There is one moment at every mass when the deacon becomes more than just a member of the clergy on the altar. He becomes, in effect, the town crier.
It comes after the Creed, when the deacon offers the General Intercessions, commonly called the Prayer of the Faithful. (This is the "let us pray to the Lord/Lord hear our prayer" that formally concludes the Liturgy of the Word during mass.) As one author has noted: "It is the deacon, serving among the people in a ministry of charity, who ought to know well the needs of the community. He can give voice to those needs. In a sense the general intercessions are the prototype of diaconal prayer."
Part of that prayer includes intercessions for those who have died. Often, hearing the names of the deceased at mass is the first time many will have learned that someone from the community has died.
So Saturday night, at the vigil mass, I climbed into the pulpit to pray the intercessions. In the litany of names of the dead, I announced one that was familiar not only to the hundreds gathered in the church, but also to millions more around the world:
I could hear a low murmur and saw people turn to look at each other.
Outside, after mass, a few expressed surprise; they hadn't heard that she'd died. Others asked why her name was mentioned at all. I explained that Geraldine Ferraro had served in congress from Queens, and lived a few blocks from the parish; for years, she was a regular at Sunday mass, and a familiar fixture in the local grocery store. Some people who were relatively new to the area didn't know that she had a connection to our church going back more than three decades.
When it came to the institutional church, though, the connection was sometimes frayed, and not always strong. Ferraro had clashes with the hierarchy -- most famously, with Cardinal John O'Connor, who objected to her describing the church's teaching on abortion as "not monolithic." In fact, her stand on abortion -- "personally-opposed-but-keep-it-legal" -- has now become boilerplate among some Catholic politicians. And it is anathema to a number of people in the pews, which explains comments like this one, which popped up over the weekend on my blog:
What? Another pro-choice politician who claims to be Catholic? Throw her in the same box as Ted Kennedy; they deserve each other. When Nancy Pelosi dies, throw her in with them.
Another commenter called for Ferraro to be denied a Catholic funeral.
I have to wonder if some of the people in the pews last weekend were silently thinking the same thing. Why pray for Geraldine Ferraro, anyway? Why even mention her name from the pulpit?
It's very simple, really: she is one of us.
Geraldine Ferraro was baptized into the faith, and celebrated it throughout her life. And, like all of us in this wounded, broken, and suffering Body of Christ, she failed. She stumbled. She sinned. I can't know the state of her soul at the time of her death. I hope and pray she reconciled herself to God, just as I hope and pray that all of us are able to do that. (I like how a friend of mine on Facebook put it: "Just one heartfelt ‘Jesus' on the lips is a game-changer . . .")
But the catechism makes plain what so many of us know in our hearts already:
All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven . . . From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God.
Msgr. Peter Elliott, writing about the notion of purgatory, once offered another beautiful thought:
"Eternal rest," "pardon," "peace," "refreshment," and "perpetual light" are words we use when praying for the dead. Each has its own tradition stretching back to earliest Christian times. Each has its own nuance, always pointing to our eternal goal -- union with God in the beatific vision. But each word reminds us that God wants us to play an active part in His mercy to the departed who are one with us in the Communion of Saints.
What a wonderful and comforting idea: that we, by offering our prayers and petitions for those who have died, are able to collaborate with God in His mercy. As a great old hymn tells us, "There is a wideness in God's mercy," a breadth that opens its arms to include all of us who have failed Him, disobeyed Him, even betrayed Him.
Mercy, of course, is also the recurring refrain of Lent. Again and again, Sunday after Sunday during this penitential season we cry out the words of the psalms that we will repeat again during the Easter Vigil: