Today I attended a funeral mass celebrated by a priest who has lived and worked in the same neighborhood for over thirty years. Four generations of the family were present, and the priest knew them all. He knew the great-grandmother who was being buried at the age of 92, her daughter disabled by a stroke, her granddaughter, and her great-granddaughter, a lovely girl of college age.
He had spent the preceding days visiting the hospital and sitting with the family as they decided to remove the ventilator that was keeping the woman alive. He was there and prayed with them when the ventilator was removed. He met with the family to plan the funeral. And he had met with the elderly woman more than once, discussing illness and end-of-life matters, but mostly joking and cheering up and telling stories.
In his homily, the priest referred directly to the great-granddaughter’s birth, saying that he knew the family before she was around. Everyone had been so excited, he said, anticipating her birth and wondering what she would be like. Her great-grandmother’s death was a little like that, he said. It was a great labor, like the labor of giving birth. It was a labor that all of us, even the men, would have to undergo. And it was also similar, the priest said, that in that final labor we give birth to our true selves.
At the end of the homily, he hesitated for a moment and then commented on the travails of several generations living in the same house, as this family had done for many years. He himself had grown up in his grandparents’ house. Sometimes he would hear other kids talking about the fun they had visiting their grandparents for holidays, and he would smile ruefully. Not quite the same thing, when your grandfather had yelled at you that very morning for stepping on his well-manicured lawn. Such a living arrangement creates inevitable tensions, and the priest knew that this family had endured some of these tensions. So, he advised, let all those grievances go, if any are still nagging at you. The person who has passed has let them go, so we should do the same.
All these gentle remarks the priest was able to make because he knew the family and had known them for decades.
Now, as the Cleveland Diocese “reorganizes,” this priest may be removed from this neighborhood, where he knows literally hundreds of families, their family stories, the relations, the histories, the tragedies, and all the rest. He may be moved so far away that he’ll be unable even to attend the weddings and funerals and baptisms in this neighborhood.
Instead, the families will probably have to rely on strangers — unfamiliar priests, no doubt kind and well-intentioned, who will administer the sacraments and perform the rituals as well as they are able. But they won’t be able to say they baptized your mother, or that they married your parents and your aunts and uncles, or that they sat by your great-grandmother’s deathbed and remembered the day you were born.