The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches us that “God himself is the author of marriage” (1603a). Unfortunately, he has been rather forcefully booted out as the author—or even co-author—of contemporary wedding planning.
Many of us have attended weddings where no expense has been spared, and yet have sensed at their core an emptiness. Despite the Herculean attempts of the hosts to fill the void with money and a frenzy of activity, I have come home from recent weddings—including some Catholic weddings—feeling well fed and danced out, but also strangely queasy and a bit depressed. The manic energy at these events is notable; the declaration has been made that this is going to be a great party, no matter what. The hard truth is that no amount of frenetic determination succeeds in making a wedding special, unique or memorable. Why not? What is going wrong?
My husband and I are presently the parents of a bride-to-be; our daughter Caitlin is getting married in October. We are joyful about this marriage; Mike seems like a fine young man and they are clearly in love. They attend mass together, go to confession together, and are eager to get married and have a family together. They are miles ahead of where I was at their age; they are better educated in their faith, have better habits of devotion, and more clarity about why they are Catholic.
That is the good part of getting ready to throw this wedding. The bad part? Just about everything else. Contemporary wedding planning, I have concluded, challenges or outright violates nearly every principle of devout Catholic family life. Even the ways in which young people (and their parents) try to make their wedding “special” are marks of the failure they are trying so desperately to avoid. The happiness that should accompany planning a wedding is steadily challenged, on one hand by the temptation to despair and give in to the increasingly elaborate—and utterly empty—new wedding “commandments,” or on the other hand, to become a Wedding Grinch, pointing out at every opportunity how wrong-headed and outright dangerous most of these new “commandments” are.
The most obvious problem with all too many Catholic weddings, of course, is the fact that the happy couple have been sexually active before marriage. The loss of a serious commitment to chastity has been addressed articulately and often in places such as Crisis. My focus here is not on that Big Elephant in the Catholic Wedding Living Room; I am going to focus on “smaller” violations of Catholic teaching, specifically the teaching about the virtue of hospitality.
Violations of Catholic Hospitality
The valuing of hospitality goes all the way back to the Old Testament, where we see that our forefathers and mothers understood it as a requirement of community and one of the most important ways we have of pleasing and praising God. In the New Testament, when Jesus used the language of hospitality to talk about God and heaven, such talk was deeply familiar to his disciples. Hospitality as a virtue was carried forward from the Jewish to the Christian tradition; Peter, the first pope, tells us not to forget that love requires serving others: “Above all hold unfailing your love for one another, since love covers a multitude of sins. Practice hospitality ungrudgingly to one another” (1 Pet. 4:8-9).Hospitality is clearly a longstanding and deeply valuable part of our Catholic tradition. It is, therefore, no small problem that contemporary wedding planning moves us away rather than toward authentic hospitality.
Let us begin with the wedding gift. The Gift Registry is a helpful service; the tradition of registering for gifts began as a charming way to ensure that guests could gift the bride with her new china and silver in the pattern she had chosen. Rather than requiring each guest to call the mother of the bride and inquire about the pattern, the bride’s mother would inform the local department store of the bride’s choices so that the clerks could discreetly point gift-givers in the right direction.
As the years went on, the Gift Registry was used as more than a tool for directing guests to the bride’s chosen china pattern, but until recently, the china and silver still made an appearance on the list. I happily registered for both. My parents had made much use of their own china and silver; we used it every Sunday for dinner, we used it on each family member’s birthday, and it came out for every other special occasion. Those dishes and glasses were a treasured part of my memories of family life, and I looked forward to recreating them in my own home with my own dishes. I no longer see evidence of this value on the Gift Registries I have consulted in the last few years. Rarely do china or silver even appear. Couples say, “Oh, we will never use that stuff. Our parents had all that, and it just sits in the cabinet, taking up space.”
While no doubt true, that seems a sad commentary on the state of contemporary family life. Few couples need or want nice dishes anymore because few people come from families with a tradition of taking time for meals, time to serve our friends by preparing good food for them and creating a beautiful place to dine together. We eat on the run, order pizza or takeout, and spend our Sundays running errands at Target rather than preparing meals and welcoming guests to our table. And what has taken the place of china and silver on gift registries? Just in this past year, I have seen gaming systems and season tickets to football games appear. Such “gifts” have nothing to do with the Catholic understanding of hospitality.
