I do not understand the family’s reaction, not from the sermon I read. Even less do I understand the archdiocese’s swift slap at the pastor.
Fr. Don LaCuesta, pastor of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Temperance, Michigan, was summarily suspended from preaching funeral homilies “for the foreseeable future” December 14 by the Archdiocese of Detroit.
LaCuesta preached a homily for a victim of suicide, an 18-year-old man that, to say the least, was poorly received. The archdiocesan website displayed his apology demanded by the young man’s parents.
Preaching a funeral for a suicide victim is a tough circumstance for preachers; being a former Lutheran pastor, I know. LaCuesta’s homily was made worse by the unmet expectations of the parents. They were so disturbed by the sermon they turned to the press to vent their condemnation of the priest, while also lashing out at their late son’s football coach, alleging he (their word) “bullied” their son. The coach was asked to leave when he arrived for the funeral.
The news accounts took everything at face value. None, except NBC News, provided any direct attribution to the sermon. (NBC was the only outlet providing a link to the homily.) The archdiocese also apparently accepted things at face value, smacking LaCuesta without blinking an eye. There is no indication I find that LaCuesta’s funeral homilies have raised questions previously; my email inquiry to the archdiocesan press office was not answered.
The parents of the young man complained that LaCuesta’s homily was not the homily they had discussed with the priest beforehand. The mother is quoted in numerous press accounts: “We wanted him to celebrate how [her son] lived, not how he died.”
Instead Fr. LaCuesta, as the young man’s father is quoted, made it “his time to tell everybody what he thought of suicide. We couldn’t believe what he was saying.”
I have read the sermon. It frankly bears little relationship to what was reported. He did not “tell everybody what he thought of suicide.” He did rely on the Catechism of the Catholic Church to say what suicide is, what it does, and described the stuttering grief that ensues. Suicide is a grave sin. No one should argue with that. In that context, how could the word be avoided?
LaCuesta then made every effort to say, no matter how he lived or how he died, God would stay near to him always. In that context, was there no comfort?
He set up a distinction: This is suicide, but this is our common destiny in God’s grace. “We try [ in grief] to give thanks for the blessings of life we knew and shared with [the young man], with this child of God. And we remind ourselves that he is not lost to God who seeks to save all of his children.” No one, in short, is lost to death.
What Fr. LaCuesta did not do was preach to the family’s wishes. He preached to and out of their reality, and proclaimed Christ as the remedy, God as their redress. That was not as they wished. Yet that is how any faithful pastor must preach.
Contemporary funerals and sermons are obsessive in seeking to “celebrate” the passage of life. Lucy Bregman’s Preaching Death: The Transformation of Christian Funeral Sermons calls this the “triumph of the biographical” funeral. By this she means preachers (usually Protestant; Catholics are supposed to have rules against it) undertake verbally expressive biographical sketches of the deceased’s life – how they lived – trying to show that something important has happened in this death, something the living should note to assuage their grief, and convey the sense of a life reaching fulfillment.
What such sermons do not confront is actual death as St. Paul describes it: death, the final enemy of God, and therefore the enemy of our created flesh. A “celebration of life” describes nice people, very nice people, growing ever nicer and now rewarded with nicer place. Those sermons cannot, dare not, explore sin and the reality of death and the promise of God that, by Christ, death will be crushed underfoot.
When I was in homiletics class in the late 1970s, my Lutheran homiletics prof instructed us simply. He repeatedly drilled us: One must take into account the scripture, this scripture, and the sermon, this sermon, and the people, these people, and the occasion, this occasion, to produce a critically true engagement with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Preaching the Gospel is the task of every preacher at every funeral. Preachers must say in some way “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” It must be real if we are to hear the real Gospel.
I do not understand the family’s reaction, not from the sermon I read. Even less do I understand the archdiocese’s swift slap at the pastor. The sermon was an honest confrontation with self-inflicted death and the assurance of God’s love under all conditions.
That is Gospel. But, my assessment, the family did not want that. And neither did the archdiocese.
Russell E. Saltzman publishes every Tuesday and Thursday at noon Central Time. He can be reached on Twitter as @RESaltzman, on Facebook as Russ Saltzman, and by email: email@example.com