Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ad Resurgendum cum Christo

It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins (2 Maccabees 12:46).

In our Catholic tradition, this time of year is focused in a particular way on the end, and the month of November is dedicated in a special way to remembering and praying for those who have died. 

Faith challenges us both to treat all of life as a preparation for a good death and not to neglect our duty to pray for those who have gone before us. Hence, the importance of celebrating a proper Catholic funeral - an especially privileged moment when the entire Church visibly intercedes on behalf on the recently deceased. (Sadly one study I read recently suggested that only about 66% of US Catholics who have died in recent years have had a full Catholic funeral.) But especially in this Holy Year of Mercy, we have been reminded that praying for both the living and the dead is one of the seven spiritual works of mercy, while burying the dead counts as one of the seven corporal works of mercy.

And now the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a new Instruction Ad Resurgendum cum Christo, “Regarding the Burial of the Deceased and the Conservation of the Ashes in the Case of Cremation.” The Instruction does not teach anything all that new, but it reminds us of things that many may have forgotten, especially in view of the current popularity of the untraditional option of cremation. Thus, regarding burial:

Following the most ancient Christian tradition, the Church insistently recommends that the bodies of the deceased be buried in cemeteries or other sacred places.

Furthermore, burial in a cemetery or another sacred place adequately corresponds to the piety and respect owed to the bodies of the faithful departed who through Baptism have become temples of the Holy Spirit and in which “as instruments and vessels the Spirit has carried out so many good works”

Finally, the burial of the faithful departed in cemeteries or other sacred places encourages family members and the whole Christian community to pray for and remember the dead, while at the same time fostering the veneration of martyrs and saints.

Concerning cremation:

In circumstances when cremation is chosen because of sanitary, economic or social considerations, this choice must never violate the explicitly-stated or the reasonably inferable wishes of the deceased faithful. The Church raises no doctrinal objections to this practice, since cremation of the deceased’s body does not affect his or her soul, nor does it prevent God, in his omnipotence, from raising up the deceased body to new life. Thus cremation, in and of itself, objectively negates neither the Christian doctrine of the soul’s immortality nor that of the resurrection of the body.


the conservation of the ashes of the departed in a domestic residence is not permitted. … the ashes may not be divided among various family members and due respect must be maintained regarding the circumstances of such a conservation.

In order that every appearance of pantheism, naturalism or nihilism be avoided, it is not permitted to scatter the ashes of the faithful departed in the air, on land, at sea or in some other way, nor may they be preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry or other objects. These courses of action cannot be legitimized by an appeal to the sanitary, social, or economic motives that may have occasioned the choice of cremation.

When the deceased notoriously has requested cremation and the scattering of their ashes for reasons contrary to the Christian faith, a Christian funeral must be denied to that person according to the norms of the law.

This represents a timely restatement of what, not too long ago, would have been the common Christian understanding, but now needs apparently to be restated due to our culture's increasing acceptance of secular and neo-pagan, post-Christan beliefs and practices about death - beliefs and practices which are dangerously infecting attitudes even within faithful Christian communities..

Monday, October 24, 2016

On Retreat

Today through Thursday, I will be on retreat with my brother priests of the Diocese of Knoxville. Every year at this time,we all assemble across the North Carolina state line at Lake Junaluska, a Methodist conference and retreat center in the Great Smoky Mountains. This will be my seventh retreat with the Knoxville presbyterate and our sixth at Lake Junaluska. It is an event I look forward to every year, especially since retreat week usually coincides more or less with my ordination anniversary on October 28.

The topic of this year's retreat conferences will be "St.Luke's Portrait of Jesus: A Model of Mercy and Compassion."

Sunday, October 23, 2016


Two people went up to the temple area to pray; one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector. So begins one of Jesus’ most familiar parables [Luke 18:9-14].

For many, perhaps, the point of the parable may be missed due to a negative and caricatured image of the Pharisees, reinforced by centuries of anti-Semitism and contempt for Judaism.

In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees were a deeply devout movement of lay people, preoccupied with being holy and fulfilling God’s Law. They were probably among the most religiously observant and morally upstanding people in 1st-century Israel. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD, it was the Pharisees who rebuilt Jewish life and reconstituted it in its post-biblical form (what we now call Orthodox Judaism). In effect, the Pharisees (and their followers) and those who became known as Christians (and their followers) were the two strains of Judaism that survived the Temple’s destruction. So they inevitably saw each other as rivals – one reason why the New Testament tends to highlight stories of Jesus’ conflicts with the Pharisees.

But the New Testament also preserves the memory of good relations Jesus had with various Pharisees and some important beliefs that they shared in common. In any case, we can only appreciate the parable if we understand that the Pharisee is the presumptively good person in the story – a good, religiously and morally upstanding person. Only then will we appreciate the surprise at the end.

Now the Pharisee, we are told, prayed: “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous … I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.”

Presumably, he was telling the truth. The parable would make no sense if he were a phony, a hypocrite, who didn’t live the way he said he did. No, the whole point is precisely that he is a religiously and morally upstanding person, who faithfully and dutifully obeys God’s law. Indeed, he does even more than the minimum the Law requires. So, if anyone were going to go home justified, shouldn’t it be the Pharisee?

