A number have written about that funeral homily for a young man who committed suicide in the Detroit archdiocese wherein a priest candidly discussed the pitfalls (and there are of course many) of killing oneself. Some have strongly supported the priest, saying he was only speaking the truth. Suicide is, simply, wrong. Among the harshest condemnations of how the priest approached the funeral (at least conveyed by the media) came from fellow clerics. Was it warranted? Or might we simply say: it could have been handled better.
For centuries, it was pointed out, the Church prohibited funeral Masses for those who took their own lives. Neither could they be buried in a Catholic cemetery. But as a highly orthodox priest discussed in addressing the issue on the international news site Zenit, even in those earlier times, “some consideration has always been taken into account of the person’s mental state at the time.”
One must look beyond the simple text of the sermon.
“Days before the funeral for their son, who at the age of 18 took his own life, Jeff and Linda Hullibarger met with their parish priest to discuss the homily to be given,” says a news report. “The Hullibargers wanted it to be about the life of their son, Maison, not the manner of his death. They wanted to focus on a teenager who was opinionated and passionate and who they knew was a source of comfort to friends dealing with their own adversity. They recalled the priest, the Rev. Don LaCuesta, taking notes. They anticipated uplifting words for the friends and relatives attending the funeral at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, where all six of their children were baptized and confirmed. The homily that Father LaCuesta delivered at the church in Temperance, Mich., about 10 miles north of Toledo, Ohio, on Dec. 8, four days after Maison died, did not resemble that conversation, the Hullibargers said on Sunday.”
As we wondered: had the boy — who once played linebacker for his high school football team — suffered concussions that led to his disposition — erratic thinking — as has happened with a good number of former professional players? (Linebackers are especially prone, lined up, as they are, for butting heads.) Physical and psychological ailments, as well as unseen spiritual issues, make it very hard for us to judge. The issue of concussions is such that many are arguing for the end of contact football in high school.
One must note that in earlier times, while suicides were denied, Masses (until just the past few years) were allowed for Mafia killers. So: it wasn’t exactly perfect back then. Is it ever?
When one studies accounts of those who tried to take their own lives, and recall what they “saw” on the other side, overwhelmingly we note that suicides usually find themselves not in hell (though that happens), but in a very dark place. One imagines the bottom of purgatory. And so denying a Mass for a person in purgatory is contrary to mercy. That’s why the Church now allows it. Only a bishop can deny a funeral for such a person. Our Catechism states clearly: “The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.” What greater prayer is there than Mass?
Were the priest’s remarks taken out of context?
Yes, some definitely were — made to seem harsher than they actually were written [see one version of his homily, redacted, below]. And again, there is no question that suicide in an egregious act. It is good when priests bravely speak the truth, at this time when too much is wishy-washy. This is perhaps an excellent priest.
But the question is whether it was the time and place for a sermon on suicide. There in the pews front and center was the family — including five siblings. Was this the audience that needed to be lectured about suicide, at this time, or might such a sermon, in many ways a very good one, be better presented elsewhere? Did the family need a lecture, or did it need healing — the consolation of prayer (for they did nothing wrong) or a lesson on the morality of suicide?
Now, controversy swirls. The family is so upset they want the priest removed from their parish. The archdiocese already has apologized and barred the priest from future funeral homilies. Why he didn’t tell the parents his thoughts and intentions beforehand, when they met before the Mass to discuss the funeral, is baffling. He could have afforded them the opportunity of going elsewhere.
When in doubt, exercise mercy.
In all things, we must ask, beyond the harshness and criticality of our time, and the nuances in canon law: what would Jesus have said? How would He have acted? In this regard we look at John 8:1-11.
Another, quite opposite problem is how often funeral homilies turn into miniature canonizations. Upon death, it seems, everyone becomes a saint. How about doing away with funeral sermons, period? The Mass is the ultimate prayer for a soul who may be in purgatory (however the person died). Perhaps it should be left at that.
The Evangelist Matthew, who is always attentive to the link between the Old and the New Testament, puts the words of Hosea’s prophecy on Jesus’ lips: “Go, therefore, and learn the meaning of the words: ‘It is mercy that I want and not sacrifice.'”
We can never judge.
Perhaps the best advice is the old secular adage: if you can’t say something good about a person, say nothing at all.
[Feedback from a priest: ” I read this in total horror. The priest should have his faculties suspended and be forbidden to exercise any ministry. It’s no wonder our pews are emptying. The abuse crisis which is worsening and priests like this one add more pain to the Church.”
And another cleric: “Suicide is a serious sin, but there remains hope for the person who takes their own life. This should be the message at a funeral for one who commits suicide. The grieving family does not need to be told how evil suicide is. They are feeling that to the very depth of their being. Without compromising the truth they need a scrap of hope to hold on to. They need to be given a glimpse of mercy.”
Others sharply disagreed, sending articles about how funeral Masses were once prohibited, as is true, for suicides. One blog was headlined simply “God Bless Father LaCuesta” (the priest).
Said one supporter of Father LaCuesta: “We need to be careful about the secular media and making judgements from the media before getting more detail and another perspective. The evil one certainly tries to sow confusion and discord through the secular media. There is also a greater need for prayer of priests and the Church as you know.”
