Let me tell you a story. It’s one I have told you before. But I’m at that point in life that I can tell the old stories again. And it is a good one.
This all took place during the early years of the Depression. It was the summer of 1931, and most of Pittsburgh was in deep trouble. Out of work. Out of money. Out of hope. Then, in the midst of all that, another tragedy.
On the evening of July 24, fire broke out at a home for needy elderly men operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville neighborhood. Forty-nine of the elderly poor were killed in the fire. Another 175 were injured.
Relatives claimed the bodies of most of those who died. All except eight victims. They lay in the morgue, unrecognized, unclaimed, unwanted. As the Little Sisters served the elderly poor, it was not too surprising that a few were completely alone in this world. There was no one left for them, even to bury the dead.
Then Bishop Hugh Boyle, my predecessor and the sixth bishop of Pittsburgh, heard about it and intervened. He had the unclaimed bodies of the eight men brought to St. Paul Cathedral. He would preside at their funeral Mass.
Here’s the thing. At that Mass Aug. 3, in the midst of the Depression, eight homeless and poor folks were remembered by one of the largest crowds ever to gather at the cathedral. People filled every pew. People spilled out onto the sidewalks and streets surrounding the cathedral. People of every faith came together to pay what respects they could to the remains of eight unknown human beings lying in donated caskets. It was an amazing sign of respect for human life and dignity, an amazing confirmation of community, an amazing statement of belief that Jesus is “our resurrection and our life” (cf. John 11:25)
But in rereading the story of the Little Sisters, the fire, those eight unknown men and the funeral of the century at St. Paul Cathedral, I was struck by a memory, reminded of something our pastors had begun to report, maybe 15, 20, even 25 years ago. It was a curious thing, and something I don’t think we ever explored too deeply. But maybe it was an early sign of something more going on that we did not recognize.
Pastors began to note back then that many adult children of elderly parishioners were no longer having a funeral Mass at the parish when their parents died. Lifelong parishioners, some daily communicants and in so many ways the backbone of the parish, were being given by their family a brief funeral service and interment. The parish church was skipped, the pastor offering only a few words, a few rituals.
Understand, there were no statistics on this. Nobody set up a graph to do some meticulous counting. It was just something talked about, something observed.
I remember one pastor shaking his head as he told the story of one of his parishioners who had just died, a widower who had been an usher for decades. His adult kids — baby boomers of my generation — described themselves to the pastor as “semi-practicing” Catholics who no longer lived in town. With everybody coming and going from somewhere else, they explained, they just wanted something where a few prayers would be said and the ritual over quickly. A funeral Mass would just be too much — and too long — on everyone’s busy schedules.
This wasn’t a matter of faith. They weren’t angry at the church, the parish nor certainly their father. They just … needed to get on with things. Other things. More “important” things. The dead needed to be buried, they agreed. But there are shortcuts to everything.
Funeral Mass is a gift
I remember that pastor nodding sadly as he finished his story. And, as I said, he wasn’t alone. That kind of story was told more often as the years went by. Until today it has become the ordinary, rather than the exceptional.
“(A)re you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” St. Paul wrote to the Romans. “We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection. … If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him” (Romans 6:3-5, 8).
A funeral Mass is a gift, a statement of our faith in life everlasting, a community celebration of the faith lived. If we forget that, we risk forgetting who we are. No matter how busy.
And so: “Are you unaware … or not!” Those who celebrated the lives of the unknown poor back in 1931 were aware! So should we be!