid comment in the press, Pope Francis performed the wedding of a couple who had been living together; and they had children. So yes, the pope gets it, some of his priests – not so much.

When my cell phone rings, I have an almost intuitive sense within a minute that the voice on the other end is telling me that a marriage is in the works. What do you say? Begin with congratulations, and the sincere question, “How can I help you? Or, who’s the lucky groom or bride?”

Another tip, always acknowledges the beauty of this moment in the lives of couples, show an interest in talking with them about everything that brought them to this decision, the role of their parents, and friends. How they met, and clearly the influence of dating websites? Take a look at the engagement ring, it may tell you something about the precious gem, and more so the sentiment implied in such as a gift.

In other words, feel the love!

Meeting a young couple like Dan and Cheryl is for me like taking on a new friendship. It’s among the most worthwhile things that I do, essentially giving me the chance to provide a life-giving moral influence at this crossroad in their lives. Typically, my former students at Saint Mary’s College and the children of close friends are my primary base of married couples. However, “word of mouth” also works.

My good friend, Joan Maxwell, introduced me to Dan and Cheryl. Georgetown graduates, both from practicing Catholic families, so they needed a priest. Dan is from Portland, Maine, and Cheryl from Cranford, New Jersey. Now that’s the key for me. I’ve been the parish priest to the Garden State exiles living in California.


August 27 — Elizabeth Anne Maxwell and Bradley Allen Tisdahl

We set up camp at the Indian Springs resort in Calistoga, in the lush Napa valley for Liz and Brad’s wedding in wine country, only weeks away from harvest and the very best wines in the country. Indian Springs, with its hotel, spa and mineral baths is owned by John and Pat Merchant, life-long friends of Liz’s parents’ s Joan and Frank. My own association with the Maxwell family goes back to my high school days at Seton Hall Prep

Yearly this was the setting for Thanksgiving celebrations that brought the “Maxwell nation,” and they are a tribe, to Indian Springs and Calistoga — for family, friends, and fun. A perfect place to renew strong family ties to one another, their roots in New Jersey, and to blend Brad’s Chicago family into this assembly. My own association with the Maxwell clan goes back to my high school days; it was at Seton Hall Prep, where I met Frank and his sister, Rosemary.

What is most distinctive about this Interfaith marriage was the care that Liz and Brad took in developing the ceremony with the assistance of Rev. Michael Ireland, whose ministry to young couples is so evident in his graceful manner, positive tone, and the overall selection of religious and secular texts. Over his many years of ministry, Mike Ireland told me that he keeps in touch with many of those he has married, and by the simple gesture of sending them a greeting card on Valentine’s Day.

Liz and Brad drew on the core traditions of their families with a blessing from me, and from the groom’s cousin who came forward to offer the “shehecheyanu,” a Jewish help of Thanksgiving to mark this joyous occasion. The intent of this prayer is a reminder that God does not dwell detached from his creation, but watches over our joys and even our sorrows with grace and purpose. Here a cantor or rabbi chants: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, Master of the universe, who has kept us alive and sustained us and has brought us to this special day.”



Just before the exchange of vows, Mike Ireland stood before the couple and gave this brief meditation:

Liz and Brad, when I look into your eyes, I see the reality of your love, as you are living it today. Poets can write sonnets about it; musicians can compose songs about it; ministers can preach sermons about it, but love becomes real only when it is lived out day by passing day.

My hope for you is that, in the years that lie ahead, you will remember this day and the wonder of your love…and take a moment each day to bring your love alive again, through a touch, a glance, a word, or in some way unique just to the two of you.

Celebrate your love; celebrate each other. Cherish your love; cherish each other…every day for the rest of your life together.

Then, the minister asked the couple to recite their own carefully prepared vows.

Brad to Liz:

I promise to share myself, and the burdens we bear,
In challenging times, against headwinds and strife,
I vow they will be ours,

I promise to grow with you along the road that we share,
with the wind at our backs, and in the celebrations of life,
I vow they will be ours,

I promise you my patience, and I’ll work to be fair,
among the trivial events, of which our lives will be rife,
I vow they will be ours,

I promise my love and my trust, daily will I renew
For every part belonging to me, as good belongs to you.

Liz to Brad:

Brad, when we got engaged on a Tuesday night last October, you orchestrated a magical evening in our beloved West Village neighborhood. Every minute and every detail was meaningful and memorable. Our Engagement will forever be a sparkling moment for us as a couple, but it is just one of the many examples of the never-ending love you give to the people around you. This is no surprise to our friends and family here with us today.

Whether you are driving a U-Haul from New York to Chicago to help with a big move, lending your excel or PowerPoint skills to a last-minute work project, sending postcards while traveling, or directly lending an extended arm to assist with an out-of-reach light bulb, they too have felt your thoughtfulness, generosity, and heart of gold.

Kindness like yours is rare, but I know you didn’t get this way entirely on your own. To Sheri, Bob, Elissa, Zach, Adeline, and Juliet, thank you for the love and support you’ve given Brad that has helped him become the person he is today.

Brad, I know you are really anxious about the mozzarella sticks portion of our Wedding Day, but I want to share just one more example of your thoughtfulness. Every night when I return home from work, often stressed and grumpy, you stop what you are doing and get up to meet me at the door, usually with a big bear hug and an enthusiastic, sing-song greeting. Being who you are, such a gesture comes naturally, and I know you probably don’t think about it much. But I will never be able to tell you how much it means to me.

For the rest of our lives, I will work to make you as happy as you make me when you meet me at the door. I love you, and I am so lucky to be marrying you today.

Again the minister prayed:

Loving God, out of this tangled world, Liz and Brad have been drawn together and bound by the swift, sure insights of love. Their destinies now shall be woven of one design, and their challenges and their joys shall not be known apart. As they increase in mutual understanding, may their joy stand victoriously against the storm of circumstance that beats impartially at all of our doors. And from the rich encouragement of their love, may they complete the unfinished pattern of their eternal selves. Even as they have chosen each other from this world’s multitudes, so let the days and years, now veiled by time, deepen the joy of their choice and make it eternally true. Amen.

In his final pronouncement, Mike Ireland added sound advice:

Liz and Brad, the depth of the love that has been just between the two of you now have been shared with us all. We urge you to explore your love well. Explore it deeply and reverently. Explore your love with joy and with hope and with courage. May you find delight in each other, and may your love continue to grow and to nurture you always. And now, with a great sense of personal joy, and with the warmth and lover of all of our hearts, it is a privilege to pronounce you husband and wife, wife and husband.

September 17, 2016 — Shannon Elizabeth O’Keefe and John Cameron Anderson


2 thoughts on “5 Weddings: Memory & Sacrament

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