So, why the big, fancy chapels? For weddings, of course -- which are a cash cow for cruise lines, as brides and grooms who tie the knot at sea or in port pay upwards of $2,500 for the privilege.
But wait a minute -- now there's another religious controversy brewing, aimed squarely at onboard weddings. Last Friday, the Catholic News Service reported that the Vatican has ratified a document regarding the role of Catholic priests onboard cruise ships. The guidelines now stipulate, among other things, that priests or other faith representatives should not celebrate Catholic weddings on a cruise.
What does this really mean? For most couples planning to get married at sea, not much -- and that's because the majority of cruise ship weddings (both onboard and ashore) are nondenominational.
A spokesman for Princess Cruises, one of only a few cruise lines that can conduct ceremonies while at sea due to its ships' countries of registry (Celebrity and the U.K.-based P&O Cruises can as well), tells us that 80 percent of its weddings are performed at sea and are officiated by the ships' captains. For the other 20 percent, passengers either bring their own officiants (for weddings that happen on a turnaround day in Fort Lauderdale, for example) or utilize the services of a local officiant (for, say, a wedding on a Caribbean beach).
Lines that don't hold weddings onboard while the ships are sailing also say most of their ceremonies are nondenominational. A Carnival Cruise Lines spokesman tells us that the vast majority of couples who get married on Carnival ships utilize the services of the officiant provided by the line. Some couples do opt to supply their own, and most of the time these are notary publics, family members or ministers.
Norwegian Cruise Line, too, provides with its wedding packages a nondenominational minister, who is legally registered wherever the ceremony will take place. If you get married in Miami, for example, that person would be registered and licensed to perform weddings in the state of Florida.
"If the couple wants to bring their own [officiant] -- rabbi, priest, childhood minister -- they can do that," NCL spokeswoman Courtney Recht tells us, "but unless the person is registered in the state or country of their wedding, the ceremony will only be symbolic. Many, in this case, decide to hold two weddings: the first at their hometown courthouse and the second onboard, which is symbolic." Recht adds that, traditionally, formal Catholic priests only hold Catholic ceremonies within the Catholic Church.
There is an exception to the rule, however, and here's where the Vatican's announcement will have an impact. According to Joseph Zwilling, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New York, priests can celebrate marriages outside of the church -- but only if one person, either the bride or groom, is not Catholic, and as long as that priest can properly register the marriage in the correct parish. "If a Catholic is marrying a Jew, for instance, a Catholic priest could participate in that kind of a wedding," Zwilling says. But, the process of getting approval from -- and filing paperwork with -- another diocese to conduct such ceremonies is not simple. Cruise ships pose a unique challenge, since they move and are registered to varying countries, likely why most couples go the nondenominational route and why the Vatican now asks priests to refrain from celebrating onboard marriages, period.
If you are intent on having a Catholic ceremony as part of a cruise, you can arrange to do so at a church while your ship is in port. We spoke to two wedding planners: Mary Bartolucci, who organizes destination weddings on St. John, and New Jersey-based Samantha Goldberg of Samantha Goldberg & Co., who've both worked with couples on Catholic ceremonies away from home.
Bartolucci has dealt specifically with couples that cruise to St. Thomas and choose to be married on nearby St. John. She says couples who wish to get married in one of the island's churches must follow the same procedures they would to get married in their church at home -- attending pre-Cana classes, applying for a marriage license (in this case, with the Superior Court of the Virgin Islands) and then filing the documents (to Catholic Chancery on St. Thomas). They can use a local priest or bring their own, as long as he's been granted temporary faculties by the church to perform the ceremony there.
Goldberg agrees that, as destination weddings continue to increase in popularity, it's not that difficult for cruise passengers to find a priest in a port of call who's willing to marry them. She also notes that some of her clients have even gone as far as to pay for their own priests' cruises in return for officiating.
One caveat, though: If having a Catholic ceremony is important to you -- hence, taking it off the ship -- consider very carefully ports that require ships to tender; calls at Grand Cayman, for instance, are often canceled due to high winds. We also don't recommend planning a shoreside wedding at a Caribbean locale during hurricane season.
For more information about tying the knot on a cruise ship or in port, visit our Best Weddings at Sea feature.
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor
Honeymoon & Wedding Cruises Forum