Monday, February 23, 2015

What the Church needs to cope with when loved ones die.

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to pray at the funerals of two people who died within a day of each other.  One may be excused for thinking that my choice of words seems strange, and that ‘opportunity’ would hardly be an appropriate and suitable choice.  I use it with deliberateness because I firmly believe that to be able to stand at the casket and to be physically reminded of our own mortality is a grace that many of us hardly appreciate.  I know of many who find all sorts of excuses to not go near a casket, let alone to look intently (and lovingly) at the deceased lying in repose.

Death always brings with it a whole slew of questions that are often left unanswered, though our faith in the promises of Christ reminds us that there is a great promise of eternal life to look forward to.  We don’t like to think that far, and this may be the reason why so many people tend to live with a lot more verve and enthusiasm in this life, than to live with an eye for a fullness of life in God.  Like the misunderstood proverbial ostrich that seems to stick its head in the sand hoping to have their problems magically disappear, perhaps this is why many also choose not to look death in the face, especially in the face of someone who was deeply loved and cherished in life.  By the way, it is a myth that ostriches hide their heads in the sand to find escape from dangerous situations.  They would never be able to breathe if they do.

I’m not sure what goes on in the minds of the many who do file past the open casket at funeral homes or wake halls.  There would inevitably be thoughts of sadness that the person is no longer physically around, memories of situations in which times were shared, be they joyous moments or perhaps even moments of tension and disagreements.  But I am of the opinion that one of the most important things that we should do as people of faith is to be strongly reminded that this (lying in repose and experiencing death ourselves) is something that none of us can run away from, no matter how hard we may try to.  We should be gently reminded that one day, it will be us who will be lying in that state, and so we need to look at death with a sense of hope, and not with a tenor of foreboding. It is our faith that arms us with a spiritual weaponry to be able to say like St Paul “oh death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:55) at these liminal moments in life. 

Liturgy plays a pivotal and critical role in these times when we are at life’s borders.  But liturgists also need to be highly tuned to two things at the same time in order for the richness that good liturgy seeks to be experienced – to bring hope and comfort, as well as to pray for an outpouring of God’s infinite mercy without which any hope would be hollow and empty.  Many liturgists do the first without much trouble, often substituting a homily that should be a rightful platform for a reflection of how the resurrection is our ultimate hope in God, and instead giving snippets of how the deceased is now already in the arms of God, as if the funeral mass was a mini canonization ceremony. 

Perhaps celebrants find it hard to speak at such a time of pain and sorrow about the fact that most of us are in all honesty not yet ready to face God no matter how well we may have lived our lives.  But if we really come to think of it with some honest depth, none of us is fully ready for heaven at our deaths, unless we had lived all of our lives like our Blessed Mother. 

Some of us may even think that it would not be politically correct to say that the deceased may in fact have to continue some sort of purification before being able to meet God ‘face to face’.  Our separated brethren do not believe in the doctrine of purgatory and thus often treat the funeral as an open celebration of the person’s entry into heaven.  They believe that Jesus became our purgatory and took our punishment.  Our Catholic view isn’t that much different.  We too believe that on Calvary, Jesus did take a punishment that we deserve, but we also believe that justice demands that we are individually responsible for our actions as well.  There is a residual effect of all our sins that we leave behind, a bit like the carbon footprints that result from how we use (or misuse) the resources given to us by mother earth.  The realization of this effect of sin is punishment itself.  We just don’t see sin’s full effect while we are still alive, perhaps because we human beings are just so clever to justify our actions. 

Punishment is not something then that is meted out by God so much as it is something that we take on ourselves willingly because we see our faults and failures stripped of their excuses and justifications, and deem ourselves still unready to face God in his fullness.  Much as God wants us to be with him for eternity, we will see ourselves as not fully ready for this eternal union, and need the time away from him to ready ourselves.  This distancing from God will be the ‘pain’ of purgatorial punishment and we will be greatly aided by the continued prayers of those still active members of the Church Militant, and this is indeed a grace much misunderstood.

