Every Baptist Should Go to a Catholic Funeral
I recently went to a Catholic funeral and was pleasantly surprised. Not that the gospel was preached, but there were still some things a Baptist like me could learn from.
I understand there is a long history of disagreement, even hatred, between the Protestant and Catholic churches, and so I write this blog with a little hesitancy, but I recently attended a Catholic funeral of the father of my son's friend. It was enlightening and interesting.
To be clear, I would not say it was a Christian funeral. There was no mention of the true gospel, and the assurances that were given were false. It reminded me of an Episcopalian funeral I went to years ago. My neighbor thought he could fly, but the cocaine did not break his fall. The widow was assured her husband was in heaven because he had been baptized as an infant, the implication clearly stated that the sum total of his life had no relationship to his final destiny.
Likewise, the priest at the Catholic funeral assured us repeatedly that the man was in heaven because he had been baptized and was given last rites. I shudder to think of the surprise and fear the man experienced when he first stepped into eternity to discover that something his parents did to him as an infant made no difference whatsoever.
But on to the interesting stuff.
The funeral was very formal, the result I would think of years of experience. There was no off-the-cuff remarks, no verbal pauses while the priest tried to figure out what to say as if he had not prepared. The formality was honoring, and it made me realize that in death we are not just individuals but are part of something much larger.
The service was highly participatory. The congregation constantly was responding to the words of the priest — and before you dismiss this as meaningless, rote memory, think about how many times the Lord’s Prayer has been repeated in Baptist churches by people thinking about anything other than what they were saying. But just because some (many?) people responded with rote memory without thinking about what they were saying, I suspect there were some who were thinking about what they said, and meant it. Likewise, I trust there are some Baptists who actually do mean the Lord’s Prayer, even though many around them are thinking about where to eat lunch after church. There was also a physical response, hands outstretched and standing or sitting together. It was a corporate experience, and a helpful one to those thinking through what the actions meant.
Perhaps the greatest thing that impacted me was the silence. The priest and people had no concern for long stretches of silence. These times added to the solemnity of the event and gave me time to think through my own mortality. There were long breaks of silence between the different parts of the service, marking the end of one part and the beginning of the next. Sometimes it feels in our own services that we are as frightened of silence as is a radio station.
Communion was also interesting. There was a clear statement of transubstantiation and the very clear admonition to the church that non-Catholics should not participate. There was nothing arrogant or demeaning about how it was stated, but it was clear. I compared that to how so many Protestant churches fail to examine themselves (1 Cor 11:28) and fail to let visitors know what was happening and whether or not they should participate.
I like to read business books, and one of the things I have read repeatedly is that business leaders have much to learn from people who are not in the business, store managers learning from photographers. The encouragement is to read a wide variety of books. I am glad for my experience at the Catholic funeral, but I am mostly glad that I don’t live under works-based righteousness and my assurance of living eternally with my Lord is based on his accomplished work on the cross and not on what my parents may or may not have done when I was born.
Incidentally, I was born in a Catholic hospital, and my mom, at that time still a young Christian, had to threaten the hospital with a lawsuit if they tried to baptize me. The water never hit my head.