Catholic Funeral Disrespects Deceased Teen

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Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels

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.

Happy thinking,

Nancy

Funeral for a Cracker

american, back view, burialMy family had a funeral to attend recently, and it was a Catholic one. My husband, who was not much of a churchgoer growing up, expressed surprise at how much of the funeral mass was–well, mass. The nonstop Jesus talk, the same repetitive prayers, the call and response, the sit-stand-kneel, then a homily and prayers that had more to do with the Catholic teaching on the Eucharist (holy communion) than anything else. The deceased was barely mentioned, except to talk about Catholic teaching on heaven, hell, and salvation. This was not in any way meant to memorialize the person, only to send them off to heaven.

We found ourselves wondering, is this how we’ll be commemorated when we die? We hope not. The opportunities for true morning and community, for remembering the deceased, were constantly interrupted to instruct on church doctrine regarding death.

The most personal moments that we found the most touching occurred at the wake, where relatives shared photos of the deceased and talked about their memories of his life. This was a somewhat estranged relative in his later years, so we also talked about how that estrangement occurred, and together we came to terms with it.

But my uncle, who did the funerary arrangements, also made sure we had a priest come and do some speaking and ceremonious prayers at the wake, and that cut the personal commemorations short. Suddenly we were being preached to. Preached at, even. I know the salvation talk is comforting to religious people, but to me it was downright jarring. I wanted to hear more about what little we knew about this relative’s childhood and earlier life. This relative fought in World War II. What was that like?

After the prayers, my aunt mentioned she hasn’t been to church in a while but wanted to start going again. Death does that to people, and the church makes sure to be very present during these moments when we’re reminded of our mortality because it claims to offer a way to live forever. I’ve talked about this before: belief in an afterlife is a coping mechanism. I don’t think it’s a healthy way to do it, but it is one way humans deal with their mortality.

The way we morn is also extremely unnatural. We prep the body to make it look better, and to preserve it long enough for relatives to stare at it for a couple of days. My relative had cancer and was very thin in his final days, but the embalmer had done something to make his body look healthier. We spend so much money on viewing a body. So much energy. As human beings, we’re very bad at facing the realities of what death means. We don’t like to imagine our relatives decomposing. This got very morbid but it’s true. I think there’s got to be a better way for us to come to terms with the end of someone’s life.

Do you have experiences with death and mourning in a religious or nonreligious setting? Were there any traditions that you thought helped the families especially?

Feel free to leave a comment. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful and think things through before posting.

Happy thinking!

Nancy

 

 

Better Dead Than in Sin: Ideas that Led me to Atheism

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Gualberto107 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

One of the reasons I started this blog was to express some of the ideas that led me to atheism. I’ve done a fair amount of commenting on issues I find important, so I’d like to spend a few posts on some ideas that really sent me running from my devout Catholic upbringing. This post is about a big one:  the idea that it is a good thing for a person to die young if he or she is pure enough to instantly go to heaven. It sounds sad, but the theology behind it is well established. In fact, it is an idea that I saw celebrated in Catholic stories a lot as I grew up. I’ll give some examples of those stories here, and then attempt to explain why I have a problem with the idea, and why perfectly kind, sane people come to this conclusion.

I first encountered this idea while watching the Spanish film The Miracle of Marcelino. My parents stumbled upon it in a Catholic book shop and sat us down to watch it as a family. You can find out more about the film here, but to give a quick summary (with spoilers, sorry), there’s a boy named Marcelino who’s an orphan raised by a bunch of monks in a monastery. The monks forbid him from going to the attic, but one day he goes there and finds a huge, life size statue of Jesus on the cross. He talks to the statue, and offers bread and wine to the statue…which then takes the bread. The statue is alive! Jesus teaches the boy things, and offers Marcelino a wish. Marcelino wishes to see Mary, Jesus’ mother–and to see his own mother, too. Jesus tells him he will “have to go to sleep” for that to happen, and opens his arms for the boy to sleep in them. The boy obeys, and the audience understands that he has died and gone to heaven. Oh happy day!

