Our Catholic community experienced a terrible tragedy this weekend, just one week before Christmas. The ten year old son of a well-known and much loved family died in an ATV accident. He was a 4th grader at the local Catholic elementary school, a football player in the CYO program, and an altar boy in his church. The news of his death stopped us in our tracks.
Instinctively, the community responded by coming to the family’s home to express their grief and solidarity, armed with food. By the second day, there was enough food for several battalions, and when I arrived, the family, completely in character, was already making plans to get the food to local soup kitchens. “Bringing food” is a natural response during times of tragedy--what does one really SAY, after all, that won’t sound empty and foolishly sentimental?
And what does one DO when one first sees the father and mother who have just lost their child? They answered that question for my wife and me, because when we visited, there they were, greeting visitors at their doorstep. Seeing us, they reached out and gave us a big group hug, which lasted several moments, as I mumbled something lame about our pain and sorrow for them. It didn’t matter what I said, however. It was the long hug, and their willingness to give and receive it, that spoke volumes.
There was a recent article in “First Things” by Peter Leithart called “Sincerity or Ritual,” which partly reviews an earlier book on the same subject (Ritual and Its Consequences, Oxford Press, 2008). Leithart, quoting from the book, argues that ritual gives us a “common subjunctive.” The “subjunctive mood,” we might recall from our grammar days, is a verb form that expresses a wish or condition that is technically not true, such as “if I were you, I’d ____”. By creating a “common subjunctive,” the author means that ritual gives us the means to participate in what the ritual commemorates, as if we were truly "there." Further, it gives us a convention which indexes a shared world, that allows us to connect sacramentally to each other. Absent common rituals, social relationships must rely on a “never ending production of new signs of sincerity” as a way of communicating our connection and empathy. In a situation as horrific as the death of a child, we’d have to find really eloquent words to express how sincerely we grieve for them. I’ve been to funerals in other religious faiths without a sacramental tradition, where relatives and friends try and find these right words to say. For the most part, they utterly fail.
Two hours before the funeral mass, the pastor invited the community to pray the rosary together with the family, located in a room adjacent to the church itself. The room was meant for about 200 people, but there were easily over 400 crammed in, spilling into the hallways, all praying the “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Fathers” with great fervor, with the family in front, surrounded. Saying the rosary, a particularly Catholic response to tragedy, is also a ritual, giving us the ability to “do something” together. Everyone who participated was moved.
The funeral itself was powerful. The Archbishop was the principal celebrant, and that itself spoke to the tragedy. The pastor, a close friend of the family, gave an inspired sermon, challenging us to become part of a “Christmas miracle” and “turn this sorrow into love.” The incensing of the body at the end of the funeral, together with the words “Let us now take leave of our son…” was quite poignant, and at the end, just before the final blessing, the father came to the lectern, together with five male friends who stood beside him, and thanked everyone for their prayers and support, ending his remarks with “Blessed be the name of the Lord!” I sat in the pew, sobbing-- not tears of sadness, but in response to beauty: to the father’s exquisite testimony of faith in the middle of his profound sorrow, to the beauty of the funeral mass, to the presence of God, so evident there. I wasn’t alone-- there wasn’t a dry eye in the Church.
It is tempting for us who have been raised Catholic to think our faith is boring--the same thing over and over. Sometimes it takes tragedies to remind us of the great gift we share as people of faith, united by our sacraments, rituals and prayers.
May this family's overwhelming sorrow be replaced by overwhelming grace. Blessed be the name of the Lord!