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.

We need equality for women in the church

Yesterday was Women’s Equality Day, a day set aside to celebrate the progress women have made in their struggle for equality and also to recognize the very many challenges women still face in achieving full equality with the males of the species.

It’s hard to believe that one hundred years ago, women in most western countries did not have the right to vote. Now the United States is on the verge of electing its first female president. It’s hard to believe that less than 50 years ago, Irish women had to leave the civil service once they started a family. And while more and more women are fighting their way up the corporate and political ladders in more and more countries, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done before there is anything like full equality with men. Hollywood leading ladies are still paid substantially less than their male counterparts. Female sports stars get less recognition and reward than the men. The same is true of so many other sectors, organizations, and industries.

It is most certainly true of the Catholic Church.

It took me years before I noticed the maleness of the leadership of the church. During my youth and seminary days, I was oblivious to it, as I’m sure most others were too. Altars and sanctuaries and seminaries and synods were men only because only men could be ordained, and only men had authority in the church. I didn’t question it; it was just the way things were. And then I began to not only notice it but to become embarrassingly aware of it, especially at big liturgical events where there were lots of clergy. Here were all these men in splendid vestments assembled in solemn procession or gathered around an altar and not a woman in sight. And I wondered how that made women in the congregation feel. Some women, of course, fail to notice it or have no problem with it, but for many others it is a source of great pain. Now I do not concelebrate at Mass at all, if I have the choice. I do not want to add to the maleness of the celebration. So I prefer to sit in the pews with the people of God.

Church leaders routinely speak about the equality of women, yet a few years ago they introduced a new English translation of the liturgy that is sexist in its language and gratuitously insulting to women. The sexist language could easily have been avoided but those in charge chose not to. It boggles the mind.

The church emphasizes the importance of the family, yet at the two sessions of the Synod on the Family, which concluded last year, there was just a few women, and none at all who had voting rights. It’s hard to imagine how you can have a real debate about family and family life in the 21st century if women aren’t part of the debate.

The real problem, of course, is that power in the church is bound up with holy orders, which is limited to males. At local level, the parish priest is the ultimate authority. He can ignore the wishes of the parish council if he wants, and there’s nothing they can do about it. The leadership of the church in every diocese and in every country is male. In the hierarchical institution that is the church, lay people are at the bottom of the ladder, and because women are women and cannot be ordained, every woman is at the bottom of the ladder. Unless power is separated from priesthood, or women are allowed to be ordained, the fact is women can never have full equality with men in the Catholic Church.

One significant hopeful move towards a greater say for women in the church is the decision by Pope Francis to set up a commission to took at women deacons. Another positive step is that 50 percent of its members are female. Nothing may come of this commission, but the very fact that it was set up in the first place is a most welcome development.

I do not know if I will be alive to celebrate the day when women in the church will have full equality with men, but I hope I do. It would be wonderful to see a sanctuary populated with women as well as men, and to hear their voices as equals and partners. It would truly bring new life to this trembling church of ours.

Seeking reasons to stay alive

I am going through some dark days. Anyone who has happened across this blog will know about my battle with chronic pain. It’s a battle I have been fighting for more than two years now, and it’s a battle I’m finding it harder and harder to fight. It frightens me to think of the number of hospital visits I have made, the number of medics I have seen, and the number of procedures I have gone through, not to mention the amount of money I have spent.

And yet, and yet, the pain is more deep-rooted and widespread now than at any time in the past. It’s wrapped around my lower back and my left thigh. It digs in and through me – and no pill, no opiad, no medication of any kind can make a dent in it.

I try being more positive, I’m trying journaling, I walk a lot, but nothing seems to make the slightest impact.

I’m awaiting news on a spinal cord stimulator, but though I want to have that procedure, I’m also scared of having it. It will mean more surgery on my already fragile body, and of course there is no guarantee that it will ease my pain. If I were to have it, and it did not work, I doubt that I could cope with the disappointment.

