Catholic funeral liturgies can evangelize fallen-away

By Peter Finney Jr.

When Father Paul Hart was appointed this year as chaplain to the advisory board of the Archdiocese of New Orleans Cemeteries Office, he felt honored to work even more closely with an archdiocesan ministry that helps families in their time of intense grief.

How the church treats people who are struggling with the loss of a loved one is an important act of evangelization that cannot be understated, said Father Hart, who recently celebrated the funeral Mass for his 95-year-old mother Azelia.

“I’ve done 400 weddings during my 28 years as a priest, but my greatest moment of actually feeling that I’m doing the work of the priesthood is when I am reaching people of all faiths and denominations at a funeral,” Father Hart said. “They all have one thing in common – they’re thinking about the end, which, in my homily, becomes the new beginning.

Can reach hurting people

“Funerals can be a very important time for evangelization. They require pastoral sensitivity and care. The words you speak might turn people around who haven’t been to Mass or confession in years. It’s like Jesus going to Lazarus and saying, ‘Come out!’”

Many times, Father Hart said, someone will approach him either before or after the funeral and ask him to hear his or her confession.

“It can be that or something like, ‘Can I get your phone number because your homily touched my heart,’” Father Hart said. “They tell me they’re ready to come back. They say, ‘I was angry at the church, but really I was angry at myself for all the trauma in my life.’”

Spreading the word

For several years, Father Hart had been a consulting member of the cemeteries’ advisory board, offering his insights and opinions on how to communicate to his fellow priests and others about the availability and affordability of burial space in the archdiocese’s 13 Catholic cemeteries.

“Part of my job as a consultant is to find new ways to get people to think about the end and to prepare,” Father Hart said. “Many people think we have old cemeteries that are filled up, but we can explain the situation. There is room. If people can prepare now, they can certainly save money, and it helps them to be at peace.

“This is a serious ministry because we are trying to help people be at peace and make decisions about their family members at the time of death. It’s not just the physical aspect of caring for the cemeteries. There’s a very internal aspect.”

Passionate about her job

Father Hart said he has been impressed by the dedication of cemeteries director Sherri Peppo and her staff’s consistent work of upgrading the Catholic cemeteries.

“I haven’t seen someone this passionate about a job since St. Paul was going out to preach to the Gentiles,” he said, laughing.

Peppo said Father Hart’s expanded role as chaplain has allowed her to discuss with him more deeply the direction of the Cemeteries Office.

“I’m able to talk to him for advice on our ministry, and he gives me suggestions for better ways to handle the outreach to families,” Peppo said.

One upcoming strategy will be for Peppo to attend the 10 deanery meetings across the archdiocese – a deanery is a geographical cluster of parishes – to inform priests about the affordable cost and availability of burial space in Catholic cemeteries.

Space is available

“We still have some property where we can build individual family tombs on,” Peppo said. “We have mausoleum properties with single or double crypts for families and also niche columbariums for cremated remains.”

The office is working on final plans for a large cremation garden for St. Patrick Cemetery No. 3, complete with a water feature, a committal shelter, landscaping and walkways. Work is underway on an unborn baby prayer garden in St. Patrick No. 1, which Peppo hopes will be ready in time for a January right-to-life prayer service.

Peppo said the percentage of families opting for cremation continues to rise in the archdiocese.

“It’s been slow coming down to the south,” she said. “In other parts of the country, it’s 60 to 70 percent. Overall, in the state of Louisiana, it’s around 27 percent. Here in New Orleans, we’re a little bit higher – about 40 percent.”

One of the main educational messages Peppo would like to share with Catholics is that under church law, cremated remains should never remain in a family member’s home or be scattered to the wind.

“We know families are keeping the urns at home, perhaps because they don’t think the Catholic Church accepts cremated remains,” Peppo said. “If money is an obstacle, we do have low-cost options to place the remains in a niche space.”

The reason the church insists on a reverent final resting space is in recognition of the body’s role as the temple of the Holy Spirit during life on earth. Father Hart said he was happy he and his brother had prepared well in advance for his mother’s death.

“I did the funeral Mass and the interment, and it gave me a different perspective on how everything was made a lot easier as a result of our pre-planning,” Father Hart said. “She had everything in order. What would take about two or three days of planning turned into about 23 hours.

Father Hart said while it was difficult to preside at his mother’s funeral, he said it also was a unique joy.

“One of the great things my mom ever did for me was teach me to make the sign of the cross,” Father Hart said. “She taught me about God. Children sometimes have the unrealistic expectations that we need to be perfect to get our parents’ approval – and we don’t. We’re basically human beings, trying to grow in God’s love.”

Father Hart admitted “it got a little difficult when I tried to make my homily perfect” for his mother. But, at some point, he recalled, it didn’t have to be perfect.

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at pfinney@clarionherald.org
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