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A Leaven In The World . . . In Death The Church Gives Everything

July 16, 2018 Our Catholic Faith No Comments

By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK

Funerals, as many priests have learned, can often be pastorally challenging and problematic episodes. Grieving family members who are not dealing with death on a regular basis by practicing their faith are suddenly confronted with its reality upon the passing of a parent or other family member. Parents who have to bury a child sometimes cease to practice their faith entirely in the aftermath, so shocking is it to deal with the death of someone they presumed would outlive them.
Grief mingles with survivor’s guilt and other reactions to create a volatile mix of emotions. Spiritual problems manifest themselves through various ways of acting out.
Anger is always a possibility in such spiritually charged situations. Expectations long nurtured for a grand send-off can be frustrated by liturgical limitations. I’ll never forget the woman who sang Danny Boy, from the altar, after a funeral Mass at my first parish assignment after I had informed her it was not permitted.
Once a tear-streaked and at times sobbing eulogy went on for close to 45 minutes before the funeral director and I figured out how to get the “hook” out and rope the man back into his pew so we could start the Mass.
On another occasion a eulogizer attacked the Church as being “anti-gay,” but even more seriously said “the dead don’t need our prayers.” I pointedly answered this heretical statement directly in my homily at the Mass.
Eulogies are discouraged, but when pressed some pastors will try to limit such declamations to one only, limit the length of the text, and ask to see it prior to the Mass. I try to encourage families to give the eulogies at the viewing, outside of Mass. Cooperation is sometimes in short supply for grieving children. In an age when many believe the Mass is a Christmas play where everyone gets a role, limitations on participation are not received well.
After a series of phone calls and emails that were answered with a seemingly compliant “okay” and “understood,” one daughter of a deceased parishioner set up a family ambush in front of the church on the morning of the funeral, with the widow planted in front of the group. All of the children had left the practice of the faith and I was aware of that.
I had informed them that only a practicing member of the Church could proclaim the Scriptures at Mass. They made clear in no uncertain terms that they did not intend to abide by my guidelines and, as a result, we had at least four eulogies that morning so family members could have speaking roles in church that day. One of the speakers took it upon herself to invite anybody in the church to also come up to speak if they so desired.
These examples and even more bizarre behaviors of many today, especially at funerals where many present may not attend Mass on Sundays and perhaps never attempt to control their behavior as appropriate in a sacred place, can tempt regular churchgoers and priests to indignation. But anger is not the answer.
Regrettably I gave into the temptation to some visible irritation on the morning of the pre-funeral ambush, but not anger. The funeral proceeded as planned with the uncooperative multiple eulogies preceding.
In death the Church gives everything, and focusing on honoring the faith and needs of the deceased at a funeral, and commending him or her to the Lord, can greatly help the priest to maintain spiritual serenity in the face of erratic and uncooperative behavior on the part of others present.
When members of the faithful think of expressing anger, and in church, typically the scriptural episode of the cleansing of the Temple comes up. Yes, Jesus kicked out the moneychangers and merchants, fulfilling the Scripture which says, “Zeal for Your house consumes Me.” I maintain that, in light of this Scripture, He was experiencing zeal and not anger, as many claim. But, whatever His motivation for kicking people out, it could not be anger as we experience it because Christ’s humanity was like that of Adam in the garden before the fall.
We, on the contrary, are prone to concupiscence which remains after Baptism: Emotions cannot be trusted but must always be governed by intellect and will.
There was a recent case of another “cleansing of the temple” that surfaced in national news. A neighboring parish and a priest I know were the source of a story that even reached coverage in The New York Post. It was quickly painted as a racial incident, or hinted to be such, because the priest was white and the deceased and family members were black, but I do not believe that to be true.
The facts of the case are that a crowd of mourners was ordered out of church, the funeral director was directed to remove the corpse, and a planned funeral Mass canceled. The mourners were escorted to the county line by police who had been requested at the scene. Prayers for the deceased were subsequently offered at a funeral home by another priest brought in at the last minute. A video was released showing the priest gesticulating near the altar with some of the mourners.
Original news reports mentioned that a member of the large crowd that filled the church during the viewing before the planned Mass had knocked a ciborium filled with Hosts onto the floor. It was also reported by my sources that either the fall, or subsequent actions by someone present, had resulted in damage to the chalice. Allegedly, some mourners may have also been walking on the unconsecrated Hosts.
No doubt these and other statements are being evaluated and verified by an ongoing investigation by the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C.
For whatever reasons, a normally kind, and even indulgent, pastor, Fr. Michael Briese, gave vent to anger and ordered everyone out, even indicating the body was to go. Just days earlier this same priest had offered a refuge to the family, in their need helping them to seek financial help to cover the cost of the funeral.
My sources say that allegedly the family had skipped out on funerals previously and that it had been difficult to find a funeral home to take them in. If this is true, it was certainly an indication of compassion on the part of this priest to offer them help above and beyond the ordinary in a time of grief. The deceased was a member of another parish and perhaps a majority of those present did not normally attend Mass.
In such times of mourning the church typically does not put financial considerations or the religious practice of families first, but rather seeks to meet their pastoral needs. By all accounts this is what the priest had done.
Succumbing to a moment of temptation changed all that. The priest was placed on leave and may never return to pastoral work. He has suffered death threats and attacks upon his long reputation as a good priest as a result. Newspapers from southern Maryland to New York covered the story, for the most part painting the priest in an unfavorable light.
In an apologetic letter to a local paper, Father expressed his regret over a momentary lapse that now threatens to color his entire life as a priest in a negative light. For many years he has done as other priests, faithfully and lovingly serving others unsung day in and out.
But something snapped. In the days ahead, as he seeks help, he will have plenty of time to examine his conscience and seek change. He should not beat himself up, however. As for all of us, what’s done is done. We must apologize as necessary and seek to move forward.
We are all sinners and the Church is precisely where we need to be for the working out of our salvation, no matter what sins we may have committed.
More is always expected of priests, given their pastoral responsibilities and configuration to Christ through Holy Orders. They represent the Church, which gives funeral rites to anyone who asks, with the sole of exception of obstinate public heretics, and commends all who have died to the mercy of God. The priest’s worst mistake was not giving in to anger, as he said in his printed apology, but in reacting to it by kicking the mourners and the body out of the church. He knows that well now.
Was there another possible solution? There can be modifications in how the Church prays for the dead in light of various circumstances. Given the allegedly irreverent behavior of the mourners, the priest could have informed them that there would be no Mass, but that the funeral would otherwise proceed as planned with a Liturgy of the Word, commendation, and interment. They would have been corrected, as may have been needed given the outlandish behavior that may have occurred, but he would have survived the episode with reputation intact.
“What you do to others you do unto Me.” This story is not only about one priest. There is a lesson here for all of us. Our treatment of others is seen by God as either a good or evil done to Him. Anger, or temptation to such, must never dominate our intellect and will.
Let us be guided by love and compassion for others as for ourselves, ready to do so even in the most difficult moments of testing.
In death the Church gives everything. Except anger.
Thank you for reading and praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever. @MCITLFrAphorism
(Join me on pilgrimage, with traditional Latin Mass daily, to “Italia Bella,” October 13-21, 2018: Rome, Castel Gandolfo, Assisi, Florence, Tuscany, Venice, and more. The price is $3,600.00 for nine days. Prices include airfare from your hometown and exclusively 4 or 5 star hotels everywhere. Visit www.procatholictours.com. To register for the trip, call Jennifer Wadsworth, manager, ProCatholic Tours, at 612-730-2890.)

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