Should a Teen Suicide’s Funeral Look Like a Canonization Ritual?

By John Zmirak Published on December 17, 2018

A very sad story is playing out right now. It entails a teenage boy who committed suicide, his parents, and their parish priest. I’d like simply to skip past it, but the way it’s getting reported raises too many issues. They need thinking through, especially in this “#MeToo” moment of snap judgment and instant condemnation.

It’s not just that too many of us read the facts of a case and draw rash conclusions. We fear that if we don’t, or if we differ from the Twitter consensus, we’ll be the next ones condemned. (“Let’s get that racist fired from his job!” Wait, is he really guilty? “Why are you defending racists? Maybe you’re a racist too!”) So we pile on, or at least keep quiet. And innocent people suffer, while bullies accumulate power.

Things are worst on issues of alleged sexual harassment or sexism. But the moral panic extends to tenuous charges of racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, “transphobia,” and other forms of bias. Just look at the long list of conservatives falsely labeled “alt-right” and banned from essentially all forms of public communication. Unpersoned for crimethink.

Hunting Down “Rigid” Catholics

In Christian circles, standards prove vaguer and the charges flung even more tenuous. I’ve read countless stories of faithful, doctrinally orthodox — and let’s be candid, straight — seminarians expelled from priest-prep programs for being “rigid,” “unpastoral,” or “psychologically immature.” Do some digging, and you’ll often find that the seminary in question approved dozens of actively gay men to be ordained. (Remember how Cardinal Theodore McCarrick preyed on seminarians for decades, without any consequences, punishing young men who spurned him?) And you wonder if those men expelled found themselves kicked out for refusing to play footsie, or at least stay silent about it. There’s a whole book, Goodbye, Good Men, devoted to documenting such stories.

Once they’ve managed to get ordained, and appointed to a parish, orthodox priests must thread the eye of a needle. There’s massive cultural pressure to surrender and explain away every “hard saying” of Jesus. To collapse the complex, demanding body of Christian moral teaching into a tear-soaked wet Kleenex of “compassion” and liberal politics.

Mercy, Justice, and Suicide

This is the context in which we need to read the story of Father Don LaCuesta. He drew the unhappy task of saying the funeral Mass for a teen boy, Maison Hullibarger, who died by suicide. A priest from the more traditionally Catholic Philippines, Fr. LaCuesta preached a sermon that spoke of suicide as a sin.

A depressed person who succumbs does something very different from some dictator who shoots himself in a bunker, or extremist who starves himself to death in prison. A merciful God takes all such facts into account.

That outraged the dead boys’ parents, who interrupted the sermon. LaCuesta also made no room for eulogies by family members — which aren’t part of the Catholic funeral service. (We do that at the wake.) Several other teenagers at the service ran out crying, and now the parents are trying to get Fr. LaCuesta kicked out of the parish, maybe the priesthood. Two long, tendentious USA Today stories give the parents’ side, but not the priest’s. His archdiocese (Detroit) has sent him for counselling, and apparently won’t let him comment.

Now, I wasn’t there. Nobody’s providing any actual quotes (much less a transcript) of what Fr. LaCuesta said. But I fear that he’s getting a raw deal, and that the parents are taking out their anger at their son’s death on him. I suspect that Fr. LaCuesta tried (perhaps clumsily) to remind people of the Christian teaching on suicide, because he felt obliged to. That he saw the other teens in the church as possible candidates to follow in Maison’s footsteps. There’s a real phenomenon, called “suicide contagion,” where one teen’s suicide quickly leads to others. One great pastor I know offered this comment:

The History of Christian Suicide

Now, until recent decades, Christian churches mostly refused to hold funeral services for suicides. Not because such a sin seemed unforgivable, so much as unrepentable. Other homicides have time and opportunity to seek out God’s forgiveness. Suicides presumably don’t. In the Middle Ages, suicides lay in unmarked graves, as a deterrent to desperate people (in often desperate times) tempted to take that way out.

I don’t need people reading snippets from my humor books at my funeral, or pretending that the service is a canonization ritual. No, I want them praying, good long and hard, for my battered soul and its eventual passage into heaven.