It is now common practice to send wedding invitations which include the names of the stores at which the couple is registered. Think about that. When I invite our friends over, sometimes they will bring a small hostess gift, such as chocolates or a nice bottle of wine. That is a lovely gesture, and I am grateful. However, I would never send a dinner invitation that included a list of which chocolates I prefer and where to buy the right wine. Furthermore, if my friends showed up for dinner at my home with a gift I did not love or even no gift at all, I would not lace into them for being “cheap” and inform them (or whoever I am gossiping to about them) just how much their dinner was costing me.
I have friends and family who are good, observant Catholics who likewise would not dream of behaving in so shabby a fashion. Yet this has become sadly common to hear about “the so-and-so’s who brought a cheap gift to the wedding and ‘didn’t pay their way.’” A wedding is supposed to be a feast, thrown by the bride’s parents, to celebrate a joyful occasion. The friends and family of the bride and groom and their parents are invited to share in this celebration. It is not a principle of Catholic—or any—hospitality to expect gifts, dictate how much the gifts must cost, or denigrate those whose gifts do not “measure up.”
The Reception as a Sin Against Hospitality
The wedding gift is the first place where sins against hospitality show up. The second is the reception, where guests are honored with a lovely meal, a drink or two, and often dancing. The very word “reception” reminds us that this party is an act of “receiving” our guests, of thanking them for sharing our joy on that day. This is an entirely fitting theme for a Catholic celebration: God, after all, loves a good party. The sacraments are the best reasons to throw a party, and a wedding is rightly the occasion of a grand feast.
It is good to remember that Jesus founded the Church while presiding at a meal. Catholic weddings involve not just one meal, but two, and the first one—Eucharist—is far more important than the second. The first shared meal—the Mass—is a marvelous way to set our hearts and mind in order for the meal to come later at the party; it is at Mass that Church teaching on hospitality is revealed. Here, the bride and groom ask us to join them in asking the Lord to dwell in their hearts and their lives. Here is the re-enactment of the moment when Jesus offers us his very self as our food and drink. There is no better description of a Catholic wedding mass followed by a festive reception than this text from Acts: “They devoted themselves to …. teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers … they partook of food with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:42, 46).
This leads me to the second violation of hospitality: the decision to invite guests to celebrate with us and charge them money for their meal or their drinks. Some families simply do not have the money to host an open bar, and may look for ways to be good hosts while not sinking themselves into major debt—having beer and wine, for example, but no hard liquor. Surely we often invite friends to dinner and offer wine without castigating ourselves as cheap or inhospitable for not offering every form of liquor known to man. A signature drink at a wedding can be a lovely thing.
When worrying about the bar bill, a genuine spirit of Catholic hospitality reminds us to give what we can and trust God to show us how to give well. When my husband and I sit down to discuss wedding finances with Caitlin and Mike, we begin with a prayer that God will direct out thinking and help us to be good stewards of the funds we have. God provides. Jesus’ first public miracle took place at a wedding; the family was struggling to provide an open bar, and in fact ran out of wine. Mary noticed this, and told her Son to take care of it. He did. This is not to claim that water will become wine at all Catholic weddings, but it reminds us that it is never a bad move to begin the wedding plans with an act of faith that God, if asked, will show us the best way to care for our family and friends. Jesus’ act at Cana reminds us of just how much he can do with whatever little we offer him, if our hearts are in the right place. The hard truth is that cash bars often show up at weddings where there was enough money to treat the guests as guests but that money was spent on other, less guest-oriented amenities.
