Since the beginning of the year, we’ve had the funerals of several of our retired priests – five to be exact. Really good men, fine priests, who served the Lord Jesus and the Church for many years with great dedication and love. They will certainly be missed by all who knew and loved them.
At one of the funerals in particular, during a couple moments of silent prayer, I found myself staring rather intently at the casket resting in the middle aisle, and contemplating the fact that on some day in the future, who knows when, my body will be in a comparable place – in a casket, resting in the middle aisle of some church or cathedral somewhere, while the Church gathers to pray for the forgiveness of my sins and the peaceful repose of my soul.
Now, during the funerals of the priests mentioned above I listened to some excellent homilies—well-prepared, well-spoken, thoughtful reflections about the life and ministry of the man we had come together to honor and pray for. And listening to these homilies prompted me to ask: “When my time comes, what will they say about me?”
And perhaps you should ask yourself the same question: when your body is resting in the center aisle of a church for the final rites, what will they say about you? What will your friends and acquaintances say when they learn of your passing; when they visit your loved ones; when they read your obituary?
Now, let me express my hope that at my funeral the homilist won’t say too much about me at all. After all, the Church is very clear in insisting that funeral homilies shouldn’t be eulogies. They shouldn’t be primarily about the deceased, regardless of the status of the person. The funeral homily should be about Jesus, his life and ministry, his suffering, death and resurrection. It should speak of how Christians share in those mysteries while on earth and into eternity.
Funeral homilies that are filled with cute little stories and vignettes about the deceased, that focus primarily on the virtues and vices, the hobbies and habits of the departed can be embarrassing; they diminish the solemn significance of the moment; they trivialize the profound mystery of life and death being realized in a funeral liturgy.
Having said that, it’s inevitable, and to a limited degree appropriate, that some thoughtful words about the life of the deceased are included in the homily. And usually, the words spoken about the deceased are kind and forgiving, generous in praise. It’s an unwritten rule not to speak unkindly about the deceased. It would be rather strange for a homilist to emphasize the failures or shortcomings of the person being remembered, wouldn’t it? Obituaries, too, just about always emphasize the good qualities and positive memories of the dearly departed.
The truth is, though, that our obituaries are really being written every day of our lives. They reflect the way we conduct ourselves during our time on earth.
When we die, will people say that we were people of faith, people who loved God and lived a righteous life, who were active in and supportive of the Church? Will they say that we were good people who always tried to do what was right, and never hurt or betray others? Will they say that we were devoted to our families – our spouse, our children, and our parents? Will they say that we were generous – generous in our words and deeds; generous in understanding and forgiving; generous in sharing our blessings with the poor and the needy?
Yes, indeed! What people say about us when we die really depends on how we act while we live. Your obituary, and your funeral homily, are being written today.
But, why these thoughts right now?
Well, because Lent is starting, and Lent is the perfect time for us to examine our conscience, to evaluate our lives, and to think long and hard about this question: Is God at the center of our lives as He should be, as He must be? What is there that’s keeping you apart from God?
During Lent we might take the words of the Prophet Isaiah as our theme: “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord.” (Is 1:18) Or perhaps the exhortation from Prophet Joel: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping and mourning.” (Joel 2:12) Or perhaps the very prudent insight of the Psalm: “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of heart.” (Ps 90: 12)
The traditional practices of Lent – prayer, fasting and good works – are important and helpful. Every Catholic worthy of the name should do something special during Lent – to give something up for discipline and self-denial, or to undertake a more positive practice, a special work of charity or prayer for example.
All of these practices, though, we do not for their own sake, nor to make ourselves look pious. In Lent we need to guard against superficiality or superstition. We accept these disciplines during Lent to strengthen us in our fight against sin; to reset our priorities; and to be sure that our relationship with God is strong and healthy.
Some homilist someday will stand before your family and friends to preach your funeral homily. What will he say about you? Will he praise your goodness and virtue? And – will he be telling the truth? Think about it during Lent.