‘Better than planned’: Newly-married couple Mr. & Mrs. Bradshaw on their COVID-19 wedding

Anya Semenoff

When preparing for their wedding, a bride and groom are faced with a long list of items for which they must plan. Church? Check. Reception venue? Check. Guest list? Check. Pandemic sweeping across the globe leading to mass cancellations and self-isolation orders? Well…

With the outbreak of COVID-19, couples around the country have found themselves in a holding pattern as their wedding plans have quickly been upended. Just as circumstances of the pandemic have changed daily since the first reported case of the virus showed up in Colorado at the beginning of March, so, too, have expectations surrounding upcoming weddings.

“It’s been day-by-day,” Ashley Stratman told the Denver Catholic in a March 30 video call. “Two weeks ago everything was in order. Then one day, one thing fell through, then the next day, another thing fell through. Even the last 24 hours have changed a lot. Every single piece is now different.”

Stratman had been eagerly anticipating her wedding to Ryan Bradshaw, originally scheduled for April 17. Friends and family were booked to fly in and all the details were arranged. And then almost one month to the day before their wedding, regulations started to be announced regarding what businesses could stay open and how many people could gather at one time.

“I was feeling a little bit helpless about the situation,” Bradshaw, 36, said. “Now I feel more detached from it. For me, it almost doesn’t matter when (the wedding) happens. The most important thing is that Ashley is there when it does.”

“I plan on being there,” Stratman, 31, joked with him. “Oh good, me too,” he responded, laughing with her.

Ashley Stratman and Ryan Bradshaw were in the midst of planning a wedding for April 17 when the coronavirus pandemic hit. With large gatherings virtually banned altogether, they weren’t sure their wedding was going to happen as planned. Still, they remained adaptable and lighthearted through it all. (Photo by James Snyder Photography)

Despite the stress associated with re-working their plans over and over again, the two remained lighthearted and quick to laugh.

I think it’s bringing them closer together and reaffirming that they are really meant to be together because of how well they are proceeding through all the emotions,” Theresa Francis, one of Stratman’s bridesmaids, said. “Even in the midst of processing it all, they are just the happiest couple.”

Francis introduced Stratman and Bradshaw, having met each individually through her work as a missionary for Catholic Sports. She walked with them as they dated different people, and as she did so, she became more aware of what exactly each one was looking for in a spouse. One day it occurred to her that the qualities for which they were each searching could be found in the other.

They had both been telling me individually that they’ve been looking for the exact same thing,” Francis said. “Before they even met each other they were on the same page.”

She introduced them in early 2019 and by fall, they were engaged. They said the relative rapidity of their courtship and engagement is a testament to their shared desires and goals.

I think the one stability, the one area of peace that I’ve had amongst all of this, has just been that though all the external factors have been changing and difficult, never have we disagreed on anything through the re-planning,” Stratman said. “The most important pieces of ending up at the end of all this together and sacramentally married, all of those things are very much in order.”

“You just remind yourself what the important thing is,” Bradshaw agreed. “We need a priest, a witness and the two of us to show up at the same time. It’s just detachment from the worldly things.”

Additional support continues to come from their families, bridal party, and Fr. Scott Bailey — “We have Fr. Scott on speed dial!” — who will be celebrating their wedding Mass.

James Syder, one of Bradshaw’s groomsmen and the photographer of their engagement photos, was himself supposed to get married on April 5, so he has a particular sympathy to their unique situation.

We understand what they are going through really well because we’ve had to completely cancel our plans until the stay-at-home orders are lifted,” said Snyder, who lives in the Seattle area. “So we just try to provide whatever kind of emotional and mental support that they need while they’re going through this. We’re really glad that we’re able to do that, and they do the same thing for us.”

In the meantime, their certainty in each other and their shared vocation had become something of a buoy to friends like Francis, who is also engaged and hoping to get married in September.

“It brings into perspective just how much weddings have been inflated by society and how much of it is influenced by a social norm,” she said. “To just see all of those pieces fall away and slip out the door, it’s been so much more affirming that in the end, the thing that matters is the sacrament, the marriage, and the fact they have found their vocation. And I just think that is so obvious with Ryan and Ashley.

“Their perseverance and their peace amidst all of it, and their humility and joy, is just beaming. It is such a light to people in such unsure times.”

As March turned into April, Bradshaw and Stratman’s wedding still had no firm date, though they had begun to look ahead to options in the summer. Stratman’s immediate family lives locally, but Bradshaw’s parents would need to travel for the celebration, and he wasn’t sure if they should hop on a plane with so much uncertainty abounding.

“Even if we don’t get married until June or July or whenever, we are weathering this together,” said Bradshaw during the March 30 interview. “Ultimately that’s the most important thing.”

It seemed the lack of concrete plans would be the status quo well into the summer, until about a week before their original April 17 wedding date when, as the two tell it with a laugh, “We both had mild breakdowns.”

Though they had discussed every possible idea from getting married immediately without anyone but a priest and a witness present, to waiting indefinitely for when all their guests could attend, in the end they came to terms with letting go of almost every previous plan, with the exception of ensuring their immediate family would be there.

“We finally called Ryan’s parents and said, ‘We want you to be here — how soon can we get you out here?’” said Stratman.

Father Scott Bailey presided over the wedding of Ashley Stratman and Ryan Bradshaw at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church in the presence of the bride and groom’s immediate family on April 17, 2020, in Denver, Colorado. “For us, this really could not have been a better day,” Bradshaw said. “The wedding we planned was not going to be better than the wedding that happened”(Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

With airports and flights now largely empty, they decided air travel was the best option for them.

