Since the earliest days of our Christian faith we have gathered together at the death of beloved members. Our liturgies and care for those who mourn is a deep characteristic of our Gospel faith. The good news of our salvation is central to our response, especially during the loss of a loved one.
When we mourn, our grief is the way we express “sorting things out.” This sorting out often entails identifying our emotions and our spiritual needs. We have to let go of the physical presence and welcome a new spiritual relationship with the deceased person. We are challenged to recognize that our old assumptions about life have changed and now we have to construct new meaning and hope in our lives. For many, such a time is a time of crisis.
A crisis is a time of change and may be called a “turning point” in our lives. In a crisis we must choose. It can be a time of change and finding new meaning or a time of giving in to feelings of loss and abandonment. Rather than a hopeful approach, there is darkness and despair. As Christians we choose life in Christ who helps us transform our loss into a new relationship of life in the spirit.
|It is Christ’s presence which allows our grief to be transformed so that we can see through the glass darkly. This ministry instills hope at critical times in people’s lives. The Crosiers photo
The Christian community is called upon to reach out to those who are suffering loss. St. Paul tells us:
“If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the Church, all members suffer with that member” (1 Cor 12:26).
In the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals (O.C.F., Nos. 1-49) we are provided with ways to minister that are rooted in that hope which comes from faith in Our Lord’s saving resurrection (O.C.F., No. 8). Christ is at the center of our understanding the ministry of consolation. It is not platitudes but His presence which allows our grief to be transformed so that we can see through the glass darkly. This ministry instills hope at critical times in people’s lives.
The Good News has to be proclaimed to the point of people’s needs. There are many needs facing the bereaved. They are in need of hope and often the need to rebuild their lives in a purposeful way. The mission of the Church to evangelize is very evident in the ministry of consolation. This ministry is a vehicle for sharing grace and communicating hope to those who feel broken or abandoned. The Psalmist laments in these times that our lives are like a “shattered vase.”
Our understanding of evangelization has to entail a deep belief with Jesus at the center of our lives. He is the word of the Father and announces the good news amidst darkness, a darkness which cannot overcome the Word. This is powerfully evident in the Prologue to John’s Gospel.
The New Evangelization
When John Paul II gave us the term “new evangelization,” he was not stating that there is a new message. The message and meaning of the Gospels remains the same. John Paul II, in his writings, extends the message of eternal life in God to all Christians whether practicing or not. He tells us that “evangelization can be new in its ardor, methods, and expression” (Origins, 12, March 24, 1983, p. 661). The “new” Order of Christian Funerals is a ritual expression which in word and action relates to the bereaved at the death of a Christian. It sets the tone for grieving and places loss into the context of hope in the paschal mystery of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection.
Responsibility and Ministry
The ministry of consolation as outlined in the introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals clearly presents consolation as being deeply rooted in the community of faith. Our current understanding of the new evangelization is in keeping with this thinking. We are an evangelizing Church not just in the distant continents but in our own communities. This is our very identity. This identity flows from our baptism.
When a member is grieving we need to respond, sharing our faith so that in turn they will be in a graced moment where their suffering can be transformed. We should not try and pull our punches because we think they do not share our faith. We, as evangelizers, need to share our faith not hide it behind platitudes.
Some may believe that our evangelizing is in order solely to increase numbers. While we want to continually proclaim the Gospel to all, our purpose in evangelizing is to be what we are: Christian. We want to make known and bring people closer to the Jesus of faith in whom we believe. Such expression is always characteristic of a vibrant living community.
We are all very aware of the human face of the Church. We continually pray for healing from the brokenness and loss we experience in our modern times. There are those who have walked away from the Church. There are a variety of reasons for this occurrence. Pope John Paul II was very aware of this in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae where he describes “cultures of death.”
Many of us, even in our own families, have those who walked away. The need to re-evangelize those who are not active in the community even though baptized needs to be addressed. This is not done through confrontation. Rather it is necessary to act with love and understanding and present openly and honestly our encounter with the Jesus of faith.
Current thoughts about grief focus on the search for meaning when we experience major loss. There is no complete theory of grief. All people bring a personal grief history to their time of loss. Along with that history is their faith or lack of faith development in their lives.
No matter how disconnected people may be from the Church and religion, when they grieve it is an opportunity for grace and certainly for evangelization. The good news message of the Kingdom of God creates meaning and purpose. It engenders hope. Hope is that we will see our loved ones again in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Not only do we live in a death-denying society, we also live in a world where belief in the afterlife has diminished. Our message is that “life is not taken away; it is changed.” We pray for the deceased to cross over the waters of death and enter the Kingdom of God.
