Two weeks ago, I returned to Pennsylvania for the burial of a very good friend with whom I grew up. At the same time, I was able to visit the cemetery where my mom, dad and brother George are buried. How fitting that it was so close to All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days and to the annual Mass that I celebrated last week in Calvary Cemetery. Both occasions were very moving.
As I prayed in gratitude for the life of my parents and brother, I also reflected on eternal life. Our Catholic faith teaches us both to rely on God’s mercy as we are ushered into eternal life after death and to pray for forgiveness of sins. As I observe a few funeral rituals and receive letters from others about them, I worry sometimes that the emphasis on the celebration of the life of the deceased has become so earthbound that we have ceased to reflect upon our death as an ushering to eternal life and our need to pray for the dead.
In a computer search, I found a Catholic parish that explains Christian burial very well, and it included these two paragraphs:
“In facing death, we are reminded that God has created each person for eternal life. We celebrate the funeral rites to offer worship, praise and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a person’s life, which has now been returned to the Author of Life. At the death of a Christian, the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased. We are confident in the conviction that death is not the end, nor does it break the bonds of family, friendship and community that are forged in life.
The Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of his or her sins. The celebration of the Christian funeral brings hope and consolation to the living.”
In recent months, I have received letters expressing disappointment that a faithful Catholic who died did not receive the honor of a Mass of Christian Burial. The letter writers observed that someone who participated in daily Mass throughout her whole life was not given that benefit by her children. Of course, the restrictions of COVID-19 have had a great effect on what is possible safely, but this pattern has been developing long before the virus has descended upon us.
As I celebrated the Mass for the Commemoration of All Souls’ Day on the wind-swept grounds of Calvary Cemetery, surrounded by those who have died over many decades, I observed with great gratitude the participants, including Father Jerry Bell and Father Pepper Elliott, who serve on the board of our Catholic Cemeteries. Their love for the faithful departed who went before them and their desire to pray for the deceased is both noble and necessary.
If you have been tempted to live your life without a reflection on death, this November is an opportunity for us to embrace the full teaching of our Catholic faith. Go to the “Catechism of the Catholic Church,” numbers 1680 to 1690 and reflect on the great gift of eternal life given to us because of salvation won for us by Jesus Christ. Paragraph 1680 begins: “All the sacraments … have as their goal the last Passover of the child of God which, through death, leads him into the life of the Kingdom.”
As we pray for our deceased loved ones and all the dead, we look to St. Joseph, our archdiocesan patron, to pray for a happy death. While Sacred Scripture is silent on his death, there is the holy tradition that St. Joseph died in the arms or presence of Jesus and Mary.
With a deep hope in our salvation in Christ, we pray for those who have gone before us:
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.