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The Liturgy of My Father’s Death

I never did get my father to see his two grandsons serve the old Mass – I’d harbored a vague notion that seeing them up there amidst the “smells and bells” might help bring him back into the fold. When they assisted at his requiem this past October, it was the first time they were on the altar in his presence. Being an altar boy had skipped a generation in our family – I, my father’s only son, comprised the gap. And the Mass my dad had served as a young man had, since his day, been de facto suppressed, resurrected, and restricted again shortly before he died. My father was a “hard case,” as they say, who nevertheless died a Catholic death. Everything about the way he spent his last few years on earth and died was a trial for those that knew him. Everything about the way he was laid to rest was about as beautiful as anything on earth could be.

Amen, Amen, I say to you, that you shall lament and weep, but the world shall rejoice: and you shall be made sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy (John 16:20).

My father’s final days, death and burial were much like the traditional Catholic requiem Mass itself; a sacrifice, but an occasion of grace and beauty. And just maybe, an occasion of evangelization as well.

For the past several years, my estranged father had been living on a ranch in western Montana. Two weeks after he fell off a horse and cracked his ribs, his hospital notified us that he was on life support. My sister and her husband flew out shortly after. I was working a 4pm to midnight shift one night when they called on speaker phone and the Jesuit chaplain was giving him his last rites. It was only my scruples and mindfulness of my fourth commandment obligations that brought me from the Connecticut coast of Long Island Sound to western Montana the following day. Why should I, a modestly-compensated civil servant, and the sole provider of a young family, have to make this exhausting and financially onerous trek across country because of a fallen man’s reckless indiscretions?

When I got off the plane in Missoula, my sister’s husband told me that staff had pumped my father full of antibiotics, and he’d temporarily pulled through. We spent the afternoon with him in his room in Palliative Care, showing him pictures of his grandkids as he nodded and croaked through his trach tube. He was a Fox News kind of Republican, and when the hospital’s lay chaplain brought him a prayer card bearing a flaky Pierre Teilhard de Chardin quote, he pinched his thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign of ganja-smoking.

But when his doctors met with us, and explained that he was never going to get off life support, or ride horses, or see his grandchildren again, I saw the reality of death and judgement in his face. “Jesuit,” he gasped through his trach. He wanted the Jesuit back. He’d been unconscious during his Last Rites, and he wanted an opportunity to make a good confession, inasmuch as his limited verbal capacity would allow. After calling the chaplain’s office, I read through the Examination of Conscience with him, and he looked about as guilty as I do when I go through mine. One of Tielhard’s spiritual offspring came back to the hospital, and the rest of us left my father’s room. Jesuit or not, I’d like to think he got what he needed if he was so predisposed.

My father communicated to his staff later that evening that he couldn’t go on. He went to sleep that Thursday knowing he’d die on Friday. Before his final agony when medical staff took him off life support, we gave him single malt scotch through a sponge. He gave up the ghost shortly after.

In a discussion of lay peoples’ traditional role in the Church, and how to reclaim it, Dr. Sebastian Morello explains that “Civil society is a conglomerate of smaller societies, called families….one thing we can do right away, is to evangelize our families and communities.” Dr. Morello also explains that we can “take responsibility for what is in our remit, immediately. It’s one small step towards a Christian Social Order.” I’d prayed and offered up the travails I’d been through with my father for an intention readers might guess at. Now taking charge of how he was buried was another thing in my purview.

One of our relatives balked at the idea that my father would have a big church funeral in spite of how he’d spent his final years.

But as soon as this thy son is come, who hath devoured his substance with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. (St. Luke, 15:30, Douay-Rheims)

“St. _ doesn’t have a Laaaatin Maaaas” the funeral home owner said with a haughty triumphalism, when I told him my plan. “A bad man died, let’s incinerate him and toss him in a ditch to save money” seemed to be the line of thinking. I discussed the matter with my mother, and we dropped that funeral home like a bad habit, choosing the home of some faithful friends instead.

