Today I saw the power of a Catholic funeral Mass.
In 2001 my step-son was killed by a drunk driver. And while the funeral Mass in my present home parish was heartwarming, and I will be forever grateful to Bishop Norbert Dorsey and my parish priests at the time for the solemnity of the Mass of the Resurrection, there are entire portions of that day I do not remember. Some of you (hopefully few) may have had similar traumas and understand how the mind protects shocked and tired survivors.
But this is 2015, and today climaxed a period of shock, hope, and ultimate grief for an entire parish and school. About a month ago one of our diocese’s best loved and energetic Catholic school principals was stricken suddenly with a life-threatening illness. Multiple surgeries were involved and needless to say, prayers for the recovery of this principal stormed heaven, from the youngest child in the school to the oldest benefactor. I knew this principal as she had hosted some of my catechetical workshops for the diocese and made us all feel at home while brewing a mean cup of coffee for one and all. I was very familiar with her parish, as I had served there as pastor for four years, long before her tenure. My wife knew her very well, as she likewise had been principal of the same school twenty years earlier, and both of them were active principals in this diocese for some years. And to add another twist, when the principal became ill, one of our longest and dearest friends was tapped by the diocese to step into the principal’s role.
At the end of last week, despite the prayers of all and the efforts of her doctors, this principal, at the height of her professional/ministerial life, passed away. Although my wife and I had planned to attend her funeral, I awoke this AM with a nagging resistance about going. I knew it would be a highly emotional event for all involved; I guess at some level I resisted the inevitable pain to myself. It was my wife and my best friend’s needs that probably prompted me to put on my funeral tie and head out into the fog for the Mass.
The site of the church is the exact site where my stepson was killed fourteen years ago this month. Maybe that was on my mind, too. When we arrived, about 45 minutes early, the parking lot was near full to capacity. Shortly after we were seated the mood was set by the two choirs; the parish’s adult choir sang a medley of appropriate music and did so magnificently. But immediately after, the school children’s choir raised its voices in song; I was told later that the principal was particularly proud of her choir. Aside from the emotional impact of their earnest voices, my eyes welled up at the thought that these young ones will have the lifelong memory of having served a principal they loved in such a public and endearing way.
The processional—does one ever lose that sense of solemnity when a casket of a human being is brought down the center aisle, led by the celebrant and followed by the family, in this case a surviving husband and teenaged son? I could not take my eyes off of this rite. This morning Orlando’s Bishop John Noonan served as presiding celebrant. The occasion and the person called for that, but our bishop has the inner sense as main celebrant to enhance the participation of the local clergy.
The homily brought together the theology of death with the emotional experience of the day. The homilist was the former pastor, who had hired this principal, and he recalled with humor and grace the workings of the selection committee and the kind of leader the school was looking for at the time of her hire. After communion the principal’s mother addressed us. As a celebrant myself for many years, I have seen this kind of familial witness go terribly wrong for many different reasons. I needn’t have worried. This woman demonstrated a strength and serenity that carried her through what must have been an arduous ordeal. Without hyperbole, excess, or hagiography, this mother stated to all of us that she was proud to have borne her daughter and proud of the choices she had made with her life. It was a parental “well done, good and faithful child.” The impact was beyond tears: this was a farewell and a testament to a life well-lived.
In paradisum. “May the angels lead you into paradise.” It would be hard to find an official text in the Roman Missal that evokes more feeling, coming as it does when the casket is prepared for departure down the center aisle and thus to burial, to await the new and glorious Jerusalem. When this is sung well, as it was today, there is genuine feeling wedded to bedrock belief.
I wrote a ways back about Aristotle’s term catharsis, “the washing of the emotions.” When our rituals and sacraments are celebrated well, as they were today, the experience of God is truly of the body and the soul. In sharing our humanity, Jesus felt grief and openly expressed it, weeping as he pondered the future of Jerusalem and the death of his close friend Lazarus. Tears do not bring resolution—this family and this parish community has much to endure in days ahead—but solidarity with the One whose own death has given us the strength to go on.
As the congregation dispersed, I stood alone in the hot Florida sun. I felt that somehow God had washed my emotions, griefs and pains of which I am well aware, and probably those from my past that remain in the marrow of my bones. God’s catharsis, I guess.