Providing compassionate care

Friday, November 15, 2019 - Updated: 3:17 pm

QUESTION: In an article by Jack Shaw that appeared in the Pittsburgh Catholic Nov. 1, the author took issue with a television series’ treatment of the Catholic Church’s view of suicide. In particular, the author said that the series was unfair in not conveying the church’s compassion shown since the Second Vatican Council. I personally find that the church has never excelled in compassion.

ANSWER: The author was addressing the specific issue of how the church now understands suicide. He pointed out that the church views those who commit suicide as most likely in a mental state that prevents them from making a rational decision. Therefore, they would lack the required ability to commit a mortal sin. The author then stated that this renewed vision certainly enables the church to deal compassionately with the person who committed suicide as well as their family. Today, rightfully, the full rites of Christian burial are afforded to those who die in this way.

Having said that, I believe it is important to clarify the “history” of the church’s “compassion” so that the truth of former practices is not forgotten and especially not repeated.

Before the Second Vatican Council (meaning more than 50 years ago), most Catholics who committed suicide were not given a funeral Mass, and if they were buried in a Catholic cemetery, they were put in an area described as “unconsecrated ground.” This section was usually separated from the rest of the cemetery by a low wall or fence.

In addition, early in the last century, in many places, only Catholics were buried in the “consecrated ground” of Catholic cemeteries. Therefore, deceased non-Catholic spouses were buried in the “unconsecrated ground” of the cemetery and not with their Catholic spouse.

In this same era, Catholics who fell in love with a non-Catholic was not permitted to be married at a nuptial Mass. Instead, the wedding took place in the “priests’ house” (rectory) where the only participants were usually the two witnesses as well as the priest and the couple to be married. That fact became clear to me when in my ministry I had to tear down a rectory that would not be used in a consolidated parish. As the 99-year-old building was being torn down, many people who came to watch commented that “I was married there.”

I would expect that procedures such as the above were in place as “teaching tools” to discourage suicide and to highlight the importance of marrying a fellow Catholic. But it is clear that such practices presented the church in a light that was not distinguished by compassion.

I am sure that most people reading this article would indicate that it is very different today. And it certainly is regarding the matters above. But have we really learned our lessons? If in parishes today people are not given Christian burial if they are not registered in that parish or if a parish decides that they will not celebrate funerals on Saturdays, what does that say about compassion?

Church people may be tempted to complain about Catholics who leave the church, but are we providing the compassionate pastoral care they have a right to expect, especially when they are most vulnerable?


Father Bober is administrator of the grouping that includes St. Kilian in Adams/Cranberry townships and Holy Sepulcher in Glade Mills.

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