Second Thoughts on Suicide and Catholic Funerals

By John Zmirak Published on December 18, 2018

I’d like to write a follow up and partial retraction of my column Monday about Rev. Don LaCuesta. That’s the priest who delivered a sermon at the funeral Mass for teenage suicide victim Maison Hullibarger. The sermon outraged Maison’s parents, who complained to the Archdiocese of Detroit and suggested LaCuesta be removed from the priesthood.

I wrote the column when the text of Rev. LaCuesta’s sermon was not available — and seemed to me unlikely to ever appear. So I speculated on its contents, and spoke hypothetically about whether the punishment sought for the priest fit the “crime.” And I wondered if it was even a crime, for a priest to regretfully insist on some mention of the Church’s moral teaching, if his purpose was to spur Maison’s fellow Catholics to pray for his soul. My main interest was in highlighting how Catholic funeral customs routinely neglect the profound duty to pray for the dead — which is the main purpose of the liturgy. Not remembrance, consolation, or a celebration of life. 

Maison Hullibarger, RIP.

Maison Hullibarger, RIP.

Not Every Priest Is Maligned Unjustly

My take on this story was somewhat biased, I have to confess, by the many accounts I’ve read of faithful priests who insist on Church teaching and suffer blowback. Even persecution. For instance, the 2012 case of Father Marcel Guarnizo. He withheld Holy Communion at Mass from a self-proclaimed “Lesbian Buddhist” couple at his parish. Cardinal Donald Wuerl ordered Guarnizo suspended from the priesthood. There are many more such stories, and my instinct is to defend priests who get accused of being “unpastoral” for insisting on “hard teachings” of the Church. Especially with Pope Francis apparently trying to alter the Church’s teaching on marriage, divorce, and Holy Communion.

There’s no Church mandate that one must be tactless or stubborn.

So I wondered if that was what was happening here, and wrote a piece that strongly suggested it. I think that was wrong. Here is the key fact that I didn’t focus on, which now demands I address it in the light of the newly available text of LaCuesta’s sermon: The parents met with their pastor for more than an hour to discuss the details of their son’s funeral. As USA TODAY reported:

Jeff Hullibarger and his wife, Linda Hullibarger, who live in Temperance, Michigan, said they had met with Father LaCuesta well before the funeral, going over in detail what they expected in the homily to be delivered by their pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, even watching the priest take notes in their meeting.

“We wanted him to celebrate how Maison lived, not how he died,” Maison’s mother said.

Bait and Switch

Now that I’ve read LaCuesta’s sermon, I have to say: He didn’t follow the parents’ wishes. He doesn’t even seem to have made an effort to. But based on their meeting, the parents apparently had every reason to think that he’d agreed to do so. So they felt deceived, betrayed, and ambushed. That, and not misguided acting out, misdirected grief, is why they complained to LaCuesta’s bishop. I was wrong to imply otherwise.

Here’s a news report where the parents tell their story:


The sermon is theologically orthodox enough, and doesn’t (as USA TODAY strongly implied) suggest that Maison was damned. But it is focused almost entirely on suicide. That is what the parents explicitly asked the priest not to discuss. It makes no mention of Maison’s life and achievements, which they’d requested be the theme. It doesn’t even recommend to teens present in the congregation the mental health resources available for those facing depression. In context, the homily must have come across to the parents as theological grandstanding — at the worst possible occasion.

This Wasn’t a Stand for Orthodoxy

Apparently, LaCuesta took notes during their hour-long meeting. There’s no record of him challenging the parents, or insisting that he simply must address suicide as the elephant in the room. He would have been within his rights as a priest to say, “I’m sorry. I’d like to respect your wishes. But I can’t let you write my sermon for me.” Given that he intended to disrespect their wishes, LaCuesta had a grave moral obligation to say so right then and there. Instead, he apparently deceived these grieving, wounded parents.

If the priest felt that in good conscience he couldn’t leave suicide unmentioned, he should have said so at the meeting. Given that he didn’t, he shouldn’t have delivered that sermon, or anything like it.

He Could Have Said “No.”

Had LaCuesta been forthright the parents could have (and probably would have) gone to another parish. They would have been within their rights. If the priest felt that in good conscience he couldn’t leave suicide unmentioned, he should have said so at the meeting. Given that he didn’t, he shouldn’t have delivered that sermon, or anything like it. The parents were justified in their anger, and I’m sorry that my story implied otherwise.

The Archdiocese of Detroit will have to weigh carefully whether this was a case of deceit, grave disrespect and outright cruelty on Rev. LaCuesta’s part. That will factor into its decision on whether he’s suited (or can be re-trained and made suited) to parish ministry.

I apologize for relying on hypotheticals to lump this story in with the real phenomenon of orthodox priests being unjustly maligned for insisting on unpopular Church teachings. That doesn’t seem to be what happened here at all.

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