Category Archives: Theology

Cremains to be buried

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave an instruction, Ad resurgendum cum Christo (“To Rise With Christ”) concerning the dignity of ashes/cremains of the deceased member of the Faithful.

Ad resurgendum cum Christo (2016) is a binding Roman Curial document governing the life of the church, which was explicitly approved by the Pope with his express order. Yet, this document reveals nothing new as it is a clarification with an attempt reinforce existing canonical and liturgical (ritual) norms already in force.  Until 1963, the Catholic Church prohibited cremation because of the fitting nature of keeping intact the visible unity the body, its dignity (even in death) and the theology of the resurrection of the body (see Nicene Creed) the Last Day. Likewise, the Church’s teaching desired to counter philosophical views that rejected the teaching explicitly Christian belief in bodily resurrection. The permission for cremation was put into the Code of Canon Law in 1983 for the Latin Church and the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches in 1990.

For our purposes here, Ad resurgendum cum Christo reiterates the long held view that the Church is not opposed to the practice of cremation (canons 1176.3 and 1184.1 no.2 refer to burial and cremation).

Our theology is rooted in the body. It is a theology and an anthropology based in revelation and sacramentality of Christian Initiation (baptism, confirmation and Eucharist) integrating total person –body, soul, and spirit– as the subject as the center and locus of salvation in Christ Jesus.

030501-N-6141B-022 Central Command Area of Responsibility (May 01, 2003) -- Officers & sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke class guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) honor six former U.S. military members during a burial at sea ceremony. Donald Cook is one of the many warships supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom. Operation Iraqi Freedom is the multi-national coalition effort to liberate the Iraqi people, eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and end the regime of Saddam Hussein. U.S. Navy photo by Chief Journalist Alan J. Baribeau. (RELEASED)

The most eye-grabbing part of the instruction for many is the re-iteration of the prohibition on the scattering of ashes following the Mass of Christian Burial.

Ad resurgendum cum Christo teaches:

She [the church] cannot, therefore, condone attitudes or permit rites that involve erroneous ideas about death, such as considering death as the definitive annihilation of the person, or the moment of fusion with Mother Nature or the universe, or as a stage in the cycle of regeneration, or as the definitive liberation from the “prison” of the body. (no. 3)

Hence, we can understand the author meaning by “fusion with Mother Nature or the universe” as the practices people do in disposing of the ashes of the beloved: the scattering of their ashes over particular lands, mountains, or waters.  The Church reminds us that it is strictly prohibited to divide the ashes among family or their reservation in a home, although culturally sensitive exceptions allowing domestic repose of cremains are left open to the local ordinary, presuming “agreement with the Episcopal Conference or Synod of Bishops of the Oriental Churches” (no. 6). Additionally, we faithful Catholics do not accept philosophies that speaks to “pantheism, naturalism, or nihilism.” It is taught that the ashes cannot be “preserved in mementos, pieces of jewelry, or other objects” (no. 7).

You ought to read the document because I bet that many will not realize that the burial of the body or deposition of the ashes in consecrated ground is matter of doctrine. Our disposition of the ashes in a sacred place keeps departed from being forgotten or their remains from being shown a lack of respect.

“The faithful departed remain part of the Church who believes “in the communion of all the faithful of Christ, those who are pilgrims on earth, the dead who are being purified, and the blessed in heaven, all together forming one Church” AND The reservation of the ashes of the departed in a sacred place ensures that they are not excluded from the prayers and remembrance of their family or the Christian community. It prevents the faithful departed from being forgotten, or their remains from being shown a lack of respect, which eventuality is possible, most especially once the immediately subsequent generation has too passed away. Also it prevents any unfitting or superstitious practices” (no. 5).

Catholics believe in the resurrection of the flesh as fundamental point of received theology and therefore, in death, the body is not incidental unimportant and nor is it trash. Ours is a personal religion holding to the point that what we do with the body matters. No person is anonymous and the burial or disposition of ashes in a way that rejects the history of a person (the name, the person, the  identity of the person) is contrary to common Catholic practice and belief. Belong to the communion of saints through grace. God created each person and calls each person to Himself at the time of  death.