We respect all views.
[News report: “Days before the funeral for their son, who at the age of 18 took his own life, Jeff and Linda Hullibarger met with their parish priest to discuss the homily to be given.
The Hullibargers wanted it to be about the life of their son, Maison, not the manner of his death. They wanted to focus on a teenager who was opinionated and passionate and who they knew was a source of comfort to friends dealing with their own adversity.
They recalled the priest, the Rev. Don LaCuesta, taking notes. They anticipated uplifting words for the friends and relatives attending the funeral at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, where all six of their children were baptized and confirmed. The homily that Father LaCuesta delivered at the church in Temperance, Mich., about 10 miles north of Toledo, Ohio, on Dec. 8, four days after Maison died, did not resemble that conversation, the Hullibargers said on Sunday.]
“My heart goes out to you, Mr. & Mrs. [REDACTED], and to you [REDACTED]’s siblings: [REDACTED], to Grandma [REDACTED], to [REDCATED]’s many aunts & uncles & cousins. It is with great difficulty that I stand before you knowing the pain and anguish you are going through. But I am aware, as well, that I am only a humble, unworthy mouthpiece. I ask God to use my words to bring the light, comfort and healing you need. Is there any hope to offer in this moment? Must we only speak of our profound grief, our indescribable sorrow, even our anger and confusion at how such a thing could have happened? Is there any word from God that might break into our darkness like a ray of light?
Yes, yes, a thousand times. If we Christians are right in believing that salvation belongs to Jesus Christ, that it does not come from us–and that our hand cannot stop what God allows for us, then yes, there is hope in eternity even for those who take their own lives.
Having said that, I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth – that taking your own life is against God Who made us and against everyone who loves us. Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please. God gave us life, and we are to be good stewards of that gift for as long as God permits.
The finality of suicide makes this all the worse. You cannot make things right again. Neither can [REDACTED]. And this is much of the pain of it all. Things are left unresolved, even if it felt to [REDACTED] like this was the only way to resolve things. You want to turn the clock back and say, “Please don’t give up. We can work through this pain together. ” But now you will have to work through this pain by yourselves, or with those close to you now who will need to lean on you even as you lean on them.
On most people’s mind, however, especially of us who call ourselves Christians, on our minds as we sit in this place is: Can God forgive and heal this?
Yes, God CAN forgive even the taking of one’s own life. In fact, God awaits us with His mercy, with ever open arms. Sacred Scripture says clearly: God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). God’s abiding mercy is what sets us to ask for it. Although God doesn’t dangle his mercy like a carrot, waiting for us to ask for it in order to receive it, we do have to believe in our hearts, express with our words, and show in our actions – that it is always there. God wants nothing but our salvation but He will never force himself on us, He will not save us without us. That’s how much he loves us.
Because of the all-embracing sacrifice of Christ on the cross God can have mercy on any sin. Yes, because of his mercy, God can forgive suicide and heal what has been broken.
Because God is merciful he makes allowance for the spiritual, mental, and emotional despair that leads to suicide. God is able to read the heart, to know the whole truth of a person’s life, and thereby to pass sentence with mercy. God knows something we must discipline ourselves to do in these moments – he knows not to judge a person’s entire life on the basis of the worst and last choice the person made. God can look at the totality of a human being’s life and celebrate all the good that came from it, even while taking seriously the tragic choice that ended everything. And then he shows his mercy and love in ways beyond our limited understanding.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God, the great St. Paul assures us (in that Reading we just listened to). Nothing – including suicide.
Who will bring any charge against God’s chosen ones? St. Paul asks. It is God who acquits us. Who will condemn? Christ Jesus sits at the right hand of God even now, interceding for this one who could not stand before God on his/her own. Truly, none of us can stand before God on our own. We all need Christ to intercede for us, to plead our case. And here’s the good news: Christ has never lost a case!
What will separate us from the love of Christ? St. Paul answers that question with a display of words that cover everything he can think of in so little space. Not death or life, not angels or principalities, not present things or future things, not powers or height or depth or any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
What did St. Paul leave out of that list? Nothing. He did not list suicide, but he did not list murder or gossip or greed either. He covered all of those things in the final flurry of words that includes anything else in all creation. No deed is too evil to be beyond the forgiveness of Christ. No tragedy is too great to separate us from the love of God.
If that is so, if the Scriptures can be believed, if God can be trusted even in this, then it gives us hope and guidance for how to manage our sorrow and anger and loss. We give it all to God. We hope…we can only hope. We do not carry it ourselves. We try to give thanks for the blessings of life we knew and shared with [REDACTED], with this child of God. And we remind ourselves that he is not lost to God who seeks to save all of his children.
And so, we take great comfort and consolation in all this. Nothing-not even suicide-can separate us from the unconditional love of God. It is to this all- merciful love that we, through our prayers, entrust and continue to entrust the soul of [REDACTED]. Let us not deny him now of the help he needs most-our love expressed through our trusting prayers.
My dear friends, today, and in the difficult days to come, when darkness threatens to envelop and darken our hearts, let us raise high the bright light of our Redeemer and proclaim his saving mercy: Praised be Jesus Christ, now and for ever! ]”