The Point of Christian Funerals

I think most Christians have forgotten the controversies that gave rise to Protestantism, when it first started. One of the problems had to do with prayers for the dead. The Protestant thinking went like this: since sometimes Church authority has encouraged people to pray and make sacrifices for the dead in a way that seems un-Christian–like asking for money for indulgences–therefore it’s best not to pray for the dead at all.

That controversy has passed into the mists of history. Prohibiting prayers for the dead clearly runs contrary to one of the deepest inclinations of the Christian spirit. But a deeper question, which lay underneath the controversy, still has to be faced, now more than ever: What exactly is the point of a Christian funeral?

Garofalo Ascension of Christ#1. Reason numero uno: We believe in the resurrection of the body. The Lord Jesus rose on the third day, in the body with which He had made His earthly pilgrimage, formed originally in the womb of the Virgin. Christ ascended into heaven bodily, flesh of our flesh. And He promised to come again, at which time all the dead will rise from their graves, just like He rose from His.

This is the Christian faith.

During the 20the century, some Christians decided to get fashionable and try to interpret the resurrection of the body, which we confess in our ancient Creed, in a ‘spiritual’ or ‘figurative’ sense. But, as St. Paul put it: that would make us the most pitiable of men. We believe in the promises of Christ more than we believe our own eyes—at least we should believe Christ’s promises more. The dead will rise. We rest in the earth after our bodily death, but not forever.

We have no choice, then, but to treat the bodies of our deceased loved ones with the most loving reverence. This flesh will course with life again. Arbitrarily to destroy the remains of our beloved dead—which is what pagans do—Christians do not do that. Certain things distinguish Christians from pagans—like loving the poor more than money, like having joy in the midst of suffering—and this one: We lavish love upon the bodies of our dead.

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264th Succession

Today we have two anniversaries on the same day. The events did not originally happen on the same day—they happened two weeks apart.

jp_iiI am talking about four springs ago. Easter Saturday night, Pope John Paul II breathed his last.

During his pontificate of 26 ½ years, he had visited some forty countries of the earth. Each time, he came back to Rome. But on the eve of Divine Mercy Sunday he set off for the heavenly country, never to return.

I don’t know about you, but it was one of the saddest days of my life. We all knew the day would come. But John Paul II was the Holy Father, the only Pope many of us could remember. I still miss him.

Nonetheless, God always provides. Two weeks passed. The Cardinals came from all over the world to Rome. John Paul II was buried a few feet away from St. Peter. Then the Conclave began in the Sistine Chapel…

ringThe next day white smoke billowed and bells rang. The Lord had used the Cardinals to choose a new Holy Father: Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI on April 19.

So today seems like a good time to try to answer this question: Why do we have a Pope?

The Lord Jesus established the Papacy. He said to Simon the fisherman, “You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.”

On his own anniversary of election to the See of Peter, Pope St. Leo the Great explained the ministry of the Bishop of Rome:

Saint Peter does not cease to preside over his See, and preserves an endless sharing with [Christ] the Sovereign Priest. The firmness that [St. Peter] received from the Rock which is Christ, he himself, having become the Rock, transmits it equally to his successors, too; and wherever there appears a certain firmness, there is manifested without doubt the strength of the Pastor…Thus there is, in full vigor and life, in the Prince of he Apostles, this love of God and of men which has been daunted neither by the confinement of prison, nor chains, nor the pressures of the crowd nor the threats of kings; and the same is true of his invincible faith, which has not wavered in the combat or grown lukewarm in victory.

There is only one Pope. The rest of us are under his pastoral care. It is not for you or me to judge how the Pope ‘popes.’ Our role is to love him, pray for him, and listen to him.

Unless you have been on the moon for the past four years, you know that Pope Benedict has often been criticized in the secular communications media. First, the Pope was accused of being mean to Muslims, then of being unfair to homosexuals, then to Jews, and then to Africans suffering with AIDS. There have been more stupid cartoons about the Pope in the Washington Post than there have been about Jim Zorn and Manny Acta combined—and they deserve it much more.

manny-actaDoes the Pope have a sophisticated media machine, with slick handlers telling him what to say and how to say it? No. Is it possible that sometimes he wishes he had put things differently? Certainly. But is the Holy Father guilty of malice or close-mindedness as people have suggested on t.v. and in the press? Of course not. As anyone who knows him can attest, Pope Benedict is one of the gentlest and most learned men on earth.

