Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
In the wake of the attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh we are confronted with the horror of violence and hatred and come face-to-face with the depravity of man. It goes without saying that anti-Semitism is to be condemned in any and all forms. In this particular context, we stand in solidarity with the members of that synagogue as well as with our Jewish neighbors here in the greater-Fairfield area. As the month of November begins, we Catholics are called in a special way to lift up prayers for the dead. We celebrate the solemnity of All Saints and the great feast of All Souls and in this way begin a month dedicated to carrying out one of the most important Christian responsibilities related to the end of life. As this month begins, let us pray for those men and women who lost their lives in Pittsburgh and commit ourselves to peace.
When death is before us, we experience a variety of emotions, some conditioned by the nature of our relationship with the deceased. Grief is always an appropriate response to death, though we sometimes fear the sadness entailed in the grief process. Grief over death is natural and healthy. At the same time, we may experience anger, frustration, or relief. The emotional response to death is as varied as the people who are confronted with death. There is, however, a proper Christian response that the Church calls us to offer in the midst of this grief. That response is hope-filled prayer, the carrying out of the spiritual work of mercy, to pray for the dead.
This spiritual work of mercy is vital. Regardless of the faith of the deceased, we who live are called to pray for them. There are countless prayers for the dead that we may use. Naturally, spontaneous prayers for those who have died are also an excellent way to carry out this spiritual work of mercy. When the deceased is a Catholic, the Church provides us with a particular liturgical expression of our prayer, the Order of Christian Funerals. In this powerful rite “the Church intercedes on behalf of the deceased because of its confident belief that death is not the end nor does it break the bonds forged in life. The Church also ministers to the sorrowing and consoles them in the funeral rites with the comforting word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist” (Order of Christian Funerals 4). Thus we see the purpose of the funeral—we who are Catholic are charged with the responsibility of interceding for the salvation of the deceased. In our grief, the Church accompanies us in prayer and sacrament.
Additionally, the celebration of a funeral Mass is an act of thanksgiving for the life of the deceased. Indeed, the word “eucharist” comes from the Greek word meaning “thanksgiving.” During the funeral Mass, we not only give thanks to God for the gift of life, the Church also “commends the dead to God’s merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins” (OCF 6). The Church seeks to balance the full range of emotions and realities that come up in the face of death. For example, when I die, I sincerely hope that people will remember me in a positive light and will be grateful for my life. At the same time, I am well aware of my sinfulness, my need for God’s mercy, and that my imperfections are very real. I also know that people (at least some) will be sad. Fortunately, the funeral allows for all of these realities. In the funeral it is possible to pray in thanksgiving for what is good, to pray for forgiveness for what is bad, and to pray for comfort in sorrow—to the Church, none of these prayers are mutually exclusive. “While proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ and witnessing to Christian hope in the resurrection, the funeral rites also recall to all who take part in them God’s mercy and judgment and meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis” (OCF 7).
Remembering our beloved deceased and all those who have died, let us raise up our prayers for their peaceful rest and entrust their souls to God’s abundant mercy. We will continue our reflection on the nature and purpose of the funeral liturgy in the coming weeks.