The Scalia Funeral: A Reminder of What Life is Really About

The funeral Mass for Justice Antonin Scalia presented a true glory each of us needs to behold so that we will rejoice in the life and hope that is given to us.

Justice Antonin Scalia’s life and works have received much and deserved attention since his death in Texas on February 13th. I will not call it an “untimely” death, for every death takes place at that point of time when that same man reaches eternity. We can talk of a man who does good in his life, but we can also speak of men who do even more good in their death. The two are not contradictory, just as, I suppose, a man who does evil in his life can see it continue after his death, timely or not.

We used to say that we died “when God calls us” to remind ourselves that what goes on in the births and deaths of our kind, ourselves included, is not in our hands—even if we choose to kill ourselves, as is “legal” in some of our states. Each of us, including Antonin Scalia, from the beginning of both the world and of our individual lives, is created for eternal life. If we do not know this fact or do not accept it, no human life is comprehensible to us. Not knowing this truth or not admitting it to oneself is probably why we have a world filled with people whose lives are incomprehensible to themselves.

What concerns me here, though, is not Justice Scalia’s life but his funeral at the National Shrine at the Catholic University of America. The only time I ever actually met Justice Scalia was at a dinner given a number of years ago by the President of Catholic University. Scalia’s “presence” was all the “presence” that is so often ascribed to him by those who knew him well—the combination of wit, intelligence, humility, and good-fellowship. Many have remarked on his love of family, music, his old St. Joseph’s Missal that he used at Mass, the size of his lively family, his dissents, his hunting, and his love of law as law is to be loved, that is, for what it actually says.

What is of moment to me here, however, is the solemn High Funeral Mass celebrated by his son, Father Paul Scalia, who is the Vicar of Clergy in the near-by Arlington (Virginia) Diocese. As his friend Father Mark Pilon observed, this Mass was the perfect counterpoint or antithesis of the “eulogistic Masses” that began more or less with the funeral of John F. Kennedy.

The tradition of the Church is that a funeral has an evangelical and sacramental purpose. It is not to praise the good and humorous deeds of the recently departed. A place for a eulogy can be found, but it is not what the funeral Mass is about. Each funeral is about one human person who has died. As such, in this death, every person stands with every other person who has ever lived or who is still living or who will live in the future. About a death of man, the souls of the just hover, even if the man is unjust.

The Funeral Mass of Justice Scalia was in a magnificent setting. Not all funerals are or need to be. But it is well that some are. We need to see and feel the awe of the final moment of our realization that this man has died. As a former student of mine who was there remarked, everyone in the Shrine realized that something powerful and moving was happening. Much of this silent reverence was due to the way the Mass was celebrated by Father Scalia. It was not just his sermon, which, in my opinion, was classic, mindful of the great French funeral orations of Bossuet or of St. Ambrose’s oration at the death of his brother. Though the Scalia sermon touched lightly on politics, it was not a funeral oration in the mode of Pericles in Thucydides or Lincoln at Gettysburg, great as these orations are. The focus of this sermon was on Christ and His Father, that is, on the eternal life that explains to us what life is about. This is what a funeral sermon is designed to do.

No doubt, good men also have their foibles and sins. Even these defects point to that final end for which we are created. A passage that has always struck me was that used by Pope Benedict in Spe Salvi. I was reminded of it by a photo someone sent me of the whole Scalia family, when Father Paul looked like he might have been in high school. Benedict was talking of baptism. The Scalias baptized nine children. The Pope recalled the words of the rite, an optional passage.

When parents bring their child to be baptized, at that moment, Benedict said, “it is not just an act of socialization within the community, not simply a welcome into the Church. The parents expect more for the one to be baptized: they expect that faith, which includes the corporeal nature of the Church and her sacraments, will give life to their child—eternal life” (par 10). Parents are not thinking of whether this child will be famous or infamous, whether he will be a Supreme Court Justice or a quarterback of the Redskins, or even whether he will be healthy of sickly. They bring the child to be baptized so that, in God’s grace, by whatever channel of life, sin, fame, or ordinariness, it may reach eternal life with the divine Trinity—nothing more, nothing less.

I sat for two hours watching the EWTN telecast; I could hardly move. I was by myself in our infirmary recreation room. EWTN, in a touch of great delicacy, did not intersperse the Mass with any commentary. I thought the first reader was one of the Scalia’s other sons, but it was Leonard Leo, head of the Federalist Society in which the Justice played such an important part.

I presumed that the second reading from Romans 5 was by Justice Thomas, and it was. I have never heard a better or more powerful reading of Scripture. The words were exact, clear, with that eloquence that we associate with the deep voices of a Southern black speaker. What was read was soul-stirring. The sermon was obviously by a man who was a priest, who was the Justice’s son. The family was there—but again, the stress was on what the meaning of death is for us who listen and watch.

Every bishop and every seminarian, I think, should be “required” to watch in silence the tape of this funeral. It was really an event of the greatest moment as it told us what the Mass was, what a funeral was, what life and death are. The music was classic, with the well-trained choir of the Shrine. The movements of the celebrant, the deacon, the sub-deacon, and the acolytes were slow but stately. Something was taught in action as well as in word. I watched the incense, the casket lying in state before the altar, the strong men in dark suits who carried it into the Shrine, the processions up and back to bear the body into the Shrine and finally out to the waiting hearse.

No sounds were heard but those of the pure liturgy. The congregation seemed hushed. The cardinal, the bishop of Arlington, the Apostolic Delegate, and another bishop presided at the side in silence. Some hundred priests concelebrated Mass with Father Scalia. Many no doubt were from the Arlington diocese across the Potomac or from the faculty at Catholic University or the many religious houses around it. Communion was distributed quietly, rather quickly. I caught a brief glimpse of my friend Professor Kenneth Masugi receiving communion.

As I say, this Mass was a funeral Mass, the Mass offered for a single man, a justly famous man who died as most men do at an unanticipated time in an unexpected place, yet in God’s good time and place. Father Paul Scalia noted in his moving sermon that the edge between time and eternity is much narrower than we think. We probably do not like to think that this is so. But, at such a funeral, it is almost a privilege to be reminded that it is so. We depart grateful for being again taught this truth that is a part of each of our lives. I know that many who watched this Mass in person or on television will not know what to make of it. That is because they often do not have the tools of tradition and training to connect things with their own lives, the graphic things that a funeral Mass embodies.

But we have here something every Catholic and every priest should watch in silence to see visibly what it is that life is about at its ending. There is sadness, indeed a worry about the loss of a man on whom so many of us relied to keep the country sane. Yet there was also a reminder of what it is that we are created for.

And in this reminder lies visible before us a glory that each of us needs to behold so that we will rejoice—yes, that is the right word—rejoice in the life that is given to us. For that is what it is: a gift. Once we realize this truth, we realize that there must be a Giver, someone who receives back what is first given to us from eternity and made manifest in our conception and in our birth. What we offer back is what we are and what we will be forever. Such was sense of the solemn Funeral Mass that I saw, the one for a good man, celebrated by his good son, before the world if it wants to see what life is really and finally about.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.