The ending of that movie always bothered me. Why was this boy’s early demise being celebrated? Forget heaven; when a child dies, it’s supposed to be a tragedy! He had so much life ahead of him, and Jesus–of all people–KILLS him! I understood that it was a happy ending because he was going to heaven, but I always maintained some irritation with the ending.

Around the time that I encountered that film, I was involved in a Catholic girls group called “Little Flowers.” They’re meant to be kind of like a Catholic version of Girl Scouts–only, we did pretty much nothing that the Girl Scouts do, to my knowledge, except wear sashes with badges. We earned those badges by memorizing Bible verses, and learning about saints and the virtues they exemplified. (The group is named for St. Therese, and you can learn more here if you’re so inclined.) One saint we studied was St. Rita, whose story definitely relates to this post.

I won’t tell the whole story (more of which can be read here) but basically, St. Rita married into a family that was feuding violently with another one. Her husband eventually renounced the feud, supposedly thanks to her influence, but not everyone in the two families did. Because of this, her husband wound up getting killed by members of the other family in the feud. Rita’s sons, who it is alleged were good Christians up to this point, decided to avenge their father. Rita tried to convince them not to, but when that didn’t work, she prayed to God to take their lives before this tragedy could occur. If they murdered someone, that would damage their immortal souls with mortal sin. Wikipedia explains: “Her sons died of dysentery a year later, which pious Catholic beliefs claim was God’s act to take them by natural death rather than risk them committing a mortal sin punishable by Hell.” Of course, the idea that God killed her sons was stated as a fact in the version of her story I was told. That pissed me off even more than the Marcelino story. At least the Marcelino story could be taken as the boy’s choice, since he asks to see Mary and his mother, (though I don’t think he even fully understood that he would have to die in order to do that,) but this is a mother actually praying for God to kill her sons! I was horrified. Even as a devout Catholic, I openly despised St. Rita.

Years later, when I was a sophomore in college, one of my English professors assigned a number of Flannery O’Connor stories, some of which–you guessed it–contain the theme of this post. Considering her biographical information, I wasn’t surprised to encounter this idea in her work. O’Connor was a devout Roman Catholic who grew up in Georgia. She lived from 1925-64, and was a prolific writer who listed Catholicism as her main reason for writing. Her target audience were non-believers, and those of little faith. There are a few examples of this idea in her stories, but the one I’d like to focus on is the one involving a particularly young child. In her short story titled “The River,” a little boy named Harry, raised by faithless, neglectful parents, is brought by his babysitter to a religious event. At the event, a preacher baptizes people in a local river while proselytizing. For the first time, the little boy learns about Jesus and heaven, and is baptized. He is only four or five years old though, and misunderstands the preacher, who says that the way to get to heaven is through the river. The preacher was talking about baptism, but Harry takes it literally. The next day, thanks to his parents neglecting him again, Harry makes his way to the river with a pedophile on his trail. The pedophile doesn’t catch him though, because Harry throws himself into the river trying to get to heaven, drowning himself. It isn’t an intentional suicide. He doesn’t understand what he’s doing, and he got baptized the day before, so he’s definitely going to heaven! Isn’t that great?

Maybe I was always a little skeptical, but even as a Catholic, reading that story, I didn’t find it to be a happy ending. Famously, however, O’Connor did. He goes to heaven, and escapes a terrible life at the hand of neglectful parents! He also doesn’t get raped! Isn’t that a good thing? While I admit that the rape would have been tragic had it happened to such a young character, I can’t shake my disgust with her for thinking that ending his life at such a young age is a good idea. She’s the writer. She could have found plenty of other ways for him to achieve salvation without him dying, couldn’t she?

I’m not the only atheist who can partially attribute a deconversion to this idea. In Julia Sweeney’s one-woman show about her deconversion  from Catholicism titled Letting Go of God, she describes an experience after a retreat in high school where this idea came into play:

I remember after the retreat all of us seniors were in this bus going back to school on these really scary, winding switchback roads, and another senior, Larry…turned to me with this big beatific grin on his face and he said, “Just think, if this bus got into a big accident right now and we were all killed, we would all probably just go straight up to heaven.” We all nodded like “Yeah! Our souls are so clean and pure at this moment, how wonderful would it be if we were all killed in a big bus accident right now, because we’d all fly straight up to Fred!”

