How we face death reveals our love for life

Gary Schaaf is the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries.

“Even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect” – Pope Francis, Day for Life Greeting, July 17.

As the Executive Director for the Archdiocese Mortuary and Cemeteries, I have a unique vantage point from which I reverently watch people struggle with some of life’s most profound questions, including “What happens when we die?” On almost a daily basis, I see people dealing with the impact of losing a loved one, wondering what happens next. As though life were an ocean, death seems to propel many people into deeper waters.

What strikes me as obvious after watching these families grapple with the death of a loved one is the depth of loss that is felt by all families, regardless of the age of their loved one. Our Catholic faith teaches us about the dignity afforded each and every life, regardless of age. From the widow who has lost her beloved spouse after 50 years of marriage, to the young parents dealing with the loss of their baby only months after conception, we see real loss and real grieving. We are reminded in each of these circumstances that neither the size, condition, nor age of one’s body impacts the reality of their soul.

One day every month, we bury babies who have died in utero. As sad an event as this is, watching the reverence for the lives of these young souls makes me deeply proud of my Catholic faith. Many families participate in this service, which we provide at no cost. It is clear that all present are impacted and that not one of those young souls will be forgotten. It is also clear that the depth of loss is hard to understand for someone who has not experienced it – an observation gleaned from watching the empathetic embraces between mothers who are going through these services at the same time.

Although difficult in so many ways, it is also moving to hear the stories of those who have accompanied a loved one at the end of a long life through the suffering that so often accompanies death. Much more often than not, we see how these difficult trials draw families together in ways that were never anticipated. Frankly, we see pure, self-sacrificing love on display in ways that words can only partially describe.

Observing the sacred moments surrounding the deaths of the faithful departed has only strengthened my faith in our Church and our collective mission to protect the lives of all who are living, from the moment of conception through natural death.

Although I never anticipated my job at a Catholic Cemetery would so significantly impact my perspective on life, I feel privileged to have witnessed people of faith handle with grace and courage the reality of death, and further privileged to share those observations.

COMING UP: Centro San Juan Diego to celebrate its ‘Quinceañera’ Oct. 11

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“The more prosperous nations are obliged… to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin” (CCC 2241).

With the teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church in mind and the vision and mission of answering the Church’s call to welcome and aid the newcomers, Archbishop Charles Chaput and Monsignor José Gómez created Centro San Juan Diego in 2003.

Fifteen years later, the mission of Centro continues more urgently than ever. On Oct. 11, the institution will celebrate its 15th birthday — or as it’s called among Hispanics, its ‘Quinceañera.’

Centro was created to meet the urgent needs of the growing Hispanic immigrant community in Colorado after the arrival of what was considered one of the largest wave of immigrants to the U.S. between 1996 and 2004, explained Juan Carlos Reyes, Executive Director of Centro San Juan Diego.

“The creation of Centro was necessary, not only so Catholic immigrants could find the Church welcoming them, opening its doors and helping them to actively participate in the Church’s life, but also, for the immigrant community in general, regardless of their faith, to offer them an area of social work,” Reyes explained.

Since its creation, Centro has helped thousands of people. In fact, nearly 5,000 Hispanics reach out to Centro every year to receive faith formation and educational services. With the Pastoral Institute, the family, children’s and young adult’s ministries, and the educational and leadership programs, Centro has become the main resource center for both long-term residents and newcomers in Colorado.

At Centro, students start by learning English, preparing for their citizenship, and/or becoming entrepreneurs by attending small business classes.

Twice a month, Centro offers a legal night (Noche Legal) to provide legal advice from lawyers in different areas of law to those seeking help but with no financial means to do so.  During tax season, Centro provides tax preparation services at a low cost. Additionally, a tax preparer certification is available for those who want to pursue it.

“One of the programs that has given us more recognition is the partnership Centro has with Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), a university in Puebla, Mexico that offers bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Spanish that are valid in both countries,” said Reyes. This partnership began in 2012 and provides online education at low cost to any Spanish-speaking individual, regardless of their citizenship status.

A positive effect on families

One of the most touching testimonies shared by a Centro student came from Monica Chavez, who was the first graduate from the UPAEP program.

“During her graduation ceremony speech, she paused and, addressing her children, she said, ‘There are no excuses now [for them not to graduate],’” recalled Reyes. “The services at Centro are offered to help families, to help parents be the best parents they can be. The education this student [received] has had a direct effect on her life. We are almost certain that her children will graduate [due to her mother’s example].”

Centro San Juan Diego’s mission is continuous. Earlier this year, the “Sister Alicia V. Cuarón Education Fund” was created to honor the legacy of Sister Alicia V. Cuarón, the founder of the previous family services program and a lifelong advocate for Hispanic issues in business, leadership and empowerment. The education fund supports the family services and programs at Centro.

“This education fund is an effective tool to respond to the Church’s call to help immigrants, regardless of their ethnicity or economic status,” stated Reyes.

The future of Centro

When asked about Centro’s future, Reyes enthusiastically responded that among its promising plans, there is a great opportunity “to establish regional offices on the Eastern Plains and Western slope to reach the immigrant community in those areas.” They also plan “to extend vocation and education courses through the archdiocese and create new programs that will address the growing and diverse needs of immigrants, such as education, leadership development, job training and readiness, while ensuring easy access to its award-winning services.”