I must admit that I have very very rarely been a concelebrant at a funeral Mass where this has been boldly preached, with good liturgical taste, to give us a good sense of Catholic hope.  It may be extremely comforting to hear phrases like ‘he is already in heaven’, and ‘her suffering has ended’, but an overuse of these sentiments do not remind us of the need to still be united to our departed loved ones in faithfulness and constant prayer, and the continued offering of our personal acts of sacrifice and penance.  And if we truly love our departed, we will want to continue in our acts of love for them despite their physical absence.  Living godly lives with a divine purpose and offering our efforts at holiness for their purification continues our ties with them.  It seems to remain a great tussle to want to rely on cheap grace, than to have prophetic courage to speak about the fact that we are still united in our quest for eventual sainthood.  But to do so with nary a regard to their continued need for our prayers and connectedness is to sever our ties prematurely. 

A good theology at death, when married with a sound and elegant liturgy that is not too sentimental does something which gives us a solidarity with our deceased loved ones.  We are still on our journey, and so are they, albeit in a different mode.  We must never be too presumptuous about God’s mercy and grace. 


  1. ‘many also choose not to look death in the face,............’

    I can still remember vividly, how deathly quiet our lecture room became when the visiting professor introduced his paper on Philosophy & Man by asking us....... “do you not agree that the only thing we can be sure of is our death?” We were young then, doing our final year at tertiary institution, dreaming dreams, planning plans ......... of course – death was furthest from our minds. But, it was a sobering, a frightening thought.......that lingered, that mattered, the more we think about it. That was one of the defining moments of my life.

    We know that something is said to have died when it ceases to live, what then is the goal and meaning in life? How are we to handle live in fear and dread of death and so we give up on life itself, even before we start the living? Or do we try to ‘outwit’ death by going the other extreme – living a desperately hectic and busy life, ( bluffing ourselves that’s fullness of life) trying to convince ourselves of our ability to survive through sheer will-power and seeking the elixir of life from science & medicine or even mysticism and magic?

    Through the years, walking slowly in the faith I chose to be baptized in, and especially in my encounter & practice of Christian Meditation as taught by Fr John Main -- has revealed that the Christian mystery can only be penetrated if I enter into the mystery of death and resurrection, the Paschal Mystery, achieved through the single-pointedness or focus on Jesus Christ, remembering his essential message – ‘no man can be a follower of mine unless he leaves self behind.....the man who would find his life must lose it....’
    As one grows and matures, one is happily surprised that life affirms itself by recognizing, accepting and consenting to end - to bring about a deeper reality. Such as when one renounces things to give to others, depriving the ego of immediate satisfaction, for the benefit of others. This has to be what some teachers of the faith meant when they talked about “life dies to itself in order to give itself away to that when man physically and mentally declines, having given everything that he had to life, to other men, to his love, to his family, and to the world............he has given himself totally in love. There is nothing left now for him to give.........”
    It is his final act of surrender - he gives his death as a gift to life.

    John 12:24 ‘......unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone. But if it dies, it yields much fruit.’

    God bless you, Fr


  2. Dear Fr Luke,

    I am not convince, that as soon as one pass on, the deceased is free from suffering and is already in heaven with the Lord.

    I believe, that we need to pray constantly, for both the living and the dead. Without exception, they need prayer as much as you and I do too. Prayer is for our souls as food is for our physical body.

    But for sin-unknown to many, in whatever we do in this life, we need to face the consequences, which is often hidden from the eyes and knowledge of man.

    {Ezekiel 33:11} " Tell them, that as surely as I, the Sovereign Lord, am the Living God. I do not enjoy seeing sinners die. I would rather see them stop sinning and live. Stop the evil you are doing.

    {Ez 18:24} But if the upright man renounces his integrity, commits sin, copies the wicked man and practices every kind of filth, is he to live?

    {Ez 18:25} Listen: is what I do unjust? Is it not what you do that is unjust?

    {Ez 18:26} When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed.

    {Ez 18:27} When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live, he shall not die."

    {Ez 18:30} "Now I, the Sovereign Lord am telling you that I will judge each of you by what you have done. Turn away from all the evil you are doing, and don't let your sin destroy you."

    {Matthew 5:26} " I tell you solemnly, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny."

    Fr.Luke: We are still on our journey and so are they, albeit in a different mode. We must never be too presumptuous about God's mercy and grace.

    All Glory to Jesus Christ
    Our Lord & God
    Forever & Forevermore