Ministering to the bereaved means that we are aware that we live on the threshold of the Kingdom. We live and breathe and have our being because of the love of our Creator God who sustains our lives. Society paints a picture of nothingness and oblivion. The Christian Gospel is the good news that we are a vigilant people.
Our ritual, the Order of Christian Funerals, is evangelizing for all those gathered together at the death of a Christian. The family and friends have to spend time with the Word of God as they prepare the liturgy for the funeral. This is certainly about the death of a loved one. Even more so, it is about eternal life and hope connecting with the Kingdom of light, happiness and peace.
We are a people who are watching and waiting for the Lord’s return in glory. This is an intricate part of the Scriptures proclaimed in New Testament readings and the homily. It is a time to evangelize those who are present by sharing our belief and hope. Again we appreciate the gathering as an opportunity for God’s grace to touch the lives of those who are searching and hoping for meaning amidst their losses.
Ritual Actions and Awareness
Our ritual actions connect us with the power of God’s love as we care for the deceased body. We communicate the love and dignity of God’s creation as we recall the person’s baptism through the sprinkling of holy water. The white pall is a garment which we bring unstained into the Kingdom of Heaven.
At the very center of the liturgy is the celebration of the paschal mystery of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. The real presence of the Lord is the selfsame presence we pray for our loved one to be enjoying in eternal life. These times and much more are all moments of consolation and evangelization.
Very often when we celebrate a funeral Mass we have with us an “incidental community.” The gathering together goes well beyond our parishes and, due to this incident, participation includes relatives and friends from a distance along with those who are practicing and non-practicing Catholics. People of other faiths who knew the deceased and their families often are present. Our way of communicating eternal life at this time is evangelical. The Gospel outlines the standards of the Kingdom. This is so evident in Matthew with the Beatitudes.
Christ is the sacrament of encounter, and we encounter him in our liturgies. The message of eternal life as it relates to our day and age is healing and hopeful for those searching for ways to find purpose in life. Our message is not about death; rather, it is about life in eternity at the completion of our baptismal journeys.
The tone for our grief is truly given to us in the presence of our loving Savior in the word and at the altar. As hearers of the word, those who are gathered — the family and the incidental community — are presented with many evangelical themes to ponder while they grieve.
Our awareness of the promise for eternal life is given to us in St. Paul’s penetrating question to the Romans:
“Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into 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” (Rom 6:3-4,8-9).
This newness of life is life eternal in the Kingdom. Evangelizing for us opens new pathways for all to seek first the Kingdom of God.
From Maintenance to Mission
Our archdiocese is proposing a bold incentive to make evangelization a priority in the life and ministry of God’s holy people. Through many conversations and consultations we are forming pastoral service teams that will be well versed and formed spiritually to evangelize. This will enable parishes to combine their resources to proclaim the good news of salvation as the new evangelization mission takes effect.
The ministry of consolation is a vehicle for evangelizing the message of the Gospels. There is the need for people to realize that our God is a compassionate God of love who is not removed from his creation. Ministers of care are evangelizers who relate to our present ways of living with loss. The feelings of abandonment, searching, yearning, guilt, anger, emptiness and many other emotions are acknowledge by our communities through ministry which reaches out to the bereaved.
Themes for Those Who Mourn
St. Paul’s letters, which are often the second reading in our funeral liturgies, give us themes to consider in our grief. We turn to Romans: “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” So then each of us shall give and account of himself to God (Rom 14:7-9,10b-12).
In St. Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians we hear,
“We do not want you to be unaware, brothers (and sisters), about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope” (Thes 4:13-18).
It is with St. Paul that we pray for a peace that surpasses all understanding. How wonderful it is to prepare with the bereaved the word of God and the choices they make for their loved one’s funeral. Such times are significant moments for evangelizing and re-evangelizing in ways which truly proclaim the messages of hope. With this message we are given the opportunity to proclaim the word while showing compassion. Through our evangelizing we help the bereaved experience God’s love in the midst of their loss.
FATHER CURLEY is a faculty member at St. John Seminary, Brighton, Mass., for the Archdiocese of Boston. He teaches pastoral studies at the Theological Institute for New Evangelization in the Master of Arts in Ministry Program. His latest book is entitled Peace Beyond Understanding: Consoling One Another, 2011, Emmaus Books, available at Amazon.