This letter is a long time in coming. I want to know what has happened to the Catholic understanding of death. On All Souls Day our priest wore white vestments and talked about how all the dead we pray for on this day are already in heaven. And he called us all a “resurrected people”. This is similar to what I see and hear at almost every Catholic funeral Mass I go to. I thought we were supposed to pray for the dead who are in Purgatory to speed them on their way to heaven. But if everyone goes to heaven as soon as he dies, what does all this mean?
Beleaguered in Biloxi.
Dear Beleaguered in Biloxi,
Thank you for your letter and your concern about the confusion about the Catholic teaching about death. What you have experienced is part of the effect of secular sentimentality on Church practice.
It is true that most Catholic funerals are quasi-canonizations of the person who lies in the coffin at the Funeral Mass. I once participated in the Funeral Mass of a woman whom I knew to be a woman of simple and deep faith. The bishop who presided at this Mass said in his homily that he was sure that she was now looking down on all of us from heaven and that she was dancing a jig. At another funeral a priest said to the husband of the deceased: “You may now pray to your wife as a saint”.
I am sure that you have heard similar sentiments from priests at Funeral Masses. And when these things are said, and they are said often, the people laugh. Not raucous laughter, but nervous and polite laughter, nervous and polite because no one believes these silly sentiments. Some think to themselves: “Poor Father. He has no clue about the reality of death, how much in so many cases death really hurts, is agony, and how this breaks the hearts of those who watch this person die. Let Father go on talking in this sentimental way. And let them go on singing: ‘And I will raaaiiise him up! And I will raaiiise him up!’ We will sing this song that is not of Zion, and go on with our lives and try to figure out what this death of my father or mother or sister or brother or friend means in the context of my faith, what this means and how I can confront this with real meaning and not sappy sentimentality masquerading as faith; what this means in the context of the crucifixion of God incarnate and “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and “Blessed are those who have not seen and believe.” Only here deep in my faith will I find where sense and comfort lie confronting this mystery.”
Dear Beleaguered, a religion that does not take death seriously should never itself be taken seriously.
A religion that does not take Kafka’s words, “He died like a dog” as a real alternative to “He who believes in me shall not die…and I will raise him up at the Last Day” should be abandoned. It is as if the pure stream of the Catholic faith has been polluted by the dumping into its waters the slag of the sentimentality of the world that avoids the reality of death and denies that that slag is indeed a poison, a poison so powerful that it kills the fish that live in these waters.
That great Catholic author and fierce opponent of sentimentality in religion, Flannery O’Connor, says in her collection of essays called Mystery and Manners:
“One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. … Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus’ hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.”
Tough words, but true. Would that she were alive now and could address the next Synod on the Family! When tenderness is detached from its source of tenderness, namely the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, its logical outcome is the abolition of justice in the name of mercy. What is this tenderness except the substitution of the mercy of God by sentimentality? This is the tenderness that deliberately forgets about the justice of God—and death—and pretends that, in general, mercy has eliminated justice.
It is no accident that in the Novus Ordo Mass of Christian Burial the Sequence hymn Dies Irae found in the Traditional Mass was suppressed. This omission was based on the grounds that such a hymn with its “doom and gloom”—through the eyes of the “reformers”—and with its strong reference to judgment and fear should not be part of the expression of faith of those who believe in the promise of the Resurrection of Christ. But it is precisely the Dies Irae that is the antidote to that sentimentality that dissolves the ultimate importance and mystery of death. This hymn is the supreme prayer for the mercy of God in the face of the justice of God, in the face of my own sinfulness.
The teaching of the Church is clear. When a Catholic dies his soul is immediately judged: to the immediate joys of heaven, for the saints, or to a place of purification of sins that leads to heaven, for most of those who are saved — or to hell for eternity. And the Church teaches that the offering of the Sacrifice of the Mass for those in purgatory helps them, by the Cross of Christ, to reach heaven ever more speedily albeit in a way we cannot know. And finally, that we will all rise at the Last Day with our bodies to stand before the Final Judgment.
I offer you two pieces of advice. When you are at a funeral Mass where silly talk and song are going on, tune out and pray for the person who has died. And to make sure that no one will say silly things at your funeral, include in your will a request that your funeral Mass be in the Traditional Roman Rite. That is a guarantee: not of heaven, but at least a sober sense of reality that is the basis of our “sure hope.”
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