(Fred was the name the retreat leaders had decided to use instead of “God.”) As I listened to her story (which is a long but entertaining one that’s available on YouTube at this link, if you’re interested.) I realized I really related to what she was saying. I had thought the exact same thing at various times in my life. I remember walking out of confession, saying my penance, feeling clean and pure, and thinking, how long do I have to stay like this? How long can I keep this up? Keeping my soul spotless felt just like trying to keep my room clean. It might last a day, or a couple of weeks if I was lucky. Eventually the laundry would pile up, my books would get strewn across the floor, and my pairs of shoes would wind up separated by great distances under more dirty laundry. I couldn’t keep it up. What if I were able to die immediately after confession? I’d be spared the torment of purgatory (or worse if I’d been especially bad) and go straight to heaven!

After thinking this, I’d always feel disgusted with myself. I don’t want to die young! I love life. I really enjoy being alive. I enjoy creating things. I enjoy painting, and making music. I enjoy thinking, and writing, and traveling. I enjoy doing community service, and learning more about the world. Even with the belief I used to have in an afterlife that included heaven, I didn’t want to sacrifice a fulfilling life on Earth in order to get a guaranteed spot. I certainly couldn’t expect the characters in these stories to feel that way either. St. Rita’s sons might have wanted revenge, but they might also have wanted other things. I suspect living was pretty high on that list. What about Marcelino? What about Harry? Am I supposed to accept their deaths as what they wanted?

I have a cousin who died from SIDS, and the most important question my parents asked after his death was “Was he baptized?” I think it’s because if he was, and was (as they believed) going to heaven because of that, that would make his death less tragic. So Catholics create stories around this idea, celebrating it in characters who aren’t real (or if they were, as might potentially be the case with St. Rita, we’re far removed from them.) Readers and viewers get to watch from a distance, without the emotional attachment they have to their loved ones, making it easier for them to (hypothetically) see these people’s deaths as a good thing. I was never able to see it that way, though.

This comes back to the idea of belief in an afterlife being a way to cope with death–not just our own impending deaths, but the deaths of those we care about. It probably helps some, but when one follows the possibilities for that train of thought, it becomes very dark. I don’t see anyone arguing for the murder of all babies immediately after they’re baptized, but that would certainly guarantee all children a spot in heaven. Is that a happy ending? I encourage religious people to think about why they feel sad to know that a child has died, even when he or she has been baptized, and why they (I presume) are opposed to the idea of all baptisms ending in infanticide. Don’t tell me the only reason is to keep from committing a mortal sin yourselves. That shows zero care for the children, who would be the victims of such a violent action. For me, what it came down to was that life is worth living, and for God, if he existed, to create life and then take it away abruptly seemed unfair, even if the child is to be rewarded in paradise.

I suppose I never completely bought into the idea that life in this world exists only to prepare us for life in the next. I think life in this world can be pretty darn awesome, and even as a Catholic, I believed that. It just didn’t fit with the other ideas that were being presented to me.

How do you feel about these ideas? Is early death a good thing if it takes a person to heaven, or is it just tragic? Feel free to leave comments. All opinions are welcome, just be respectful of everyone and think things through before posting.

Happy Thinking!

-Nancy

Is Believing in an Afterlife a Coping Mechanism?

A few days ago, I visited family in New York, and had an interesting conversation with my uncle. He took me aside during the reunion and said, “Look, I want you to be honest. I’m going to ask you a question. I won’t tell other people, but I’d like for you to respond with the truth.”

I have a lot of respect for this uncle, who always seemed very down to earth to me, so I barely hesitated before saying, “OK. What’s your question?”

He whispered in my ear, “Are you an atheist?”

