By Terence P. Curley
This month ends the year designated by Pope Benedict XVI as a jubilee for St. Paul. During the year marking the bimillennial of the birth of the great Apostle to the Gentiles, the Holy Father asked us to especially imitate the zeal that characterized the saint's life and ministry. At the same time, during the year of St. Paul, we recalled his lasting and ever relevant contribution to the Church.
In this article we focus on a very significant area. As is evident in his letters, his words illustrate the deep pastoral sensitivity he possessed for those who are shattered due to the loss of a loved one. St. Paul provides us with a spirituality for reaching out to those experiencing loss.
The Ministry of Consolation relies on St. Paul's words to provide guidance in caring for the bereaved. Parishes will find a rich resource in faith when they explore and meditate on the Pauline letters.
Paul and those who were his disciples emphasized the importance of sanctifying life in this world in preparation for the eternal life of glory. It is with St. Paul that we are familiar with putting everything into perspective when we live with his words: ''Now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. My knowledge is imperfect now; then I shall know even as I am known'' (1 Cor l3:12-13).
The words of this saint comfort us when we realize that he shared our feelings of being able only to glimpse the bright promise we will someday see face to face. He acknowledges our loss and inability to fully understand what we are experiencing. He has been there, knows the feeling, but his faith sustains and pulls him forward. We, too, can make it through this darkness.
In his physical and spiritual intensity for evangelizing, St. Paul knew about loss. Loss was a major part of Paul's life and ministry. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-29, he recounts many of his losses and how much he endured. He writes of being beaten with rods, shipwrecked three times, hit by stones, and living with hunger, cold and hardship on an almost constant basis.
The Pauline missionary effort shows us a model of how to detach and surrender to the will of God. Our attachments cannot be allowed to obscure our relationship with God. Paul lived the spiritual and physical poverty which increased his love of Christ Jesus. By having nothing, Paul gained everything. It is little wonder that he wrote: ''I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord'' (Phil 3:8).
In the Second Letter to the Corinthians, the origins of all consolation are spelled out to this early community of faith:
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the All merciful Father, the God whose consolation never fails us! He comforts us in our troubles, so that we in turn may be able to comfort others in any trouble of theirs and to share with them the consolation we ourselves received from God. As Christ's cup of suffering overflows, and we suffer with him, so also through Christ our consolation overflows (2 Cor 1:3-6).
By embracing Christ's suffering as our own and offering our suffering to Christ we free ourselves to accept Christ's love and consolation which is without limit. The grace we receive transforms our suffering into acceptance and brings us closer to seeing clearly our union with our loved ones in Christ.
As priests we are more than familiar with the readings from St. Paul in the lectionary for funeral Masses. St. Paul's words are pastorally very significant and put into focus our basic belief as Christians in the Resurrection. Very often the community gathered for funerals is in great need of catechesis. As pastors we want to evangelize those who are present as to how we believe and how those beliefs guide our earthly journeys.
We can attribute to St. Paul the wonderfully poignant question (Paul to the Romans 6:3-4,8-9), ''Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?'' He continues. ''We were indeed buried with him through baptism into his death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.''
Paul raises the consciousness of the community with his question. It also catechizes as to the signs and symbols for our Order of Christian Funerals. The selfsame symbols used at the beginning of our faith journey are now being utilized in the funeral liturgy. We are now recalling throughout the liturgy our participation in the Paschal Mystery.
The white garment worn at baptism now symbolized in the pall, the holy water, and the paschal candle are all sacred reminders that we were incorporated into the Body of Christ through baptism. Paul reminds us that death has been with us from the beginning. It is our passage. It is our destiny. At the same time we are raised and able to live eternally in Christ.
We live our lives with death before us but we also live with eternity in our sights. We are graced creatures who see through faith-filled eyes. In the funeral Vigil we can read from Paul's second letter to the Corinthians: ''So we are always courageous, although we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith not by sight'' (2 Cor 5:6-10) -- (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 74).
Our homilies and liturgical catechesis are very dependant upon St. Paul and how he instructed his communities of faith through his ministry and letters. It is really remarkable how needed this message continues to be and how St. Paul framed everything so well for our ministry to the bereaved.
In the Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), Nos. 1-8, the ritual highlights the suffering of the bereaved and the community response. The importance of caring for one another is evident in St. Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 12:26: ''If one member suffers in the Body of Christ which is the Church, all the members suffer with that member.''
This is the pastoral perspective for the ministry summarized very empathically by St. Paul. These words serve us well when we initiate and deepen ministries of care programs for our parishioners who are suffering loss. This is in keeping with St. Paul's theology which teaches us to focus on the Cross where there is healing and hope for those who are ministering or suffering.
