Welcoming the Stranger
Among the corporal and spiritual works of mercy are two: bury the dead, and pray for the living and the dead. At his blog, Deacon Greg Kandra tells a said story that relates to these:
I just had a disturbing conversation with a co-worker whose sister passed away a few days ago, and when the family tried to arrange her funeral, they were refused by a local parish because the sister wasn’t registered there. The sister had been sick with cancer for several years and had not been attending mass at any parish where she lived , so the family was trying to arrange the funeral at the parish they attended where they grew up. It was the pastor at [this parish]who refused them the funeral. I believe the family may have asked at another nearby parish, and were also refused there.
It was my understanding that someone who is a baptized Catholic cannot be denied a Catholic funeral. Is that right? If an individual parish refuses to allow a funeral there, what are the options? Can a pastor even deny someone a funeral because they’re not a registered parishioner? I understand why registration is a requirement for the administration of some sacraments, but I can’t comprehend refusing to allow a funeral for someone.
The deacon does an admirable job of summarizing canon law relating to funerals: the short answer is that in ordinary circumstances, a priest should not refuse to perform a funeral for someone who is Catholic but not a parishioner.
For me, this story brought back a memory of something that happened about forty years ago that made a lasting impression on me. When I was a kid, various traveling circuses and carnivals used to come to town. One Sunday morning we went to our usual mass, and the pastor skipped his prepared homily to tell us about something that had happened at an earlier mass. Two performers who were in town with the circus had recently had a baby, and they wanted the baby baptized. Apparently, they opened the phone book looking for Catholic Churches—we attended Annunciation parish, the first on the list, so they called us. They explained the circumstances to our pastor: they were leaving Sunday afternoon, could he help them? I don’t know how long he thought about it or if he consulted anyone else, but his final answer was a firm yes. He had them come to an early Sunday mass and baptized their baby during it, with everyone in the congregation to witness it. I can no longer remember whether this was customary in our parish—some churches had baptisms at mass but others had them immediately after mass, usually on a designated Sunday. But I still bet it came as a surprise to all the folks at this early mass.
Our pastor then made a point to preach about what happened at the subsequent masses. I do not remember any other sermon he preached—in fact, I don’t even remember what he looked like. But I remember the message from that day: they were not parishioners, there had been no formal baptismal preparation, but they were our brothers and sisters in Christ and it was our duty and our privilege to welcome them into our parish to hold the baptism there. And my hunch is that if the call had instead been about a sudden death, he would have said a funeral mass as well.