On a cool, windy, and sunny Thursday afternoon, my wife and I attended a Catholic funeral Mass for Father Mark Stetz, a beloved local priest who passed on, leaving a grieving flock and family to say goodbye. We went not as Catholics obeying tradition but in respect and appreciation for Father Mark’s good heart and his values-driven life of service.
The church filled beyond its three-hundred seat capacity. Sixty-eight priests and bishops and a convent of nuns occupied a good portion of the pews. A dark-suited bouncer patrolled the entrance lest an un-anointed muckety-muck try to sneak a seat inside the crowded building. Though the Gospels tell us “the least shall be first,” the VIP section and reserved seating said something different.
The sidewalks leading up to the main entrance bloomed with rows of white folding chairs filled with friends and parish faithful saying farewell to the good Father. Suits and ties mixed with jeans and work shirts. English and Spanish voices blended in song and prayer, and the church musicians, minus my favorite mandolin player, filled the spaces with joy, sorrow, and a message of hope.
As an escaped Catholic, I engaged in the service from an emotional distance. My mind drifted from the present to past Catholic funerals, some held in my old Bronx parish of Saint Nicholas of Tolentine, others across the tri-state region of New York, Connecticut, and New Jersey. Some were for my family members, from grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, to my beloved younger sister Anne Marie, whose death at thirty-two had a significant impact on changing my life. Her funeral, held just a few short months after my mother’s, was the toughest to accept. It was made more stressful by the Catholic Church’s refusal to allow a dedicated funeral Mass because it was Good Friday. Yet we, the family, found our way through the grief and loss and did our Catholic duty, sore asses on hard wooden pews, silently incensed as the censer swung and click-click-clicked against the long metal chains filling the air with a smoky aroma which always says death.
I remember other sadly joyful funerals for departed friends from the world of music and theater, held in churches filled with friends and family blessed with talents they shared, through tears and smiles, in song and recitation. The loss was there, but the dread was absent. There is nothing like sitting in an unassuming church filled with a few hundred actors and singers whose voices rise in a final farewell, serving the universe with their best, most meaningful, loving goodbye.
An odd sense often fills my head when listening to more traditional music played at some Catholic funerals. Maybe it’s the minor chords, the slow tempos, or the loss of clarity as the organist applies too much pipe and pedal. Perhaps it’s the subtle aggression some church pianists bring to the keyboard, or the battle for primacy between soprano and tenor during a dramatic rendering of a mournful hymn. Maybe I just cannot stay in the moment, but I often think these songs would kill in a heavy metal motif. A thudding bass, two low tuned guitars chunking out mid-scooped rhythms, a wild-haired skinny guy wailing away like the lead singer from a 1980s hair band would undoubtedly change the vibe. Or would it? I have shared this observation with a few fellow mourners, who quickly rescinded their proffered Sign of Peace. Not big metal fans, I guess – though if you look at paintings of Jesus and the Apostles, you might see a resemblance to the lineup of ’80s rock bands on one of those Rockapalooza Booze Cruises popular in some circles.
But back to Father Mark. His funeral was a celebration of his life. A long-time friend and fellow priest related the most telling story, illuminating who Mark was. At his ordination, Mark asked if there could be a washing of the feet. This request, to me, is the pure distillation of the message of Christ. Humility, service, caring, and community. Not glory, not adoration, not the fear of damnation. The expression of love for all, no matter the station.
Regardless of how we worship or what traditions we follow, good people find ways to do good deeds. Whether done loudly or quietly, it doesn’t matter. We can only go where our humanity leads us, and if that is a search for a higher power or a nobler cause, it’s all good.