Last month the Pope wrote a personal letter to the Bishops. Apparently some of them had publicly questioned the Holy Father’s priorities. To explain himself, the Pope recalled his first days in the See of Peter. He wrote:

I believe that I set forth clearly the priorities of my pontificate in the addresses which I gave at its beginning. Everything that I said then continues unchanged as my plan of action. The first priority for the Successor of Peter was laid down by the Lord in the Upper Room in the clearest of terms: “You… strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22:32). Peter himself formulated this priority anew in his first Letter: “Always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you” (1 Pet 3:15).

In our days, when in vast areas of the world the faith is in danger of dying out like a flame which no longer has fuel, the overriding priority is to make God present in this world and to show men and women the way to God. Not just any god, but the God who spoke on Sinai; to that God whose face we recognize in a love which presses “to the end” (cf. Jn 13:1) – in Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. The real problem at this moment of our history is that God is disappearing from the human horizon, and, with the dimming of the light which comes from God, humanity is losing its bearings, with increasingly evident destructive effects.

The Pope is a sinner like everyone else. His critics attack him, however, not because he teaches error, but because he teaches the Gospel. It is not the Pope’s job to be popular. It is his duty to be faithful.

If the Roman Papacy were a human institution, it would have died out long ago. But it has survived for two millennia. We lost a holy servant of God on the Feast of Divine Mercy, 2005. But then the ministry of St. Peter was renewed–for the 264th time–on April 19th.

Let us rejoice and give thanks. May Pope Benedict live long and prosper. May God keep us united together in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.

St. Peter's tomb, under the High Altar of the Basilica
St. Peter's tomb, under the High Altar of the Basilica

Forty Days

caravaggio_incredulity_st_thomas1Lent was forty days of penance. But now…

After He rose from the dead, the Lord Jesus remained on earth for forty days. He interacted with numerous people, revealed many mysteries, taught His Apostles many things.

Those forty days were probably the most precious period of time in the history of the world. They are the greatest gift God has ever given–when He walked the earth as an immortal man, revealing our final destiny to us.

adam-and-eve-in-the-garden-of-eden-giclee-print-c12267346These forty days were a new beginning for the human race.

The Lord “walked” in the Garden of Eden, looking for Adam and Eve, but they were hiding themselves in shame. After He rose from the dead, Christ walked the earth as the new Adam, with the shame of human sin taken away.

Through the Sacred Liturgy of the Church, we can share in the original forty days of the Resurrection. All you have to do is go to daily Mass from now to Ascension Day!

…T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” (In my opinion, “The Waste Land” is his best poem, even though he wrote it before his conversion.)

T.S. ELIOTAnyway, April would seem to be the cruelest month for me. Four years ago on April 2, Pope John Paul II died. Three years ago on April 27, my father died.

And now I have just buried my first pastor. (By the way–I was not an easy parochial vicar to deal with, but I did not give him his heart attack.) His date of death: April 9. Three fathers, three guides, mentors, intimate role-models–all dead in April.

The good thing is, I love death. I love caskets, funerals, cemeteries.

It is natural for priests to love death. We wear black because we are consecrated to the reality of life beyond this world. Death is how we get there.

Fr. Lee Fangmeyer said in Fr. Finch’s funeral homily: “It is easier to talk to people when they are dead than when they were alive.” I rely on my dad and the Holy Father (J.P. II) now more than ever, and I know Bill will help me, too.

May Father Bill Finch and the souls of all the faithful departed rest in the peace of Christ.

My Favorite Priestly Work

blackchasubleI love being a priest, so pretty much every day I enjoy what I have to do.

I love Sundays; I love visiting our parish school during the week; I love visiting the sick in the hospital or at home.

But the best days are days when I bury the dead. I love funerals above all my other duties for five reasons.

