New Vatican rules on cremation will only put people off

Earlier this week the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a new instruction on the burial of the dead and on cremation, entitled “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” (“To Rise with Christ”). The instruction states that because of its belief in the resurrection of the body and because the human body is an essential part of a person’s identity, the church insists that the bodies of the deceased be treated with respect and laid to rest in a consecrated place.

Burial of the remains of the deceased is the church’s preferred option, but cremation is also permitted. In fact, the Catholic Church has permitted cremation since 1963, but only now has got around to issuing specific instructions as to what should be done with a person’s ashes.

The instruction forbids the scattering of ashes (there goes my plan to have my ashes scattered over the hallowed turf of Anfield!) as well as the growing practice of keeping cremated remains at home. Instead, the urn containing the person’s ashes should be placed in a sacred place – a columbarium or tomb – that is marked with the person’s name.

It’s no surprise that there has been strong reaction to this latest Vatican decree. Some have welcomed it, saying it was necessary to have clarity on the issue. Many have ridiculed it, suggesting that it demonstrates how out of touch the Vatican is. Others have said there are far more important issues the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith should be focussing on rather than what to do with people’s remains. Others see it as a joke, just as they do the whole idea of the raising up of the dead person’s body to new life on the last day. So, their response is, let the deceased’s family decide what they want to do with his or her ashes, and how they want to mark their loved one’s death.

One of the Vatican’s chief concerns in publishing this instruction is for the respectful disposition of the dead. “A human cadaver is not trash,” said Cardinal Muller at the press briefing, and an anonymous burial or scattering of ashes “is not compatible with the Christian faith. The name, the person, the concrete identity of the person” is important because God created each individual and calls each to himself.

There is no doubt that some people, a very few people, do not treat their loved one’s ashes in a respectful way, and putting them into items of jewellery or pendants or dispersing tiny quantities around the world to different family members does not sound edifying or even proper.

But it’s also true to say that almost everybody, whether they are Christian or not, do not see or treat the dead body of a loved one as “trash” simply to be disposed of as they fit. They do try to treat it in a respectful way, often in accordance with the specific wishes of the deceased person. Occasionally, how they do this may be unconventional, but that does not mean the deceased will be forgotten in time or will be cut off from God’s embrace or the possibility of resurrection. While reasonable in much of what it has to say, to many people this CDF instruction is all about laying extra burdens on grieving families at a most vulnerable time in their lives.

And when it comes to respecting the dead, a tradition the Vatican might look at is the use/abuse of saints’ relics. How respectful is it to the body of a saint to put his or her relics on display, or have fragments of bone or hair scattered here and there across the globe?

A fact, too, that cannot be ignored is that cremations are cheaper than burials when expenses like the cost of a grave and headstone are factored in, so they are going to rise in popularity in Ireland and elsewhere irrespective of what conditions the Vatican lays down.

And if priests or bishops take a heavy handed approach to implementing this new instruction, all it will do is reduce the number of funerals held in church and further alienate people from the faith.

That would be a disaster because the Catholic funeral liturgy – its solemnity, symbols, rituals – is one of the great treasures of the church, that offers wonderful solace and support to families in their grief.

Finally, how is this new policy going to be policed? Will grieving families be forced to spell out what they will do with their loved one’s ashes before a Catholic liturgy is permitted? And afterwards, what can a priest or parish clerk or busybody do to ensure that the ashes have been disposed of as the CDF wishes?

As church, we must always strive to do what’s best for the bereaved. We should always be careful not to place unnecessary burdens on people.

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Words delivered at the funeral of my aunt, Mary Kelly (Oct 20, 2016)

As we know, a bitter presidential election campaign is slowing drawing to a close in the United States. It has had many low points, and few high points. But there is a statement Michelle Obama has made a couple of times now that has resonated with many people, and that I thought of too, as I looked back on the life of my aunt, Mary Kelly. Speaking of her opponents, Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high.”

Go high…

That is what Aunty Mary did all her life, both in a literal and a metaphorical sense – go high. She went high. She always went high.

She was born and bred on high ground in the hill country of Croughmarka almost 93 years ago. She crossed those hills every day to go to school. She met and fell in love with and married a young man called Paddy, also born and bred on high ground in the same hill country. They spent most of their wedded lives together living on high ground, in a house nestled in the hills of Commonaline, rearing a family in often challenging conditions, when farming was tough, and frugality a necessity, and the weather not always hospitable. But being high up in the hills didn’t matter to Mary. She loved the mountains and she loved the outdoors.

Towns, cities, exotic foreign destinations, overseas travel – none of these held the slightest attraction for her. It was on the high ground – enjoying its grace-filled natural beauty, imbibing its unspoilt, invigorating fresh air, feeling the mountain dew beneath her feet, living in tune with the rhythm of the seasons – it was in Commonaline where she felt at home and happy and fully alive.

Go high. Aunty Mary went high.

But her going high wasn’t just a geographical thing, a matter of physical location. Aunty Mary went high in so many other ways too, the ways that define and describe one’s character, the essence of who a person truly is.

