Many of you will be unaware that during the two-year period between my reception into the Catholic Church and the start of a formation programme at Oscott College to prepare me for the Priesthood I worked as a funeral director. My decision to become a Catholic and leave my previous ministry as an Anglican clergyman made it necessary for me to find employment and that in itself was not easy. Apart from a degree in Theology I had no other qualifications but funeral directing was something I could learn very quickly, not least because I had been conducting funerals and ministering to the bereaved for the best part of twelve years previously and it was an experience I had always found fulfilling. So I ended up moving from the Clyde Submarine Base at Faslane, on the west coast of Scotland, where I had been serving as an Anglican Naval chaplain to a small apartment above a large funeral home in Newport, South Wales, and there I lived and worked until the draw of the Priesthood became irresistible. It was a hugely rewarding experience and one which I shall never forget.
Catholics and many other Christians observe November as the Month of the Holy Souls. Masses are offered for departed relatives and friends and cemeteries and crematoria are visited for the blessing of their resting places. In each of the parishes in which I have served a casket was placed in front of the altar in which the faithful placed the names of loved ones who had died. It was a beautiful way of keeping them close during this sacred time so that each day they were lovingly caught up in the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice. In a poem called House of Rest, the late Poet Laureate, Sir John Betjeman, writes about the widow of a deceased Anglican clergyman who is surrounded by her memories and he ends the poem is a particularly beautiful way.
“Now when the bells for Eucharist
Sound in the Market Square,
With sunshine struggling through the mist
And Sunday in the air.
The veil between her and her dead
Dissolves and shows them clear.
The Consecration Prayer is said
And all of them are near.”
Betjeman was an Anglican, not a Catholic, but so many of his beliefs were Catholic and this is reflected in much of his poetry. He understood the importance of praying for the dead and, in particular, offering Masses for the repose of their souls in a way that fewer and fewer people seem to today, including many Catholics. At a British funeral people are now much more keen to celebrate and give thanks for a life than to reflect upon the eternal world God has prepared for those who love Him, beyond the moment of physical death, and to commend their dead loved one to His love and mercy. Hence it was increasingly my experience as a parish priest that the eulogy (or eulogies) at a funeral took almost as long as the Funeral Mass itself and that for many people this was the most important part of the funeral. It is not!
We, at the St Barnabas Society, see a great deal of importance in praying for the dead and the Mass, in which they are faithfully remembered, is central to the work we do each day. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who have worked for us and supported us in the past, indeed a significant part of our income comes from the legacies of those faithful people who have wanted to continue to support us even after their deaths. Just as we pray regularly for them so I am convinced that they are praying for us. John Betjeman was absolutely right.
“The Consecration Prayer is said
And all of them are near.”
And never is this more the case than during this holy month of November.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord.
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace. Amen.
May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.