But the tax collector stood off at a distance and would not even raise his eyes to heaven but beat his breast and prayed, “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Like the Pharisee, the tax collector was also telling the truth. Without knowing anything else about him, we know that, as a tax collector, he worked for the Romans. God had given the land of Israel as part of his permanent promise to his people forever. So to collaborate with the Romans was widely seen as self-evidently sinful. Everyone would have understood that. Hence, the tax collector’s honest prayer: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

But God had long been in the habit of being merciful – all the way back to when, instead of ending their lives after their sin, God instead made clothes for Adam and Eve. So, as surely everyone would have understood, if the tax collector were truly sorry for his sins, God might indeed be merciful even to him, and he too might go home justified.

That would have made a nice, happen ending to the parable.

Jesus, however, had a surprise in store, which must have totally shocked his audience. “I tell you, the tax collector went home justified, not the Pharisee.”

The shocker was not that God’s mercy might extend even to the tax collector and that he also could go home justified. The surprise was that the Pharisee – in spite of all the honest good that he was doing – did not!

So what went wrong?

In acknowledging his sin, the tax collector acknowledged that only God could get him out of the hole he had hopelessly dug for himself. But the Pharisee, Jesus tells us, spoke his prayer to himself. For all his moral correctness, even as he prayed he remained focused on himself – as if he, on his own, were the source of his good works, as if being justified in relation to God could ever be his own accomplishment.

That was – and is – a universal human temptation – as common in the 21st century as it was in the 1st. We all want praise and recognition for our accomplishments.. Yet didn’t Jesus, just 3 weeks ago, warn us? When you have done all you have been commanded to do, say, “We are unprofitable servants; we have done what we were obliged to do.”

If only the Pharisee had heard that and taken those words to heart! Then he might have understood – as the tax collector, whatever his other faults, evidently did – that God didn’t owe him anything. The kingdom of God is not about what I have accomplished. In fact, it’s not about me at all. It’s about God and about experiencing God’s great mercy God in my life, and so allowing myself to be changed by that experience of God’s mercy here and now, so as to continue to experience God’s mercy in his kingdom for all eternity.

Homily for the 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 23, 2016.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I Voted

At least in theory, I am not a fan of "Early Voting." I've already expressed my reservations on this blog before - mainly because I still like the symbolism of the entire country acting together, voting on the same day in a common civic performance. The restriction of early voting in some jurisdictions in the interest of partisan voter suppression, however, has cause me to re-evaluate my view. Anyway, as in past years, convenience has taken precedence for me, and so I too have voted early again this year.
(For my previous observations on the practice, go to:http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2014/10/i-voted-early.html
and http://rfrancocsp.blogspot.com/2012/10/voting-early.html)

Aside from symbolic and other such considerations, in a situation where most people have long since decided how to vote, there may seem to be little reason to wait until the Tuesday after the first Monday in November. And, in a year when many are already tired of an election campaign that has gone on too long and has been less than edifying, it may feel good to put it all behind by voting early. For a tired and discomforted electorate, it also invites us to start to imagine American national life after November 8.

Friday, October 21, 2016

After the Dinner

The pundits are having a field day with Donald Trump's performance at last night's Al Smith Dinner and with how his awkward performance earned him some boos One would think that a wealthy, white, native New Yorker would be able to find at least some common ground with that august audience of New York's "haves and have mores." And he did start out well enough. I am not sure if his joke about his wife really qualifies as the self-deprecating humor such an event expects, but it was funny and seemed to work . 

But then there were those darker moments that generated the boos and other signs of awkward discomfort on the dais. And it was encouraging to see that the audience's strongly negative reaction to one of Trump's deservedly worst received lines was when he said  "Here she is, in public, pretending not to hate Catholics." That was an allusion presumably to the Wikileaks' hacked emails of some Clinton staffers that revealed - big surprise - that liberal and conservative Catholics have different political perspectives! 

Hillary herself, in a bright Ralph Lauren gown, gave a good talk, which included references to Al Smith himself and the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant prejudice his campaign for the presidency elicited in 1928. Reprising JFK's famous Al Smith Dinner comment about Nixon and Rockefeller, she referenced Governor Cuomo and Mayor DeBlasio, who obligingly shook hands. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg probably liked being identified as a "real billionaire." Former Mayor Giuliani just snarled, but whether that was because of anything Hillary actually said or whether he was just being himself, who knows? And, as always, Cardinal Dolan ended the evening with an appropriate and edifying reminder of what this is all supposed to be about, and what we as Church are supposed to be about.

As a New Yorker myself, I found myself comparing Trump the native New Yorker and Hillary the adopted New Yorker. If one did not know which was which, one might reverse them. She, the adopted New Yorker, showed herself much more familiar with and comfortable with both New York's social and cultural  elite and with New York's deeply rooted and engaged Catholic culture than he the native.

Some wonder whether this quadrennial tradition has outlived its usefulness. If so, that would be yet another sign of the decline of our ability to come together in a bi-partisan way to create and celebrate an authentic experience of civility and community (while raising $6 million for Catholic Charities). So let us hope it continues!