Not the right kind of funeral homily

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There is a controversy brewing in the Archdiocese of Detroit over a funeral homily.

In case you haven’t read about it, here is a brief summary. An 18-year-old young man committed suicide. Fr. Don LaCuesta celebrated the funeral Mass. His homily focused heavily on the themes of suicide and salvation. He talked about the Church’s teaching, about the sinfulness of suicide, and about the mercy of God. The young man’s parents were very disturbed at the content of that homily, to the extent that the father actually walked down the aisle and begged Fr. LaCuesta to stop. Now, Fr. LaCuesta has apologized, and he is for the moment barred from delivering funeral homilies and is having all of his homilies reviewed. Meanwhile, the parents are calling for Fr. LaCuesta to be defrocked entirely.

I have written extensively here about the blurring of the lines between the “funeral,” and the “celebration of life,” which are two entirely different entities.

It would appear that those two entities clashed — violently — at this funeral.

Let’s talk about the parents first. I don’t know them but I’m sure that to say they were grieving would be a gross understatement. I have lost both friends and relatives to suicide. It is a grief like no other. It is sudden, it is brutal, it is mixed with anger at the departed, and with self-blame for not adequately recognizing the signs. When you mix that with the particular heartbreak of burying one’s own child, you have a recipe for a horrible, blind, debilitating grief. I’m sure they were walking around in a fog.

And, to further complicate the situation, they were clearly not well catechized regarding the Church’s teaching on suicide.

Now let’s look at Fr. LaCuesta. From everything I have seen, he strikes me as a very sincere, very well-intentioned and probably very holy priest. He understands the Church’s teaching well, and he wanted to use it to bring some comfort to this family.

I have read the homily. It is in many ways beautiful. It is theologically accurate. I think it would be a wonderful meditation on suicide, to be delivered at a conference, to a room full of non-grieving persons. It may have even been appropriate at a funeral, if all of the congregants were all well-versed in Church teaching and were sitting there consumed with concern about the eternal destiny of the departed.

But it was the wrong homily for this occasion.

Fr. LaCuesta’s homily was centered entirely on the circumstances surrounding this young man’s death. Now, I am a firm believer in all the Church teaches, and a staunch opponent of the Perpetual Canonization of the Deceased we see at Catholic funerals today. But if I had heard that homily at a loved one’s funeral, I would have been at the very least extremely uncomfortable. It was too much to throw at raw, grieving parents and family. It was jarring. The theology was accurate, but they weren’t in an emotional place to hear and process it. They heard the mere possibility that their son may have lost his eternal salvation, and instead of nodding in recognition of this aspect of Church teaching, their muddled minds said, “Wait, WHAT?????” And, in their shock and distress, they didn’t hear anything of the message of love and mercy that came afterward.

I have seen many on social media saying that, whether they wanted to or not, this was the message that they needed to hear. Perhaps. But how and where they hear it matters. And delivering it to them in public, while they are essentially on display, deeply grieving, captive and expecting to hear something very different is neither loving nor compassionate. And the proof of that is that the delivery, far from being successful, has had exactly the opposite effect. They have gone in the other direction entirely, attacking the Church in the news media and (unreasonably) demanding that Fr. LaCuesta be removed from holy orders.

I would imagine that the family was expecting more of a “celebration of life.” I have even seen reports that they met with Fr. LaCuesta in advance and told him what they wanted the homily to look like. If this is true, then obviously it was inappropriate all the way around. A priest shouldn’t allow his homily to be composed by anyone else. Nor, however, should he “bait and switch” grieving parents by promising them one homily and delivering another.

All funeral homilies are sensitive endeavors, and it is easy for me to “armchair quarterback” and speculate on how they should be done. But frankly, unless the homilist knows the bereaved family very well, I don’t think a suicide homily should be much different than any other funeral homily. We loved the departed. We commend him or her to the great mercy of God. Perhaps in a general way explain the difference in purpose between a “funeral” and a “celebration of life.” Discuss purgatory and how we all need prayer for the repose of our souls after death. There is no need to dwell excessively on the manner of death, or the particular sin of the departed. Unless it can be done very beautifully and artfully. This, however, is a rare skill in a homilist.

