Dear Fr. Joe: I am worried my children will not have a funeral Mass for me – can I still go to heaven?
Thank you for your question; it’s really important that we pause and take a look at what the Church says on this, as it seems to me we are in danger of accidently stepping over a treasure when it comes to funerals.
First things first: I’ve got to tell you that the whole “going to heaven or not” thing? I have no idea. When we talk about who is in heaven or hell, we leave that to Jesus. Instead, what I’d like to do is describe to you just a few of the blessings of a Catholic funeral Mass and see if that doesn’t help you to have a good conversation with your kids about why you want a funeral Mass. Whatever the results of that conversation, I invite you to trust that God doesn’t judge us for what other people decide for us: He is Justice, Mercy and Love. Finally, I don’t know if this gives you comfort, but in the past, I’ve done a funeral Mass by myself for people I know would want one but whose kids didn’t do it.
So…with all that in mind, why have a funeral Mass? First of all, because we pray for the dead. All of us understand that those who have lost loved ones need our prayers, but I think it’s important to remember that those who have died need them, too. I won’t go into purgatory here because I lack the space and have written on it in the past, but a key idea to purgatory is that people there pray for us and we for them. In doing this amazing thing, we continue our relationship with our beloved dead through Jesus. Father Ron Rolheiser wrote beautifully on this topic:
“Praying for the dead, our faith assures us, not only consoles us, but also offers real strength and encouragement to the loved one who has died…Picture, for example, a young child learning to swim. The child’s mother cannot learn for the child, but if she is present and offering encouragement from the edge of the pool, the child’s struggle and learning become easier. Things are more easily borne, if they can be shared. This is true even for a person’s adjustment to the life in heaven.”
Once we realize the utter and complete importance of praying for the dead, the next step is to look at the liturgy because, as a general rule, there simply is no better way to pray than to pray a Mass together. Beyond that knowledge, we can see in the Mass the perfect answer to our grief: the reason for our hope of our resurrection, a means to find and offer comfort to those who mourn and a reflection of the life of heaven.
The funeral liturgy is, before anything else, all about Jesus. When we celebrate Jesus together in the liturgy, we are celebrating the reason we have hope in our time of loss. There is no life of goodness that we can live which would cause us to earn it. “Being a good person” doesn’t even come close to getting us there – no, the reason we have hope for heaven is the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. In our funeral liturgy, we who know and love Jesus hear and reflect on his life in the Gospel and we participate in his last supper. In this, we draw hope that the love which compelled him to live, die and rise for us is the reality that will bring us to heaven.
The funeral liturgy also helps us to find and offer comfort to those who mourn. Section 379 of the Catechism reads:
“The Church offers the Eucharistic Sacrifice of Christ’s Passover for the dead so that, since all the members of Christ’s body are in communion with each other, the petition for spiritual help on behalf of some may bring comforting hope to others.”
That really nails it. By standing together with Jesus in defiance of our circumstances, the Christian community can strengthen each other to say, “This hurts, but Christ has conquered it.” We who individually draw strength from our hope in Jesus find that hope strengthened by the community.
Finally, our funeral liturgy is also to serve as a reminder to us of the life of heaven. The funeral Mass is, at its core, an echo of the life of heaven.
Think of it this way: Imagine that you have worked your whole life to be a professional baseball player. You’ve done the drills, worked hard at staying fit and strong, you’ve listened to the wisdom of the coaches and experienced players and, after a long time of training and moving up through the system, suddenly, the manager points at you and says “Go in”. At that moment, no one would consider saying “No thanks, coach.” We’d spring up and run into the game before the manager changed his mind!
In the same way, we who pray personally and communally, we who live the sacramental life of the Church in our everyday lives do so, knowing that it’s all a reflection of what we’ll experience in heaven.
So, please explain to your children, talk to your priest even and put it in writing if necessary how important this is to you. Above all though, remember and rest assured that the Lord will not judge you for something over which you have no control.
In the end, there is much more to write but I think we’ve got enough here; we are so blessed to share our Catholic faith!
Enjoy another day in God’s Presence!
If you’d like to submit a question for Father Joe to consider in a future column, please send it to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Father Joe is unable to personally answer questions.