Ministry to the Bereaved
Part 9 Conclusions

Chapter f91 Conclusions





Having reflected on our Christian ministry to the sick, dying, dead, and bereaved with several experienced ministers during the summer of 2010, I would offer the following ten "concluding thoughts."

1.  Our Image of God   Our ministry to the sick, the dying, and the bereaved is shaped by our understanding of "God".  What "God" do we believe in: the God of nature, the God of Aristotle, the God of Jesus Christ?  Apparently, through the incorporation of Greek philosophy into theology by the scholastic theologians, "Aristotle's God" figures prominently in the Summa of Thomas Aquinas, the decrees of the Council of Trent, the Catechism of Trent, and the Baltimore Catechism.

Pope Benedict XIV refers to this in his first encyclical Deus caritas est  where he  points out that there is an important difference between the God of Aristotle and the God of the Bible.  "The second important element now emerges: this God [the God of Israel] loves man. The divine power that Aristotle at the height of Greek philosophy sought to grasp through reflection, is indeed for every being an object of desire and of love --and as the object of love this divinity moves the world--but in itself it lacks nothing and does not love: it is solely the object of love. The one God in whom Israel believes, on the other hand, loves with a personal love. His love, moreover, is an elective love: among all the nations he chooses Israel and loves her--but he does so precisely with a view to healing the whole human race. God loves, and his love may certainly be called eros, yet it is also totally agape."  (Deus caritas est,  9) 

The God of Aristotle is pure spirit, impassible, incapable of suffering. In today's world -- where we are so aware of the enormity of suffering -- to believe in such a God naturally leads to atheism. "Christians believe in a God who has turned his back on the human race." (Camu).

Once we "get the bible out of the attic" and begin to accept the God of Jesus Christ, we find that this God, the God of the Bible, is much closer to us.  This God weeps with us.  This God suffers our suffering and does not stand apart uncaring.  This God "empties himself."  The God of the Bible respects the evolving world and is often as helpless as we are in times of crisis; this God understands, even experientially, our helplessness.  For example, Benedict XIV, in the paragraph following the above quotation, says that "God's passionate love for his people--for humanity--is at the same time a forgiving love. It is so great that it turns God against himself, his love against his justice."  (Deus caritas est, 10)  "God turns against himself...."  Aristotle would never talk that way! 

2. Christianity as a Way of Life   Jesus did not "found a religion":  there were plenty of religions at the time of Jesus -- actually more than enough.  Jesus simply revealed to us who the Father is and how we are to live to be taken up into this Trinitarian life [theosis].  Following Jesus is much more concerned with doing than believing. True, there are things that we are to believe but when one examines the Bible, we find that Jesus says a lot more about what we are to do (love God, love your neighbor as yourself, I was hungry and you gave me food, what you did to the least of these little ones, unless you become like little children...etc).   Try to think of all of the things in the Gospels that Jesus said we would have to believe. Your list will not be very long.  Our reflection on sickness and death helps us to incorporate these mysteries into our faith journey.

3. The Communal Dimension of Liturgy / Active Participation   In the document Art and Environment  #16 published by the [now] USCCB, we are reminded that liturgy is a communal, personal act.

A culture which is oriented to efficiency and production has made us insensitive to the symbolic function of person and things. Also, the same cultural emphasis on individuality and competition has made it more difficult for us to appreciate the liturgy as a personal-communal experience. As a consequence, we tend to identify anything private and individual as "personal." But, by inference, anything communal or social is considered impersonal. For the sake of good liturgy, this misconception must be changed.

In our American Culture we think
Personal = Private Communal = Impersonal
Therefore:  Personal Prayer is Private: Liturgical Prayer is Impersonal
But in reality:   Liturgy is both Personal and Communal

This understanding of liturgy as a communal personal act extend also to funerals and the Anointing of the Sick. The care of the sick, the dead, and the bereaved, is the concern not merely of the immediate family, but the body of Christ, particularly the parish family. These are parish events, they are times when the whole parish should not only be concerned for the one who is sick, or the one who has died, or those who are bereaved, but also these events should be catechetical and religious moments in their own spiritual journey.  These threshold or "liminal" moments [Liminality comes from the Latin word "līmen" / threshold] play a key role in our understanding of our own faith journey and our own transitions into the Trinitarian life. The rites for the Anointing of the Sick, Viaticum, the Rite of Christian Funerals are not only for the one who is sick or dying or dead, they are liturgies which give grace and catechize the entire Christian parish family!  They are not "private" events but, (while remaining "personal") they are communal acts of worship.  

4. The Minister of the Sacrament   The minister of the Sacraments for the sick, the dying, and the dead, is the entire parish community. All are called to be ministers in these situations. We are called by our baptism. This is not a ministry that is the exclusive preserve of the clergy alone.