My point goes further. Fr. LaCuesta was attempting, very sincerely, to evangelize these people. We are all called, by the Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all men. To evangelize. And in doing that, we too need to be sensitive. We need to take into account the physical, emotional and spiritual state of those we are talking to. We are, after all, communicating a message of love. We need to be loving. We need to ask the Holy Spirit to enlighten us and guide our words.

And, when we mess up, we need to acknowledge it, seek forgiveness and move on.

To read the entire homily, go to https://aod.app.box.com/s/ngg1ycyol23ykx3hr9vr13umkai9dg39

Featured photo courtesy of the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw

COMING UP: Run into God’s arms — he loves you

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As I have confessed to you many times before, I do not consider myself a good pray-er. My prayer is often dry. Dry as in, “is anybody listening?” Not that it doesn’t “count” or anything, but I am hardly a mystic.

So when something dramatic happens in prayer, I often take it as a sign that it is not just for me, but to be shared with all of you as well.

It was a few days ago. While praying, I tried to imagine how God was seeing me at that moment. Immediately, I received an image of Jesus Christ, Savior of the Universe, with open arms and a huge smile on his face, welcoming me the way I used to welcome my nieces and nephews when they were little (and still excited to see me), and ran full speed into my arms. He was doing the same, ready to catch me as I ran to him, and delighting in it the same way I used to delight in the joy in their little, miraculous faces.

I know, it could have just been my imagination. But the immediacy and vividness made it feel like something more.

Even it was just my own imagination, it still reflects the truth. It staggers me to think that he could love me as much as I love the five beautiful children he has placed in my life. And yet, my faith tells me that he loves me even more. Infinitely more. That is almost impossible for me to fathom. Still.

As I said, I think this little vision is for you as much as for me. To help you see and maybe begin to grasp his love for you.

We have all heard that “God is love.” Repeatedly. Some of us even affixed the phrase to felt banners in our CCD classes back in the ‘70’s. But, at some point, we hear it so much that it becomes just another meaningless phrase. How many of us really know it? How many of us really base our faith in a relationship with a Father who loves us madly?

I think that, no matter how often we hear that God is Love, it is all too easy to revert to a rules-based mentality. To be “holy”, I just have to do “x” and “y.” Avoid sin. Say the rosary. Try not to have too much fun.

There is nothing wrong with any of that. In fact, it is all true. (Except, of course, the fun part.) But on its own, it isn’t going to make you holy. And, without a thriving, active relationship with God, it’s going to be difficult to sustain any merely rules-based program.

My favorite saint, St. John Paul II, said that once we start asking what we are supposed to do, we have left the realm of love and entered the realm of ethics. When somebody is in love, the “rules” come naturally. A man in love doesn’t ask “How many times am I supposed to send flowers? How many buds per delivery?” He wants to show his love, as often and as many ways as possible. It overflows.

When we are in love with God, we want to serve him. We’re looking for ways to serve him more. It gives us joy.

The problem, of course, is that God is generally unseen. It’s easy to have a reciprocal relationship with a flesh-and-blood person. But two-way conversations with the Lord of the Universe are a little harder to come by.

There are two important keys to a real, loving, two-way relationship with God. The first is Scripture. If you’re in love with someone, you want to learn everything you can about them. All the more important when we can’t tangibly see our Beloved. How do we get to know God better? By reading his love story, the Bible. We see God’s first revelations to his people. We see Christ in action, curing the sick and welcoming sinners. We see his sacrifice for us.

If we aren’t studying Scripture, the God we worship might very well be the product of our own imaginations, and not the actual God who has revealed himself to us.

The second key is prayer — the heart of the relationship. It’s where we talk to him. Our prayer shouldn’t just be rote recitation of formulas. It should be true communication, a sharing of the heart. St. Teresa of Avila said that “prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” We pour our hearts out to him. We share our struggles. We thank him for our blessings. We ask for his help.

And, if we can manage to block out the noise of our lives, we will find that God speaks to us, through prayer and through Scripture.

I want you to do a little exercise for me. Close your eyes and ask God to surround you with his peace and protection. And then imagine him, with outstretched arms and a big smile on his face, waiting to catch you as you run to him.

And then pray. Talk to that guy. Pour out your heart to him.

He loves you.

Featured photo by Robert Nyman on Unsplash