Catholics are a people of ritual. All the sacraments, the rosary, the Mass are ceremonies — rituals that revitalize commitment, unify the people, connect us to our past, encourage self-discipline, and inspire us by drawing our attention to the beauty, meaning, and deeper significance of the fleeting moments of our lives.
There are monasteries where every hour of the day is “liturgical,” and everything is done mindfully — helping the monks to rediscover themselves. The master reminds the postulant, “If you think one person or moment is better or worse than any other, you have already created a separation in your heart.”
Funeral Masses are particularly powerful rituals in which the life of a loved one is celebrated in its entirety as both ordinary and unique. At such times, all the rituals within the larger ritual of the Mass take on added personal significance as we contemplate one lived life, now completed.
A little over a week ago, the funeral of George H.W. Bush was televised across the country. It featured a 21-gun salute and a 21-fighter jet fly-by. Distinguished writers and family members gave moving tributes. Four former presidential couples all sat in the same pew. Hundreds of uniformed military men lined the streets that carried the former president’s hearse past a building emblazoned with a quotation from one of his speeches etched in concrete on the wall.
Several days later, in a small church in Pinole, California, my wife’s extended family buried her beloved cousin, Joe Flores. It wasn’t a state funeral. The values of the man it celebrated were more personal than historic.
Joe was the first person of my wife’s extended family that I ever met at a party at her house. At the time, I didn’t know he was developmentally disabled. I thought he was just a bit “outgoing” and uninhibited.
He greeted me with a rousing “Howdy!” then pointed at my wife (whom I had just started dating) and asked me if I was going to marry her. I was a bit taken aback, and to this day I can’t remember exactly what I said to him, but it was something like, “If I’m lucky!” Which, for some reason, he found very funny.
I was thinking of that moment just before the Mass when one of my wife’s cousins (my wife has quite a few cousins) fell weeping into her arms, and they hugged and cried together for quite a while. I don’t often cry at funerals, but I was already crying at this one. What I had struggled with at my mother’s funeral wasn’t a problem at Joe’s funeral. Almost everyone had tears in their eyes.
The Mass was simple but classic. Consoling readings from Ecclesiastes and Corinthians. The Gospel taken from John.
The priest’s homily was informal and engaging. But he read from his notes from time to time, so it seemed he didn’t know the details of Joe’s life all that well. I remember he remarked that all of us will die, we can’t avoid that, but not all of us will truly live, and we can do something about that.
Joe’s sister Mary gave the eulogy — a moving description of Joe’s life, friends, and activities over the years. She told how Joe had once attended a funeral himself, where he tried to wake up the person inside the open casket. She then honored those who had helped care from him at the recreation center or on his jobs working for a Fire Extinguishing Service and later as a paperboy. She had these folks stand up to be recognized.
The reception was another ritual, but operated under an entirely different set of rules than the Funeral Mass — just as intimate and moving, but less formal and a lot more unpredictable. Food was served. People drank wine. Photos and iPhone videos were passed around, operations detailed, complaints made, questions asked, and strangers interrogated — many different kinds of people — all united in their stark mortality.
I saw folks at the reception I hadn’t seen in 30 years — some had survived strokes and heart attacks, some were using walkers or canes, others had grown up, married and had children of their own, others had divorced and remarried, others seemed not to have changed much at all.
One man told me the same joke he had told me 30 years ago. I met children I had not known existed already turning 16. The matriarch of the family politely asked me why I had missed her 100-year birthday celebration.
There was a display of photos of Joe along with his Special Olympic Medals — two third place, one second place — and an award for “Most Funny” given to him by some group called “TLC.”
Joe’s many drawings of the Oakland A’s baseball players were not on display since they had all been purchased in fundraisers to support the nonprofit community club where he spent time during the day.
But, perhaps, the most impressive part of this display was the wooden, engraved award for “Best Batboy” — a job he took very seriously. During the games, Joe would work for both teams and so “rooted” for whatever team happened to be at bat. As a result, his teams never lost, and every hit, run, and stolen base was cause for celebration.
Ceremonies, inevitably, take on the character of the people for whom they are celebrated and of those who perform them. Bush, by his own family’s accounts, was a wonderful but flawed human being who ran the country with grace and goodwill after running the CIA and starting his own business. He was the son of a senator and sort of a war hero.
Joe was less well-known and a bit of a scamp. And although Joe was not mentioned at Bush’s eulogy, Bush was mentioned at Joe’s — honored for signing into law the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Death has been called the great equalizer, but experiencing these two funerals back-to-back, I must confess I did not see much equality between the lives of these two men. They lived in different worlds, had a very different set of opportunities, and their actions bore very different fruit.
But the rough symmetry of the two ceremonies cast both against the backdrop of their shared mortality — a mortality we all share — forced a comparison. Joe mattered more to me, and Bush mattered more to the country, but on a cosmic level, it was clear, none of us truly matter more than anyone else.
Ceremony and ritual had once again opened my eyes to the mysterious, all-encompassing mercy of God’s love. Nothing and nobody has ever happened but God, and nothing ever will.
Robert Inchausti is the author of “Thomas Merton’s American Prophecy” (SUNY Press, 1998) and editor of “Echoing Silence: Thomas Merton on the Vocation of Writing” (Shambhala, 2007).
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