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Church and cremation
Q. I was surprised to read that the Catholic Church now permits cremation as an acceptable alternative to traditional burial. What were the reasons for the change in attitude? How does this alternative work in practice?
— J.C., Etobicoke, Ontario
A. Here’s a reply from OSV columnist Msgr. M. Francis Mannion:
The Catholic Church’s traditional opposition to cremation derived from a number of concerns. First, that the human body is the temple of the Spirit and, since it has received the sacraments, is itself a holy object and thus must be disposed of reverently. (In pre-modern times, cremation was often an undignified and gruesome process.) Second, cremation was viewed as a pagan practice. Third, cremation was often associated with the denial of the Resurrection. This was the case especially during the 18th century and after. Fourth, the biblical imagery of the seed falling to the earth and dying and sprouting a new plant (signifying resurrected life) is more evident in the case of traditional burial.
With the development of the modern technology of cremation and the fact that the anti-resurrection and pagan impulses among non-Christians were fading, the Church’s stance against cremation softened, and in the 1960s it began to allow the cremation of members.
The Church strongly prefers that cremation take place after the funeral Mass, at which the body is present, so that it may be publicly honored. The Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) states: “Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, it does not enjoy the same value as burial of the body. The Church clearly prefers and urges that the body of the deceased be present for the funeral rites, since the presence of the body better expresses the values which the Church affirms in those rites” (No. 413).
One of the practical impediments to having the body present for the funeral Mass is the cost factor. Cremation is cheaper than burial and there is no need for a casket and for a full-length grave. However, in many places funeral directors provide rental caskets for the funeral Mass.
In 1997, the Holy See granted permission to the bishops of the United States to allow the cremated remains to be present at the funeral Mass and for all the rites associated with the funeral to be celebrated. The OCF states: “If the diocesan bishop has decided to allow the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy in the presence of the cremated remains of the deceased person, care must be taken that all is carried out with due decorum. The cremated remains of the body are to be placed in a worthy vessel. A small table or stand is to be prepared for them at the place normally occupied by the coffin. The vessel containing the cremated remains may be carried in the entrance procession or may be placed on this table or stand sometime before the liturgy begins” (No. 427).
Care must be taken that the cremated remains are buried or entombed with the appropriate rites. The OCF states: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. The practice of scattering cremated remains on the sea, from the air, or on the ground, or keeping cremated remains in the home of a relative or friend of the deceased are not the reverent disposition that the Church requires. Whenever possible, appropriate means for recording with dignity the memory of the deceased should be adopted, such as a plaque or stone which records the name of the deceased” (No. 417).
What is a vicar?
Q. What is a vicar in the Catholic Church? What are his duties?
A. Here’s a reply from Father Reginald Martin:
In the most general terms, a vicar is someone who is delegated to act on the part of another. In the Church’s Code of Canon Law a comment on the responsibilities of superiors of religious communities helps to clarify a vicar’s role: “The vicar has the power of the major superior when the major superior cannot exercise the responsibilities of office” (Canon 620).
If we assume that a “superior” is any individual responsible for the care or administration of a Church ministry, we can see how vicars function. Many causes might prevent a superior from performing all the tasks of his office. The most common example is that of pastors of large parishes, who face many demands on their time. They are often assigned “parochial vicars” to whom they delegate certain responsibilities so that parishioners’ needs may be met.
Most Catholics have grown up acknowledging the pope as the “Vicar of Christ,” as he represents Jesus to the world. However, for the first thousand years of our history, the title was applied to bishops in their dioceses. Only at the end of the 12th century does the title appear to have been applied exclusively to the Roman pontiff.
Do Not Judge?
Q. Whenever I point out someone is wrong, I am told, “There you go again, judging others.” I quote Matthew 7:1: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged.” The other, 2 Timothy 3:16, is seldom mentioned: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Am I wrong to say one is for God to do as he alone reads the hearts? And is the other the duty of people to correct someone who strays?
M.H., Streator, Ill.
A. Here’s a reply from TCA columnist Father Ray Ryland, Ph.D., J.D
You make the proper distinction in your last two questions. We are obligated to make moral judgments about people’s behavior. Our Lord did a great deal of it. The command not to judge does not refer to people’s actions, but to the persons themselves. It’s the old saying, “love the sinner and hate the sin.”
When I see someone doing or saying something I know is wrong, I have to make that judgment. But I must learn immediately to add, “God help that person; lead him to repentance so he can be forgiven.” Thus I take my focus off myself (my opinion of that person), and focus on his need and the mercy of God. And all this without in any measure condoning anything wrong another person does.
Recall the ending admonition of the Letter of James: “My brothers, if anyone among you should stray from the truth and someone bring him back, he should know that whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins” (5:19-20).
Q. Our Catholic faith calls parents to baptize their newborns shortly after birth to absolve original sin. My question is what happens if a baby is stillborn or dies before being baptized. What’s the Church’s view in this circumstance?
Al, via e-mail
A. Here is a reply from Father Francis Hoffman, J.C.D.:
That’s right. The Church asks us to baptize children “within the first weeks of their birth,” and traditionally that means within the month, or before 30 days, since baptism is necessary for salvation according to Jesus’ words and instructions.
The Catechism says: “As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God who desires that all men should be saved, and Jesus’ tenderness toward children which caused him to say: ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them,’ allow us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. All the more urgent is the Church’s call not to prevent little children coming to Christ through the gift of holy Baptism” (No. 1261).
Q. What is the Church’s teaching on getting tattoos? My granddaughters are driving me crazy!
— Jane M.
The Old Testament is very clear in its prohibition against tattoos. “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh on account of the dead or tattoo any marks upon you: I am the Lord” (Lv 19:28, RSV). The New Testament is silent on the matter, although those who oppose tattooing cite St. Paul in their support. He reminds us, “Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:19-20, RSV).
St. Paul’s admonition is probably closer to the point in today’s society than Leviticus, as tattooing is seldom (at least by most individuals) considered an aspect of pagan ritual. Because God created our bodies, we must assume God designed them with care and a clear sense of their proper purpose. God entrusted creation — this includes our bodies — to our first parents, and commanded them to care for this gift with love. Tattoos may be only cosmetic decorations, but they are permanent changes, and at some point we must ask ourselves how much we can hope to improve on nature.
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