Say bon voyage to destination weddings

In the Pews
Save the beach for the honeymoon. Instead, get married at your local parish.

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.

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 children are getting married in the coming year 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. 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 percent 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 and advice columnists, who relish the steady stream of irate e-mails 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 attending a week-long cruise wedding of a friend’s daughter. The bride called off the wedding with three weeks to go, but the travel insurance didn’t care, 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? The magazine Destination Weddings & 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—if you have to travel anyway, why not travel to a fun location? I get it. But driven by consumerism and “can-you-top-this” culture, they often escalate into a self-centered extravaganza. 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 $3,000 off the average wedding bill of—gulp—$26,000. How? Couples know well 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 it since high school, is where the community gathers to eat—and become—the body of Christ each week. To marry in the church locates the marriage within the 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.

My friend Father John Cusick, who has a long and distinguished history of working with young adults in this country, says Catholic couples who choose destination weddings do so because their generation has never really been told why they should get married in church or what it is about a church wedding that’s important. 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, Cusick, the celebrant, 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 were married in the church at St. Louis University where they 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 all those witnesses, doubtlessly 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 pledges themselves to each other, we all become obliged to help that couple keep their commitment when year seven or year 25 rolls around and the going has gotten tough. A failed marriage hurts us all; a successful one gives us all hope.

Who tends to be excluded from destination weddings? The old, the ill, the poor, and the very young. The very people whom Jesus specifically urged us to care for. 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 adults—let us throw open our arms to welcome 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 phones and the doors at our parishes are the first responders in evangelizing the young people who phone, e-mail, 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 nuptials on the beach with sea turtles and dolphins looking on. Starting your life together as a married couple is 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 may bring into the world.

Catholics call it making a “covenant”—a word that we might have to unpack for young people, one that reaches back to the moment where God promised never to forsake the Israelites. Promises made on our wedding day are that big. That’s way more exciting than any volcano.


And the survey says…

1. The Catholic Church’s position on destination weddings should be:


30% – It is OK for couples to travel for their wedding, but it must still be held inside a Catholic church in whatever location they choose.
24% – They are acceptable only if a Catholic priest presides.
20% – They are not ideal, but are a better alternative than the couple choosing not to get married at all.
7% – There’s nothing wrong with them if that is what the couple wants.
5% – They should be avoided at all costs and are not valid Catholic weddings.
14% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“The choice of location needs to work for the couple, their family, and their community.”

2. I know a friend or family member who has had a destination wedding.

70% – Agree
28% – Disagree
2% – Other


3. A couple should be able to get married wherever they want—it’s their wedding.

33% – Agree
52% – Disagree
15% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“A wedding can take place anywhere; a marriage begins within a family of faith.”

4. If I were getting married today, I’d consider having a destination wedding.

10% – Agree
87% – Disagree
3% – Other

5. Couples today put too much emphasis on their wedding day rather than preparing for a long, healthy marriage.

88% – Agree
5% – Disagree
7% – Other

6. If I were close to the couple getting married, I’d be willing to travel anywhere for their wedding.


19% – Agree
65% – Disagree
16% – Other

Representative of “other”:
“The expense would be a major determining factor.”

7. An acceptable location for a Catholic couple to hold their wedding is:

94% – In a Catholic church.
32% – In any church or other religious building.
27% – In a local outdoor location (backyard, park).
22% – In any place where they feel comfortable and happy.
12% – In an exotic destination.
11% – In a courthouse or other government building that performs civil ceremonies.
6% – Other

We asked readers for examples they have seen of extravagant wedding excess. Here’s what they had to say:

The groom coming in on horseback.

Pillars and lighting being hauled in to decorate the church. Thankfully Father put the kibosh on it.

A Cancun wedding with no expense spared, including renting a huge yacht for reception.


It was actually a church wedding. Triplet sisters were all married in the same ceremony. They had their own wedding parties. Their parents had matching jackets for each wedding party that they had to change before each one marched up the aisle.

Where to begin? Seven-foot tall flower arrangements in crystalline vases (with peacock feather accents) being assembled in front of the church just prior to start of wedding, limousines and trolley-cars ferrying guests (not just the bride and groom), a bride’s mother having a decorator fabricate a “screen” to temporarily cover the church’s bulletin board (“so unsightly”), wedding coordinators moving food for the poor into the confessional (“won’t look good in pictures”), ninja-style photographers essentially erecting scaffolding on the spot to get better pictures, requests to change priest vestments and altar linens to match the bride’s color scheme (liturgical colors “didn’t go”). I could go on.

A bride with 30 bridesmaids.

14 attendants, 14 groomsmen, three flower girls, two ring bearers, the family dog, and a sit down dinner for 300 with a mime for entertainment. My jaw dropped.

Any celebrity wedding such as the fake Kardashian wedding.

Silk napkins with customized art logo painted by the couple.

Reportedly, a quarter of a million dollars spent on the floral displays. The hosts were going to trash them until the wait staff filled our cars and drove to the local hospice, nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and senior housing to give at least some of the flowers away.

An expensive fairy princess wedding gown that the bride could not walk down the aisle in.


Getting married at 11,500 feet where the guests had to ride an open chair lift to the ceremony location. But the happy couple asked for donations to the Wounded Warrior project instead of gifts and did community service clean-up in various locations as wedding favors.

Members of the Chicago opera entering the ballroom on a float in costume, singing!

This article appeared in the November 2013 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 78, No. 11, pages 28-31).

Results are based on survey responses from 301 visitors.

Image: Flickr photo cc by Sister72