St. Paul places grief into the context of hope. He does this in his letter to the Thessalonians. It was evident to Paul when he stayed in Thessalonica that some of the people who were grieving were not taking into consideration their faith in the Lord. They grieved on a worldly plane. By doing so they were not open to experiencing the love of Christ and his consolation.
Paul was writing to admonish those who were grieving in this manner. He gives us the message which we proclaim as well to our communities of faith. ''We would have you be clear about those who sleep in death, brothers; otherwise you might yield to grief, like those who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, God will bring forth with him from the dead those who have fallen asleep believing in him'' (1 Thes 4:l3-15).
It is the Resurrection that brings about our hope for eternal life. We are to ''console one another with this message'' (1 Thes 4:17).
St. Paul's words of consolation directly instill hope for the bereaved. In our prayer with the bereaved we need to recall what Paul gives us in his letters to the first Christians and to Christians of the 21st century. Not only does he put our grief into perspective but he also addresses the deep suffering being endured by those experiencing loss. We as ministers to the bereaved need to offer this wide perspective of faith that is still a vibrant and vital message.
Pastoral care and concern for the grief-stricken is clearly evident when final prayers are offered at the place of committal. The prayer is fashioned in accordance with St. Paul's Letter to the Philippians 4:6-8. ''The Lord is near; have no anxiety, but in everything make your requests known to God in prayer and petition with thanksgiving. Then the peace of God, which is beyond our utmost understanding, will guard over your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.''
The actual prayer from the ritual reads: ''May the peace of God which is beyond all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God and of his Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen'' (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 326). During difficult times for the bereaved, when all seems dark and bleak, Paul admonishes us as he did the Thessalonians and Philippians, to keep Christ close. To configure our sufferings and loss to Christ on the cross knowing as we do that the resurrection dawns bright, making all things new.
A large part of grief is trying to sort things out. With intense grief there is often disorientation and confusion in how we think. If we have attachments which control our lives, it makes the grieving process even more difficult.
There is a need for a spirituality which allows us to realize that by rebuilding our trust in God we can experience the peace which is, beyond understanding. God's infusion of love in Christ Jesus is what sustains us in all that we do -- especially while we grieve. St. Paul puts all of this into focus by the way he ministered and taught us how to live out affliction with encouragement (2 Cor 1:6).
What I have come to believe in my years of ministering to the bereaved is that this is a time of primary spiritual need. This need to understand and move is a spiritual task. It is a need to integrate our faith and our loss on both the physical and spiritual plane.
Tapping into the grace of our faith, those who mourn are able to sort and realign thoughts and feelings into a more spiritual paradigm that will work for the changed and challenging circumstances facing them. That need is to have a new relationship in faith with our loved one who has died.
This spiritual task is very much in keeping with contemporary insights to loss. We are told by many theories that, when we lose someone, we need to accept the loss and in the grieving process reinvest our emotions once again. We need to let go of our attachments and not to stop there but go further and invest in our new spiritual relationship with our loved ones who have died.
We hope and pray they will be raised up in glorified form sharing in a resurrection like that of our risen Lord. So much of this theology is dependant on Pauline thought. Our belief in the Paschal Mystery and our encounter with the Lord gives us certain hope. ''If we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep'' (1 Thes 4:14).
Paul is a saint for the bereaved in his persistence and courage to continue amidst loss, always aware of his relationship with the Lord. He attributes this not to his own efforts but to the power of God. For spiritual encouragement the bereaved need to hear Paul's words: ''The Transcendent power comes from God, not from us. We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; we have our doubts, but we never despair; we are persecuted, but we are never forsaken; we are struck down; but we are never annihilated'' (2 Cor 4:7-8).
Christians who grieve do so in a spiritual context. We place our losses in life into our relationship with the Lord. Paul has given the very foundations for this context. With him we appreciate the ministry to every community of faith. His letters to the churches give us the spiritual guidance for grace and strength to face whatever happens on our journey.
St. Paul's autobiographical references serve us well for establishing and forming a grief ministry. He discloses for us his own belief and what he is going through as a person. He writes: ''I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord'' (Rom 8:38-39).
This is an expression of the apostolic zeal that the Holy Father asked us to imitate during the year of St. Paul. This is St. Paul giving us a context for living, no matter what we face. His words echo those of Jesus who reminded us that He would be with us always to the end of time. The more we read St. Paul, the more we will become aware of how relevant his words are for an effective ministry and especially the ministry of consolation.
It is important not to overlook his contribution to the ministry of consolation. Paul's preaching of Christ crucified provides us with the power to be able to receive comfort and consolation and communicate this as members of the Body of Christ. This is St. Paul's gift to us for our pastoral ministry to the bereaved. TP
FATHER CURLEY is pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Parish, Nahant, Mass. He also teaches pastoral studies as a member of the faculty of the Master of Arts in Ministry Program at St. John Seminary, Brighton, Mass.
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