First, there is the fact that at a funeral there is no danger that the primary beneficiary of my ministry will misunderstand what I am doing. (The other people might, but, c’est la vie.) Whenever I undertake to help the souls of the living, I always have to contend with the serious danger that they will misunderstand what I am trying to say or do. Our human limitations get in the way of perfectly clear communication. I might think I am being loving by saying or doing something, but the audience might not perceive the love.

On the other hand, when the person I am dealing with is dead, I can communicate with him or her very intimately, with no fear that he or she will misunderstand. All the impediments to effective communication between us are removed; we can communicate soul to soul. Very few words are needed.

I can express my ardent desire that the deceased person will get to heaven just by willing it, by doing the sacred funeral rites for this reason. I know that the person will be aware of my desire, more aware, probably, then even I am. I don’t have to say anything other than the prayers which the book requires me to say, or do anything other than what the book tells me to do.

Which brings me to the second consolation of doing a funeral: the rites themselves.

People probably tend to think of a wedding as the most beautiful visible expression of love that can be seen in front of the altar at church, but I disagree.

I think a funeral is the most beautiful visible expression of love.

What could be more loving than for the grieving people to carry the body of their dead loved one to the foot of the altar and then kneel down and pray for the repose of his or her soul?

As a priest, the purest gesture of love for another human being that I know how to make is to incense the casket holding the dead body of one of my brothers or sisters in the Lord.

If you, dear reader, have any thought of asking your survivors to have you cremated, put the thought out of your mind right now.

Having your body brought to church for a proper funeral and then carried to the grave by people who love you is worth ten times what it costs.

If you are reading this and think that someday you might be at Father White’s funeral, please note the following (I have this written down in my last will and testament, but I’ll mention it here, too):

I want the priest who says my funeral Mass to wear black vestments, and I want him to incense my casket until everyone in the church has an asthma attack.

A third delightful thing about funerals is that, generally speaking, people in the funeral-home business are as likable a group of people as you are ever going to meet. They are humble, generous-hearted, God-fearing, down-to-earth, attentive to their duties, and thoughtful.

Fourth, the reality of death is extremely comforting for a priest.

Accepting a vocation to the priesthood means letting go of most of the short-term goals that most men seek to attain—professional success, family happiness, material prosperity, etc. Priests have to live for the final goal only: getting to heaven. Burying the dead reminds a priest that he has not made a dumb choice in giving up on worldly goals.

In fact, I have made the smartest choice, and the choice I have made helps other people deal with the most basic of all realities: eventually we all die, and we leave everything behind. This gives the priest a great deal of encouragement in the faith.

A priest is a man who lives by faith in a unique way; he is “the guardian of the faith,” according to St. Thomas Aquinas. When someone dies, suddenly God becomes very real to everyone involved, even if they are not “churchy” (i.e., they never go to church). The role of a priest in the face of death is beautifully clear: Bear witness to the faith, to the truth about God and the soul. There is no question that this is what everyone is dying to hear at the moment. (No pun intended.)

In other words, at a funeral, everyone comes to “my world,” and all of a sudden, everyone wants to hear what I have to say. I am not a crazy idiot for becoming a priest; I am actually rather ahead of the curve.

Which brings me to the fifth reason why I love funerals: It is a time when many excellent confessions take place.

Whenever I can, I go to the funeral home for the wake and set up shop in a little parlor to hear confessions. I would be happy to sit in funeral home hearing confessions at wakes every day for the rest of my life.

Someday we will all rise from the dead. Cemeteries will be full of people standing up.

The ancient custom is for lay people to be buried so that when they stand up, they will be facing east to see Christ coming in glory—hopefully it will not be a fearsome sight for any of us. Priests are to be buried so that when we stand up, we will see the people in front of us. You lay people will be looking at Christ AND us priests, believe it or not! (I guess the wicked priests will be seared through by the glory of Christ shining behind them. May I not be one of those, Lord, please! May I shine with the glory of your Light!) Hopefully, when I look out after standing up, all the people I buried will smile at me.

In the meantime, please pray for me if you can, dear departed souls! (You living people, please pray for me, too. Thank you.)