Tuesday, February 23, 2016

That Now Famous Funeral Homily

Never having been a fan of the late Justice Antonin Scalia's legal jurisprudence or of its political consequences and, in any event, having had other things that I had to do on Saturday, I caught only snippets of his televised Funeral Mass at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. But I have since had the opportunity both to watch and to read the now somewhat famous funeral homily preached at that Mass by the late Justice's son, Father Paul Scalia of the Diocese of Arlington. That homily has gotten so much attention - deservedly so, I believe - because  (unlike so much of the tepid fare frequently served up at so many funerals today) it did what a funeral homily is supposed to do. It did what any homily, if it is truly a homily, is supposed to do. It preached Christ.

Perhaps the most clever - and for that reason most quoted - part of his homily was when he said: 

We are gathered here because of one man. A man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more. A man loved by many, scorned by others. A man known for great controversy, and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.

It is He whom we proclaim. Jesus Christ, son of the father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of him. because of his life, death and resurrection that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.

In those two short paragraphs, Father Scalia eloquently expressed the purpose of the Funeral Mass - not "a celebration of life," that is, of the deceased's now completed earthly existence, but a celebration of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Church's prayer of intercession on behalf of the recently deceased to commend him to God's mercy in the confident hope that he too will come to share in that new life made possible for all as a result of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I am nowhere nearly so eloquent as Father Scalia, but that is what I always at least try to do when celebrating a funeral.

But it cannot be denied that there is a whole contrary set of expectations about what a funeral is supposed to be about - a thoroughly secular set of expectations that have infected our once cherished Catholic funeral customs and have increasingly made funerals more about the deceased instead of about Christ, a celebration of the deceased person instead of intercessory prayer for God's mercy to the deceased person.

We have all experienced such funerals - complete with sadly inappropriate eulogies, that in some cases actually are contrary to the faith and hope that are the Church's message, and sadly inappropriate musical selections completely at variance with the sacredness of the event and its proper purpose. That purpose, of course, is the Church's intercession on the dead person's behalf.

That purpose Father Scalia so excellently expressed when he said: We are here, then, to lend our prayers to that perfecting, to that final work of God's grace, in freeing Dad from every encumbrance of sin. ... We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him: That all stain of sin be washed away, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. That he rest in peace.

The traditional Communion Antiphon that used to be said at all Masses for the Dead said it all. (That antiphon is still there as one of many options in the present rite, although, like most of the ancient antiphons at least in the United States, it is seldom heard, having been replaced typically by alternative hymns or songs - sometimes good ones, sometimes bad).

Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum Sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis, cum Sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. ("Let perpetual light shine upon them, O Lord, with your Saints for ever, for you are merciful. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them, with your Saints for ever, for you are merciful.")

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