Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Funeral Mass and Easter

Today is the fifth anniversary of my father's death. The day he died was one of the saddest days of my life.  But the day of his funeral was one of the most joyful days of my life.

That may startle some of you, but it's true. My Dad's funeral Mass, celebrated right here at Christ the Redeemer, was a peak moment of faith, hope and joy for me. It's a major reason why my sorrow at his passing has been almost entirely replaced by gratitude for God's goodness.

I'm sharing this today for a reason. A couple parishioners who died in recent months did not have a funeral Mass--because they had not talked with their children about their final wishes and about our Catholic beliefs and traditions. I've been waiting ever since to talk with you about this subject, and today seems an ideal opportunity to do that.

But not just because today's my Dad's anniversary. There are more important reasons. The first is simply that we're still celebrating Easter, and I've come to realize that the funeral Mass is to a death what Easter is to Good Friday. The death of a loved one is always a sort of Calvary; it's rare indeed that we don't feel pain and grief. We know that Good Friday was a day of darkness.

Yet Easter banished that darkness--as St. John wrote at the very beginning of his Gospel "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."

Some of the same joy and relief that Mary and the disciples felt when they saw the risen Lord is offered to us in the funeral liturgy. At a funeral Mass Jesus asks us the same question he asked Mary Magdalene: "why are you weeping?" and we claim the promise of today's second reading, which says "God will wipe away every tear from their eyes."

Although God will not wipe away every tear until we are united with him before his heavenly throne. Still, the funeral Mass uses these very words in the third Eucharistic prayer as the priest prays both for the deceased and those who mourn them.

As well, the first preface of Mass for the Dead proclaims that the hope of our blessed resurrection has dawned in Christ, so "that those saddened by the certainty of dying might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come."

Do you sometimes wonder what difference your faith really makes? After all, in daily life most of us look a lot like our non-Christian or non-Catholic neighbours. I think we can often see a big difference both in how we face our own death or when we are parted from a loved one. This is where our Easter faith has real and important consequences.

Who wants to come to church on Good Friday and stay home on Easter Sunday? This is what happens when the death of a faithful Catholic is not followed by a Catholic funeral. Of course it is not essential for their salvation but it is part of our proclamation of faith both within and beyond the parish community.

(If you're not convinced by my experience, do take a look at my homily from Easter Sunday, where I share the more eloquent response to a funeral Mass from a parishioner less than half my age!)

The bulletin today has a short handout on the subject of funeral planning. At the rectory and on-line there is more detailed information.  I want to encourage all parishioners, but especially those who have no adult children practicing the faith, to do what's necessary to ensure they will have a funeral Mass at the end of their days.

On another note: today is Good Shepherd Sunday, a day when we traditionally speak about vocations to the priesthood. I begin my holidays on Saturday, so Father Paul will preach about vocations at all Masses next week.  But there's one thing I'd like to say on the subject today. Some parents are reluctant to encourage a son to consider the priesthood because they worry about losing the consolation of grandchildren.

Well, that's a legitimate concern--my mother says she'd have skipped having children and gone straight to grandchildren if she'd known how much fun they are, not to mention great-grandchildren.  But consider what it meant to our family that a son could anoint his father with the oil of the sick, pray with and for the family at his beside, and eventually to preach at his funeral.

These things are among the blessings of having a priest in the family, and they too are great consolations.

It was, of course, a great challenge to preach at my father's funeral, but by a grace that still amazes me, I managed. Looking back, I think it's one of the best homilies I ever gave. The funeral was on Easter Monday, so naturally enough I made the same connection with the Easter mystery that I've talked about today. I even remarked that a priest who couldn't preach at a funeral the day after Easter should look for another line of work!

The key message, though, is one I'd like to repeat this morning. In my homily I shared my parents' secret for keeping the family close to the Church--our family did not miss Sunday Mass. Not rarely, never.

If we take the Sunday obligation seriously, a funeral Mass is a natural climax to a disciple's life, because what I’ve said about the funeral Mass today is true of every Sunday Mass. 

Every week we celebrate our Easter faith. Every Sunday we strengthen our belief that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and that Christ will come again. And every Sunday Mass prepares us for the moment when we most need to remember that one day we too will rise with him, together with those we've loved.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Divine Mercy Sunday

During the four years that Father Xavier and I shared the rectory, I don’t think either of us apologized once. We didn’t need to—we were close in age and of similar habits in the house.

