By Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
My mother turned 93 just a little less than a month ago. She lives in an independent living apartment building for the elderly in St. Louis that is operated by the church. The apartment building is under the patronage of St. Joseph. Mass is celebrated a couple of times a week and the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a chapel.
My mother enjoys living there. She plays cards three nights a week with a different set of residents. I tell her the place is like a college dorm for older people.
Mom has lived there for more than 15 years. Because for many of the residents, their next home is not in this world, but eternity, my mother says: “It is like living on death row. But it is a very nice death row.”
Father Paul Scalia, the son of deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, gave a remarkable homily at his father’s funeral. He began the homily in this manner:
“We are gathered here because of one man, known personally by many of us, known by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy and for great compassion. That man, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth.
“It is he who we proclaim. Jesus Christ, the Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of him, because of his life, death and resurrection that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.”
Father Scalia urged his family and the other mourners to focus on yesterday, today and tomorrow. With regard to yesterday, it was a moment to give thanks. Father Scalia noted how, in the week leading up to the funeral Mass, many recounted some of the wonderful and beautiful things his dad had done for them. However, the funeral Mass was a moment to remember all that God had done for his father.
Father Scalia observed that Jesus had suffered, died and rose for all of humanity. But at this moment, it was important to remember that Jesus did all of this for each of us individually. Jesus gave his life on Calvary for Antonin Scalia. Father Scalia remembered gratefully the new and eternal life his father had been given through the waters of baptism, the nourishment and strength his father received through the Eucharist, and the spiritual healing his dad experienced in the confessional.
Father Scalia urged the mourners in this present moment to pray for his father. He described his dad as a practicing Catholic, in the sense that he had not yet perfected his living of the Catholic faith. Father Scalia urged the funeral congregation:
“Let us not show him a false love and allow our admiration to deprive him of our prayers. We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him.”
Father Scalia quoted from a letter his father had written to a Presbyterian minister about the importance of proclaiming the truth of the Gospel at funeral services. Antonin Scalia had written: “Even when the deceased was an admirable person, indeed especially when the deceased was an admirable person, praise for his virtue can cause us to forget that we are praying for and giving thanks for God’s inexplicable mercy to a sinner.”
As a funeral homilist, I have experienced the challenge of maintaining a delicate balance. On one hand, the funeral homily is a privileged opportunity to remind family and friends of how God’s light shone through the life of their deceased loved one. It is a moment to exhort mourners to imitate the virtues and life of faith lived by the deceased.
At the same time, it is important not to attempt to canonize the dearly departed. We do not believe that this life is about self-perfection, but rather an encounter with the person of Jesus Christ and his merciful love. It is an injustice to the dead to pretend they do not need our prayers. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray both for the living and the dead.
Every funeral also is an opportunity for mourners to think about the future, about their own eternal destiny. Father Scalia expressed it this way: “Every funeral reminds us of just how thin the veil is between this world and the next, between time and eternity, between the opportunity for conversion and the moment of judgment.”
The death of a loved one is a moment when conversions or deeper conversions can and do occur. Funerals are events that confront us with the reality of what the ashes with which we began Lent symbolize: namely, the world as we know it is passing away.
In a sense, we all live on death row. This world is not the final destination for any of us and we are fools if we live as if it were. For the Christian, we need not fear death and we can and should enjoy our own death row. Meditating on the reality of our own death for the disciple of Jesus is not a morose activity, but it is a reality check that motivates us to live with greater intensity and make wiser choices in the present moment.
During this Lenten season, let us give thanks for the gift of our Catholic faith and the hope it permits us. Let us during these final weeks of Lent seek to deepen our own ongoing conversion. Let us live in this world striving to follow Jesus as faithfully as possible by being instruments of his love for others.
May we never take for granted or cease to give thanks for Our Lord’s victory of life in which we are privileged through his grace to share!