A priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit is facing a lawsuit filed by the parents of a teenager who committed suicide last year.
The parents say Father Don LaCuesta's homily at their son’s funeral Mass —during which the priest said multiple times that their son died by suicide, and urged prayers for his soul— caused them “irreparable harm and pain.”
Eighteen-year-old Maison Hullibarger committed suicide Dec. 4, 2018.
On Dec. 8, 2018, LaCuesta celebrated Hullibarger’s funeral Mass at Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish in Temperance, Michigan.
Maison’s parents, Jeff and Linda Hullibarger, last week filed a lawsuit against LaCuesta, as well as against the Archdiocese of Detroit and Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Parish, seeking $25,000 in damages.
“No parent, no sibling, no family member should ever, ever have to sit through what we sat through,” the mother said in a Nov. 14 statement released by the family’s attorneys.
In his homily, which the archdiocese released in full, the priest said that suicide is an act against God’s will, but he also emphasized the mercy of God in the face of suicide.
“Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth—that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us,” the priest’s homily text said.
“Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please. God gave us life, and we are to be good stewards of that gift for as long as God permits.”
The homily continued: “On most people's mind, however, especially [those] of us who call ourselves Christians, on our minds as we sit in this place is: Can God forgive and heal this? Yes, God CAN forgive even the taking of one's own life. In fact, God awaits us with his mercy, with ever open arms.”
“God wants nothing but our salvation but will never force himself on us, he will not save us without us. That's how much he loves us. Because of the all embracing sacrifice of Christ on the cross God can have mercy on any sin. Yes, because of his mercy, God can forgive suicide and heal what has been broken.”
According to the lawsuit, the Hullibargers met with LaCuesta before the funeral Mass to discuss the service.
The couple says they told him that they wanted the funeral to be a celebration of their son’s life and his kindness, and that they did not tell the priest, or the general public, that their son had committed suicide.
Maison’s father, Jeff, says he approached the pulpit during the homily and asked LaCuesta to “please stop” talking about suicide, according to the lawsuit, but LaCuesta continued his homily.
Monsignor Robert Dempsey, a pastor in Lake Forest, IL and visiting professor of liturgical law at the Liturgical Institute at Mundelein Seminary, told CNA that determining the content of the homily for a funeral Mass is the sole responsibility of the homilist, who must always be a bishop, priest, or deacon.
“Although the homilist is solely responsible for the content of his homily, he is obliged to follow the liturgical norms,” Dempsey told CNA in an email.
The Order of Christian Funerals, the Church’s liturgical norms for funerals, states that the homilist at a funeral Mass ought to be “attentive to the grief of those present.”
“The homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings. The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased and that those mysteries are active in their own lives as well,” the General Introduction to the norms reads.
Dempsey pointed out that the celebrant, "whenever possible...should involve the family in planning the funeral rites" (Order of Christian Funerals, 17), but the content of the homily is ultimately his responsibility, he said.
“Reasonable requests from a family for privacy and sensitivity should be honored; requests that are contrary to the Church's belief or liturgical discipline should not,” Dempsey said, adding that “no one has a right to hear only those aspects of God's word they agree with or to receive the sacraments according to their own preference or understanding.”
However, Dempsey said that compassion is important for a preacher.
“In the [Detroit] case, a modicum of common sense and human compassion could have avoided a multitude of woes for all concerned. Weddings are not the appropriate time to preach on the immorality of the contraceptive pill; funerals are not a suitable occasion for preaching about the objective immorality of suicide or uncertainty about final perseverance,” Dempsey said.
The Order of Christian Funerals reads in paragraph 16: “In planning and carrying out the funeral rites the pastor and all other ministers should keep in mind the life of the deceased and the circumstances of death.”
“They should also take into consideration the spiritual and psychological needs of the family and friends of the deceased to express grief and their sense of loss, to accept the reality of death, and to comfort one another.”
Dempsey emphasized that the Church’s norms direct the priest to confer with the family in planning a funeral Mass, and “gives specific indications about the nature of the homily to be preached.”
“Moreover, natural justice and pastoral charity suggest that the priest should respect the family's wishes for confidentiality about specific facts regarding the deceased's life and manner [of] death. In cases of suicide, overdose, addiction, the less said the better— even if the family doesn't specifically request confidentiality,” Dempsey said.
Father Pius Pietrzyk, OP, chair of pastoral studies at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, California, told CNA that in his view, the immorality of suicide is not preached about enough at funeral Masses.
"I tend to be one who thinks, contrary to the current of public thought, that we don't preach enough about the immorality of suicide,” he told CNA.
“It is not merciful to tell someone that it's okay to commit suicide. It's never merciful to do that. And yet, I think we indirectly do that when we don't preach strong enough, we don't make clear enough, the grave immorality of suicide, and the culpability that can be associated with it."