I know that in many ways I am lucky. I have a community that supports me and that allows me to do as little or as much work as I can manage. I don’t have to worry about my next meal or how I will pay for a consultant’s visit.

But it makes me feel guilty, too. Because I earn nothing, and my tear-filled, sorrowful presence only upsets people. I am making no contribution.

And as each day turns out as miserable as the one that went before, I wonder about my future, for I know that I cannot go on living like this. I do not have the strength. My spirit is sapping. My motivation is slipping. My faith is weak. I can’t take much more.

And so I seek reasons to keep on going. What is life if there is no happiness? Why go on if there is only spirit-crushing, unrelenting pain, day after day, week after week? I do try to hold on for the sake of my mother and my family, and because I have enjoyed being alive for the 52 pain-free years that I had, and because I want to build up the life of the community and the church.

But it’s difficult.

What I said at my dad’s funeral six months ago

It is six months today since my father died. Though time does heal the pain, it is still so difficult to believe that he is gone for good. I will never forget the six am call from the hospital summoning us all to his bedside to say goodbye.

He had been in hospital for a week with a chest infection, but we had no idea that he was never going to come home again. That phone call left me dazed and confused. It had only been a few days since my third major back surgery and I hadn’t been able to visit him in hospital. Now I was struggling to put on my shoes and socks as I tried to process the contents of the phone call. He had clearly deteriorated overnight, and I had never even been to see him.

When I got to the high dependency unit, having been picked up by my brother, most of the immediate family was already there – my mother, herself seriously unwell, my sisters and their husbands, my brothers and their wives, and several of the grandchildren. My father was propped up on the bed, an ugly breathing mask obscuring most of his face, deeply unconscious.

I held his warm hand while others held other parts of him, and we told him how much we loved him and what a wonderful husband and father and grandfather he was, and that everyone was here with him now and that all would be well. And we prayed as he received the last rites.

He lived for just under half an hour after his breathing mask was removed. He shuddered a little at first and then gasped for air, his puckered lips trying desperately to suck in as much as he could. We watched and cried and spoke to him and prayed, hoping his last agony would pass quickly and yet not wanting him to go, hoping and pleading for some kind of miracle.

And then, at about 9.40am, he breathed his last. We watched, waiting, hoping he might pick up again, hoping he might breathe once more, but he had gone from us. His battle had ended, he had finished the race. He had just turned 84.

There’s not a day when we do not think and talk about him – but it’s mostly happy talk and happy memories. For he was a good and gentle and honest and upright man, and we are so glad to have had him for so long as husband, father, grandfather and great grandfather. He enjoyed life and was a happy man who showed love and knew he was loved.

He adored sunshine and would be sitting outside these days soaking in as much sun as my mother would allow. We remember him in a special way on his sixth month anniversary and pray that he is now enjoying the fruits of a live well lived.

These are the words I spoke at his funeral on December 4, 2015.

My father always had a very specific criterion by which to measure the success or otherwise of a funeral. He did not measure it on the size of the congregation; he didn’t judge it on the length or depth or wisdom of the homily; he didn’t assess it on the number of mass cards or floral wreaths placed around the coffin; nor was he swayed by the beauty of the singing or the grandeur of the liturgy or the tears that were shed or even by how good the meal was afterwards – and he loved his food. The one criterion that mattered, the only criterion that counted, was the number of priests present. The bigger the number the more successful the funeral. I think he would have judged this to be a good funeral.

My father was no intellectual, and nor did he pretend to be. Like so many others of his generation, he didn’t finish secondary school. He had, however, a real wisdom, acquired not from the study of books, or from years in the classroom, or from an intellectual curiosity, but rather something innate, and richer still, rooted in the rugged turf of Croughmarka where he drew his first breath just over 84 years ago. He knew the important things, the things that mattered, the importance of family and faith and fidelity and principle. He didn’t even have to think about them. He was moral, upright, responsible, decent, humble, loving, simple and good. And these most important qualities came naturally to him.

He spent more than the first quarter of his life in the hill country of Croughmarka, on the family farm, but then in his late twenties he had one very, very lucky break – he met my mother. They were wed in 1960.

