Monday, March 23, 2020

Cherishing the word of God must not just be symbolic.

In my coming to 19 years in the priesthood, I have celebrated many funeral Masses for baptized Catholics.  In the Rite for Catholic Funerals, before the Mass begins, there are certain symbols that can be incorporated into the funeral Mass, and they pertain to the faith life of the deceased.  Some of these are either placed directly on the casket which is placed in front of the sanctuary of the church or chapel, whilst others are placed around or near the casket.  

The first is the funeral pall, which is a large white cloth symbolizing that the deceased was a baptized Catholic who was given the garment of salvation in baptism.  Two other symbols may be placed on the casket as well – a crucifix, and a bible or the Book of Gospels.  If these are used, there are words that the celebrant says, which accompany the action of the placement.  The words that accompany the placing of the bible are “in life, so-and-so (name of the deceased) cherished the Gospel of Christ. May Christ now greet him/her with these words of eternal life: Come, blessed of my Father!”

Every single word in the Liturgy has a purpose and a meaning.  No word or phrase in the liturgical rites of the Church is there for the sake of ornamentation or aesthetics.  This is mainly because in Liturgy, the work of man encounters the reality of God and his love.  Every word has deep meaning, and every phrase speaks of a reality that the words endeavor to convey.

Though placing these are options that may or may not be used, I have rarely seen a celebrant omitting them.  Maybe it is because the word ‘may’  is in fine print, many priests think that it is obligatory.  When I am not very sure of the how the deceased when alive was led by the Word of God, I find myself sometimes wondering if I should omit that part of the rite which isn’t mandatory, and I find it helpful to have a chat with the deceased’s family members to get a rough idea of how their loved one practiced the faith.

After all, the word ‘cherish’ is a word that is pregnant with meaning.  One shouldn’t use that word in any cavalier or casual way.  How one cherishes someone or something is conveyed by how one’s life has been filled with or filled by the thing or person one has cherished. You can tell if a husband has cherished his wife by the fact that when he was alive, he was always talking about her, thinking about her, and having his whole life revolve around her and her happiness.  You can tell that a person has cherished his grandchildren when he is often doting on them, spoiling them with treats and gifts, and doing what grandparents are wont to do simply because they love them to bits.  

To say in a public setting that someone who is in a casket in front of them that he/she has ‘cherished the Gospel of Christ’, symbolized by the placing of the Bible, which is the Word of God, needs to convey a similar reality.  This should mean that the deceased would have been known to have talked often about the person of Christ, been a great devotee of Christ, gave over his or her life to Christ and made Christ his or her ultimate standard in life, and was perhaps very familiar with the Word of God.  

Now I am not saying that I have not believed what I said at the liturgy when I celebrate the funeral Mass for someone whom I had never had the opportunity to encounter and know when he or she was alive. Of course I do hope that the words match the reality, and that in life, the deceased was known to truly cherish the Gospel of Christ.  

This blog reflection is not a criticism of those who had passed on before.  It is an encouragement to all Catholics who are still on this side of heaven, and to encourage them to live out their faith lives so that when the time comes for them to be in the casket at that point in the funeral Mass, that the words actually do convey the reality – that when the congregation at the Mass made up of their family and friends and relations hear that phrase spoken, that their hearts will swell in agreement that indeed, the deceased truly was someone who cherished Jesus – cherished his word, cherished his love, cherished his commandments, cherished his teachings, cherished his leadership and cherished the tremendous gift of his salvation in Christ.  Of course, it would be ideal that the person’s own life testimony was already so well known that there is no need for any further commentary (a.k.a. eulogy) made by anyone about the deceased’s life and that saying anything good about the one in the casket would be gilding the lily.  

We are in perilous and challenging times now as we live in the threat and danger of the COVID-19 contagion.  Many countries have closed their borders, severely restricted travel, and some are in serious lockdown.  In my 55 years of life, I have never seen anything so massively affected by something that cannot be seen by the naked eye.  We have witnessed devastation of land and lives by natural disasters and terrorist threats and from a safe distance, we have empathized and even done a small part to help to alleviate their plight.  The human race has a new common enemy which doesn’t allow for easy detection nor effective protection from.  

If there is a time that we need to hunker down and go deep into our faith to muster up the courage to face this threat to our existence with a supernatural strength, it is now.  If there is a time that we need to find our footing in life anew by being familiar with the holy Word of God in Sacred Scripture and as those words of the liturgy say, to ‘cherish’ the Word of God, it is now.  Especially for those of us who are in countries where we are finding ourselves given the gift of time to be in ‘lockdown’ mode, it is not the time to find ourselves ‘locked down’ in our faith.  There are many millions who have little or not access to the Sacraments, but no one should have no access to the word of God in Sacred Scripture. 

If you don’t know where to start reading the Word, start from the Gospels.  Establish a reading plan and better yet, do this with your family members and if you need additional resources to understand the word, go on-line to the plethora of material in the web that will help you to understand and apply the word to your lives.  And know this – that when you do that, and when the time comes for us to climb out of this crisis mode, your faith would have been fed and strengthened because you have allowed yourself to grow in your relationship with God through being familiar with his word.  You have really begun to cherish the Word by tapping on its endless supply of hope in times when hope seemed lacking to so many.

If the reality is that we are much more familiar with and are using our devices or computers much more than we are familiar with and are using our bibles, those words of the presiding minister at our funeral Mass about our cherishing the Word of God would ring rather hollow.  Those words are not "(name) cherished Netflix/Amazon Prime Video/video games in life...".  The words are about Scripture and how one has cherished and lived a relationship with God through God's word.  Make that a reality now, and it is never too late to start.

Then, when the time comes for us to be in that casket in our funeral Mass, the celebrating minister priest can with full confidence clearly declare that “in life, (insert your name here) cherished the word of God.  May Christ now greet him with these words of eternal life – come, blessed of my Father!”

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