I was relieved it was a question that I could easily answer truthfully. Even though I hadn’t actually told anyone in my extended family yet, my parents already knew. “Yes.”

He shook my hand and said, “Good for you. I was worried you and your brothers had been too brainwashed to come to your own conclusions.”

I explained that one of my brothers takes my parents’ word as law, but the other has expressed some doubts to me. He said he was relieved to hear that, then said, “You know with your parents, it’s a coping mechanism, right? They don’t want to die, so they have to believe in an afterlife.”

I nodded. “It’s hard to deal with the idea that you’ll cease to exist at some point.”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s a little easier for me though. I used to be an atheist, like you, but I did more research and I’m actually a Buddhist. Are you cool with that?”

Of course, I assured him, I’m glad he came to a conclusion that makes sense to him, regardless of what it is. While I don’t think Buddhism offers any new truth or revelation worth believing in, I don’t know much about it, so I’m not going to judge it with my limited knowledge. Then my uncle said something else that was very interesting. “I mean, I don’t exactly believe in that heaven or hell stuff, but I believe in reincarnation until I reach enlightenment.” I think he mentioned coming back as a blank slate to sort of try again until you get life right.

I didn’t want to argue with him, so i just said, “Oh, OK. If that’s what works for you, go for it.” We shook hands again. I’m fine with people coming to their own conclusions, but I did see some issues with what my uncle had said as I understood it. I’ve had almost no experience with Buddhism, so I’ll stick to the idea of reincarnation as I understand it (which may or may not be accurate. It was one conversation), and why I have trouble seeing it the way he does.

I don’t see how one can think that believing in an afterlife, which is just one form of eternal life, is a coping mechanism, but reincarnation isn’t. (Unless he was trying to tell me that he knows it’s a coping mechanism, but believes it anyway.) Either way, some part of you lives on after you die, whether it’s living in paradise, hell, or a new body, you’re not ceasing to exist the moment your brain stops functioning. Regardless of which one you believe in, you’re left with a feeling that you’re not going to cease to exist; some part of you always remains.

I will say that in some forms reincarnation probably could acknowledge death somewhat better than some forms of living after death, if the person believes that one’s memories will be removed and he or she will return as a blank slate. In that case, though, aren’t you technically dead? I mean, we declare people dead all the time even when their bodies are still living. It’s not always your heart that gives out. Sometimes it’s your brain. If that’s true, then you’re not getting closer and closer to enlightenment with each try because each time you’re starting at zero:  with the mind of an infant. So it’s hit or miss. You either get it right, or you try again to hit the bull’s eye.

If that’s the case, then it seems completely random to me, like firing blindfolded. Sure, you might hit the bull’s eye, but you might hit the ground, or a tree, or your friend, who’s aiming at his own target. If there’s no governing force controlling who you come back as, then you might be reborn in a situation where you’re not going to discover anything new. Nature vs. nurture is a question that can be discussed for days, but psychology typically says it’s a combination of the two that leads us to become who we are. You could get genes that make you prone to violence, or you could grow up in a neighborhood where you have to steal to survive. You could even be born with both. How is that life going to bring you closer to your goal of enlightenment, whatever that is? I assume there’s some sort of moral system in place. I’ve read a little about karma and other cosmic forces for morality, and maybe when you put them together with reincarnation they build a more compelling situation, but nevertheless, believing in reincarnation seems to leave the believer with a sense that death is not the end for that individual, and that’s simply not the way I see it. Who I am is intrinsically tied to my memories, my personality, and my genetic predisposition towards things, and all of that is stored in my brain. Without that being completely transferred to another being, I will die and cease to exist. If, on the other hand, you believe that I will retain my memories and move on, then it’s an afterlife, and in my mind, that could just as easily be called a coping mechanism as belief in heaven and hell. 

I definitely need to do some research on Buddhism. I hope I haven’t offended anyone by completely misunderstanding reincarnation, but I was going off of a brief conversation, and limited exposure to the idea as someone who grew up steeped in western culture.

Is belief in life after death a coping mechanism? This question interests me a lot. Feel free to leave comments.

Happy thinking!