March 15, 2012

On Funerals and Fr. Guarnizo

To be honest I hadn't thought much about it, but I've found the case of Fr. Marcel Guarnizo and the troubled funeral Mass he celebrated coming up in my prayer. I don't really want to say anything about it per se, but just that I've been praying for Fr. Guarnizo and that I think I know something of his trial.

During my three years as a parish priest, I took care of about seventy funerals. The whole ministry became was a very blessed development for me. Almost always I would preach at the wake service as well as at the Mass. That's a lot of homilies. Praying through the Scriptures and trying to preach the great mysteries of salvation, sacraments, life and death, fresh and new vistas began to open in my whole sense of my Christianity. Many times I would find myself walking back to the friary from the funeral home, somewhat amazed by the graces being opened and unfolded by it all. This post, for example.

I learned a lot about life and families praying through funeral liturgies. I learned that just because something is emotionally difficult doesn't mean it has to be so relationally. I noticed that the funerals of old maids tended to be full of friends while those of old bachelors tended to be empty. I witnessed and considered it my blessed privilege to give reverence to very complex sets of thoughts and feelings: grief, relief, anger, disappointment, hurt, gratitude.

But funerals were also something stressful. There was a certain stressed dread that would come upon me as soon as I found out that I would have a funeral, and it wouldn't lift until I was at the cemetery. At funerals you meet everyone: devout and committed Catholics, Catholics who have drifted away, Catholics who have apostatized peacefully, Catholics who have apostatized angrily. In addition, there are often mourners of some other religion or none. Most of the time I would have the grace and wherewithal to take these situations as blessed opportunities for evangelization and to give a good impression of the pastoral care the Church offers the world. Much of it was an enjoyable challenge; I developed funeral homilies for moments when there would be a lot of Jews or Protestants present, and even one for times when the dominant 'religion' in the assembly was the recovery movement. 'The Resurrection as Step Twelve' I named it for myself.

Things aren't always a joyful opportunity, however. There are a lot of misunderstandings about Catholic doctrine out there, about the nature and functions of the funeral liturgy and the treatment of the mortal remains of the dead. There are a lot of people who are angry at the clergy, and often for good reason. And then there are folks who just don't have any manners. Put all of those folks together with the observant and devout (who can also have challenging expectations of the priest) at a time when family divisions tend to flare up and everybody is grieving and upset to one degree or another (or feeling guilty for not feeling bad), and it can seem like an overwhelming task to preside over the whole thing as the Lord's assembly.

Once in a while I would get into a conflict too. Discretion is very important, but I'm not the kind of priest who can let anything go under the sorry excuse of being 'pastoral' or because it's 'not a teaching moment.' I am a steward of the sacred mysteries, and I want to be faithful.

So I'm just praying with and for Fr. Guarnizo. I've had small tastes of his trial.

1 comment:

charlie (dc resident) said...

Very interesting post. One of the things about this story that struck me was the seeming lack of a well defined policy for this situation. The diocese publicly stated that Fr. Guarnizo acted contrary to policy but the description of the policy given was (i thought) vague and wide open to varying interpretations. On top of that, Fr. Guarnizo's description of what HE thought the policy was conflicted with the official statement from the diocese. This can't be the first time this issue has come up, can it? I would find any insight into this aspect of the story very interesting, thanks.