Anyone working in a parish these days will acknowledge the difficulties in working Catholics today in the face of culture; the “unchurched” or those labelled as “nones” are rapidly becoming a problem due to a lack of education, a desire to really know and understand the teachings of Divine Revelation and the Church. The unchurched allow socio-economic-political priorities and personal mores to trump truth. Try speaking with a grieving person (or a pre-grieving person) about the church’s scriptural, doctrinal, and sacramental/ritual reasons for requiring that the corpse or cremains be present for the wake and funeral mass and that cremains be finally placed in a cemetery or columbarium… and you will see the problems at hand and vitriol heaped on a pastoral minister. I have had to try to convince  daily-Mass Catholics to bury the ashes placing Mom on the mantlepiece in their living room or a closet or giving half the ashes to a friend. Not easy.

When John F. Kennedy, Jr. died with his wife in a plane accident in 1999, the burial of cremains was at sea.  The cremains went into a container and dropped overboard at sea.  The family and Church made the distinction  between “burial at sea” and “scattering at sea.” While many say this a  distinction without a difference, but there is a difference.  A burial at sea has the cremains remain intact and together. With the scattering of the cremains are scattered;  i.e., no container to hold human remains together. The same would apply to burial of a body at sea. The Catholic question here is the integrity of the remains.

Archbishop Peter Sartain, paraphrasing an Easter homily of Cardinal George’s in his homily at Cardinal George’s funeral Mass said: “If the earth is our mother, then the grave is our home and the world is a closed system turned in on itself. If Christ is risen from the grave and the Church is our mother, then our destiny reaches beyond space and time, beyond what can be measured and controlled.”

We all should read St Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians 15.

Spirit is manifest

Byzantine priest at DLIn each of us the energy of the Spirit is made manifest according to the measure of his faith (Rom 12:6). Therefore each of us is the steward of his own grace and, if we think logically, we should never envy another person the enjoyment of his gifts, since the disposition which makes us capable of receiving divine blessings depends on ourselves.

– St Maximus the Confessor, 500 Various Texts

Chair of Saint Peter

Chair of St PeterFor many this feast is not that important, and one hears some rather dismissals of the feast by the priest who offers Mass on this day. The theology, in fact, is quite important for us as Catholics, Western and Eastern. The Lord is the Good Shepherd and he will not leave the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to be consumed by Satan. Here, we don’t honor furniture but the feast signifies the authority of Peter. The clear words of Jesus are recalled: you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

The feast is certainly rooted in Divine Revelation which indicates:

  • Jesus to Peter: “feed my lambs … tend my sheep … feed my sheep,” (John 21:15ff)
  • “I have prayed that your own faith may not fail; and once you have turned back, you must strengthen your brothers.” (Luke 22:32)
  • Jesus: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
  • Peter is named first in every listing of the 12 Apostles (Matthew 10:2-4, Mark 3:16-19, Luke 6:14-16 and Acts 1:13)
  • St. Paul consults with St. Peter specifically to confer with him on disputed points in the faith (Gal 1:18) and testifies that he did it specifically so that he “might not be running, or have run, in vain.” (Gal 2:2).
  • St. Peter recognized by St. Paul as the first witness of the Lord’s Resurrection (1 Cor 15:3-7).

Our belief is that the Lord acts in the person of Peter, and his successors.

Saint Leo the Great taught,

Out of the whole world one man, Peter, is chosen to preside at the calling of all nations, and to be set over all the apostles and all the fathers of the Church. Though there are in God’s people many shepherds, Peter is thus appointed to rule in his own person those whom Christ also rules as the original ruler. Beloved, how great and wonderful is this sharing of his power that God in his goodness has given to this man. Whatever Christ has willed to be shared in common by Peter and the other leaders of the Church, it is only through Peter that he has given to others what he has not refused to bestow on them.

The Second Vatican Council says this about the power entrusted to the Roman Pontiff in Lumen Gentium:

Just as in the Gospel, the Lord so disposing, St. Peter and the other apostles constitute one apostolic college, so in a similar way the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter, and the bishops, the successors of the apostles, are joined together. … But the college or body of bishops has no authority unless it is understood together with the Roman Pontiff, the successor of Peter as its head. The pope’s power of primacy over all, both pastors and faithful, remains whole and intact. In virtue of his office, that is as Vicar of Christ and pastor of the whole Church, the Roman Pontiff has full, supreme and universal power over the Church. (Lumen Gentium, 22)

With all this in mind, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) precisely teaches, based on sacred Scripture and sacred Tradition, that ministry of the Pope, known also as Petrine primacy, is a doctrine of mercy. For him, the Lord’s choice of Peter shows that the Church is built on the rock of mercy and forgiveness. Hence, mercy, compassion, forgiveness is based first on weakness:

This seems to me to be a cardinal point. At the inmost core of the new commission which robs the forces of the destruction of their power is the grace of forgiveness. It constitutes the Church. The Church is founded on forgiveness. Peter himself is a personal embodiment of this truth, for he is permitted to be the bearer of the keys after having stumbled, confessed and received the grace of pardon. The Church is by nature the home of forgiveness, and Peter is the perpetual living reminder of this reality: she [the Church] is not a communion of the perfect but a communion of sinners who need and seek forgiveness. Behind the talk of authority, God’s power appears as mercy and thus as the foundation stone of the Church; in the background we hear the word of the Lord: “It is not the healthy who have need of the physician, but those who are ill; I have not come to all the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) (Called to Communion)

Happy Thanksgiving

HappyThanksgivingThe act of gratitude is the first step of holiness. This is the teaching of great saints: Augustine, Aquinas, Benedict, Mom. Loyola spoke of the sin of ingratitude in strong terms. Why is gratitude especially important? For one, it reminds us that we don’t make ourselves. It reminds us that God is in-charge and that He loves us. As one commentator said, “The habitual practice of this first step [of Loyola’s teaching on the Examen that you start with gratitude for all that God has given,] opposes “spiritual amnesia” that the enemy tries to cause with desolation.” Jesuit Fr. John Navone writes, “Tell me what you remember, and I’ll tell you what you are (, S.J.). Another Jesuit,  Fr. John Hardon, used to say “the human memory is like a sieve.”

Our asceticism is to create the space to consciously remember good things — the blessings thus becomes a first step; acknowledging them moves into thanksgiving. Blessings on Thanksgiving Day 2015!

Purgatory shows that no man is an island

BVM and PurgatoryIn these last days of November the month of the Holy Souls, I think it is worth thinking about the doctrine of Purgatory. Several years ago Pope Benedict XVI’s encyclical on hope “Spe Salvi” was published where he wrote some most beautiful lines ever written on purgatory. Here are paragraphs 45-48:

This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.

Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. It is clear that we cannot calculate the “duration” of this transforming burning in terms of the chronological measurements of this world. The transforming “moment” of this encounter eludes earthly time-reckoning—it is the heart’s time, it is the time of “passage” to communion with God in the Body of Christ. The judgement of God is hope, both because it is justice and because it is grace. If it were merely grace, making all earthly things cease to matter, God would still owe us an answer to the question about justice—the crucial question that we ask of history and of God. If it were merely justice, in the end it could bring only fear to us all. The incarnation of God in Christ has so closely linked the two together—judgement and grace—that justice is firmly established: we all work out our salvation “with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Nevertheless grace allows us all to hope, and to go trustfully to meet the Judge whom we know as our “advocate”, or parakletos (cf. 1 Jn 2:1).

A further point must be mentioned here, because it is important for the practice of Christian hope. Early Jewish thought includes the idea that one can help the deceased in their intermediate state through prayer (see for example 2 Macc 12:38-45; first century BC). The equivalent practice was readily adopted by Christians and is common to the Eastern and Western Church. The East does not recognize the purifying and expiatory suffering of souls in the afterlife, but it does acknowledge various levels of beatitude and of suffering in the intermediate state. The souls of the departed can, however, receive “solace and refreshment” through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today. Who would not feel the need to convey to their departed loved ones a sign of kindness, a gesture of gratitude or even a request for pardon? Now a further question arises: if “Purgatory” is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another, through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone. The lives of others continually spill over into mine: in what I think, say, do and achieve. And conversely, my life spills over into that of others: for better and for worse. So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other—my prayer for him—can play a small part in his purification. And for that there is no need to convert earthly time into God’s time: in the communion of souls simple terrestrial time is superseded. It is never too late to touch the heart of another, nor is it ever in vain. In this way we further clarify an important element of the Christian concept of hope. Our hope is always essentially also hope for others; only thus is it truly hope for me too. As Christians we should never limit ourselves to asking: how can I save myself? We should also ask: what can I do in order that others may be saved and that for them too the star of hope may rise? Then I will have done my utmost for my own personal salvation as well.

The makes purgatory something to look forward to!

About the author

Paul A. Zalonski is from New Haven, CT. He is a member of the Fraternity of Communion and Liberation, a Catholic ecclesial movement, and an Oblate of Saint Benedict. Contact Paul at paulzalonski[at]yahoo.com.
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