More recently churches, including the Catholic Church, accepted the evidence of psychiatry, and concluded that many suicide victims are severely mentally ill. Too ill for us to consider them fully culpable for the grave sin of suicide. So we now grant them funerals, and that’s a very good thing. On that we can all agree. One of my closest friends struggles with clinical depression, and I’ve learned a lot about the overwhelming pressure that suicidal ideation imposes. A depressed person who succumbs does something very different from some dictator who shoots himself in a bunker, or extremist who starves himself to death in prison. A merciful God takes all such facts into account.

But as Catholics we learn never to either despair of someone’s salvation, nor to presume it. What’s more, we believe that virtually every sinner who dies is quite unready for heaven. The sins for which he hasn’t perfectly repented still weigh him down. They must be refined away, through suffering. We call that process “Purgatory,” and believe we can ameliorate it by continuing to pray for people once they are dead, as we did while they were living. 

Pray for the Dead

I know that’s what I want when I check out. I don’t need people reading snippets from my humor books at my funeral, or pretending that the service is either a “celebration of life” or a canonization ritual. No, I want them praying, good long and hard, for my battered soul and its eventual passage into heaven. That is the first and most solemn duty we have to the dead, not finding flattering pictures or favorite baseball gloves to prop up in their coffins. Not focusing on our feelings.

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Liberal Catholics want to believe that almost everyone gets saved (except perhaps racists and gun-owners). And saved immediately, whisked right up to heaven, with no purgation needed. So the liberal Catholics who hijacked the reform of the liturgy at Vatican II yanked out most mentions of “judgment” and many prayers for the dead. Instead of black or purple vestments, which go well with the sentiments of mourning, now most priests insist on white. That color of vestment we once used only for children who died after baptism, but before the age of reason. Since we were sure of their salvation. I fought my own pastor, unsuccessfully, to have the purple vestments of a normal, sinful adult used at my own mother’s funeral.

Now I’ve seen white used for the burial rites of mafia kingpins. I’ve no doubt white vestments prevailed at Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s funeral for murdered pedophile and child pornographer Fr. George Zirwas.

How We Used to Pray

For an idea of the tone of traditional Catholic funerals, go read the most powerful section snipped out at Vatican II, the Dies Irae. Here’s a brief, representative quote from that exquisite medieval prayer for mercy on the day of judgment:

Oh, in that destroying hour,
Source of goodness, Source of power,
Show thou, of thine own free grace,
Help unto a helpless race.
Though I plead not at thy throne
Aught that I for thee have done,
Do not thou unmindful be,
Of what thou hast borne for me:
Of the wandering, of the scorn,
Of the scourge, and of the thorn.
Jesus, hast thou borne the pain,
And hath all been borne in vain?
Shall thy vengeance smite the head
For whose ransom thou hast bled?
Thou, whose dying blessing gave
Glory to a guilty slave:
Thou, who from the crew unclean
Didst release the Magdalene:
Shall not mercy vast and free,
Evermore be found in thee?

Let the Liturgy Do the Work

When the liturgy includes prayers like that, and the vestments are black or purple, and the ceremony is solemn, priests such as Fr. LaCuesta are off the hook. The service itself does the work. It warns against presuming easy salvation. And calls us to pray for the dead. It does all that impersonally, without singling out or criticizing the deceased in any way. So the priest is free to talk about mitigating circumstances. To remind us of Jesus’ mercy, and our duty to live in hope. Even, perhaps, to talk about some of the dead person’s virtues.

But when infantile white vestments and bowdlerized prayers combine with our current atmosphere of cheap grace and instant salvation? A good priest might well look down at the other teens in the church and have a legitimate worry. Will this service tell these kids, some of them troubled, that suicide is a quick ticket to heaven? Does he want that on his conscience? Will the worshipers gathered to mourn and comfort forget that the departed soul needs their prayers?

I will pray that Maison Hullibarger enters heaven. That his parents find peace and healing. That no teens imitate his desperate action. And that Fr. LaCuesta gets treated fairly by his bishop. I hope you join me.

UPDATE: Canon lawyer Ed Peters has located and posted online what is apparently the text of Fr. LaCuesta’s sermon at the funeral in question. Read it for yourself.

UPDATE: In light of the text of the sermon and a re-examination of the facts of the case in light of it, I have changed my opinion of this case. PLEASE READ this follow-up column.

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