When rote religion obscures the Living God

My mother passed away a week ago.  She had battled cancer, and finally succumbed.

Just a few hours ago, I received a call from an associate priest at the St. Cassian Church, Upper Montclair, NJ, saying a family request that I do the homily (sermon eulogy) for my mother could not be approved because I am not Catholic.  Relative to being “alive in the love of the Lord and each other”, this is a church that claims to “have a responsibility to be a sign of this love in the world around us, to express this love through our teaching, worshipping, and service to others.” 


While he is not bureaucratically in control of the parish, this fellow needed to be the bearer of the bad news.  He was very polite, deeply apologetic, and denominationally correct.  I am not a Roman Catholic.  I used to be, serving for a time as an altar boy in the parish where my mother will be buried.

Because God touched my life many years ago, my sense of Church expanded greatly, and immediately.  That’s why, in due course, I chose to worship in, and eventually find ordination through a Protestant denomination.  I did not so much reject Roman Catholicism.  I just found that Jesus wasn’t confined there.

For just on 30 years I have been an American Baptist minister, working here and abroad, presiding at hundreds and hundreds of funerals for all sorts of people, churched and unchurched — people I knew and loved, and people I never knew at all.

Not too long ago, in 2009, I preached at my mother-in-law’s Catholic funeral Mass in Stafford Springs, CT.  She had requested I do so.  It was an honor, and it transpired because the priest in charge was a decent man.

It’s funny, because I gave the homily for my Grandma Dastole in the St. Cassian Church, little more than a decade ago.  The priest then thought I’d done a rather good job and had invited me to take Communion from him at the altar.

But things have changed.

The old bigotry now holds sway once again.  At least in New Jersey.

In general, and in contrast, Protestant churches are relationship based Bodies of Christ.  It’s not about the “right ritual” done by the “rightly demarcated individual” in the “right space”.  It’s about a real relationship, with God and one another.

It matters more, in a Protestant scenario, if the presiding clergy actually knows, or gets to know about the guest of honor, than if they say the prescribed words in the designated order.  Interaction matters more than incense, and Protestants, informed by biblical Grace, understand that, in death, Resurrection depends on what God has done in Christ, not what the “official” clergy do in a human rite.

Beyond those facts, but also in direct reference to them, if a child of a deceased person might be capable of rendering meaningful words of tribute for their loved one, be they avowed atheist or presumed saint, in my sphere of influence they would likely be allowed, even encouraged.

When asked if a family member could speak at a funeral, I’ve never petitioned to see their religious affiliation.  It’s the familial thing that determines the result.  This is just basic humanity beyond pompous religiosity.

Some sectors of the Roman Catholic denomination don’t see it this way.  At least not in New Jersey.

Imagine the danger!

Who knows what might transpire if an articulate, non-abusive, non-Catholic clergyperson actually spoke in a Roman Catholic Church at his mother’s funeral!

Who knows…

Even so, in spite of her denomination’s paranoid biases and bigoted ignorance, my mother is still in heaven.

Because of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, she’s beyond the insensitive and patently silly regulations.

Saved by Grace, apart from law, and certainly beyond rote ritual, she’s dwelling with my dad in the Kingdom of God.

In the end, that’s the most important thing.


One Response to When rote religion obscures the Living God

  1. I’m so sorry Bill. This defies all logic and human decency. I’m sure she knew and still does know the words of the homily in your heart.

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