Reverence for remains

Question: I am confused by the admonition of the Church against spreading ashes in light of the practice of dividing the remains of saints and scattering them throughout the world. 

Jennifer, Kentucky

Answer: There are important differences between the practices. First, relics usually involve small portions of the body, such as bone fragments to be reserved for veneration. Thus the entire body of a saint is not “scattered” throughout the world, or even scattered locally as with strewn ashes. 

Second, the relic of the saint is retained for veneration as a kind of physical and visual memory, whereas scattered ashes are spread in order to disappear and return to the elements. And while some may find this meaningful, the result is that any physical reminder of the person is lost. 

Third, with a relic, the physical presence of a small portion of the body is treated with reverence, much as a gravesite would be, and prayers are often said in its presence in acknowledgment of the given saint. In the case of scattered ashes, neither the ashes nor the place of their dispersal receive the same kind of veneration. 

The current practice of the Church is to insist that human remains of any sort be buried or entombed.  

The Order of Christian Funerals has this to say about the disposition of cremated bodies: “The cremated remains should be buried in a grave or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium [a cemetery vault designed for urns containing ashes of the dead].  

“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.” 

Holy days of obligation

Question: In my younger days the priest would remind us that missing Mass on Sundays or holy days was a mortal sin. Is it still a teaching of the Church?  

Bill Messaros, Luzerne, Pa.

Answer: Yes, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation, unless excused for a serious reason (for example, illness, the care of infants) or dispensed by their own pastor. Those who deliberately fail in this obligation commit a grave sin” (No. 2181). 

Jesus also warns that “unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you” (Jn 6:53). Thus, to miss Mass and stay away from holy Communion is a form of spiritual starvation. Further, we fail to give God the praise, worship and thanksgiving he is due. 

It is a sad fact that this precept and moral teaching is underemphasized today. Priests, catechists and parents must be clearer in teaching and witnessing to this requirement rooted in the Third Commandment. They must also teach why. 

There is a modern tendency to emphasize “positive” reasons to do things rather than simply quoting laws. But the gravity of the offense against God’s law should not go unstated.  

Further, obedience to God’s law is of itself good, and brings with it many benefits and blessings, such as the instruction in God’s Word at Mass and the astonishing blessing of being fed on the Lord’s Body and Blood. 

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.