Parish ministry is a matter of life and death. Maybe that’s part of why I love being a Holy Cross priest serving in parish ministry? As parish priests, we get to be with people in some of the most important moments of their lives. We’re with them celebrating life and joy on so many occasions. We’re also with them as they approach death and as their loved ones deal with their grief in the aftermath.
I’ve always considered it a great blessing when I’ve been called to be with parishioners when their loved ones are very sick and perhaps close to death. The urgency with which we are sometimes called in those situations is a reminder of how important we are to people as parish priests. It’s a blessing to be able to pray with the sick and dying and offer them the Sacraments of Reconciliation, Anointing of the Sick and the Eucharist in those important moments.
So many times I have seen the sense of peace, or even relief, that the sick and dying and their loved ones have after receiving these Sacraments. It’s such a gratifying thing to know that God works through us in those moments to make a big difference as people are facing, quite possibly, the most profound transition of their lives.
I’ve always appreciated opportunities that I’ve had to celebrate funerals. At St. John Vianney Parish in Arizona, we had many funerals. Sadly, many of them were tragic deaths with young people. So many times, it was clear that, at best, people hadn’t been to a Mass in a long time, if they had ever been. These were incredible opportunities not only to pray with people and offer them consolation and hope after the death of their loved ones. They were also opportunities to make people feel welcome in our parish and, perhaps, to open their minds and hearts to God and to the Gospel. I wanted them to know that the Catholic Church was there with them and for them when they needed us the most.
Our reality here at La Luz Parish with regard to funerals is much different than in most parishes in the United States, because our parish encompasses a population of 45,000 people, most of whom are Catholic. We get many, many requests for funerals. We have little time to plan for these funerals. In the United States, there are usually two or three days between the death of a person and their funeral and burial. Here in Mexico if a person dies today, they’ll be buried tomorrow because the bodies of the deceased are not embalmed. Burials have to happen more quickly or, to put it bluntly, the bodies will begin to smell. The glass coverings here on open caskets are a reminder of this reality.
With the numbers of people in our parish and the rapid nature of the burials, I might have two or more funerals in my day that I don’t even know I’ll be having when I wake up that morning. Because of this and because of the poverty of the people and the need to limit transportation costs, we rarely have funeral Masses in our parish church. Instead we are only able to have a liturgy of the Word at the funeral home. Here as well, we encounter many who are not connected to the Catholic Church and thus have a wonderful opportunity to evangelize our people.
I feel bad that we don’t have funeral Masses for these people in our church, so I do all that I can to make our celebrations in the funeral homes as good as they can be, despite our limitations.
As Catholics, we know very well that death is our entrance to eternal life. As tough as our losses are with the death of our loved ones, we have hope because we know that there’s so much more that lies on the other side of death. Accompanying our people before and after the death of a loved one is such a powerful way for us in Holy Cross to truly be “men with hope to bring.”
Fr. John Herman, C.S.C., is the Pastor of Nuestra Madre Santísima de la Luz Parish, in Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon, México. Fr. John is a regular contributor to the Spes Unica Blog, writing about his work at our parish there. Learn more about the missionary work of the United States Province in México and around the world.