The Blessing of Engagements and the Rite of Betrothal
A man goes down on one knee, offers his girlfriend a ring, and asks: “will you marry me?” Right after her “YES!” the man puts the ring on her finger. They hug and kiss as the stars dance around them … and soon enough they officially announce their engagement (or “betrothal” in older terminology.)
This magical moment has been repeated many millions of times, and yet the creativity that goes into making this moment special is limitless. Most of us have surely heard of engagements that ranged from the sweet to the wacky, from the simple to the extravagant, from the intimate to the most public imaginable.
And then… what comes after that special moment?
In the Philippines we have the custom of the “pamamanhikan”, in which the man, accompanied by some members of his family and bearing gifts and / or food, goes to the house of his fiancée in order to ask for her parents’ blessing on their marriage. At present, the pamamanhikan is merely a formality to seal an engagement already privately made by the couple. However, in old Philippines, this was in fact the public form that an engagement took. According to the historian Fr. Pablo Fernandez: “To enter an engagement publicly, the father of the groom, accompanied by his son and invited guests, went to the girl’s house and, in the presence of the young couple who sat in silence, the fathers of both parties closed the agreement. If the future couple presented no difficulty, they were considered in agreement and the formalized engagement was considered obligatory in conscience.” (Pablo Fernandez OP, History of the Church in the Philippines 1521-1898 [National Book Store, 1979], p. 152.)
There is another way to make engagements more special, and that is having the Church bless them. Very few Catholics, however, are aware of this beautiful practice. From what I gather, not many priests are aware of it either. It seems that having engagements blessed was never a common custom in the Catholic Church in the Philippines, even during the Spanish era—perhaps the “pamamanhikan” and similar family rituals were considered sufficient. However, in this day and age, not a few young Catholics are looking for ways to experience the “sense of the sacred” in their practice of religion, and weddings are not exempt from this trend. I have heard, for example, of pious Filipino Catholic couples who wanted to infuse a greater sense of solemnity into their weddings by importing Catholic customs from abroad, such as saying their marriage vows with their hands on a crucifix, or having the groom wash the bride’s feet during the reception. As with weddings, so with engagements—and this is only natural. A couple’s engagement, after all, signals the beginning of intensified preparations for their marriage, a time that should also be one of greater prayer and spiritual preparation for the Sacrament of Matrimony. What better way to embark upon these preparations than to seek the blessing of God upon them?
In the context of what is called the “Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite” (the Roman liturgy as reformed after Vatican II, the form of liturgy commonly used in the Philippines) there is “The Order of Blessing an Engaged Couple” which could be presided over either by a cleric (bishop, priest, deacon) or by a layperson, who could be one of the parents or a lay minister. It is essentially a short Liturgy of the Word (it cannot be celebrated in combination with the Holy Mass) during which rings can be exchanged by the couple. If a priest or deacon presides, he can also bless the rings and the couple. The blessing reads as follows (in the UK bishops’ version of the rite):
“Lord God, wellspring of all love, N. and N. have met each other through your providential plan. Mercifully grant as they seek your grace in preparing for the Sacrament of Marriage, that, sustained by heavenly + blessing, they may grow in mutual respect and may love each other with true charity. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.”
I personally know of two couples that had this rite of blessing for their engagement, just in the last 2 years. I am sure that there have been more.
In the context of what is nowadays called the “Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite” (commonly known as the “Tridentine Latin Rite” or the pre-Vatican II Roman Rite), one can find a number of “Rites of Betrothal”. This rite is not part of a Mass but has the flow of a simplified marriage rite, although it is not a marriage but the solemn promise to enter into a future marriage. There is an exchange of promises (not vows) by the man and wife to marry in the future, followed by a blessing given by the priest and the blessing of the engagement ring for the woman (or even for both the man and woman, if this is desired). Although such promises are not marriage vows, they are certainly weighty, since they are given in public before a priest and a congregation of the faithful, and are made in the presence of God.
I and my wife had our Rite of Betrothal in 2018 before Fr. Jojo Zerrudo, who is better known as the exorcist of the Diocese of Cubao. I also know of a number of couples who have had their Rites of Betrothal celebrated by him or by other priests.
In our days when marriages are often entered into with haste and without preparation, and with little thought for spiritual realities, may the blessing of engagements / rite of betrothal be a way to remind young Catholics of the true significance of the Sacrament of Matrimony.
By the way, the rites I have mentioned can be very easily found on the Internet. Just search for “The Order of Blessing an Engaged Couple” or the “Rite of Betrothal”.