She had a high moral compass – a just woman who lived by the simple truth and did not tolerate wrongdoing; values she inculcated in her children and grandchildren.

She had a highly developed work ethic and sense of responsibility. Whether outside or inside the house, she worked long hours for long years for as long as she could, no cribbing about it. For her, it was simply doing her duty.

She had high standards of cleanliness – the yards and sheds always immaculate, her house spotless, too. One marvelled at how it could be done and how she did it.

She had a high sense of respect for others, was slow to speak ill of anyone, and was always warm in her welcome. She had a knack for making everyone feel special. Her constant smile reflected that. The way those in the nursing home loved her confirmed it.

She had an extraordinarily high capacity to love. She loved Paddy in a way that words cannot capture. A long, long love stretching back almost all their lives, broken only by his passing in 2005. His unexpected death was the beginning of her end. She loved her children and grandchildren in the same lavish, selfless way. The bond she had with them and they had with ‘granny’ was a thing of rare, high beauty. She was so proud of them. The way that Anne loved and cared for her deserves special mention.

It was easy especially to witness those love bonds these past few days as she grew smaller in her bed and her breathing grew shallow and the end drew near. The love, the togetherness, the unity, the sadness were all on display and yet also a profound sense of gratitude for having had this woman among us for so long, for being lucky enough to know her and be part of her family. I found my encounters with her to be almost sacramental – an audience with a gentle, simple, smiling woman who radiated something of the warmth and tenderness of God.

And, of course, that was no surprise, because she was a woman of faith. Her love of and trust in God was high. Her faith nourished her; strengthened her; it was what sustained her through the setbacks that came her way. Dying didn’t faze Aunty Mary. Just as in life she always went high, so also when she was faced with the prospect of death.

There are many today who believe that death is the end, period. That once you breathe your last, you’re gone forever, done and dusted. The best you can hope for is to leave behind some sort of positive legacy and happy memories, and a big gap in loved ones’ lives.

For us Christians, it is different. We know that death is a door, not a wall. Death isn’t an exit to oblivion, a sorrowful slide into nothingness. It is, rather, the threshold to a new, transformed life with God forever. On Monday morning, at 6.50am, Aunty Mary crossed that threshold from life to death, from life to life. Her earthly body is empty of life now; her strong heart is quiet; her big smile has given way; all we are left with are her mortal remains. But having crossed that threshold on Monday morning, she did not journey from life to death; from a breathing, smiling, pulsating, warm, wonderful human being, a granny to everyone, into some cold, dank abyss of darkness and destruction, she passed in that moment from this life to a completely new glorified life, life with God forever.

The second reading from St Paul, read to us by Noel, contains one of the most reassuring statements in all of scripture. Paul tells us that nothing can separate us from the love we share in Christ Jesus. “For I am sure of this,” he says, “that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Mary, our beloved one, knew and subscribed to that good news all her life. Now, reunited with Paddy and all she loved and lost, nothing separates her from the warm embrace of Jesus, her saviour. In our liturgy today, as in every liturgy, we are reminded that in Christ Jesus, we remain united with those who have died. Mary is gone from us but not forever. She is separated from us, but not for good. In this knowledge, we find our solace, our inspiration, our consolation, our hope.

And so we say our farewells. We are left with our tears and our sadness but, even more, we are comforted with countless happy memories and with a joyous sense of gratitude that we could not have asked for a more wonderful wife, mother, mother-in-law, grandmother, great granny, aunt, cousin, neighbour or friend – a woman was who a bastion of common sense, a beacon of light, a rock of faith, a fountain of love, a beautiful, caring, smiling woman who always, always, always went high.

My friend, the new Cardinal

Yesterday a man I know was appointed to the most exclusive clerical club in the world. He was made a cardinal of the Catholic Church by Pope Francis. It was a surprise appointment. No one expected his name to be on the list, least of all the man himself.

I have known Joe Tobin, Archbishop of Indianapolis, for more than 25 years. He was a member the Redemptorist general government in Rome when I first met him. One of his responsibilities was for youth ministry, with which I also was involved.

I remember a large gathering in Durham in 1994 – a Redemptorist mini world youth day event – when he gave up his comfortable bed to sleep on the ground in a marquee full of young southern Europeans who were frightened of the frogs that had sought sanctuary there after a day of constant rain. I remember the many football/soccer games he refereed even after he was elected head of the Redemptorists. Though some of his on field decisions were questionable to say the least, it was hard even for the most hot headed player to mouth off at the man who was the head Redemptorist. I remember how he preferred jeans and sweats to the formal clerical attire of his office. I remember his wonderful storytelling ability, his extraordinary capacity to remember names, and how grounded in the ordinary he always appeared even as he attained high office.

Once finished his two-term spell as Redemptorist Superior General, Joe went on a study break to England. Then came his surprise appointment to the Vatican as secretary for religious. It was a challenging post at a challenging time. The newly ordained archbishop found himself thrust into the middle of the doctrinal investigation of US women religious by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, an investigation he strongly opposed. He lost that battle, being considered too sympathetic to the sisters, and was hustled far outside Vatican walls to be installed as Archbishop of Indianapolis in 2012.

