Put Christ on your guest list

First slide

You're engaged! Hooray! You call family and friends, snap photos of the sparkly symbol of love on your hand, and maybe update your Facebook status.

But then, at some point, the stress hits you like a 10-pound wedding cake.

There's the guest list to tighten, overbearing relatives to navigate, dates to pin down, budgets to meet and a gazillion little decisions to make.

Melanie Cameron, a parishioner of St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax, is trying to lift some of those wedding-planning burdens off brides, shift the focus to the sacramental nature of marriage and draw couples closer to God and each other.

With a book, bridal store and wedding-planning ministry, she hopes "to renew the dignity of marriage and the engagement period."

Cameron, 33, was inspired to rethink the wedding-planning process after becoming engaged to Mark in May 2006.

Moments after Mark popped the question, Cameron felt stress creeping into her joy. She worried about finances and all the details a wedding entailed.

She came to realize, though, that when she reached out to Mark to share in decision-making, it not only alleviated stress but it also helped them grow in unity.

"While I saw the wedding planning culture tends to isolate brides, putting them on a pedestal of exorbitant must-have's and etiquette must-do's," said Cameron, "I felt the Spirit drawing me to my future spouse, to draw closer to him in unity by including him in the reception detail decisions, prayerfully discerning even the small stuff."

Following their April 2007 wedding, this knowledge - coupled with St. John Paul II's call for greater awareness of the dignity of the engagement period - inspired her and her husband to co-write and self-publish Christ on Your Guest List, what Cameron calls a "wedding planner with a Catholic twist."

She also saw a gap to be filled. "There are maybe one or two other Catholic wedding planners but not many," she said.

The three goals of the book are to cultivate unity between the couple; encourage them to share their preferences in order to discern the call to marry; and to foster decision-making to help them better discern that call.

The book covers all the big-day details, from photography to gifts, and offers practical, faith-based suggestions on how to make decisions with your would-be spouse.

The planner begins immediately following the proposal. There are worksheets throughout the book, with one entitled "Spiritual Habits" that asks the couple to consider ways to deepen their faith.

In the section on budgeting, Cameron and her husband encourage couples to think about putting some of the money they could spend on fancy flowers or elaborate wedding favors into a charity or savings account.

According to a study released this year by the wedding-planning website TheKnot.com, newlyweds or their families shelled out an average of nearly $30,000 for weddings in 2013, the most ever.

Cameron said she wants couples to base their budgets not on the maximum they can afford or how much their families are willing to contribute but on their values.

"Think about what is a modest amount," she said.

There's a chapter on etiquette and the difference between tradition, myth and common practice. "You might want to toss the bouquet, but you don't have to," said Cameron, adding that "not all traditions lift up the sacrament."

"The book talks about priorities," she said. "Concerns about money and etiquette tend to drive division. But if you put Christ at the center, you can make the decision process itself an opportunity to grow more united, even decisions like deciding if the tablecloths should be green or white."

Father Stefan P. Starzynski, parochial vicar of St. Timothy Church in Chantilly, distributed 25 copies of Christ on Your Guest List to couples in his pre-Cana classes. He believes the book is a great reminder that "the marriage ceremony is a day, but a marriage is a lifetime."

Beauty on a budget

A few years after she married, Cameron stumbled upon a brick-and-mortar manifestation of her wedding-planning values.

St. Anthony's Bridal is a nonprofit in Bethesda that helps brides on a budget. Started eight years ago, the store sells bridal gowns for $150, along with bridesmaid dresses and wedding accessories.

Cameron began volunteering there and eventually was named president.

"I love the bridal center," she said. "When a bride comes in and sees a nonprofit that's helping her, she often has tears of joy. They can't believe someone is helping, that the dresses are beautiful and they don't need to spend $20,000-30,000 dollars to have a wedding."

The store has a wide selection, with donations coming from throughout the United States. Some dresses come from Canada and Paris. "Vintage to Vera Wang, clearance to couture, we have it all," said Cameron.

It also offers brides on a tight budget free use of decoration items and recommends wedding vendors who support the mission of the store.

Open Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon, the store is "on a path for growth," Cameron said. She hopes to relocate the store to Virginia by the end of the year and significantly expand its hours. Right now she's searching for the right space.

In the Virginia store, the plan is to offer do-it-yourself workshops and classes for brides on every aspect of wedding reception planning.

St. Anthony's Bridal has worked with the Arlington diocesan Spanish Apostolate, Office for Family Life and Gabriel Project to help provide dresses for a number of brides, some of whom are pregnant and want to get married but don't have the means to do so.

Cameron also has her own ministry that offers additional services to brides and grooms. She makes floral arrangements through Mystical Rose Flowers and is a resource for couples planning a wedding ceremony and reception on a budget of $3,000 or less.

The mother of four sees her various projects as complementary efforts to "help couples to grow in faith, the sacraments and unity," she said. "That's really where my heart is."

Cameron moves the attention to what matters most, said Father Starzynski. "We all know that Christ should be at the center of everything," he said, "but we all need reminders."

Find out more

Christ on Your Guest List is available at amazon.com. Also look for "Christ on Your Guest List" on Facebook.

For more information about St. Anthony's Bridal, check out the website.

For Melanie Cameron's Catholic wedding resource website, go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014