Welcoming the Stranger

Among the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are two:  bury the dead, and pray for the living and the dead.  At his blog, Deacon Greg Kandra tells a said story that relates to these:

I just had a disturbing conversation with a co-worker whose sister passed away a few days ago, and when the family tried to arrange her funeral, they were refused by a local parish because the sister wasn’t registered there. The sister had been sick with cancer for several years and had not been attending mass at any parish where she lived , so the family was trying to arrange the funeral at the parish they attended where they grew up. It was the pastor at [this parish]who refused them the funeral. I believe the family may have asked at another nearby parish, and were also refused there.

It was my understanding that someone who is a baptized Catholic cannot be denied a Catholic funeral. Is that right? If an individual parish refuses to allow a funeral there, what are the options? Can a pastor even deny someone a funeral because they’re not a registered parishioner? I understand why registration is a requirement for the administration of some sacraments, but I can’t comprehend refusing to allow a funeral for someone.

The deacon does an admirable job of summarizing canon law relating to funerals:  the short answer is that in ordinary circumstances, a priest should not refuse to perform a funeral for someone who is Catholic but not a parishioner.

For me, this story brought back a memory of something that happened about forty years ago that made a lasting impression on me.  When I was a kid, various traveling circuses and carnivals used to come to town.   One Sunday morning we went to our usual mass, and the pastor skipped his prepared homily to tell us about something that had happened at an earlier mass.  Two performers who were in town with the circus had recently had a baby, and they wanted the baby baptized.  Apparently, they opened the phone book looking for Catholic Churches—we attended Annunciation parish, the first on the list, so they called us.   They explained the circumstances to our pastor:  they were leaving Sunday afternoon, could he help them?   I don’t know how long he thought about it or if he consulted anyone else, but his final answer was a firm yes.  He had them come to an early Sunday mass and baptized their baby during it, with everyone in the congregation to witness it.  I can no longer remember whether this was customary in our parish—some churches had baptisms at mass but others had them immediately after mass, usually on a designated Sunday.   But I still bet it came as a surprise to all the folks at this early mass.

Our pastor then made a point to preach about what happened at the subsequent masses.  I do not remember any other sermon he preached—in fact, I don’t even remember what he looked like.  But I remember the message from that day:  they were not parishioners, there had been no formal baptismal preparation, but they were our brothers and sisters in Christ and it was our duty and our privilege to welcome them into our parish to hold the baptism there.   And my hunch is that if the call had instead been about a sudden death, he would have said a funeral mass as well.

About David Cruz-Uribe
  • Brian Martin

    i think a very simple question could be asked: Do the actions of turning this family away mirror the actions of Christ?

  • https://www.facebook.com/diane.wilkinson.9461 Diane Wilkinson

    A friend of mine couldn’t get her baby baptized because she didn’t go to church. Her son ended up dying of SIDS, unbaptized. She never forgave the Catholic Church for that.

    • Ronald King

      That is terrible. It’s a good thing God isn’t Catholic.

  • Julia Smucker

    This reminds me so much of the dilemma Chauvet speaks to from the French pastoral context, in which many generally unchurched people request the sacraments, especially marriage and the baptism of their children. It’s a dilemma in the sense that he sees a vital connection between the sacraments and Christian discipleship and is thus troubled by the prevalence of a nominal or superficially cultural faith, while also recognizing how unwelcoming it would be to simply turn people away. His answer to the dilemma is basically to take such occasions as opportunities to invite people deeper into the faith of the Church (adding at one point that the threat of refusal should never be left hanging over their heads like Damocles’ sword).

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Pope Francis has clearly indicated his preference for a less rigorist position, particularly on baptism. His words and actions on this have been clear. I have not heard him say anything about funerals, though.

      Interestingly, this ties into some comments by Cardinal Mueller in my previous post. As he points out, traditional theology has gone for a minimalist level of understanding of the sacrament of marriage: simply the intent to do what the Church wants (a perhaps hasty paraphrase). Now he is looking for someway (still within the framework of traditional thinking) to deal with the consequences of the interaction of this position with broader cultural trends.

      There is a balance to be struck here, and I will add Chauvet to my already overextended reading list. My gut reaction for both baptisms and funerals is to err on the side of doing both broadly. Somewhat flippantly, I would paraphrase Simon de Monfort and say, “Baptize them all: God will know his own.”

      I wish I knew more about the funeral story—it would be worthwhile to hear more about the pastor’s thinking in this case. It may, unfortunately, be an overworked pastor who felt he had too much on his plate to also do a funeral for nonparishoners. Not charitable, but perhaps understandable.

    • Ronald King

      Julia, I admire your symbol. What is being done to help? I know this is off topic.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        Julia, feel free to reply, but no further discussion of this here, please.

  • Kurt

    I wonder if increasing numbers of incidents like the deacon described are due to something different than what we first assume.

    I wonder if it is not a judgment that the deceased is somehow unworthy of a Catholic funeral. Instead it is a matter that the parish doesn’t make any money (or even cover its expenses) fro burying non-parishioners.

