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"The priest wouldn't provide a Funeral Mass"

"Last year my boyfriend's father died and the priest would not bury him on that certain day because it was his day off, and this was a time when I was trying to convert him back to being Catholic. Then, my sister's boyfriend died as a result of a car accident. This young 23-year-old passed away on Monday of Holy Week, but the Catholic Church would not bury him during Holy Week. This family is in so much pain and does not have the money to wait until later to bury him, so the Baptist church came in to do the funeral service. Mind you, no traditional Mass, incense, communion, holy water. Why! So if I die and it is the priest's day off or if it is Holy Week, does my body have to wait along with the pain that the family is already carrying? I need an answer not only for me but for my sister, who is a faithful Catholic, and my converted boyfriend."

I feel your pain and struggle. So much grief!

It might be helpful and comforting to remember that the Church is more than one priest. It is all of us. Your boyfriend and your sister need to experience Christ in the parish community, not just in the priest. The priest is but one man, and he needs his days off as much as you and I need our weekends off from work. If he did not protect his days off, he'd burn out in short order and be useless to everyone on every day. But the parish should have a deacon or a fill-priest from a neighboring parish to take care of emergencies and funerals, hospital visitations, etc., when the pastor is unavailable.

If your parish lacked a deacon or fill-in priest for the funeral, then trust God's timing -- His timing is always perfect, and he cares about your sister, your boyfriend, everyone! If a Catholic burial was important to the family of your sister's boyfriend, then delaying the funeral was God's preference, or else the death would not have occurred during Holy Week (which, by the way, is an awesome time to go "home" to be with the Lord, due to the holiness of this very special week of remembering why Christ died for us). If God had wanted the family to wait, He would have made sure the additional expense could be handled okay.

Were your sister's boyfriend and your boyfriend's father in good standing with the Church; were they active members of the parish community? Some priests, especially the busy ones who have little help available, draw the line at holding a Funeral Mass for an inactive Catholic or one who has left the Church for another denomination. The Funeral Mass is designed for those for whom the Catholic faith was important. I'm sure you can understand that if a person only uses the Church for baptisms, weddings, and funerals, it would be unfair and unloving to expect a busy priest to give up his time off.

You said your sister is a faithful Catholic and your boyfriend recently converted. Are they active in the parish? Is your sister's boyfriend's family active? Priests are usually willing to do funerals on their days off if a family member is known by the priest to be an active community member of the parish. Most will do the Mass of the Dead, which is slightly different from a Funeral Mass, for the sake of the family, if someone in the family is an active Catholic. But if they only go to Mass on Sundays and don't use envelopes for the collection that would prove that they were there, then we cannot expect the priest to understand the need for providing a Mass of the Dead or even a simple prayer service at the funeral home. Many inactive and barely-active Catholics do try to take unfair advantage of the goodness of priests, and so most priests protect themselves out of necessity with a blanket policy that might have unfairly disregarded the needs of your boyfriend's and sister's boyfriend's families.

As for the timing, the priest could have held a Mass for your sister's boyfriend during the first part of Holy Week, which by the way is one of the busiest times for priests, but if her boyfriend and/or his family were not active Catholics in the parish community, it's not fair to ask him (A) for a Mass (B) especially during Holy Week -- not when there are other options, such as a service in the funeral home or in some other church. In the Vatican II documents, the General Instruction on Masses (paragraph #336) says that "Among Masses for the Dead it is the Funeral Mass which holds the first place in importance. It may be celebrated on any day which is neither a Holy Day of Obligation, the Thursday, Friday, Saturday of Holy Week, nor a Sunday in Advent, Lent, or Eastertide."

If the priest was available (i.e., it was not his day off) on Wednesday of Holy Week and if Wednesday would have worked out okay for your sister's boyfriend's family, I recommend that you and your sister make an appointment for a private meeting with the priest and compassionately but firmly ask him why he didn't do the funeral that day. He might learn something from you, or you might learn something from him, or both. Relationships need to be built between priests and the people they serve, since priests are not merely sacrament-dispensers and the people are not dumb sheep to be merely herded.

When a priest is not available for a funeral, it is not the job of the family to find a priest or other minister to bury the deceased -- it's the job of the parish. The parish usually has staff or helpers who know which other priests in the area are available, including retired ones, and whether or not there's a deacon in the parish or in a nearby parish, and they know how to get a hold of them and arrange for one to be available for the funeral. This is normal procedure. But priests and parish workers are only human like the rest of us and they do make mistakes; sadly, if you asked for help from the parish and NO one tried to help, they made a huge mistake. Even so, forgiveness is what Jesus asks of you and your boyfriend and your sister. We cannot hold a grudge, no matter how badly we've been wronged, because then we're committing an even bigger sin.

Waiting until the Monday after Easter for a Funeral Mass might have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Trust in the Lord's help and timing, even financially. To wait one or two more days because of Holy Week allows the family and relatives who are out of town to come in for the funeral, and it gives the family the opportunity to unite the death of their loved one with that of Christ on Good Friday. It also emotionally connects the loss of the loved one to the resurrection of Easter Sunday, which could have provided a lot of comfort. The wait might have actually eased the pain, not increased it. The deceased person is not suffering due to the delay, for in eternity where he is now dwelling with God, there is no measurement of time like we know it. He has already entered into the healing embrace of God.

If the grieving family doesn't have the faith to make such a connection to Christ's passion and resurrection, then complaining about a priest who did not make himself available is increasing their pain and pushing them farther from the Church. What's needed is a focus on the helpfulness of the whole parish community. The more we get involved in the parish, the more we find what we seek from the Church. To that end, call the parish secretary to ask if there's a bereavement committee to help your sister (and her boyfriend's family, if they're parishioners, too) through this hard time. If the parish has one, this is a great way to help your sister emotionally and spiritually! If they don't have one, start one! Maybe this is why God has brought all of this to your attention now.

If there is no bereavement committee, the parish secretary can probably put you in touch with someone who's suffered a similar loss and would be willing to walk your sister through her loss. These are some of the various ways that Jesus ministers through the Church. It's not all up to the priest. He is but one man. To help your boyfriend and sister and the families of the deceased, show them the fullness of what the Church is, so that they don't focus on what one priest does or does not do. God has a lot of comfort and growth in mind for these people whom you care so much about!

© 2004 by Terry Modica, author of the Daily Reflections, and
Richard Huggins, minister of Catholics Returning Home

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