One thing that struck me when I became a Catholic, almost thirty years ago now, was the general attitude that Catholics had towards funerals. What I mean by this is that for me, as an unchurched person, funerals were always and exclusively the domain of close family members and good friends – at least this was my perception. To me it would have constituted an intrusion for anyone outside of that intimate circle to invade such a solemn and private occasion.
My eyes were opened to a far more beautiful approach when I became a Catholic. What I have experienced since becoming part of the Church is the fact that we are all intimately connected as a family of faith. Like any family we have our ups and our downs and like any family we tend to be there for each other in times of crisis or difficulty. Sometimes we can see each other far enough, but always, underlying however the relationships are at the time, there is a sense of deep connection and of being in this together, being together on the pilgrimage of faith and the journey towards eternal life.
I was heartened having become a Catholic to see “the regulars” at funerals at weekday Mass, there to pray either for a well-known parishioner, someone who had been part of the fabric of the church community, and also there when it was someone who had had only tenuous links with the Church, perhaps only ever having been baptized into the Faith. As a priest I always find it encouraging to see “the regulars” there at funerals, not only for the moral support that it provides me at what can be a delicate and sometimes stressful time, but more importantly because it demonstrates a sense of real love, a sense of charity, a sense of “we’re in this together.” “This” being the goal of getting to Heaven, the work of saving our souls – and how encouraging it is to see parishioners praying for the faithful departed, attending Holy Mass, perhaps offering even their Holy Communion for the repose of the deceased’s soul.
There’s no sense in the Catholic way of seeing things that we can’t be there at another’s funeral because we didn’t know them well enough, or that we weren’t close enough to them. I think, rather, that we try to see in the person who has died a true brother or sister in faith and one whose journey to God we can assist with the offering of our prayers and requests we make to have Holy Mass for the repose of their souls. We have an inherent intimacy with them through Baptism, through our Holy Faith, through the real sense that we are indeed real spiritual relatives.
We’re told in Sacred Scripture, in Second Maccabees, that it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, one in which we take account of the resurrection. The Church urges us this month in particular to recognise the real family and faith bonds that we have with the faithful departed and to do our best to remember them, to pray for them, and to have Holy Mass offered for them. This is charity – not forgetting those who are out of our physical sight and who need our help, but being there for them, and doing what we can (with the help of God’s grace) to alleviate the sufferings that they endure in Purgatory. Despite the restrictions that are upon us at the moment, let me encourage you to come to Holy Mass to pray for our beloved dead, to inscribe their names on our November Lists, to offer your own private prayers for them – especially the Holy Rosary, to visit a cemetery and pray for the dead there, and to offer your own personal penances and sacrifices on behalf of the Holy Souls. They are an important albeit invisible part of our family, but a part with whom we hope to be re-united in the glory of Heaven. Think how elated they will be to welcome us into the celestial realm having themselves been speeded on to glory with the support of our prayers and fraternal love. God bless you, Fr. Martin