5.  The Beauty of the Ritual    Each time I study (and celebrate) these rituals for the sick, dying, dead, and bereaved I am struck by how truly beautiful they are.  We currently have excellent liturgical books and rites for these pastoral occasions.  It is regrettable that they are not always used fully, completely, and pastorally.  I am reminded of what Chesterton said about Christianity:  "It is not that it has been tried and found wanting. It is that it has not yet been tried."  I am concerned by those who wish to return to the rituals of 1614 or 1962 for this ministry. 

6. The Pascal Mystery   When we compare the current Rite of Christian Funerals with that which was employed before the Second Vatican Council, one is struck by the emphasis in the current ritual on the resurrection. Not only is this emphasis lacking in the Pre-Vatican II rituals, it seems as though this is another situation in which the diagram "Facts, Attitudes, Behavior, Group Behavior" is instructional and helpful. Even though we have a new ritual which emphasizes hope and confidence in the paschal victory, this emphasis--this hope--is often lacking in the way the ritual is employed. If the rites were celebrated with their proper emphasis on the paschal mystery and the victory of Christ in his resurrection, what a powerful catechetical tool we would have to help people embrace their own dying--their own transition to eternal life.

7. Vigil, Funeral Eucharist, Burial: One Unified Action   From our experience of funerals in parishes throughout the country, it seems as though not all pastors and liturgical planners have grasped the unity and the progression between the vigil, the funeral mass, and the burial.  These rituals form one unified, progressive action (-- similar to the way the Triduum is one progressive action). Each of the pieces is best understood in the context of the whole sequence.

8.  New Vigor to Christian Life   The opening words of the first document of the Second Vatican Council are:  This sacred Council has several aims in view: it desires to impart an ever increasing vigor to the Christian life of the faithful; to adapt more suitably to the needs of our own times those institutions which are subject to change; to foster whatever can promote union among all who believe in Christ; to strengthen whatever can help to call the whole of mankind into the household of the Church. The Council therefore sees particularly cogent reasons for undertaking the reform and promotion of the liturgy. (Constitution on the Liturgy, 1)  The document points out that in the liturgy there are elements which cannot be changed, and elements which are subject to change. When we study the Rites of Anointing the Sick and the Order of Christian Funerals, we are reminded of the great variety of sacramental understanding and celebration that has existed in the history of the Church. I know that I had learned that many of these things were fixed by Jesus himself and were unchangeable even by the Pope. The study of history reveals how many elements of these rituals have evolved and changed in the course of time.  Perhaps one of the most important elements that has changed is the importance of the Bible in Catholic thought.  And along with "getting the Bible out of the attic" comes the re-asking of the question, "Who is this Jesus?"

9.  Christian Ministry and Discipleship     As we read the Gospels and hear the call of Jesus Christ, it becomes more and more evident that Christians are not called to be primarily intellectuals and theologians; we are called first of all to be disciples, ministers, pastors--those who care for the flock. "Go into the whole world", Jesus told the apostles "and make disciples of all nations." And on the last day when Jesus separates the sheep from the goats and he turns to the sheep and calls them to everlasting life it is not because of their grade point average, or their wonderful term papers, or their academic degrees, but rather their pastoral care and their love for the poor:  "...I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink..."  (See:  Matthew 25)

10.  Competency    The fact that we are primarily "ministers" even before we are intellectuals or theologians, does not in any way diminish the need for competency.   We must know what we are doing; we must have acquired the necessary knowledge, attitudes, and skills to be an effective minister.  And we must be mature, balanced, truly "human" human beings if we are to minister well.  In his first encyclical, Deus caritas est, Pope Benedict XIV states: 

Individuals who care for those in need must first be professionally competent: they should be properly trained in what to do and how to do it, and committed to continuing care. Yet, while professional competence is a primary, fundamental requirement, it is not of itself sufficient. We are dealing with human beings, and human beings always need something more than technically proper care. They need humanity. They need heartfelt concern. Those who work for the Church's charitable organizations must be distinguished by the fact that they do not merely meet the needs of the moment, but they dedicate themselves to others with heartfelt concern, enabling them to experience the richness of their humanity."  (Deus caritas est, 31a)

It is my hope that this course has aided you in your quest to become "professionally competent" -- and I hope that discussions and conversations have, at least in some small way, modeled "heartfelt concern" for one another, "enabling [us] to experience the richness of [our] humanity.  Pax et Bonum!

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© Copyright: Tom Richstatter, Franciscan Province of St. John the Baptist, Cincinnati Ohio, Order of Friars Minor. All Rights Reserved.  This page was created by Fr. Thomas Richstatter, O.F.M.  Every effort has been, and is being made, to acknowledge sources when the ideas are not my own.  Any failure to comply with the United States Copyright Act (Title 17, United States Code) will be corrected immediately should I become aware of it.  This site was updated on 05/20/11 .  Your comments on this site are welcome at