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About that funeral Mass homily, some points

Nothing in liturgical or canon law suggests that Catholic funerals are intended to serve as ‘celebrations of one’s life.’

I do not know Fr. Don LaCuesta or the Hullibarger family nor do I know what LaCuesta said in his homily at last week’s funeral for 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger (who had killed himself some days before) or how LaCuesta said what he said (reports here and here). Such caveats, however, in light of my treatments of other issues related to the canon law on Church funerals, might qualify me to make some objective comments on the controversy erupting in the wake of LaCuesta’s funeral homily wherein, it seems, Maison’s ‘life was not celebrated’ and doubts about his entry into heaven were expressed. Three points need to inform discussion of this controversy.

First, until just a generation ago and for many centuries before, controversy over homilies delivered at the Catholic funerals of suicides was unheard of for the simple reason that Church law forbade all funerals for suicides, so, no funeral homilies on suicide could have been preached. See 1917 CIC 1240 § 1, n. 3. With the appearance of the Johanno-Pauline Code, however, the prohibition of funerals for suicides was dropped (see 1983 CIC 1184). True, a qualified restriction on funerals for those who die in “manifest sin” remains (and suicide is unquestionably a grievous sin, see CCC 2280-2281), but the nearly-universal pastoral practice is to accord funerals to suicides in light of legitimate questions about, among other things, the likely-diminished psychological freedom enjoyed by someone who suddenly kills himself (CCC 2282) and in deference to the doctrinally-sound hope that, in ways unknown to us, God may save such persons (CCC 2283).

Second, nothing in liturgical or canon law suggests that Catholic funerals are intended to serve as ‘celebrations of one’s life.’ Instead the primary focus of funeral rites is on “the paschal mystery of Christ”.Rite of Funerals, Intro., n. 1. Per the USCCB, “At the funeral liturgy, the Church gathers with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the Paschal Mystery. The funeral liturgy, therefore, is an act of worship, and not merely an expression of grief.” Some brief “words of remembrance” of the deceased are permitted (usually just before the end of the funeral Mass) but these are to be brief and nothing like a eulogy or ‘celebration of a life’ now sadly gone.

Third, while every Catholic should die in hope of salvation, none (absent private revelation) dies with the certainty of salvation, a fact that, in turn, obliges the family, friends, and the wider Christian community of the deceased to pray for the departed—no matter how they died—and to avoid attitudes that discourage prayers for the dead such as happens with the modern mindset that, basically, everybody’s good and we all go to heaven. This sort of thinking, a species of presumption (CCC 2092), has become common among clergy and laity and has impacted attitudes toward death, judgment, and the meaning of funerals. For example, a cleric of the Archdiocese of Chicago holds that “For a priest to even hint that the person [who kills himself] might not be in heaven is grossly wrong.” This priest’s claim, of course, is precisely what is “grossly wrong”, but it is consistent with his condemnation of others “who view suicide as a mortal sin,” supposedly because “That [assessment] has been categorically denied by church leadership.” Again, this cleric’s claim is rubbish but years of such sloppy talk has seduced many into a superficially comfortable, but doctrinally indefensible and pastorally dangerous way of thinking about death—whether by suicide or otherwise.

At this point, though, without specific knowledge of what LaCuesta actually said, my citing to canons on homilies in general (including those norms that call for the doctrine of the Church to be preached therein, such as Canons 769-769) and to rubrics that call for funeral homilies to be brief and phrased so as to avoid “offending those who mourn”, per the Rite), would be of little avail. The Archdiocese of Detroit has restricted LaCuesta’s faculties for preaching at funerals (I imagine, per Canon 764) and one trusts that, in taking such action against LaCuesta, they had access to more specific information about his homily than was available in main stream media reports. If LaCuesta said the right thing the right way, he should be defended; if he said the right thing the wrong way, he should be corrected; if he said the wrong thing the wrong way, he should be chastised.

Meanwhile, those seizing upon this young man’s devastating choice, his family’s unimaginable grief, and the as-yet uncertain remarks of a homilist, to misrepresent Christian teaching against self-murder, to presume the salvation of anyone, and to minimize the need to assist the dead with our prayers, should cease their harmful talk.

(This post originally appeared on the “In the Light of the Law” site and is posted here by kind permission of Dr. Peters.)


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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.

