R ecently, like undoubtedly all of us must from time-to-time, I had the difficult experience of sharing a secular friend’s loss of his wife of forty one years, and in trying to keep all things in my life viewed through the lens of the glorious Catholic faith, I figured that I might do well to share some of my thoughts from the recent ordeal.
I received the phone call on the 25th of September that my friend’s wife, who had reached the advanced years of seventy-five on this earth, had lost her short and futile battle with adenocarcinoma (lung cancer). She had died (as we all us must) at her home surrounded by family and friends. I called and spoke with my friend to express my condolences for his loss. He was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted after having to endure the death of his wife; a state which is completely understandable. He was lost for answers and feeling that painful and paralytic sting; the emptiness of home and heart which is brought about by the loss of a spouse.
Having known these two for well over a decade, it is proper to say that neither one of them ever had a sense of religion, but would classify themselves willingly as “spiritualists” who “believe in a supreme power,” but do not ascribe to any organized religion. They both found happiness in material things, and neither wanted for much throughout their lives. Having no knowledge of the deceased being baptized, and certainly not having the Catholic faith, my mind obviously wandered to the realities of Our Lord’s words in the Holy Gospels and what dying in such a state means.
When discussing his loss, I asked my friend if the final arrangements had been made, to which his answer bespeaks our modern condition – there would be no funeral, nor any body for which to conduct one. My friend informed me that his wife, who he described as “spiritual but not religious,” despised the “arcane rites” of funerals since the funeral was a needless event only to comfort the family and she thought the idea of an open casket was barbaric. So in puzzlement, I asked him what his plans were, if any, to bring closure to her life. The response I received was an all-to-familiar swan song for the modern post-Christian neo-pagan man: there would be a “life celebration” in the coming days. Apparently, the life celebration “rite” includes food, drinks, photo albums and display boards of the deceased’s life, with friends and family sharing stories of the deceased. The crowning moment of the event would come when he gave a sure-to-be tearful eulogy of her life to all present and then placed her cremains, contained in a red urn, on the mantle so that she could “look” at her flower garden over which she labored tirelessly throughout the years to keep edifying.
In the Western World, we do our best to whitewash death away; we deplore the idea of it. We do not speak of it, we do not want to think about it – we run from it like a pyroclastic flow which threatens to engulf us if we do not maintain one step beyond it. When death does visit the post-Christian modern man, he is rendered completely and utterly helpless to understand or to deal with it, and logically, he is unable to make any peace with it. Sure, time may heal the emotional pain of the event itself, but bearing the burden of emptiness that he feels is something that he is unable to shake off to find an ultimate peace in his life over that which death has wrenched from him. This is particularly true if the deceased is someone close to him, for example, a spouse of forty one years. I argue however that this is an understandable, and even a reasonable response given by the post-Christian man as a consequence of a lifetime lived in the denial of sin, both actual and original, the existence of the soul, and a need for the Sacraments.
The great Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor, in her famous essay, The Catholic Novelist in the Protestant South, describes the historical South as “hardly Christ-centered, but certainly Christ-haunted.” One could easily say that today, neo-pagan man is hardly Catholic-centered, but certainly Catholic-haunted. What is meant by this? It begins with an understanding that the Catholic Church is indeed the one true Church, the religion instituted not by man, but by God made man, and whilst on earth God Himself instituted Sacraments. The Holy Religion and the Sacraments are of Divine origin, not human origin, and as such they are designed and instituted for the soul. If the soul is made by God, then naturally there would be a longing for that which God has created for His creation. Whether or not prideful modern man accepts it, the fact remains that the soul desires the true faith and the Sacraments as strongly as one magnet attracts its opposite. In the light of this reality, man will do one of two things: he will either receive the rites and Sacraments of the Catholic Church, or he will create his own false ones; banal and base; grotesque imitations of God’s design. After he creates his own rites, he will then delude himself into believing whatever superstitions he attaches to them – such as the remains of a cremated human body (an explicit denial of the Resurrection of the body) in an urn allowing the deceased to “look” at their natural attachments. He will fail to see that the supposed “arcane rite” of the funeral (properly speaking, the Requiem Mass) that he so dismisses as old and useless has been ineffectively replaced with the rite of his own creation – the life celebration. At these pagan life celebrations, our modern man will throw in a dash of religion to make the event seem to have tacit supernatural implications, such as making statements like the “spirit” of the deceased “lives on.” Ironically, this is the one aspect that he has correct – indeed that spirit, the soul, does live on, eternally; what he refuses to recognize is that it is one of two places. It is yet another indication of how he cannot divorce himself, try he might, from the intrinsic reality of the existence of the human soul.
But all of man’s attempts to invent his own rites and rituals fall woefully short of the Catholic Church’s prescription for such events, and the physical reality of that is felt by everyone who must endure these imposter rites and rituals which have been devised by the incapable minds of man; poisoned by modernity and pride. Any of us who have had the miserable occasion to attend a Novus Ordo funeral service know very well how this event unfolds, and that in the new religion, it too has been infected with this life celebration nonsense. The life celebration necessarily leaves its attendees feeling as empty when it ends as they were when it began. It provides only a counterfeit joy of a false canonization which comforts the soul about as effectively as a spritzed perfume alleviates rancid body odor.
The life celebration is borne out of naturalism and the denial of sin, the false belief that man is in essence good at heart (cf. Jer. 17:9) and that no other fate than Heaven could possibly await his soul upon his death - no matter how sinful or wicked of a life he may have led. Since the new religion of Vatican II espouses the same principles which are based upon the same naturalism, is it any wonder why we see in modern day Novus Ordo churches the mirror image of the secular practice of life celebrations? It should surprise no one, and Catholics must be keenly aware that identifying the false religions and their rites that modern man invents in place of the true ones are crucial to a proper understanding of where we are and why we must act with a diligent Catholic purpose to safeguard our precious faith.