To be Catholic is to take care of the vulnerable

| Father Michael Byron | May 21, 2015 | 0 Comments

Editor’s note: The following article appeared in the Catholic Cemeteries’ spring 2015 “Heritage” newsletter.

The first time I became smitten with cemeteries was while I was an undergraduate at St. John’s University in Collegeville. There on a gorgeous sloped hill to the west of the lake was the cemetery where the monks had been buried for generations, marked with simple gray granite stones. I found it a marvelous place of bringing life back to earth.

My grandparents died a few years later while I was in seminary. It was the first time in my life that I lost immediate family, and I was particularly grieved about my grandmother, to whom I was very close. I was about 25 years old at the time and my grief seemed way out of proportion. I couldn’t shake it. Then I took a trip by myself to the Catholic cemetery in Rochester where my grandmother was buried. I cried for half an hour at the grave, and then it was OK. That visit was an absolute catharsis for me; I came to realize how important the cemetery was.

Catholics take very seriously the realm of the tangible and the physical. There’s something about a physical space like a Catholic cemetery that is sacred to us. It is irreplaceable. Catholics and all people need these spaces and holy sites that we can claim as our own.

Cemeteries, like parishes, can offer powerful opportunities for evangelization at times of death and at times of remembrance. A death draws people to us, even those who are not part of our faith. Maybe they have drifted away from the Church or left in anger, or perhaps religion has not been a part of their life experience. No matter what the case, a funeral and burial are one time people come to us openly, hungering for something — not for doctrine or an evaluation of the deceased’s life, but for comfort, compassion, hope and help.

I taught theology at the St. Paul Seminary for 15 years before I came to St. Pascal’s a few years ago. It’s an older parish, and there are 60 to 70 funerals a year. When I arrived, I was concerned that I didn’t have a history with the parishioners, nor did I know them well. But I came to realize that at times of sorrow, I didn’t have to know them well to do my job. The funeral rites are the time to talk about God’s understanding and how God rises to the forefront when we need him most. It became a great lesson for me.

It has been a privilege for me to preside at Resurrection Cemetery’s annual Mass of remembrance each Christmas season for the past 10 years. The service brings together as many as 175 people who have lost loved ones who are buried or entombed at Resurrection. I rarely know anyone there, nor do I know the stories that bring us together. But the Catholic faith that fills the chapel and the shared experience of grief create an intimate sense of community and comfort.

How we respond in these sacred moments is pivotal. To be Catholic is to take care of people when they are vulnerable. That is what our hospitality is all about. That is what our faith is all about —bringing the messages of hope, joy, reconciliation and life to those who need them most.

Father Byron is pastor of St. Pascal Baylon in St. Paul.

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