Recently, Britney Spears caused a stir in Catholic circles, when she told her Instagram followers that she had wanted to get married in a Catholic church in Los Angeles, but had been turned away.
Spears, who has since celebrated her wedding to longtime boyfriend Sam Asghari in the backyard of her Beverly Hills mansion, did not mention which church it was. But reporters got it and demanded a statement from St. Monica’s Catholic Church, a vibrant parish community in Los Angeles. Parish said they did not know that Spears had ever asked to be married there. In a monitoring post, Spears explained that she asked her wedding planner if she could marry Asghari in St. Monica. She said it was actually “the first request” she made to the planner after agreeing to work with them. Six weeks later, the planner told him no and assumed the parish had rejected his request.
Now, some Catholics might see Spears as oblivious or indifferent to what exactly it means to marry in a Catholic church. “It’s not just a random place,” one of his followers replied to the original post (which has since been deleted).
But Spears’ attraction to St. Monica’s was clearly not just about having a great place for the ‘grams’. In her original post, she wrote about her desire to go to St. Monica during the pandemic: “I wanted to go every Sunday,” she wrote. “…It’s beautiful and they said it’s temporarily closed due to COVID!!!! Then 2 years later when I wanted to get married there they said I had to be Catholic and go through TEST!!!!”
In her second message, she repeated that she had a long-standing desire to go to St. Monica’s. “During the 2 years of Covid, I too wanted to go there… I was told no because of the pandemic…”
Experts seemed to spend a lot of energy debating whether she had officially converted or not, but they completely missed the point.
These aren’t the only times Spears has written positively about Catholicism, either.In August 2021, she posted to attend a mass: “I have just come back from mass…I am a Catholic now…let’s pray! Catholic commentator Austin Ivereigh joked on Twitter, “Next on Catholic news: Britney Spears names her pup #Traditionis Custodes.” (Tweet, Austin. So good.) The pundits seemed to spend a lot of energy debating whether or not she had officially converted, but in my opinion, they completely missed the point. She had been to mass and was happy enough with the experience to mention it and joke around a bit.
In the case of Spears’ marriage, it appears parish had nothing to do with what happened. And if you ever visit Los Angeles, I highly recommend St. Monica’s. Spears is right. It’s a great place.
Situations similar to his occur quite often in many of our parishes.Especially when it comes to weddings and funerals, there are times when people come to our churches for things that don’t necessarily fit into our categories. They want a pop song at a funeral. They want a non-religious ritual included in their marriage. Or they want to get married here, even if they’re not Catholic.
In the case of Spears’ marriage, it appears parish had nothing to do with what happened.
It can be very easy to get hung up on the specific issues of their requests, not only because some of the same issues come up over and over again (raise your hand if someone insists they need “Stairway to Heaven “at a funeral), but because many of our parishes are already overwhelmed with the normal demands of their regular parishioners. When you have only one priest in a parish and perhaps a pastoral associate, it can be difficult to remember that whether or not someone’s desires match our liturgical practices or are formulated in the right way, there may very well be something deeply spiritual beneath the surface.
A few years ago, I interviewed Matt Meeks, then chief digital officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.During our conversation, Meeks had a lot to say about what he called “the evangelism funnel.” When doing marketing, he explained to me, there are three key phases the evangelist needs to talk about: 1) general awareness – your potential parishioner is not yet in the market for something , and you try to keep the faith before them as something potentially significant; 2) consideration—your potential parishioner is looking for options and you want them to see what you offer; and 3) intention—your potential parishioner is about to choose a location and you are actually helping them come to you (i.e. this is when our masses and confessions are, and this is what you must agree or do before participating).
One of the things Meeks said that has always stuck with me is that the church often doesn’t do this first step of awareness well. “We’re neck deep in stories, but we don’t tell those stories well.” What we tend to do instead is jump right into consideration, jumping into discussions of doctrine or rules that come way too soon. “If our goal is to attract people who aren’t necessarily in the market for God (or, I might add, the Catholic Church), Meeks told me, ‘you’re too far down the funnel for them .”
The only reason we build beautiful churches and decorate them with beautiful art is to give people a glimpse of the God who loves us. We should not be caught off guard when unexpected people show up.
When it comes to times like weddings or funerals, similar dynamics occur. Our churches themselves give a fantastic taste of the beauty, the hope and the comfort that our faith can offer. But then when people walk through the door, we end up getting right into the rules – into what’s allowed and what’s not – when we should be drawing what got them here and thinking about how we can feed that.
In other words, the only reason we build beautiful churches and decorate them with beautiful art is to give people a glimpse of the God who loves us. We should not be caught off guard when unexpected people then show up at our door.
But the same problems apply even among our own. When a Catholic says he wants to “Stairway to Heaven” at his father’s funeral, or wants his marriage to be blessed despite what appear to be serious obstacles, of course we could just shut that down. But the real question is why do they want this? What are they expressing below the surface?
Every time someone walks through our doors, we should be listening, partly wondering what God might be trying to say we.
We believe in a Holy Spirit who works in everything and everyone. It is a big part of our job as Christians to listen to these movements and respond to them. Every time someone walks through our doors, we should be listening, partly wondering what God might be trying to say we.
None of this is to say that our churches should set aside all their rules every time someone asks for something. But maybe we need some kind of middle ground – between yes and no – in situations like Spears’, some kind of specific service or hospitality that we can offer to people who don’t fit to our normal categories. Because right now it seems like we have a system where our buildings can invite people in, but we’re caught off guard if who they are or what they want doesn’t fit our categories.
Unfortunately, the media tends to pick up a story like this and make it as superficial and controversial as possible, because that’s what sells. Every headline tried to make it sound like a huge, ugly mess, when neither Spears nor Parish actually talked about it that way. And in doing so, these reports make it easy to miss that more is happening here, both for Spears and for us in the church. If we don’t take seriously visitors to our churches and Catholics with unusual ideas, we miss an invitation—or perhaps a request—from God. And, to paraphrase one of the world’s biggest pop stars, the results can be toxic.