Rorate Caeli

Sermon for All Souls' Day, 2017 - "The Catholic religion is the one the takes death most seriously." - by Father Cipolla


Fr. Richard Cipolla
St. Mary's
Norwalk, Connecticut
He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has life everlasting, and I will raise him up at the last day. (John 6:55)

What we come here to do this evening used to be normal, something that many people did, in another time.  We come to celebrate the third Mass of All Souls Day in Solemn form, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the faithful departed, for those we have loved and see no more, for those who have died, for those who in our faith and in their faith make sense of what we do here in this church this evening.  And yet, and yet, to offer a Requiem Mass, to come together in this church as an annual event that is on the Church calendar and therefore we presume that something happens here and that this is truly an event. But those who come here to this Mass do so as a distinct minority in this present age in the Church and in the world.  For those who come here take death seriously, take Kafka’s words: “he died like a dog” seriously as a real alternative to what we believe as Catholics.

If one’s religion does not take death seriously, then that religion should be abandoned and one should do the best one can in this life to live a life that does not give scandal and that has some sense of honor and good.  I am not an expert on world religions, but the little I know about these religions suggests to me that it is Christianity in its deepest and most authentic form, which is Catholicism, is the one religion that takes death seriously, for how more seriously can you take death than to insist that God in the flesh died on a cross to save us from our sins.  That is heavy and cuts through a lot of junk that is deemed to be conversations about the reality of death.  A faith that insists that God who cannot die died on a tree in a backwater of the Roman empire and that few noticed:  this is a religion that demands at least some examination.

But what we are doing here and how we are doing it is certainly not in the Catholic mainstream, that mainstream that has been polluted by the powerful current of sentimentality, that sentimentality that according to Blessed John Henry Newman, is the acid of religion.  It is as if the pure stream of the Catholic faith has been polluted by the dumping into its waters the slag of the sentimentality of the world, a sentimentality that both avoids the reality of death and denies the poison that it really is, a poison so powerful that no fish can live in these waters.

Catholic funerals have become, in most places, quasi-canonizations of the person who lies in the coffin at the Funeral Mass, or the cremains (one has to invent new words to confront new situations), of the man or woman who has been brought into the Church for the Mass of Christian Burial.  Some don’t even get a Mass. Is Paris worth a Mass? Is my father worth a Mass?  The past five years especially have seen the rise of a new phenomenon in the Church.  The number of elderly men and women who were faithful Catholics while living are denied a Funeral or Requiem Mass by their children. Their children have no attachment to the Church and cannot be bothered to do anything to mark the death of one of their parents except a perfunctory service in a funeral home. The children do not understand at all the importance of offering the Holy Sacrifice for those who loved them and have died. This is a truly tragic situation for their parents. But even those who get a Mass do find themselves in an awkward situation: a situation that contradicts the reality of their own situation.

I once participated (I am not sure what this verb means in the context) in the Funeral Mass of a woman I knew as a woman of simple and deep faith.  The bishop who presided at this Mass said, in his homily, that he was sure that she was looking down on all of us from heaven and that she was dancing a jig.  I am sure that you have heard similar sentiments from priests at funeral Masses.  And when these things are said, and they are said often, the people laugh.  Not raucous laughter, but polite laughter. Polite because no one believes that this is true.  Poor bishop, and more commonly, poor Father, he has no clue about the reality of death, how much in so many cases, death hurts, is agony, and how this breaks the heart of those who remain.  Let Father go on and talk in this sentimental way. And I will raise him up! And I will raise him up!  We will sing this song not of Zion, and go on with our lives and try to figure out what this death of my father, or my mother, or my son or daughter, or friend: what this means and how I can confront this with real meaning and not sappy sentimentality: what this means in the context of the crucifixion of God and “I am the Resurrection and the Life” and “Blessed are those who have not seen and believe. “

In her collection of essays published as Mystery and Manners, that great Catholic and opponent of sentimentalism, Flannery O’Connor, says this:

One of the tendencies of our age is to use the suffering of children to discredit the goodness of God, and once you have discredited his goodness, you are done with him. ... Ivan Karamazov cannot believe, as long as one child is in torment; Camus' hero cannot accept the divinity of Christ, because of the massacre of the innocents. In this popular pity, we mark our gain in sensibility and our loss in vision. If other ages felt less, they saw more, even though they saw more, even though they saw with the blind, prophetical, unsentimental eye of acceptance, which is to say, of faith. In the absence of this faith now, we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced-labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.

Oh dear.  We have spoiled everything by this quote from this woman who is in the line of Catherine of Siena and Birgitta and Teresa of Avila and Edith Stein.  Her words: in the absence of this faith we govern by tenderness. It is tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory.  When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. When tenderness is detached from the reality of the person of Jesus Christ, its logical outcome is the abolition of justice in the name of mercy.  What is this tenderness except the substitution of the mercy of God for sentimentality?  This is the tenderness that deliberately forgets about the justice of God and pretends that, in general, mercy has trounced, has eliminated, justice.

There certainly is much more to say about this taking refuge in sentimentality that is the mark of our age both secular and religious.  But at least we have here with us that great hymn that is the antidote to this sentimentality that dissolves the ultimate importance of death: the Dies Irae.  Alas! they say. This hymn should not be a part of the Funeral Mass with its doom and gloom, with its strong reference to judgment and fear.  But it is precisely the Dies Irae that is the great hymn that sings of the mercy of God.  The Dies Irae is the ultimate prayer for the mercy of God in the face of the justice of God, in the face of my real sinfulness. And this is especially true when this sequence hymn is sung whether in the basic glory of chant or in the polyphony of Victoria or, yes, even in the 19th century bombast of nationalism of Verdi.

We come here, you and I, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for those whom we have loved and who have died, for those whose faith was imperfect as their lives were imperfect but who had some idea, not presumption this, who had some idea that their Catholic faith pointed to the possibility of redemption by the Cross of Jesus Christ.  This is the mercy of God: to have some idea, yes, not in some sentimental way, but to have an honest idea that how I live my life within the moral law of God, how I live my life whether or not in the purpose of love:  that this can be en-graced by God in the Cross of Jesus Christ so that I can die with the sure hope that I will be embraced by Christ and that I will allow myself to be brought to the point where I can, can in the deepest moral sense, see God face to face, and this “can” is not my action but the action of God:  tout est grâce: this is the faith that brings us here this evening.

At this Requiem Mass and in this month of All Souls what we do here together you and I, priest and people, is the real antidote to the acid of sentimentality that threatens the Church and society.   Jesus said:  “I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me will not perish but have everlasting life.”  Do you believe this?  It is this question and its answer that echoes through 2000 years and to this place and time in this church dedicated to St. Mary.  And our answer to this question: my answer and your answer, has infinite consequences.