Praying the Necrology

Since being named to lead the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in 2016, I have had the privilege of ordaining 19 priests. As a newcomer, it was obvious to me that I could not claim credit for these wonderful vocations, nor for the health of the local Church that fostered them. I was merely reaping the fruits of seeds sown by others — parents, teachers, catechists and clergy — and for that I was most grateful. On the morning of this year’s ordination, I felt drawn to St. Paul’s historic Calvary Cemetery, where I found it particularly easy to pray in appreciation for all those who had so generously served this archdiocese and laid the foundation that has supported so many vocations.

As I read the markers of the scores of priests buried there, I was moved by the generosity of those who had left their homes in faraway places — Ireland, Germany, France and Poland — to serve this local Church. I felt a deep bond with these men, aware that they had formed our archdiocesan presbyterate and brought unity to this local Church. Their example inspired me that day and gave a new context to the ordinations that I would celebrate later that morning. I was so conscious of the Communion of Saints that morning, with the evocative litany of saints reminding me of the Church triumphant, the memory of the deceased priests in Calvary Cemetery reminding me of the Church suffering and the ordinandi reminding me of the Church militant.

When I was in high school, Alex Haley’s best-seller “Roots” inspired Americans of all types to explore the histories of their families, so much so that The New York Times spoke of “Roots” as a “phenomenon” rather than as simply “literature.” The saga spoke to the hearts of people of every possible background, suggesting that to understand today’s families we have to know where we have been and how our families responded to the challenges of the day. Alex Haley’s insight was by no means new to the Church. It was common in medieval monasteries that monks would not only chant the martyrology, extolling the virtues of the saints, but also proclaim the necrology, recalling the deceased members and benefactors of the community. The necrology served not only to prompt prayers for the repose of the souls of deceased forbearers but also to remind the community of the ideals and experiences that particularly defined and distinguished them.

In the modern diocesan context, the daily praying of the necrology similarly can serve as a means of strengthening the ties that bind the contemporary clergy of a diocese to the heroes of their local Church, both sung and unsung. By providing the names of bishops, priests and deacons who have died on a given day, a necrology provides a focused and ordered way not only to engage in one of the spiritual works of mercy (praying for the dead) but also to draw inspiration from the example of the clerics who in facing the challenges of their day had painstakingly set the foundation for the Church of today.

When I was a young priest, those mentioned in the necrology were mostly unfamiliar to me. Now with nearly three decades of ministry under my belt, the clergy in that same necrology are no longer strangers but brothers and friends, and their names bring back memories of the wonderful things the Lord had accomplished through them. It is a great stimulus to prayer, both for the deceased and for the diocese that they so generously served.

I was delighted to learn that a young priest in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis has undertaken the project of adding flesh to the bare-bones necrology that appears in our Ordo, using the tools of the internet and archival research to assemble photos and short biographies about each of the clerics who appear in the necrology. As a relevant newcomer to the archdiocese, I’m looking forward to the fruits of his labor and am confident that it not only will make praying the necrology much easier but also deepen an appreciation for all that the Lord accomplishes through the ministry of his deacons, priests and bishops.

ARCHBISHOP BERNARD A. HEBDA is the archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis.