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Should Catholics have destination weddings?

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When it's time to tie the knot, couples should consider their ties to a local parish.

By Catherine O'Connell-Cahill, senior editor of U.S. Catholic.

[Sounding Boards are one person's take on a many-sided subject and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of U.S. Catholic, its editors, or the Claretians.]

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“I don’t understand why they just can’t get married here!” lamented the grandmother who was being force-marched 2,800 miles to Mexico for her grandson’s wedding.

 “We spent $2,000 on the trip, if you can believe that,” said a friend who returned with her husband from a family wedding in Hawaii.

A mom whose two oldest are getting married in the coming year kept me regaled me with horror stories about the booming nuptial trend of destination weddings.  Her daughter got socked with expensive airfare and hotel costs when standing up in several weddings in far-off locales, in addition to the usual bridesmaid outlay (dress, shower and wedding gifts, bachelorette party). Of course she had to go solo because she could no more afford to bring a guest to these affairs than she could afford to buy the tropical islands on which they were held.

Destination weddings are creeping up to 25% of weddings nationwide, often held in beachy spots such as Mexico or the Caribbean. “You might be dreaming of a barefoot ceremony on a white sand beach,” says a website dedicated to these affairs. “But maybe you want something completely out of the ordinary like waterfalls, mountains or even an erupting volcano as your backdrop.” Just be sure to head for the hills before the lava ruins the bride’s pedicure.

Two groups who love destination weddings unreservedly are the couples themselves (we’ll get to them in a minute) and advice columnists, who relish the steady stream of irate emails from those expected to take time off work and shell out big bucks to attend. Like the one couple who wrote to Miss Manners after being browbeaten into taking a week off work to attend a week-long cruise wedding of a friend’s daughter. (Cruise weddings star in the Destination Wedding House of Horrors.) The bride called off the wedding with three weeks to go, but the travel insurance didn’t care and wouldn’t cough up, so the two guests were stuck with an unwanted cruise. Miss Manners, they asked, do you think the bride and her family would reimburse us for the money we laid out? Miss Manners politely laughed up her sleeve.

Why do couples choose destination weddings? Pop culture eggs them on, for one thing. The magazine Destination Weddings and Honeymoons trumpets, “You’ll stand out from the pack…[Y]ou won’t have to choose from the same old hometown spots all your friends have booked.” Such as that parish church where you had your First Communion. The culture of individualism in which we live insists that you must be unique above all.

It’s true that many guests must travel to a wedding regardless, simply because of the mobility of our society. That’s how destination weddings got started--if you have to travel anyway, why not travel to a fun location? I get it. The family can spend a few vacation days together. But driven by consumerism and can-you-top-this, they often escalate into a self-centered extravaganza. And is it not better for at least one of the marrying pair to be at home, with the ability to invite at least some of the folks who would never think of (nor could afford) flying to Cozumel for the wedding? 

Wedding websites say that a destination affair can save you about $3000 over the average wedding bill of, gulp, $26,000. How? Couples well know that only about half of those invited will actually come, so going to the Bahamas is a way to clandestinely prune your guest list without appearing to do so. A friend told me of a bridal couple appalled to learn that the groom’s entire extended family decided to attend en masse, planning a family reunion to coincide with the wedding.  Um, that wasn’t exactly the plan.

Destination weddings usually mean no church wedding, unless the couple is diligent enough to scout out a Catholic church at the wedding location and get permission to marry there.  Few do. More common nowadays, as the Mexico-bound grandmother soon discovered, is that a friend of the couple officiates.  “I went up to this girl who performed the ceremony and I asked, what are your qualifications?” said the grandma.  “She said to me, ‘I just went online!’ I’m thinking to myself, ‘And we came all the way here to see you?’”  The wedding-planning site lists churches that will ordain someone “instantly via the Internet” and presto, you too can do a wedding for your pals.

A wedding in your local parish beats the beach hands down. The parish, even if the couple hasn’t been inside since high school, is where the community gathers to eat—and become—the Body of Christ each week. To marry in church locates the marriage within this Christian community, drawing in not only your own family and friends, but perhaps also more casual neighbors and other parishioners to pray with you and for you, to witness your public commitment. Just like a baptism or a first communion, a wedding is a sacred event that is also public—it’s not just about you.  

A priest friend who has long worked with young adults says Catholic couples who choose destination weddings do so because their generation has never really been told why they should go to church, why they should get married in church, and what is it about a church wedding that’s important.  Also many of them have heard so many nightmares about church weddings that they want no part of it, he says. Church weddings are seen as dull compared to the sandy variety (imagine how frumpy they appear compared to the volcano weddings).

 During the wedding of my friend’s daughter last summer, the celebrant, Father John Cusick, told all of us to fix our eyes on the bride and groom because that’s what God’s love looks like. “To see the face of love is to see the face of God,” he said.

The wedding was not in Cancun but in steamy St. Louis, in the summer. The bride and groom were radiant--they “stood out from the pack” all right, not because they had planned a wedding in a rainforest but because they were clearly in love and stood before God and a church full of their family and friends to say so. Their relaxed demeanor (they got married in the church at St. Louis University where they had met and attended Mass together) telegraphed that they somehow knew the truth—that their wedding day was not really all about them.

The promises they made to each other, in the presence of God and a few hundred witnesses, doubtless strengthened the marriages of all the couples present—because we Catholics really believe there is something to this business of being one body in Christ. When we gather around as a young couple pledge themselves to each other in front of a priest, it puts an obligation on all of us to help that couple keep their commitment when year 7 or year 25 rolls around and the going has gotten tough. A failed marriage hurts us all; a successful marriage gives us all hope.

So yes, it’s better to be married where you can stand before those who have helped to form you, who loved you when you were a bratty kid, who stuck by you even in your Goth phase.

Who tends to be excluded from destination weddings? The old, the ill, the broke, and the very young. The very people whom Jesus urged us to take special care of. The very people who should be at our weddings--both for their own sake and for the sake of the bride and groom. Marriages after all unfold not on the beach but on the streets of real life—shouldn’t the wedding reflect this, with your diabetic great uncle and crying babies in attendance, as you stand and make your promise to be part of this very community, to do your part as a couple to build up the Body of Christ?

Of course for young couples even to consider a Catholic wedding, they have to have some experience of the church that is positive and life-giving. That stretches back to the years long before young people are ready to get married.  But at least when young adults approach a Catholic parish for a wedding—often their first real encounter with the church as an adult—let us throw open our arms to welcome them, to rejoice with them.  Let us not allow people to answer the phone whose first question will be, “Are you registered?” Let us not permit the parish secretary to say of the priest, “He’ll never marry you.” The people answering the phone and the door at our parishes are the first-responders in evangelizing the young people who phone, email, or visit about a wedding. Let’s get rid of the dragons at the gate.

If given the chance, I bet we could persuade many young people why a church wedding is superior to their gal pal marrying them on the beach as the sea turtles and dolphins look on. Starting your life together as a married couple is a momentous event—it’s exciting and solemn; it prompts you to look both backward and forward, to God and to the generations that brought you forth, to the children you will bring into the world. Catholics call it making a “covenant”—a word that we might have to unpack for young people, that reaches back into the Old Testament to the moment where God promised never to forsake the Israelites. Our promise on our wedding day is that big. That’s way more exciting than any volcano. 

Flickr photo cc by Camlin Photography