Life to Come
As director of the Office of Prayer and Worship for the Diocese of Albany, I found Terry Golway’s essay It’s Your Funeral (6/5) disturbing. I can only speak for the Diocese of Albany; but like diocesan officials in many areas of the country, we have found it necessary and helpful to establish guidelines for the selection of music and the reflection on the life of the deceased at funeral liturgies. Yes, there were a few horror stories that initiated these directives, but there is also a need for catechesis and a desire to provide positive liturgical experiences reflective of the Christian belief in death and the life to come.
It is in this respect that I disagree with Mr. Golway. The Catholic funeral Mass is not about the individual; it is a celebration of the paschal mystery, Christ’s ministry, passion and death, resurrection and promise to come again as made evident in the life of the one whose earthly time has passed. It points the mourner not only to what has been, but more importantly to the belief that life has changed, not ended. It offers hope to those who grieve that there will be a time when all will be united again and every tear will be wiped away.
Roman Catholic liturgy is forever attempting to call us back from the rampant individualism that pervades United States culture to a sense of community, a sense of identity within the larger group, the body of Christ. It is for this reason that the Order of Christian Funerals recommends that as the casket is received into church it be covered with a pall that recalls the baptismal garment, the sign of Christian dignity given through the sacrament of Baptism. The white pall also signifies that all are equal in the eyes of God.
With regard to Mr. Golway’s complaints about music selections, perhaps he can appreciate that music is part of the prayer of the funeral and all liturgies, not a decorative finial tacked on to provide accent. Prayer is addressed to God. It too is not merely about us.
Also of Irish descent, I am chilled by the affection he feels for the song by Sting and the Chieftains played at the end of James Davitt’s funeral, whose words were sung in a language he did not know. He believes the song was about defiance and courage and life itself. How does he know that the song did not also glorify or call others to acts of violence? Was there any way for him to experience the song as prayer?
I would suggest that instead of being concerned about whether or not one has a friend on the inside and the need or inability to cultivate relationships with clergy to serve one’s own ends, Mr. Golway and others who share his perspective enter into and maintain a greater familiarity with the rituals of the church and the theology that underlies them. I hope America will not let Mr. Golway’s text be the only word on this subject.
Context of Hope
The essay by Terry Golway, It’s Your Funeral (6/5), is aptly titled. I look on every funeral as my funeral, because I am a priest who has done a good many since 1958.
What is proposed in the way of music and eulogies has an important place. The place I have in mind is the mortuary, where the family and friends can let out all the stops and celebrate the night away.
The reasons why it is my funeral are several. I live in Mormon Utah, and inviting someone to give a eulogy in Utah (that’s the main thing at a Mormon funeral) means a lecture on Mormon theology and a bit from the Book of Mormon as an inevitable and embarrassing eventuality.
Also, funerals are an important opportunity to remind Catholics of how we place a funeral in the context of hope. Hope is a tremendous reality to give people at the moment of deathhope that life is not ended. Death does not have a sting in a Catholic funeral.
Also, funerals are a rare opportunity to speak to the unchurched. Not only are we reverent, sincere, solemn in the face of death; we also have a view of life and death that is worth proclaiming in the hopes that some listeners will appreciate a broader view of death than the one they have.
In short, a funeral is a rich opportunity that we priests do not want to miss. Mr. Golway’s point of view is not novel. But in a world where the lights must never go out and the music must always play, people need a solemn silence to realize another aspect of life. They have plenty of entertainment; we don’t need to give them that.
Warren Schoeppe, S.J.
Brigham City, Utah
In his reflections on the Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Drew Christiansen, S.J., (Of Many Things, 5/22) fills in some wonderful personal data on this great prophet of our age. My contact with Sloan Coffin was limited to two occasions, and each time I felt his warmth and humor, and experienced something of the charisma so poignantly described by Father Christiansen.
Invited to give a workshop at a United Church of Christ annual conference, I was ushered into the church sanctuary with William Sloan Coffin, the keynote speaker. As we waited for the audience to settle in, my discomfort was evident. Who was I to share the stage with this great man! Immediately, he reached out to me in quiet humor to make me feel comfortable. That simple gesture will not be forgotten.
On Feb. 15, 2003, at the Vermont State Capitol steps in Montpelier, we met again, he as keynote speaker, and I as a small-time peace activist. Somehow they got Bill’s wheelchair through the snow. Bill greeted me as though we had been lifelong friends. Thousands braved the frigid temperature to protest going to war in Iraq. Because Bill had suffered a stroke, his words were slurred, but his message against war was profound.
Finally, on April 22, 2006, people from many walks of life and faith backgrounds gathered at the little church in Strafford, Vt., to say goodbye. For three hours in word and song, the overflow crowd memorialized William Sloan Coffin. A hero is gone, but his spirit lives on.
Miriam Ward, R.S.M.
Depth of Understanding
I just finished reading Limbo, Infants and the Afterlife (4/3). Sidney Callahan is an author I always look forward to reading, but this time I was more than disappointed. In her discussion of persons who are stunted and afflicted, who have had little chance to develop or to hear and understand God’s good news and in her final comment that these are deformed lives, she portrays persons with cognitive disabilities as being practically without souls.
There is so much I could say in response to these statements; but it all comes down to this: After nearly 20 years of ministry with persons with disabilities, I have to say this is not even close to my experience. I believe I can also say it is not close to the experience of the volunteers with whom I serve or of my colleagues around the country. In particular, it is not the experience of many persons with cognitive disabilities, who meet God with a depth of understanding I can only long for. I would refer Ms. Callahan to the work of Jean Vanier for a more in-depth discussion.
My compliments to the staff members who laid out this issue. Putting these comments about persons with disabilities above the advertisement for Brother Curry’s Breads and the National Theatre Workshop of the Handicapped made for an interesting page.