I had a Nunc Dimittis moment yesterday, watching the funeral of Judge Scalia. My guess is that I wasn’t alone. I have been waiting for fifty-two years for some corrective to the kind of Catholic funeral liturgy that began to take hold with the Funeral Mass for President Kennedy in 1963. With that particular liturgy, there began the deterioration of Catholic funerals across this land. And now that has received a certain corrective in the beautiful liturgy at the National Shrine. It was a true liturgy, which means it was focused overwhelmingly on the Lord Jesus Christ and only secondarily on the deceased.
The celebrant, Justice Scalia’s son Fr. Paul Scalia, was only a few years old when JFK was assassinated. So he probably wasn’t paying much attention to that funeral at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington. But his father was, I suspect, very attuned to what went on that day, as were most of us Catholic adults at the time. It was the beginning of the eulogistic liturgy that has become the norm in many churches today.
The Mass itself was celebrated by Cardinal Cushing in twenty minutes flat, with no homily. At the end of the Mass, the liturgy suddenly became focused on JFK and his accomplishments. Bishop Hannan, a family friend, gave a ten-minute eulogy, which meant it was half as long as the Mass itself.
That eulogy, something completely out of place in the old liturgy, did throw in some biblical passages JFK liked. But the bulk of the eulogy was a reading from his Inaugural Address, which made it about a third as long as the Mass itself. The biblical passages seemed almost arbitrary really, as a lead in to the really important material written by JFK.
Cardinal Cushing, perhaps feeling slighted by Mrs. Kennedy’s inviting Hannan to speak, gave us a taste of the kind of eulogy that would be standard fare in the future. And not only at state funerals, but at ordinary funerals throughout the country. On the day before the funeral, Cushing celebrated a Memorial Mass in Boston, in which he gave the most maudlin and effusive, and almost totally secular eulogy of JFK and his family.
After the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the funeral Mass celebrated at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, using the new Mass funeral liturgy, featured a long eulogy by Sen. Ted Kennedy. His eulogy was much more like Cardinal Cushing’s than Bishop Hannan’s. In just five years, the eulogistic funeral now had become an occasion for glorifying men rather than God.
I don’t blame the Kennedys as such, because they couldn’t have done this without clergy cooperation.
Well, all of that received a kind of counter action or corrective at the funeral of Judge Scalia. This liturgy was totally focused on Christ Himself, and only secondarily and derivatively on Scalia. Lest anyone think that I’m disrespecting the judge, the most powerful example of this focus was in the homily given by his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, who writes for The Catholic Thing from time to time. His clever introduction to the homily set the tone and theme of what was to follow.
He spoke about coming together to honor someone whom we all know and love, and then surprised the congregation by saying he was speaking about Jesus Christ. That was it. The corrective. At last. Father Scalia went on to organize the funeral homily around what God had done for his father, the many blessings that God had bestowed upon him and upon the family indirectly through his father. It was fantastic. If I weren’t so old, I would’ve jumped out of my chair and cheered.
Father Scalia, I’m sure, conducted the liturgy and framed his homily according to his own faith, and I was quite sure this is exactly what was going to happen. Quite honestly, I was not surprised at all, and yet I couldn’t help feeling tremendously lifted by his words. Further, he stated that he also was fulfilling what he was certain was the will of his father, whom he told us really despised eulogies if for no other reason than that they tended to deprive the deceased of the prayers he would otherwise benefit from if the focus were not on his virtues.
As his son so adeptly mentioned, while his father was a man of great virtue, he was nonetheless a man like us all, that is, a man whose weaknesses required our prayers and God’s mercy.
The focus of every liturgy, including baptisms, confirmations, marriages, ordinations, consecrations, and even funerals, if they are Catholic, has to be on Jesus Christ. Father Scalia made that clear in his words and in his whole conduct of the liturgy. In doing so, he not only served well his earthly father, but more importantly his Heavenly Father.
I don’t know how much affect this is going to have on the American church, but let’s hope it will have some effect in both public and private. A friend once told me that I don’t have to worry that they would be canonizing someone with a personality like mine at my funeral. I told him that was very comforting. Nonetheless, in my will, I have asked that the celebrant and preacher do for me what father Scalia did so effectively for his dad on Saturday. And just to be safe, I have also arranged for many Masses to be celebrated for the repose of my soul.
With a proper funeral liturgy, I will also get a lot more prayers than with some kind of maudlin ceremony with a meaningless eulogy. I’m sure Judge Scalia is very grateful to his son for the kind of reverent and theologically meaningful funeral liturgy that took place at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on Saturday.
May Judge Scalia rest in peace.
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