Indianapolis is a vibrant, sports-mad city that is only about 10 percent Catholic, but the new archbishop quickly made his mark as an approachable, compassionate, eloquent pastor, who had, what Francis calls, the “smell of the sheep.”

He wasn’t typical of the US Catholic hierarchy which was full of John Paul II and Benedict XVI appointees, who tended to be politically and ecclesiastically right of centre culture warriors, constantly at loggerheads with the modern world rather than engaging with it. Joe Tobin is not a culture warrior, and nor does he favour lace over grace. He is one of the few bishops who goes to the Catholic Worker dinner held during the annual US Conference of Bishops meetings in November, rather than the formal grand banquet held in a plush hotel.

Last year he clashed with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, now Donald Trump’s running mate, over the politically sensitive issue of resettling Syrian refugees. Pence had announced that Syrian refugees would not be welcome in his state, citing concerns about terrorism.

The Catholic Charities agency in Indianapolis had been working to resettle a Syrian family at the time of the announcement, and Pence asked that they put those plans on hold. After a meeting between the two men, Archbishop Tobin announced that the diocese would continue with its plans to resettle the family, and did so.

Archbishop Tobin is also on record as supporting the idea of women serving as deacons in the Catholic Church. Needless to say, this idea, broached by Francis himself, is controversial, so it’s wonderful to have another strong voice for greater equality for women from within the college of cardinals.

Two years ago, when I was planning my sabbatical after 23 years in Redemptorist Communications, I asked Joe if he could accommodate me in his diocese for a couple of months, where I could lend a hand in a parish while at the same time having plenty of opportunity to read, write and unwind. He could not have been more helpful. I met and ate with him several times during my six weeks in Indianapolis, a time cut short due to my developing back pain. I was grateful for his kindness and generosity. As a cardinal and still only in his mid 60s, Joe is a man I will happily trust with helping to choose the next pope, though I hope that won’t be anytime soon.

The fact that Francis has chosen as cardinals pastoral men, moderate progressives, who know the smell of the sheep, is good news indeed. He wants men (wouldn’t it be great if there were women among them before long!) who share his vision for the church and the world. In choosing Joe Tobin, alongside others like Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich, Francis has chosen well.

There is room for liberals in the Catholic church

I have always considered myself to be a liberal. Instinctively, since as long as I was able to think for myself, I subscribed to what was known as the ‘liberal agenda.’ Though I was a committed Catholic, and came from a devout Catholic family, I had no time for theocracies. I believed in the separation of church and state. I believed that any church or religious institution that relied on the state to enforce its teachings was, by definition, a weak church or institution. I felt that an unhealthy codependency had developed between civil and religious authorities in the decades after Irish independence that would be detrimental to both of them in the long run.

The relationship between de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the latter’s interventions in almost every aspect of Irish life, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with church and state in 20th century Ireland.

When the ban on artificial contraception was being discussed in the 1970s and 80s, I was with those who wanted reform. It was the same when it came to divorce. I might personally subscribe to what the church teaches about the sanctity of marriage, but I didn’t think it should be imposed on those who were not Catholic or who disagreed profoundly with the church’s position. Similarly, when it came to legalising homosexual acts and to the vote on marriage equality, I was on the side of the reformers. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times in support of marriage equality.

And many years ago, when I had just emerged out of my teens, I voted against the 8th amendment to the constitution, not because I was in favour of abortion, but because I thought the proposed wording was weak and was going to lead to a whole pile of trouble.

Meanwhile, I had joined the seminary straight out of school and so found myself in the difficult position where some of the views I held were at odds with the official teaching of the church. When it came to internal church politics I also found myself on the liberal side – favouring the ordination of woman and the introduction of optional celibacy, as well as a more compassionate approach to those who were gay or divorced and remarried. I identified strongly with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. I was enthused more than anything by the idea of a church and a clergy that stood alongside the oppressed and were willing to lose all in solidarity with them. An open, welcoming, inclusive church.

But the odd thing is that not only did I find myself in conflict with the Vatican over the years, and run into trouble with the authorities for my views, I found that many so-called liberals had no time for church people like me either. I remember being taken aback one time when Fintan O’Toole referred to me in his column as a conservative. I certainly didn’t see myself as a conservative. Then I understood that in the eyes of many secularists, being a Catholic priest was synonymous with being a conservative. That if you were a card-carrying member of the clergy then, ipso facto, you had to be a conservative. And, therefore, an ogre and an obscurantist.

Given its arrogance and abuse of power in the past, I don’t blame people for being angry at the Irish Catholic church. But what I don’t like is the way in which everybody in the church is viewed through the same lens, how all clergy and religious are regarded as the enemy, and as opponents of all that is good.

Sure, the church as institution has much to answer for, but the church is not a monolith. There is diversity within and much goodness too. To deny that fact, or refuse to see it, as some liberals do, is to replace one form of arrogance and intolerance with another.