By Brian Romer Niemiec
In the Newton Catholic Collaborative there are between 200 and 250 funerals per year. As a result, it is often the case that one of the pastoral associates will lead the wake service, be present at the Funeral Mass, and lead the service at the cemetery. I have been shadowing my colleagues over the last month, and this past week I was deemed ready and handed my first funeral assignment.
I arrived at the wake service a little nervous and worried about making small talk, and about what I was going to say during the reflection. After all, I’m an introvert. I hate small talk. I’m not good at it and I never will be. What am I supposed to say, “Sorry for your loss, but at least the Patriots won…?” I don’t even route for the Patriots!
But, before I knew it, I was through the door, meeting the family, and starting the prayer service. As I worked my way through the beginning of the service, I realized that some of the family members had started crying. For some reason the raw human emotion of the moment took me by surprise, and then I started to get really nervous. I had been planning to talk about salvation, resurrection, and all the great cheery theology that we believe in as Catholics during my reflection, but that wasn’t what this family needed. They missed their sister/mother/grandmother.
So, I switched gears entirely, and by the end of the service I had a much better understanding of why I was there. I realized that people are not sad because someone has simply died. The mere fact that they are dead does not cause such acute emotion. Rather, people are upset because a relationship is seemingly over. We fear that the laughs, the love, the intimacy is gone, and we who remain will never be the same again. I wanted to talk about the Paschal Mystery and Christ’s concurring of death for the eternal life of us all. I ended up talking about was the Communion of Saints, and how we are, as the body of Christ, connected throughout distance and time, and we will be reunited as a whole at the end of time.
Looking back on that first experience I have a hard time putting into words a particular take away, feeling, or lesson. In fact the only phrase I could express to my colleague afterwards was, “I didn’t get in the way of the grieving process.” One might also say that if I didn’t get in the way, I allowed Christ’s love to work through the prayers and experience of the rite.
I mentioned in a previous post about the job of a minister being the work of removing barriers that prevent people from encountering Christ. Well, I think that also holds true in situations like this. The family didn’t need me to tell them everything will be ok. They did not need me to share a beautiful articulation of Catholic Theology. They certainly didn’t need me to affirm the goodness of their deceased loved one. What they needed from me was a space to encounter Christ in their time of grief. They needed an opportunity to lay their pain down in front of Jesus, and let him pick them up and wipe the tears from their eyes.
In other funerals for other families, I may have to do the tear wiping. I may have to do more listening as the grief pours out. I may have to remind them with conviction that death is not the end, but merely the way to eternal life. But always I will have to be the one that facilitates an encounter with Christ, who will bring true healing during the most difficult of times.
So, perhaps my about face during the reflection did help a little. The family, after the burial, seemed very appreciative of our presence, and I went into the next funeral with much less anxiety. Now, though, I think the reason I am not as nervous about the funerals to come is that it is not my job to make people feel better. My job is to pray for the soul of the departed, and to assist the family and friends of the deceased to do the same. It is in that space that Christ will do the rest.