With Father Paul it’s a whole different story. We’re apologizing all the time! He says he’s sorry for eating at breakfast the lasagna I’d planned to serve for dinner, and I say I’m sorry for yelling when I found the empty dish.

But it’s really not apologies that makes us get along so well; it’s mercy.

Mercy is the fuel of forgiveness. Without it, no marriage, no family, no friendship can really thrive. Mercy is the compassion and understanding that even precedes the act of forgiving.

Yet mercy is a rather unfamiliar word. We use it very casually. People speak about “mercy killing,” basketball has “mercy rules,” and there was even an old joke about the man who killed his parents placing himself on the mercy of the court—since he was an orphan.

Only at Mass do we seem to use the word seriously. We pray “Lord, have mercy, Christ have mercy” in a prayer even older than the Latin liturgy.

St. John Paul designated this second Sunday of Easter as the Sunday of Divine Mercy. He called Divine Mercy “the Easter gift that the Church receives from the risen Christ and offers to humanity (Divine Mercy Sunday Homily, April 22, 2001).

Let’s think about why he did that, and about what we mean when we ask the Lord for mercy every Sunday.

In the first place, today’s Gospel highlights three things; we need all three to celebrate fully God’s mercy today.

The first is peace. Three times Jesus says “peace be with you” to his disciples and to us. Peace is a fruit of mercy. Mercy frees us from fear—from hopelessness and anxiety about our failures and weaknesses. Haven’t you experienced the beautiful feeling of peace that comes when a loved one forgave some wrong you did? It lifts an enormous weight off your shoulders.

At the beginning of every Mass we ask for mercy. Towards the end of every Mass Christ offers us peace. There’s an important connection there that we should not miss.

The second thing that stands out in today’s Gospel is the forgiveness of sins. And it’s no accident that our reading from Acts is about the Apostles healing people. The Risen Lord gave a mission to his Church, and he equipped it with power—demonstrated by physical miracles but primarily for the eternal saving of souls.

So much happens in the today’s Gospel that we can fail to notice that Jesus has just instituted the Sacrament of Penance! The Church teaches that Jesus did this at the moment when he breathed on the disciples and said “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (Council of Trent, Session 14).

Today deserves the title Sunday of Divine Mercy for this fact alone. The peace that Jesus offered to the frightened few huddled behind closed doors is now offered to every sinner.

Our penitential services this Lent were well attended, and we have a steady flow of people at confession each week. But far fewer celebrate this sacrament than come to Mass, which worries me—not because I think there’s a score of hardened sinners in the congregation, but because the gift of God’s mercy is for all.

I sent a text to a priest friend yesterday: “Come and help me with my homily and will give you a good lunch.” He came happily. After the lunch—which was good—he said “okay, how can I help you with the homily?” I said “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…” and went to confession! Because I practice what I preach about this great sacrament of mercy.

The third thing that jumps out at us from the pages of the Gospel today is faith.

The Scriptures today proclaim that Jesus forgives sins, heals infirmities and gives peace. But these gifts require something on our part—faith. Not a perfect and unwavering faith, but a faith that reaches out to Jesus.

Jesus tells Thomas to touch him, but it is really Jesus who touches Thomas. The doubting apostle stretches out his hand and fingers, but Jesus gives faith to his heart.

Some of us may also have doubts, but there is no risen Christ standing before us. What do we do? Like Thomas, we might want to try reaching out to Jesus—perhaps by celebrating the Sacrament of Penance for this first time in a long while, even if we’re not fully convinced we need mercy or that Jesus will show us mercy.

If mercy is a foreign word to you, perhaps you might come to church on Friday evening. Father Raymond de Souza—a keen intellect and a popular writer—will be with us for a one-night “Mission of Mercy,” and will share his thoughts on why mercy matters so much to each of us.

And if you already experience God’s mercy, join us on Friday night to pray for those who embrace brutality over mercy, to pray for a world that needs mercy: because, as the future Pope Benedict preached at St. John Paul’s funeral, “Divine mercy is the limit God puts to evil in the world.”

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Mission This Friday

This Friday night our parish will be welcoming a very talented friend of mine, Father Raymond J. de Souza. Already known to our parishioners from previous visits, including a parish mission, he is also greatly appreciated for his work as pastor and university chaplain and for his contributions to the National Post and the magazine Convivium, of which he is the editor-in-chief.

Father de Souza's topic will relate to the Year of Mercy, a subject he addressed in his National Post column when Pope Francis inaugurated the special holy year in December.