Call this a tale of two weddings. A pastor of a large parish told me that some months ago his parish had adopted a parish in Haiti after that country’s devastating earthquake last winter.
To give some context, the earthquake only intensely aggravated a chronic and frightful situation in Haiti, in which hundreds of thousands live in bitter poverty. Starvation, disease, want to the most crushing extent and all that accompanies such conditions form the historic Haitian way of life.
The American parish invited the Haitian pastor to come to the United States and speak at weekend Masses about his people’s needs.
He came, arriving on a Saturday when the American church was to be the scene of two weddings. The Haitian priest asked his American host to show him the church. As they entered the church, the florists were decorating for the first wedding. The visitor, obviously from a tropical country, said that he had never in his life seen such a display of flowers.
The bride had specified white flowers, so lilies and white roses abounded. Even the vestibule had huge bouquets. The Haitian priest was curious. How much do so many flowers cost? The American priest simply asked the florist. When the florist told them the cost, even the American was aghast.
The Haitian priest quietly said that only a third of the money spent for flowers would feed the hungry people of his parish for a month.
This lavish wedding occurred, and the florists then hurried to remove the flowers. Then it was time for the other wedding. While it was a formal wedding, it was more subdued.
When the second bridal couple first talked to the pastor about their anticipated wedding, they told him that, most of all, they wanted it to be prayerful, nothing distracting from the Church’s liturgy. They wanted the congregation to join them in prayer, knowing that they would be beginning a new way of life at their wedding, and wanting to enter this new way of life as Catholics with God’s blessings.
Several lessons come to mind from this story of these two weddings. The first is a question. What is achieved by the outright extravagance that not uncommonly is a part of so many American weddings? Do lavish displays and elaborate parties help to insure the future happiness of the couple involved? Not in the slightest.
Then, there is the extravagance itself. To spend huge sums on clothing and decorations for a church wedding, while people anywhere are in great need, is unfitting.
The couple at the second wedding had it right. Weddings mark, for all couples, the beginning of a new way of life. For Catholic couples, marriage appropriately is seen as a path to greater holiness and ultimately to eternal salvation, a process enabled by each spouse’s love and support of the other.
It would not be fair to be too hard on the couple at the first wedding. They were typical of many other bridal couples in the United States these days.
It would not be incorrect, however, to say that too often weddings are too costly. But most of what needs to be said is that Catholics, and not just bishops and priests, need to stress that Christian marriage is precisely religious. It is the vocation within which couples live their Christian lives, find ways to be disciples, draw others to Christ, including the children whom they accept and rear in faith, and assist each other every day in becoming holy.
If there is an elephant in the middle of the American Catholic living room these days, it is the distressing level of divorce.
We need to get to the basics, and we need to bring God into the picture.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.