The other day, I stumbled upon this article from the Washington Post about the inappropriate behavior of a priest during a funeral mass for a young man who had committed suicide. The priest met with the family, as is typical before a funeral mass, in order to prepare a homily that would honor the deceased. The parents expressed that they wanted to celebrate their son’s life, but the priest had other ideas.
The priest spent much of his homily speculating that the deceased might not make it into heaven because he had committed suicide, using that word upwards of 6 times. (For full details, see the article linked above.)
The Catholic church has not been historically kind when it comes to suicide. From my own memories of growing up Catholic, I can recall the pastor of my former parish giving a homily about sin, in which he advised that all sin except for one is forgivable, and that one sin is despair. As I grew up, I came to understand he was referring to suicide. The Washington Post article corroborates my memory:
For centuries, the Catholic Church has struggled with the religious implications, and societal stigma, of suicide. It wasn’t until the 1960s that the church began taking a more benign approach to suicide, allowing parishioners who had taken their own lives to receive a Catholic funeral and be buried on sacred ground in Catholic cemeteries. In the 1990s, Pope John Paul II approved the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which acknowledged — for the first time — that many people who die by suicide also suffer from mental illness.
I suspect the Catholic Church of doing this to other families. We’re only hearing this particular story because it was so egregious that the family complained publicly. There may well be other cases -not so cut and dry, but still on the cusp of inappropriate, and they may be more common than the church might like to admit.
On a tangiential note, in my last post I mentioned the weakness of church leadership when it comes to questioning old traditions and practices. The Washington Post article brings an example of this: the church’s teaching on suicide changed for the better as of the 1990s, yet priests are still preaching that suicide leads to hell.
The article quotes a priest from the Archdiocese of Chicago and explains:
Though it has been decades since the church adopted a more compassionate view of suicide, there remains a disconnect between some outlier priests and their parishes. The Rev. Charles T. Rubey said he has seen it within the Archdiocese of Chicago and during his 40 years as director and founder of the LOSS program, Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide.
“There are still some priests who view suicide as a mortal sin,” Rubey said. “That has been categorically denied by church leadership.”
If the Pope-approved catechism statement on suicide isn’t enough to make this needed change, especially with the present-day understanding of mental health, it really calls the church’s credibility into question. This kind of thing can really push people away.
My thoughts are with the family of the deceased – this is incredibly difficult, made more difficult by the way it was handled at the funeral, and I hope the church is more punitive toward the offending priest than the article says they will be. The church needs to set a clear example that this will not be tolerated. Otherwise, I guarantee it will continue in another parish in another town, and other priests may be emboldened because he got away with it. This is their pattern of behavior.