8 Comments

  1. Marx was mistaken. The Opium of the People is the debasement of Christ’s revelation. He was not mistaken if religion is fairy tale euphoria jingle bells red nosed reindeer Happy Holidays Have a Very Merry Christmas ad nauseam. Funeral Mass metamorphosis from plea with God for mercy for the dead now eulogy for the saving qualities of a living saint bound for heaven. Always white vestment never purple of black. Pure abandonment of revelation to ingratiate and advance a lie. Fr LaCuesta failed though bravely in front of a culture convinced of the all saving non condemning Jingle Bells God. He as all priests are obliged to address Hell. The condemnation of the faithless. Judas wept, hurled the silver at his antagonists, admitted he caused death of an innocent man, and hung himself. That would suffice today for deliverance from eternal flames. Except the Apostles say otherwise. Lack of faith in God’s mercy and refusal to ask forgiveness is in essence the unwillingness to acknowledge God’s goodness. A self centered refusal of his compassion. For the spiritually deranged who love mirth and abhor the moral courage to live the Gospel. An anecdote. When I once risked words reminding rough NM Mestizo ranchers that their beloved was a prolific abuser of his family addicted transactor I would have died on the spot if looks from his wife could kill. After the final blessing several approached saying “Father we needed to hear this”.

  2. Dr. Peters, out of curiosity, which priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago made the remark quoted in your excellent article? (I have lived in the Archdiocese of Chicago all my life – and a search of the Internet found no source other than your article for the quote. I’m quite sure that SOME priest in the Archdiocese said it, as there are a good many “usual suspects” who could have and would have._“For a priest to even hint that the person [who kills himself] might not be in heaven is grossly wrong.” +“For a priest to even hint that the person [who kills himself] might not be in heaven is grossly wrong.”)

  3. Clergy, and others, may say “ I would have said this or such differently”… and the demurrer of authenticity has to be noted.
    One point, though, is the profound caution we should continue to have about the Press, maybe in all its forms. The motives of the secular press have always been suspect— all the more today.
    The homily here is worthy enough: it is a very hard moment and worse than that even for dedicated priests and ministers. It can be a moment to reflect on and pray through. How would YOzu have done this assignment? What better could have been said and done? Those are real questions that suggest valuable answers of several kinds. Do not buy press releases in any case. Sadly, credibility has been forfeited. Pray first,
    Learn second….speak together for mission, not first reaction and judgement, and weary world conclusions before the reality.

  4. It occurs to me that perhaps an underlying cause for all this angst against a priest calling sin a sin is because its related to the prevailing pro-choice mindset. This young lad chose (wrongly of course) to end his life, and the priest should just simply have praised him for living. Pointing out the wrong in pro-choice immediately brings vitriol and cries for removal from society.

  5. Given the penchant of funeral homilists to focus on the deceased, I don’t know how Father could have composed anything other than the beautiful reflection he offered. In that context I find it an orthodox, affirming, sensitive and deeply comforting sermon. The family of the deceased should be profoundly grateful for this prayerful reflection offered by their pastor. Why they are not appears to me to be a lack of authentic and adequate catechesis. A laity unfortified by the perennial Magisterium for difficult realities of human existence are going to bristle when they hear the Gospel with a sharp corner merely alluded.
    I have always been of the opinion that the deceased should not be personally referenced at their funeral. There are other venues for that. The funeral mass is a time and a place to focus on the grace filled mystery of human existence – temporal existence and eternal existence – the promise always at hand offered by Jesus Christ in life and in death. While we sit in mourning at a funeral we should be in awed contemplation of the mystery of eternal life and the possibility that our loved one is simultaneously in the presence of God, or will be after a purgation that they are enduring lovingly because they know they are saved and only long to conform to their Creator and Redeemer. The souls enduring purgatory are holy souls indeed.
    As for those who we fearfully perceive as having lived an existence unworthy of Heaven we are ultimately in the dark as to how our Blessed Lord understands their culpability. We are not far afield if we promote within ourselves an awareness that for God all things are possible. He said so Himself. We have not an iota of knowledge of what transpires in the last microsecond provided for conversion. I simply hope for my salvation and do not presume it to be a predetermined fact, so I hope for what appears just as undeserved and unlikely to be realized for another.

  6. We have had family friends who have taken their lives and I have often pondered Gods mercy to these souls and trust in Gods mercy and love

  7. The eulogy of this priest is just good food for the soul for that unfortunate family. I blame his bishop who sided with the family and punished the good priest. Usually most of the bishops side with the people and oust the dedicated clergies. Did any bishop stoped Nancy Palosi and ‘uncle’ Jo Biden from receiving the communion? They are in favor of abortions and ‘same sex unit’. Never! What did Cardinal of Chicago with the priest who burn the gay/lesbian flag? He was given 1 hour to leave the parish right before officiating a wedding. One hour to get his stuff and leave. Many things were changed in the Catholic Church just o please the people. Today, we have funeral for suicides in the church, the priest are resting on their throne and the women distribute communion in church, they welcome gay and lesbians and we see full funerals in the presence of ashes. Not long ago cremation was not acceptable. Todays it is! Al, these changes are just good for nothing. Fr LaCuesta did a magnificent job. His bishop and his diocese is wrong for stoping him to preach at funerals. In plain English-SHAME ON THEM for siding with thee hypocrites!

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