Father Pietrzyk stressed that we cannot know for certain the state of any deceased person's soul.
"A priest at a funeral is not preaching to the dead. He's preaching to the living. And while one ought not in a sermon condemn the soul of the person being buried— no one wants that— a priest shouldn't dance around the immorality of the issue at stake."
Father Pietrzyk acknowledged the complicating factor that the manner of the young man's death was, according to the couple, not widely known before the funeral.
"If this were not widely known in the community, and the couple wanted to keep the details of this less public, I do think a priest should respect that," he said.
"But if this was widely known in the community that he committed suicide, I think the priest has a moral obligation to touch on the subject. So it just depends on the circumstances of how widely known it was."
He said he always teaches his students that when preaching a funeral, the priest ought to respect the wishes of the family as much as possible.
The family of a deceased person has no strict civil or canonical rights to compel a priest to preach on a certain topic or not to preach on others, he stressed.
"One doesn't preach the truth that the family gives; one preaches the truth of the Church," he said.
"That can involve taking into account the desires and wishes of the family, but it always requires taking on, first and foremost, the mind of Christ and the teachings of the Church."
Father Pietrzyk said he observes many priests, and even some bishops, fostering a sense of the laity having the right to "control" the liturgy, especially in the context of wedding and funeral Masses. But, he said, the Mass does not belong to "the people," but to the Church.
"It's the Church's expression of prayer and grief for the couple," he said.
"It doesn't mean that one ignores the family...one should listen to them attentively. But the wishes of the family cannot supersede the mind of the Church with regards to these matters."
The Archdiocese of Detroit released a statement on the matter Dec. 17, 2018.
“Our hope is always to bring comfort to situations of great pain, through funeral services centered on the love and healing power of Christ. Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case. We understand that an unbearable situation was made even more difficult, and we are sorry,” the statement read.
“We...know the family was hurt further by Father’s choice to share Church teaching on suicide, when the emphasis should have been placed more on God’s closeness to those who mourn.”
The archdiocese also announced that for the “foreseeable future,” LaCuesta will not be preaching at funerals and he will have all other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor. In addition, the archdiocese said, he has agreed to “pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.”
The Hullibarger family has said that LaCuesta tried to keep Maison's parents from giving a eulogy for their son during the Mass, even though “that had been agreed on well in advance,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
The archdiocese has not commented on the allegation that LaCuesta agreed to allow the Hullibargers to eulogize their son, and then changed his mind.
The Church’s norms officially prohibit the practice of giving eulogies during a funeral Mass, but Monsignor Dempsey said the Church’s liturgical norms offer the possibility of a member or a friend of the family to speak in remembrance of the deceased following the prayer after communion and before the final commendation begins.
He said the possibility of offering a “remembrance” is often determined by diocesan statute.
“The Catholic funeral is not a ‘celebration of life’ of the deceased, but a celebration of the baptized believer's participation in the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ,” Dempsey explained.
“The words of ‘remembrance’ should be brief and should focus on how the deceased bore witness in his [or] her life to what we profess in the paschal mystery.”
The funeral norms for the Archdiocese of Detroit acknowledge the possibility of a ‘remembrance’ at Mass in keeping with the OCF norms, but emphasizes that “those words should not be a eulogy.” The Detroit norms also state that the Vigil for the Deceased, or the memorial luncheon or reception that often follows the funeral, is an appropriate place for family and friends to offer their own words or stories.
Whether or not it was a ‘remembrance’ at the Mass that LaCuesta promised the family rather than a eulogy, and whether or not LaCuesta later tried to prevent them from doing so, remains unclear.
Following the funeral, the Hullibargers had complained to the Archdiocese of Detroit, asking that LaCuesta be removed.
The Hullibargers said in the lawsuit that they were granted a meeting with Archbishop Allen Vigneron after the funeral, but claim that the archbishop cut the meeting short when the mother began discussing Father LaCuesta.
Father Pietrzyk also said that in his view, the civil lawsuit should is not likely to succeed because “no court, not in Michigan, not in federal court, and certainly not the Supreme Court, is going to sustain this kind of tort action, and they're certainly never going to require the Church to remove a particular priest.”
"The couple might have legitimate disagreements with the homily and the way the funeral was treated, but the idea that this is a legal matter, the idea that the courts should be getting involved in this, is just contrary to all of the Constitutional precedence of the US. It's not going to go anywhere, and nor should it," he commented.
"Even if one is sympathetic to [the couple's] plight, as one should be sympathetic to the plight of any parent who's lost a child, the question of the civil, legal rights is another matter. So I do think one can and must criticize the civil lawsuit, even if one has a great deal of sorrow and sympathy for the couple."
Father LaCuesta declined to comment to CNA on the ongoing case, referring questions to the archdiocese.