Dear Brothers and Sisters,
When I was about 12 years old I remember my mother telling me that there were certain topics that I should never bring up in conversation with people I didn’t know very well. Those topics were religion, politics and sex!
In the late 1950s and early 60s there was still a view that such matters were reserved to those who were professionally equipped to deal with them, and in ‘polite society’ such topics were taboo.
Every topic related to human beings, and now their behaviour is open for discussion at any time and in any forum.
One only has to recall the censorship laws that controlled much of the content on television in this country from the mid-1950s when TV first came to Australia, and look at the content that now pervades our screens, at any time of the day or night.
Yet there is one subject that is avoided and, when it does bubble up to the surface, is often treated in a very clinical way. I am talking about death.
I remember as a teenager reading a novel entitled The Loved One: An Anglo-American Tragedy (1948). It is a short, satirical novel by British novelist by Evelyn Waugh, which focuses on the absurdity of the American funeral industry at that time in its attempt to disguise, as much as possible, the fact that a body is dead.
In recent decades, we seem to have adopted much of the American attitude to death. That we can watch films and TV programs in which characters are terminated regularly, and think nothing of it, is measure that we have become desensitised simply because we know ‘they are only actors and will get up at the end of the scene’.
We seem disconnected when watching the news and, when images of dead people come on to the screen, we remain disconnected. (Sometimes there is a warning before the images are shown so that we can switch off!)
However, when we are confronted by the death of a relative or close friend, that reality is very different. We come face to face with the rude and brutal nature of extinct life.
It is important to confront death and name it for what it is – an end for which, on this side of the grave, there is no return!
For Catholics, the month of November traditionally has been devoted to remembering and praying for our deceased loved ones. The practice of praying for the dead has great antiquity in the Church and was part of the life of the earliest Christian communities.
The annual commemoration of the faithful departed was linked to the Solemnity of All Saints’ Day, which happily this year falls on a Sunday.
As on the secular days linked to mothers and fathers, there will be many in our Catholic community in the Diocese who will visit cemeteries and places where the dead are memorialised. It is a wonderful expression of love by those who remain in calling to mind those who have died.
The practice of requesting that Masses be offered for the departed is also quite old and dates back to the early medieval period.
As all of us continue in our journey that will lead us to encounter the fullness of God’s glory, we want to ensure that those who have died can be aided by us, and have the assurance that they too are united to us, and that whatever blocks their union with God will be purged so that they can enjoy the beatific vision.
We should not fear the reality of death as we see it as being part of the journey that extends beyond physical existence and draws us to eternity with God.
The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the core of our faith and we should experience that immersion spiritually every week in the Sunday celebration of the Eucharist, which has at its heart the Paschal Mystery.
As Catholics we should also give serious consideration to making adequate preparation for the time when our earthly lives will end. There is nothing morbid or bleak about setting out now, while we are well and active, the choices of Scripture readings and liturgical music we would like to form part of our own funeral liturgy.
As much as anything it provides an insight for those who come to remember us in prayer, what were the key drivers in our own faith.
While funerals are invariably a time of sadness and grief, for the Christian they are also an expression of hope, not only for the deceased person, but also for ourselves.
It is captured quite beautifully in a hymn from the Ukranian Rite, which is sung to a very old melody from Kiev. When the late Cardinal Edward Clancy was being lowered into the crypt of St Mary’s Cathedral it was chanted by a schola made up of adolescent boys from the Cathedral choir:
Give rest, O Christ, to thy servant with thy Saints:
where sorrow and pain are no more; neither sighing, but life everlasting.
Thou only art immortal, the Creator and Maker of man:
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall we return:
for so thou didst ordain, when thou createdst me, saying:
Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
All we go down to the dust; and, weeping o’er the grave, we make our song:
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
(Contakion of the Departed: Kiev melody)
This month, let us continue to remember with love those who have died and with whom we had a special bond and whose absence we lament, but know that we are united with them still in the mystery of the communion of the Church.
With my prayers,
Very Rev Peter G Williams