She was his fortress, his shield, his solid foundation, his rock of safety and support without whom he would not have lasted so long or so happily. He used to boast that they never had a row – and they didn’t. It helped, of course, that he knew my mother was the boss. They had a relationship that was the essence of mutuality, one of total interdependency. He loved her and she loved him; he would do anything for her and she would do anything for him. Unconditional love.

My father was sensitive. A big softie. He cried easily, and wasn’t ashamed to show it.

He was tactile. He liked to express affection, and wasn’t afraid to demonstrate it. He loved to reach out to touch people, and to hold long to your hand with his warm, calloused hands, and to give big, tender bear hugs. Every time my mother visited him in hospital this past week he tried to pull her as close to him as he could. He let those he loved know that he loved them.

He was hard-working. For as long as he was able, he put in long hours, from sunrise until nightfall. Industriousness never frightened him – he thrived on it.

He was of the land and loved it. Farming was his vocation. He lived in sync with the rhythm of the seasons, the rise and fall of nature. The soil was elemental to him.

He was progressive. He was one of the first farmers in our part of the country to remove ditches and dykes and install paddocks, to build a state of the art milking parlour, and to replace churns with a bulk tank. So forward-looking was he that in 1972 the Irish Farmers’ Journal devoted a two-page feature to him entitled ‘This young Limerick farmer has a bright future.’

He was an extrovert. He liked people and loved talking. A trip to the village always took longer than it should for he always met people he had to talk to. His severe deafness of recent years was a very big burden because it meant he could no longer interact with people the way he wanted.

He was clean living. He was a Pioneer for almost 60 years, and, fearing a very quick divorce early in his marriage, he gave up cigarettes. He didn’t gamble, and he didn’t waste money. He lived a good and simple life.

He was straight-talking. If you put on weight, he’d let you know. If you got a new spot on your face, he’d be sure to point it out. But always without malice. Forthright and honest were just the way he was.

He enjoyed sport, especially hurling. One of his biggest burdens was living in a house of Limerick supporters. He could never understand why we could not support Tipperary under any circumstances while he was generous and magnanimous enough to support Limerick, when they weren’t playing Tipp. Late in life, he developed a mild interest in the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club, because of my passion for the club. But hurling was always number one.

The highlight of his year for many years was going to the All-Ireland hurling final. It didn’t matter who was playing – it was his only day off in the year, and my poor mother was saddled with the milking and the cows in his absence.

He was an old-time Catholic. He wasn’t a traditional Catholic in an ideological sense or out of a nostalgia for the past, or fear of the future, but out of a simple faith. His religion was deep rooted, but it wasn’t unquestioning. Several times in recent years, when my mother would suggest the rosary, he would protest, thinking of the setbacks that had befallen the wider family and himself, and of the weariness of the world, and say ‘what’s the point.’ But he would take out his beads and pray. The next day he would be the one to suggest the rosary. He said his prayers every day of his life.

In recent years, he lost his hearing; then his walk, then his balance, then his independence. The one thing he didn’t lose was his appetite. And nor, thankfully, his head. He had a clear mind and a firm grasp of things right to the end.

And it was when he had lost those things that family and love took on even greater significance for him. For it was my mother who fed him and looked after his medication and helped him go to the bathroom; and it was his grandchildren who tenderly helped him get ready for bed every night; the man who had become like a child; the children caring for the man. We are comforted that he never had to go to a nursing home; that he was able to stay at home with his loved ones, almost to his last, laboured breath.

To sum him up, my father was:

Essence of decency

Paragon of virtue

Exemplar of faith

Model of love

He loved us and we loved him. He – and we – were lucky. The world was enhanced by his presence, and it – and we – are diminished by his passing.

We are sustained by our memories, but, even more, we are sustained by our hope in the resurrection. That is our Advent hope. That is our steadfast belief. We know we will meet him again one bright, shiny, day, unhandicapped by age or pain or disability or the wear of the years.