    Over the past generation, we have seen the American white working class flee the Catholic Church like a bat out of Hell. Our parishes (save the Spanish speaking communities) are now the most white collar and affluent than any other time in American history. Yet people are giving less. So what the pastor sees are lay people with stable and secure lives. The pastor is unaccustomed to parishioners with any disorganization or transience in their lives. They are presumed to have college degrees, be homeowners, and have secure jobs.

    Yet since the child abuse scandal, Catholics are giving less and less and many parishes are operating with tight budgets. So parish priests feel that pastoral services need to be limited to active parishioners. It never occurs to them that some people don’t have the means to contribute and don’t have the stability in their lives where they would be an active presence on one particular parish.

    So with the assumption that people are economically secure and stable in their housing, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that they should be known subscribers to the parish church they expect pastoral care from. They are not judging anyone morally unworthy of such pastoral care, they just don’t think it is their job to provide it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Kurt, there may be something to this thesis, which you have expressed before. However, I would note that in my youth in Wisconsin, the blue collar parish my family belonged to published a booklet every year listing families and whether or not you had paid your “dues.” I was too young to know precisely what this meant or how much dues were, but some things my Mom said lead me to suspect that the pastors used this to distinguish active parishioners from those on the margins. Further, this may well have affected the “business” of dispensing the sacraments.

      Did anyone else encounter this system? It fell out of use some time ago, I think.

      • Kurt

        David, yes, my grandparents (also in Wisconsin) experienced the same. But people were stable and settled on their farm or their house in town, and they did pay their dues (if for no other reason that if one did not, Father Dietzenheimer would refuse a funeral and one would have to be buried — horror of horrors — in the Irish parish. Gott in Himmel!)

      • Melody

        David, when I was a young child, our parish published a similar book. My dad said he actually liked it; it gave him some idea of where he wanted his contributions to fall. He wanted to be between two families: higher than one which was rich but were notorious tightwads, but lower than one of more modest means but who practiced sacrificial stewardship.

  • John

    Baptism may never be denied, but may be delayed, until the priest has a well founded hope that the child will be raised in the Catholic faith. There is some danger that a family will regard baptism as a cultural ritual without making a religious commitment. On the other hand, the presumption should always be that the parents are sincere in requesting baptism.

    Funerals are a different matter. They are not “good conduct medals.” We pray for the deceased and for those who loved her. I can’t imagine denying a funeral to anyone, unless it gave public scandal (but can’t imagine what that might be) or if the decedent had expressly said they didn’t want a Catholic ceremony.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      To be precise, canon law says

      “there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion; if such hope is altogether lacking, the baptism is to be delayed according to the prescripts of particular law after the parents have been advised about the reason.”

      Note the minimalist turn of phrase: baptism is to be denied only if “such hope is altogether lacking.”

      With regards to funerals, there was one case recently: Erich Priebke, an unrepentant Nazi war criminal imprisoned in Italy, was denied a Church funeral. I think the key is that up to the day of his death he denied his crimes against Jews and the Holocaust in general.

      • Kurt

        Just a small point. He was denied permission from the legitimate Church authorities for a funeral. He was given a funeral by a SSPX priest.

  • http://gravatar.com/tausign Tausign

    Something left out of this discussion is the plight of those who die with no funds (perhaps on Medicaid) and no remaining family. One particular case comes to mind of a OFS fraternity brother who passed away recently and unexpectedly without funeral arraignments. For folks such as these there are no funds to transport their remains to a church for a funeral mass. The town will alot a small sum (about $1800 in CT) and a local funeral home is obliged to provide for a ‘bare bones’ (pun intended) proper disposal of the remains into an unmarked grave. No wake, visitation or memorial services are provided. In addition, if the funeral home accepts this arrangement then they are prohibited from accepting any additional funds, say from a benefactor for the transport or the remains to a church for Mass. In this particular case, our fraternity learned that the spouse’s cremated remains are still held at the funeral home (for several years now) as the husband was unable to fully pay the funeral home for her funeral as he promised. We hope to have them placed in the same unmarked grave. We are planning to have a memorial service for him in the near future.

    I think this is a fairly common occurrence. Interestingly, I take my dog regularly to a dog park in town which is located on Asylum Street near the corner of Almshouse Rd. Of course there’s no evidence of these former institutions today except that about 100 feet from the side entrance to the dog park I noticed an old headstone surrounded by some shrubbery. It’s dedicated to the 220 or so residents who died In the period of the 1890’s through 1920’s while in public care and are buried unmarked in the surrounding area. May perpetual light shine upon them…and may they rest in peace.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you, TauSign: this is an aspect I had not considered, but one which is worth remembering. On a historical note, the Knights of Columbus Insurance program started as a cooperative burial society: members chipped in small amounts so that if one of their number died, the costs of burial (much, much lower in those days) could be met. Since those days we have gotten sucked up into the American way of death, and an “ordinary” funeral now costs $10,000 or more.

  • http://profiles.google.com/JohnMcG johnmcg

    My uncle and godfather passed away two years ago. I’m fairly certain he had stopped practicing the faith, and his own funeral may very well have been the first time his feet had entered that particular church.

    Nevertheless, the priest helped us through a great viewing and funeral Mass, incorporating the stories we had told about Uncle Kevin in his homily.

    I think it was a wonderful instance of evangelization toward those in attendance who were also not practicing Catholic, and made me as proud to be Catholic as anything else has been.