Ministering after suicide

Question: As a permanent deacon, I was asked recently to do a memorial service in a funeral home for a non-Catholic who had committed suicide. I mentioned in the homily the fact that the person had committed suicide. Afterwards two of the relatives told me that this was inappropriate. Was I wrong to do this? What would you say in such a homily?

-- Deacon John, address withheld

Answer: It is very important that funeral homilies be realistic, that they neither understate truths that are in everyone's mind nor exaggerate aspects of the life of the deceased. In my experience, covering over the fact that the deceased committed suicide is unwise.

Making reference to the way the person died and giving a Christian interpretation of it is central to what the liturgy is about. Covering over the fact that the person committed suicide does not help people and leaves them without the resources to deal with the matter.

As a pastor, I have found over the years that the majority of people at such a funeral -- and, more importantly, the majority of the family members -- welcome some realistic reference to the suicide of their loved one. One or two may object, but the majority are grateful and relieved.

In dealing with suicide in a homily, there are a couple of points that need to be kept in mind. The first is that we can never fully understand what goes on in the hearts and souls of people. We do not know what pressures they were under and what led them to suicide. Pastors and medical professionals are often puzzled that someone they thought they knew had recourse to suicide.

The most important point is that the Church actually prays for the person who has committed suicide. It prays in the recognition that God's mercy is greater than human mercy and that God's understanding far surpasses that of human beings.

God still calls the person who has committed suicide to himself and there is every reason to hope that he or she will be numbered among the children of God in the kingdom of heaven.

Statues don't distract

Question: Recently, a liturgical consultant gave a lecture in our parish in which she said that the reason we do not have many statues of saints in our churches nowadays is because statuary only distracts people from their own dignity as the children of God. Please comment.

-- e-mail

Answer: My principal comment is that the consultant was as wrong as she could be. One should always, I think, look for the positive side of every position, but not a shred of insight occurs to me on this one.

The principal purpose of images of the saints in churches is to underline the truth that the local congregation never worships by itself. It always worships within the communion of saints. In the liturgy, the worship of the earthly and heavenly churches are as one. In the sacraments, heaven comes down to earth and earth is raised to heaven.

All this is true whether there are saintly images in the church or not. If there is an appropriate scheme of images, then this truth is kept at the forefront of the consciousness of the congregation. If there is a scarcity of images, then this consciousness shrivels.

There is no evidence of which I am aware that statuary and images denigrate the dignity of the congregation. Indeed, the opposite is true. The nobler and inspiring the imagery in the church, the more the people grow in a sense of their dignity as sons and daughters of God.

Msgr. M. Francis Mannion is a priest and theologian of the Diocese of Salt Lake City. Send your questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.