Look who's leading my funeral

Why I asked two women to preach and preside at my funeral

I HAD A SPECIAL REASON FOR MAKING SOME UNUSUAL funeral plans for myself. I'm 49 years old, but it's not what you think. I'm not dying. Studies show I may be approaching the best decade of my life. Statistics suggest I'll live another two or three decades, but that's not the point. So I'll just tell you what I did.

First I asked a friend, a laywoman, to preach at my funeral. Then I asked another friend, another woman, to preside at the celebration. Both said yes. I can see it now: two of my friends presiding and preaching from the heart about the wonders of life and the mysteries of faith. I hope that people get it.

The remote possibility of unexpected major church reforms notwithstanding, this means, of course, that I would not have a funeral Mass. That may seem unusual for a lifelong Catholic, but I'm passionate about wanting it this way. I want to use my death as a teaching moment. I want to show how deeply I believe that all are equal in the eyes of God.

Some might object that I am being anticlerical. I don't think so. I want any ordained ministers to feel welcome at the funeral, joining my family and friends in the pews, forming one catholic community of equals. That's my vision of church. I have been to many Masses where I was glad to see priests take their place in the pews rather than symbolically paint a them-versus-us picture by concelebrating with the men-only club.

Some also might object that I don't appreciate the importance of the Mass. Well, if I don't, then neither does the Vatican, which says that it's better to have no Mass at all than to have someone other than an unmarried male preside.

In asking two women to assume two key roles at my funeral, I am invoking a portion of the Order of Christian Funerals that allows for a funeral liturgy outside Mass "when for pastoral reasons the pastor and the family judge that the funeral liturgy outside Mass is a more suitable form of celebration."

What I'm doing is pastoral. I have spent my life arguing that ordained church leaders ought to be far more pastoral and less legalistic. In too many cases, though, they invoke rules and set compassion aside. So I get a kick out of the fact that what I'm doing is within the rules—a layperson's loophole, you might say. I can visualize being at my own funeral in spirit and enjoying the reactions of those who are there.

I am reminded of what happened when the spiritual writer Father Henri Nouwen died in 1996. There was controversy about where he would be buried. Some church leaders wanted him in a prominent place in a major Catholic cemetery in Toronto. Instead, his friends and family chose a humble plot in a tiny, rural cemetery north of Toronto. He had lived in a L'Arche community with disabled people for the previous 10 years, and his place of burial would allow him to be joined later by friends of different faith traditions without any hang-ups regarding rules for burial in a Catholic cemetery. Even in death, he was still teaching.

Making choices like that is better than talking about the big issues facing the church. Though I have family and friends who could implement a terrific traditional funeral Mass, I know that my two chosen friends will minister with warmth and compassion. The rite for a funeral liturgy without Mass calls for the church community to gather "to hear the message of Easter hope proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word and to commend the deceased to God." All who are present will experience, perhaps in a new way, the rightful role of laypeople, especially women, in the church.

I participate in an informal small-group community of friends. We sometimes talk about the Catholic Church's management problems. Unlike some of my friends, I am no longer interested in putting much personal energy into seeking big changes, though I admire those who do.

I am often astounded by the arrogance, lack of real-world insight, and lack of embarrassment by many of those leading our floundering institution. Yet I still feel an inextinguishable appreciation for the mystery of the Catholic culture ingrained in me. I will never let that go, and for as long as God allows, I will attempt to make a faith-based difference at home, at work, and in my community before the church sends me to my place of eternal rest.

I pray for excellent health and long lives for the two women who said yes to me.

Ed Wojcicki writes from Springfield, Illinois and is the author of A Crisis of Hope in the Modern World (Thomas More, 1991). This article appeared in the June 2004 (Volume 69, Number 6) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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