Max Rich and Katie Arndorfer will wed at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Oswego July 18. “For us, it’s really entering into union with one another through God. For us the way to do that is through the actual sacrament carried out in the church.” (Courtesy Katie Arndorfer)
Max Rich and Katie Arndorfer will wed at Our Lady of the Lake Church in Lake Oswego July 18. “For us, it’s really entering into union with one another through God. For us the way to do that is through the actual sacrament carried out in the church.” (Courtesy Katie Arndorfer)

Valentine’s Day bummer: Marriages held in Catholic churches in the Archdiocese of Portland have fallen off by more than 60% in the past 50 years.

In 1970, western Oregon Catholic churches hosted 2,111 weddings, according to archdiocesan records. By 2019, the number was down to 812. While the count of couples in which both bride and groom are Catholic has shrunk by only about 10%, the big drop-off is in mixed marriages, those with just one Catholic.

“Some of the decrease in numbers of weddings has to do with the millennials or ‘nones’ who do not identify with the institutional church — or any other institution,” said Msgr. Patrick Brennan. Msgr. Brennan not only is rector of St. Mary Cathedral in Northwest Portland but also serves as judicial vicar of the archdiocese, meaning he examines marriages for possible declarations of nullity. Msgr. Brennan has tracked a local decline in weddings at the cathedral, where there were 22 in 2012 and just 10 last year.

“I also believe that some young people are afraid to approach the Catholic Church for a wedding since they do not attend Mass regularly and are afraid they will be turned away,” he said, adding that outdoor weddings and destination nuptials have become more popular. Young people are increasingly mobile and less apt than prior generations to become established at one parish, he added. He also surmises that some couples don’t want to go through the Catholic pre-marriage process, helpful as it is. Finally, Msgr. Brennan has met more and more couples in which one has been married previously and is unwilling to seek a declaration of nullity from the church.

Don’t give in

Western Oregon trends are not unique, and Catholics are not the only believers seeing fewer weddings in houses of worship. Only 26 percent of couples in the United States had their wedding ceremonies in a religious place in 2016, according to a survey conducted that year. That’s down from 41% in 2009, said The Real Weddings Study, which questioned almost 13,000 couples.

The survey found nuptials at farms, barns and ranches had gone up, along with weddings in historic buildings and homes. Other popular sites were beach houses, vineyards, public gardens and museums.

The survey found that couples want to make weddings more about them and their personalities, so they choose a venue to reflect that and plan performances and games they like.

“Sadly, these statistics are not surprising,” said Stephen Garbitelli, director of the Tribunal for the archdiocese.“Increasingly, Catholics don’t know canon law requires them to have a Catholic ceremony (normally in a church), but the sadder reality is that many young people lack strong religious beliefs, if they have them at all.”

Garbitelli urged Catholics not to shrug at the trend silently.

“We need to pray for each other, give sound guidance, and do what we can to help our loved ones place their marriages in God’s hands,” he said, suggesting that setting a good example in one’s own marriage goes a long way.

“Even after a couple marries civilly or in a non-Catholic ceremony, it’s not too late to have the marriage recognized in the eyes the church,” Garbitelli explained. “Through a convalidation such a couple gives a new act of consent, promising themselves to each other before God and his church in Christian marriage.”

‘Our marriage is sacramental’

Three couples with links to one Oregon parish say that the sacramental nature of marriage, plus family tradition, made it clear to them that they would be married in a church.

“Our marriage is sacramental and we really do believe that our marriage is beyond a social and legal contract,” said Katie Arndorfer, who grew up at Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego and will marry Max Rich there July 18. “For us, it’s really entering into union with one another through God. For us the way to do that is through the actual sacrament carried out in the church.”

Chiefly, they want their wedding in the context of the Eucharist, and a church is the place for that.

Arndorfer and Rich, who now live in Massachusetts, graduated from Jesuit High School in Portland in 2013. She went to Notre Dame and teaches theology at a Catholic high school. He attended Harvard and works in finance in Boston.

Both decided in college to explore their religious belief more deeply and make it their own. They approached faith both intellectually and from the heart and want that deep tradition to be part of their lives going forward.

During marriage preparation sessions in Boston, they were delighted to meet dozens of other young Catholic couples who feel the same way.

“We found it so energizing,” Arndorfer said.

Like other people their age, they attend many weddings. Most take place in churches and that has affirmed their decision. “For us a huge part is getting married in the church so we can go out and live the lives we are supposed to live,” said Arndorfer. 

They know God is at the beach or in a vineyard, but for them, the church is uniquely sacred ground. In Our Lady of the Lake, Arndorfer was baptized, received first Communion and was confirmed. If she felt taxed or distressed as a youth, she would visit the peaceful church to sit in relationship with the Lord.

“I have experienced so many graces,” Arndorfer said. “To be married in that church is an incredible chance for me to complete that sacramental journey.”

Church weddings also have been part of family tradition for centuries and represent a link with those who have gone before.  

“A church is a place that physically represents the communion of saints who will be helping us in our marriage,” Arndorfer said.

They share values

Anna Marie Maag and Kevin Liddy will wed at Our Lady of the Lake July 11. A church wedding was their first big common decision.

She grew up in Portland attending the parish, and he was raised in New York. They met at Georgetown University, where Anna Marie ran track and cross-country and Kevin played football. Both are members of the class of 2016.

“We started talking then and haven’t stopped talking since,” said Kevin, a regional sales manager in Austin, Texas.

For them, a church wedding simply seemed natural. Sure, they knew their parents would like it, but it also fit their values.

“We were attracted to each other because we have the same value set in the Catholic tradition,” said Kevin. “Now that we are grown, we try to make that a priority in our lives. For us, it is a lot less about our wedding day and more about our marriage.”

Anna Marie, an oncology nurse, said it was key that both she and Kevin chose to embrace faith personally, in addition to family tradition. For her, a wedding outside a church and the Eucharist would lack meaning since it is a sacrament, a sign that brings divine grace. 

A wedding that evangelized

Kristine Cerri and Robbie Sander were married last October at Our Lady of the Lake after dating for 11 years. They met at Jesuit High School and attended Oregon State University. For their wedding, they chose the church where Kristine received all her sacraments. They now live in Orange County, California, where Kristine is a fitness studio manager and Robbie is a lawyer for a solar energy company.

They never imagined a wedding outside a church for themselves, though they have attended many.

“Maybe it’s the lawyer in me, but I always get the feeling these weddings not in churches feel like more of a legal proceeding, a short mechanical session,” Robbie said. “The sacrament is the most important part.”

Choosing a church wedding became even more important, the couple say, as they moved from being Catholic because of family tradition to choosing it on their own.

They are delighted to remember their wedding. They chose readings that emphasized covenant, one of the great themes of Scripture. At one point, they both brought flowers to put before a statue of Mary. The quiet moments spent there helped them realize the cosmic significance of marriage. 

As at many Catholic weddings, about half of those who attended were not Catholic. Kristine and Robbie wanted those guests to experience the power and beauty of a sacramental wedding. 

“They were blown away in the most positive way,” said Kristine. “They said it was so beautiful and they felt what we were there for and what the meaning of marriage is. They saw what we had known for years.”