Traditionis Custodes notwithstanding, I don’t have a story of how I swashbuckled my way through clerical red tape to get my father a traditional Solemn Requiem. Our bishop is one of the better ones, and granted permission for it immediately. It was to be at my mother’s local church, with professional singers from our TLM parish and our retired pastor as celebrant. Our  boys would serve with young men from three different counties. (Announcing a Solemn High Mass is like putting out the bat sign to TLM altar boys; they’ll drop whatever they’re doing and make it).

I can’t say that expenses weren’t a concern, and that I wasn’t ever tempted to side with that utilitarian funeral home director. Leftist Catholics, in particular (usually on social media) often argue for a kind of liturgical poverty, regardless of the liturgical setting. Sentiments like this abound, stating that Latin and incense and money spent on expensive vestments is a waste.

But have these people never read of the Curé d’Ars, who would eat mold-covered potatoes for his daily sustenance, and give his own mattress away to the poor, but spare no expense to make his church and the celebration of the Mass as beautiful as they could be? After arriving at his old village church, his restoration began at the altar: As his biographer, Abbé Francis Trochu explains, “Out of reverence for the Holy Eucharist, he wished to secure as beautiful an altar as possible.”[1]

While visiting the workshops of craftsmen in Lyon, Trochu continues, “Whatever was most precious [the Curé] purchased, so that the purveyors of church furniture would say with astonishment: ‘In this district there lives a little cure, lean, badly dressed, looking as if he had not a sou in his pocket, yet only the very best things are good enough for his church.’”[2] The Curé understood that beauty gives glory to God. These things were a sacrifice to him. But as Catholics, we know that Our Lord’s Resurrection was preceded by His Passion. What if my father, and maybe some of the people in the pews, needed the graces from that Mass?

We’re still paying for my father’s funeral, and it stings. But then I remember the black vestments and birettas of the priest and solemn ministers, the strains of Claudio Casciolini’s Requiem for Four Voices, Palestrina’s haunting Sicut Cervus, and the beautifully terrifying words of the Dies Irae.

I remember the words of my former pastor, who pointed out that most people don’t attend a liturgy even expecting to encounter beauty. I remember the words of a pallbearer – one of my co-workers – after the Mass: “I’m sorry about the occasion, but it was the most beautiful event I’ve ever been a part of.” I recall watching my two boys process into the church behind their older cohorts to greet their grandfather’s casket. They both served as torch bearers, a duty that often befalls them on Sunday mornings. They occasionally engage in pre-teen grumbling about how it hurts their knees. It’s a sacrifice, their mother and I tell them, offered for the glory of God. I think of my dad’s funeral like that.

Like the Curé beautifying his church, maybe a funeral for a hopefully-repentant sinner is a time to splurge, whether you can afford it or not.

Because this my son was dead and is come to life again, was lost and is found (St. John 15:24, Douay-Rheims).

To hire a choir master who finds an Italian-baroque requiem you can’t get a recording of, but will knock everyone’s socks off. To bring in your “big gun” soprano friend and foist a prelude Handel solo on her. To go with the full Solemn High Mass over the Missa Cantata, nevermind the stipends for the ministers. To spend like a Holy Fool who believes that your unlikeable loved one might be running late for the feast, but could just taste of that fatted calf after all.

My father’s latter life and death sapped my finances, my strength, and nearly broke my capacity to forgive. They tore my stomach lining up. (I noticed recently that next to the St. Joseph statue on my nightstand, I’d placed my new prescription bottle of acid reflux pills, perhaps a subconscious remembrance of the inheritance bequeathed to me by my biological father).

Traditional Catholics know that not everyone gets to heaven. The Collect of our Requiem pleads that God will not deliver his servant into the hands of the enemy and the pains of Hell forever. But on the day of my father’s funeral I also prayed with the same Collect, that God, whose property is ever to have mercy and to spare, would command a fallen-away altar boy to be taken up by the holy Angels to his home in Paradise. “Is there hope?” I foolishly asked my old pastor the morning after my father died. “Sean, there’s always hope,” he replied.

I’m happy that we got my father that old rite funeral Mass. And I’m happy that my sons, whose own father never served, carried the torches for it.


[1] Abbé Francis Trochu, The Curé d’Ars, St. Jean-Marie-Baptiste Vianney, p. 127.

[2] Ibid.

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