“Once they showed up [at the Denver airport] and got in the car and we started driving back home, it felt real,” Bradshaw said. “This is going to happen.”

And happen it did. On April 17, the Friday that had been circled on the calendar months prior to the coronavirus outbreak, Ryan Bradshaw and Ashley Stratman exchanged their vows.

“For us, this really could not have been a better day. The wedding we planned was not going to be better than the wedding that happened,” Bradshaw said, in a follow-up interview a few days after their wedding.

“It was better than expected, better than planned,” Stratman — now-Mrs. Ashley Bradshaw — agreed. “When we were saying our vows, I was so ready and at complete peace knowing that Ryan is the right person, this is the right day. And knowing God was going to give us the graces we needed to make this last a lifetime.”

While only a few people could be present in the pews to share in the joy of the wedding ceremony, unbeknownst to the couple, a caravan of friends awaited them just outside. Safely distanced and remaining in their individual cars, the group waited for Bradshaw and Stratman to walk by so they could honk and holler their congratulations. It was the exact right send-off for a wedding day that came together despite the difficult and unprecedented situation.

For now, the newlyweds are quite content to wait until all restrictions are lifted to have their reception, and are eager to support other friends who are now in similar predicaments. Stratman has three friends in her bible study group alone who are supposed to get married in the next six months. Her advice to them: Circumstances may shift on a daily basis, so constantly be touching base with your fiancé to be sure you’re on the same page, and know what is most important to you both.

“For us, it was super freeing to be able to focus on what’s really happening,” she said. “It really focused us, and I would not change our wedding day for anything.”

COMING UP: The Next Pope and Vatican II

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Polemics about the Second Vatican Council continue to bedevil the global Catholic conversation.

Some Catholics, often found in the moribund local Churches of western Europe, claim that the Council’s “spirit” has never been implemented (although the Catholic Lite implementation they propose seems more akin to liberal Protestantism than Catholicism). Other voices claim that the Council was a terrible mistake and that its teaching should be quietly forgotten, consigned to the dustbin of history. In The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (just published by Ignatius Press), I suggest that some clarifying papal interventions are needed to address these confusions.

To begin: the next pope should remind Catholics what Pope John XXIII intended for the Council, thereby challenging both the Catholic Lite Brigade and the Forget Vatican II Platoon.

The pope’s opening address to Vatican II on October 11, 1962, made his intention clear: The Church, he said, must re-focus on Jesus Christ, from whom she “takes her name, her grace, and her total meaning.” The Church must put the Gospel proclamation of Jesus Christ, the answer to the question that is every human life, at the center of her self-understanding. The Church must make that proclamation by proposing, “whole and entire and without distortion” the truths Christ gave the Church. And the Church must transmit those truths in ways that invite skeptical contemporary men and women into friendship with the Lord Jesus.

John XXIII did not imagine Vatican II to be a Council of deconstruction. Nor did he imagine it to be a Council that froze the Church in amber. Rather, Pope John’s opening address to Vatican II called the entire Church to take up the task of Christian mission: the mission to offer humanity the truth about God and us, both of which are revealed in Jesus Christ.  The next pope should forcefully remind the Church of this.

The next pope might also engage – and settle – a parallel debate that began during Vatican II and continues today: Did the Catholic Church reinvent itself between October 11, 1962, and December 8, 1965, the day the Council solemnly closed? Or must the documents of Vatican II be read in continuity with revelation and tradition? Curiously, the “progressive” Catholic Lite Brigade and the ultra-traditionalist Forget Vatican II Platoon promote the same answer: Vatican II was indeed a Council of discontinuity. But that is the wrong answer. It is a mistaken reading of John XXIII’s intention for Vatican II. It is a mistaken reading of Paul VI’s guidance of the Council. And It is a mistaken reading of the Council’s texts.

Three canonized popes – John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II – plus the great theologian-pope Benedict XVI have insisted that Vatican II can and must be read in continuity with settled Catholic doctrine. To claim that Vatican II was a Council of rupture and reinvention is to say, in effect, that these great men were either duplicitous, anti-conciliar reactionaries (the tacit indictment of the progressives) or material heretics (the tacit indictment from the far right-field bleachers). Neither indictment has any merit, although the latter has recently gotten undeserved attention, thanks to ill-considered commentaries reverberating through the echo chambers of social media and the ultra-traditionalist blogosphere.

Thus the next pope ought to insist that the Catholic Church does not do rupture, reinvention, or “paradigm shifts.” Why? Because Jesus Christ – “the same yesterday and today and forever” [Hebrews 13.8] – is always the center of the Church. That conviction is the beginning of any authentic evangelization, any authentically Catholic development of doctrine, and any proper implementation of Vatican II.

The next pope should also lift up the Council’s genuine achievements: its vigorous  affirmation of the reality and binding authority of divine revelation; its biblical enrichment of the Church’s self-understanding as a communion of disciples in mission; its insistence that everyone in the Church is called to holiness, especially through the liturgy; its defense of basic human rights, including the first of civil rights, religious freedom; its commitment to truth-centered ecumenical and interreligious dialogues. Yes, there have been distortions of these teachings; but to blame the distortions on the teachings themselves is a serious analytical error.

A Catholicism indistinguishable from liberal Protestantism has no future. Neither does a Catholicism that attempts to recreate a largely imaginary past. The Catholicism with a future is the Catholicism of the Second Vatican Council, rightly understood and properly implemented. That happens to be the living Catholicism of today, and the next pope should recognize that, too.