John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
November, by tradition, is the month when the Church shines particular focus on praying for the faithful departed. As the last month in the liturgical year, the readings at Mass—both Sundays and weekdays—take on a decided eschatological tone.
It’s a paradox that as the culture of death acquires an ever-greater grip on modern people, the discussion of death grows ever more mute. That silence is not unique to secular culture: the “four last things”—death, judgment, hell and heaven—have been AWOL from preaching for a long time.
Indeed, that conspiracy of silence—whether out of laziness or nominally “good” intentions”—is contributing to a crisis in the Church. It is a crisis in which the average Catholic’s understanding of those issues is more formed by an amalgam of social beliefs, cultural practices and religious illiteracy. It begs to be addressed.
I propose, then, that we expand our approach to November. For too many parishes, our “commemoration of the faithful departed” has been reduced to another envelope in the collection mailing in which you can write the names of one’s loved ones, to be remembered in a collective novena during the first nine days of the month. The End.
November in parishes, however, should instead focus on our end: not just the inevitable mortal end of our lives, but also the “end,” the goal of our lives. By all means, let’s have parish novenas of Masses for the faithful departed. But let’s not end there.
Once upon a time, the practice of 30 days of prayer for the departed after death was commonplace. Indeed, a laudable Catholic custom that every Catholic should know and consider arranging for is a series of Masses known as “Gregorian Masses.” Gregorian Masses, named after Pope St. Gregory the Great, refers to the practice of offering Mass for a deceased person for 30 consecutive days. Pious tradition affirms that the soul of a deceased person appeared to the Pope, declaring that he had been delivered to heaven by this period of focused prayer.
Have we forgotten the Catholic teaching that it is “holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead?” That our beloved, for whom “life is changed, not ended,” need our prayers because, beyond this life, they can do nothing for themselves? When is the last time you prayed for the dead? Have you taught your children the “Eternal rest” as a prayer, since they may be the most likely people to ever think of praying for you? When did you last arrange a Mass intention for someone? Do you know that there are religious orders that will allow you to prearrange Gregorian Masses for yourself, a spiritual preparation as important as your last will and testament?
Speaking of last wills and testaments, November is an appropriate time for parishes to focus peoples’ attention not just on those that have died but also the fact each of us will die. It’s a fitting time to focus on personal planning.
Why not invite lawyers in the parish to do an evening or Saturday morning on making a will? Why can’t funeral directors talk about funeral planning? Vatican II told us the laity ought to bring Christ to others in the world: the Christian attorney and Christian mortician have a perfect opportunity to extend their professions as vocations to their fellow faithful by offering these important services.
In connection with funeral planning, pastors should also address another crisis that I believe is sincerely undermining Catholic faith and practice: cremation. Cremation is rapidly outpacing traditional burial, and the practice among Catholics does not differ from the general population. The Holy See issued a document in 2016 containing cautions about cremation. Some of its norms clearly clash with cultural trends. The Vatican, for example, opposes scattering of ashes—even as movies romanticize it (think Drew Baylor in “Elizabethtown”) or keeping remains at home. I have yet to hear any mention of that document: Ad resurgendum cum Christo seems even better buried (pardon the pun) than Humanae vitae!
I would argue that cremation as practiced today ultimately embraces a vision of the body that is either dualist and gnostic—treating the body as sub-personal, an overgrown carbon footprint—or utilitarian (a costly accessory of which to dispose). I will not even get into modern methods of bodily destruction currently in vogue that reduce the human temple of the Holy Spirit that was once the body to an effluent or garden mulch, often in the name of “green” burial.
Why the silence? Why is practice being dictated by the market, both in terms of costs and custom?
One reason cremation is popular even among Catholics is the cost: cremation is markedly cheaper than burial. That’s in part due to the fact that it is also generally eliminating viewings, wakes, and even services. Apart from these issues (funerals should interrupt life, not be scheduled at mourners’ convenience), November is a good time for parishes to address funeral planning that makes burial—lying in the grave like the Lord Jesus Himself did—affordable. Will parishes, dioceses, and their cemetery industries take up that challenge? As a kid in a Polish parish, I remember taking my grandmother’s little booklet and paying $12 every January into the “Kasa Pośmiertna,” the “Post-Mortem Cashbox,” a self-help insurance program that enabled immigrants to ensure there was money to bury them in a pre-safety net era. Grandma kept paying into it into the 1970s. Can we not find creative ways today to help Catholics not just to die, but to be buried like their Lord and Master—and not just incinerated because it’s “cheaper?”
November is a time to get to know the parish or diocesan cemetery. Some dioceses arrange for a November Mass at the cemetery. In Poland (and, in my lifetime, at ethnic cemeteries) a procession around the parish graveyard in November was common. Perhaps, like the revival of the Corpus Christi procession, we might consider dusting off this “relic.” After all, the cemetery is also part of the Church. It is “hallowed ground,” the consecrated ground in which is gathered the Church Awaiting—those awaiting the Parousia. We have forgotten that cemeteries belong to our ecclesiology: their disappearance (in no small part due to cremation) attests to that amnesia. A pilgrimage to this “part” of the Church should remind us of the dignity of the body (this is not wasted land) and that the community of a parish extends in space and time beyond those gathered for coffee and doughnuts after Sunday Mass.
Speaking of parish “community,” let’s consider how to make it deeper than Sunday morning caffeine and carbs. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” While, undoubtedly, the Lord is the source of our comfort, Mt 5:4 leaves the door ajar: who’s going to do that comforting?
Is there interest in your parish to establish a funeral or bereavement support group? From experience, I’d say there are three real but distinct needs here. The immediate funeral period—when most people reach out—often runs on autopilot, families (to the extent there are) converge, and the “professional” funeral industry “helps” bridge that time. But once the funeral is over, who asks “how are you?” two days or two weeks later? That “how are you?” can be a meal or it can be listening or just checking that everything’s “fine” – more and more people live alone today and, in Japan, the warning sign that an elderly person has died is now often the telltale smell of decomposition. Parishes could offer bereavement support groups that are animated by Catholic principles, e.g., our vision of “what sense all this has.” I’d point out two particularly vulnerable populations in the average parish: the elderly and widows with children. Those advanced in years often are consigned to isolation, even amid bereavement, and might not even be able to get to church. Widows and surviving children often have to fare alone, and the kids (especially boys) would benefit from inclusion by other fathers in activities. My father died when I was young; looking back, I wish some dads in the parish had done some outreach. I remember until today our neighbor, Mr. John Fazekas, who fixed this 12-year old’s broken radio, something my father would have done. I still have it. Do you want to be remembered 45 years from now?
We can pray for those who have died and make civil preparations for our own passing, but November should also be a time focused on our own spiritual preparation for death. Once upon a time, not that long ago, memento mori was a staple part of Catholic spirituality. November ought to be a time of introspection: for sermons that speak of death, judgment, hell and heaven; for addressing the de facto universalism that infects Catholic thought, intimating that everybody (except maybe Hitler and Stalin) is saved—and never even mentions Purgatory; for connecting our eternal fate with whom we have made ourselves by our sins or good deeds; for a parish mini-retreat or mission that grapples with these topics; for mention of and expanded access to the sacrament of Penance; and for explanation of the Church’s contemporary understanding of and access to the Sacrament of the Sick.
November is an opportunity for the Church to pray for the dead and evangelize about man’s last enemy, death (1 Corinthians 15:26). Will we content ourselves with our current minimalism? Or will we seize the chance to “go deep” in this vital area of human existence?