Costuming the Wedding Party
This brings me to the third threat to the virtue of hospitality in contemporary wedding preparation: the costuming of the wedding party. It is now de rigueur for the bride to host her entire bridal party on the morning of the wedding for an elaborate makeup and hairstyling session. Necessary to this occasion, I am told, are matching robes for the bride and her attendants, with everyone’s name embroidered on the lapel. Clerks in wedding stores raise a critical eyebrow upon discovering that we are not purchasing these robes. “But they are so cute in the pictures!” I am told. These clerks are not pleased to hear that Caitlin is having her hair done that morning (and volunteered readily to pay for it herself) and she is putting on her own makeup. We will meet the photographer and her attendants at the Church, and we will arrive at the Church in our car rather than a rented stretch limousine outfitted with champagne, a driver, and Surround-Sound.
“But this is her day,” I hear over and over again. “She will want to have her hair and makeup done perfectly! And what about the mani-pedis for all the girls?” Note the focus here: considerable amounts of money and time must be invested in the bride, in her hair and face and fingernails and toenails. This is a terrible way for the bride to prepare for what marriage truly is. As the Catechism remind us, our human temptation will always be to put ourselves and our own needs first, whereas marriage requires that I think of others before I think of myself: “Their union [man and woman] has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. To heal the wounds of sin, man and woman need the help of the grace that God in his infinite mercy never refuses them.” (1606, 1608) Marriage is joyful but it can be difficult. Gift of self is the hard task of an entire lifetime dedicated directed toward heaven. Why would we endorse wedding preparations that reinforce the very selfishness that eventually destroys many marriages?
Are “Gift Bags” Necessary?
The fourth challenge to Catholic hospitality is the “gift bag.” Everyone insists that out of town guests must be greeted at their hotel with a gift bag. Surely, a friend of mine argued recently, gift bags are intrinsic to the Catholic value of hospitality. Christ constantly reminds us that we must always show special hospitality to strangers and travelers; God “loves the sojourner, giving him food and clothing” (Deut. 10:18).
My husband and I have received gift bags at several weddings, and they are a lovely thought. Yet, the contents of the bag are often useless to us—food we do not like or eat, or are allergic to, maps we will not use, flip-flops we are never going to wear, and Tylenol for the hangover we are not planning to have. I have thrown many a gift bag item away or left it in the hotel room because it was well-meant but useless. My own parents had no gift bags for the out of town guests at my wedding. What they did have was the willingness to do the authentic work of genuine hospitality. I had an afternoon wedding, and so my parents invited all of their guests back to our home after the reception for a late evening meal and a cocktail or two. Was this a lot of work? You bet it was. Real hospitality usually is. As well-meant as gift bags no doubt are, they may also be yet another way of throwing money at people rather than doing the work of actually caring for them.
So far, our daughter has been focused on the right things, and we are most grateful. Whenever something comes up and we say, “That just isn’t something we want to spend money on,” Caitlin responds, “I am thrilled that you are doing this for us at all, and what I care about most of all anyway is that I am marrying Mike. I could do that in a field and it will be a good day.” Caitlin knows that we are doing the best we can for her, and both she and the groom’s family are helping out a bit with the costs. We are grateful for whatever they can contribute. Our hope is for a beautiful Mass and a lovely reception with food, drink, and dancing for our honored guests. We have had some tense and anxious moments in the planning of this wedding, but when I start to feel my blood pressure rise, I recall the hymn that Cate chose for her walk down the aisle on her father’s arm: “O God Beyond All Praising.” The first line of that hymn reminds me what we are doing together and for whom: “Oh God Beyond All Praising/We Worship Thee Today.”
Caitlin and Mike will vow on that day that, from that day forward, their path to heaven will run straight through their Beloved Other. Jesus never stopped reminding his disciples that to love means to put others first, and so Cate and Mike will try to accept every little daily death to self that heaven requires, and in those very daily acts of self-sacrifice find their final joy.
It is no surprise that Jesus describes heaven in terms of hospitality; he tells Peter, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” To prepare a place, to make a home, to welcome both guest and stranger—these are the tasks that prepare us for eternity. And when Jesus says, “Come and follow me” (Matt. 11:28), he is inviting us all to a feast—to the eternal heavenly banquet that awaits us all. And how does Jesus describe the heavenly banquet in his parables and stories? As a marriage feast.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Village Wedding” painted by Sir Samuel Luke Fildes in 1883.