An avoidable debacle: On the scandalous funeral service at St. Patrick’s

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By Peter M.J. Stravinskas

By now, unless you live under a rock or gave up all media for Lent, you have heard of the debacle that played out at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York (“America’s parish church”) on February 15 with the obsequies for one Cecilia Gentili. At this moment in the season of introspection and conversion, we can take to heart St. Paul’s admonition, “now is the acceptable time” (2 Cor 6:2), to ask just what happened, how it happened, and what lessons can be learned, so as to obviate a repeat performance.

All parties agree that some “relatives and friends” of the deceased approached personnel at the Cathedral to request a Funeral Mass for their dear one. Now, if I had been at the reception desk that day, I can assure you that I would never had heard of “Cecilia Gentili”; the “organizer” of the event admits that she withheld information she thought would not allow the show to go on. On my part, however, I would have entered that name into the search field and discovered–oh my!–that “she” was born a man, was an avowed atheist, and an activist on behalf of every kind of sexual perversion imaginable. We have been told that “she” had reconciled with Christ and His Church in her final days (given the many lies that led up to the day, can we suppose that to be true?).

At any rate, if it is true, that’s wonderful; we Catholics have always rejoiced in deathbed conversions. That said, the response of Cathedral personnel should have been referral to a parish church, where a small, private ceremony could have been held (that’s what is often done for “mobbed up” guys). Of course, we know that such a suggestion would not have been acceptable to the “organizer” because she wanted St. Patrick’s, precisely because it is St. Patrick’s. We also must note that the Cathedral doesn’t host thousands of funerals a year; indeed, there is always a screening or vetting process. Who dropped the ball?

The rector of the Cathedral is Father Enrique Salvo (who also does double-duty at the “old” Cathedral downtown); the director of liturgy is Father Andrew King. Both men are exemplary, solidly orthodox priests. More about both anon.

With the cow out of the barn, we are on the day of the funeral. The first question I ask is, “Where were the ushers and security guards?” Did they not think it their responsibility to guard the sanctity of God’s House, first of all, by monitoring the attire of those entering? Video shows completely unacceptable outfits (some people even with their bottoms exposed). And what about the behavior, even before the body arrived? Had a handful of miscreants been “ushered” out, either everybody else would have fallen into line or they all would have left in solidarity and protest with those who had been “cast into the outer darkness.” Or, were the ushers told to say and do nothing? And, if so, by whom?

The celebrant of the would-be Mass was Father Edward Dougherty, the former superior general of the Maryknoll Fathers, who was invited to join the Cathedral staff upon his retirement. It is clear that, from the beginning, he enjoyed his role as ring-master of the circus, with his comments and demeanor. In short order, Father King can be heard telling the celebrant that it cannot move forward as a Mass; it needs to be cut short as a simple Liturgy of the Word. Thank God for that decision, as we can only imagine what sacrileges could have been leveled against the Blessed Sacrament.

The service was constantly interrupted by blasphemous, vulgar, and profane hoots and hollers. Unhinged individuals pranced through the aisles on several occasions. The eulogies were outrageous and scandalous, with the first one presented by none other than the deceased’s long-time lover, who gushed about sleeping with and waking up with “Cecilia.”

So, what lessons can be learned from this very deplorable (but avoidable) incident?

First, take seriously the adage attributed to Ben Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.” In this context, it means two things: First, practice due diligence. As a pastor, I always knew whom I was being asked to bury. Second, better to endure private wrath for a negative decision than have to offer endless public apologies in the aftermath. It is also worth noting that, as this event demonstrates, it is not possible to placate this kind of crowd, lacking in even basic human sensibilities, let alone a Christian moral compass.

Second, it is high time to eliminate eulogies from church buildings. They are uncontrollable disasters on all too many fronts. God only knows what is going to come out of someone’s mouth (having reviewed a prepared text is no guarantee that it will be followed). Maudlin and saccharine reflections can undo a decent homily (if it was not itself maudlin and saccharine) and the carefully composed liturgical texts given by Mother Church. Further, even the best persons can break down in the moment. Eulogies belong at the funeral home or the gravesite. In point of fact, the rubrics for the Mass of Christian Burial specifically prohibit eulogies.

Third, we need to re-think the nearly automatic offering of a Funeral Mass to all comers. In this post-Christian age of ours (and with civilized behavior noted in the breach more than the observance), any priest will tell you that funerals (and weddings) are the most fraught with possibilities for disaster, distraction, and dismay. On more than one occasion, I have had to stop the progress of the Sacred Liturgy to call for proper decorum, only to be shouted at by the very person causing the disturbance! A service at the funeral home or a committal ceremony at the cemetery can provide the presence of the Church quite adequately (texts part of the Rite of Christian Burial). If Grandma was herself a serious Catholic, schedule a Memorial Mass within a week or a month to commend her soul to the Lord with the offering of the Eucharistic Sacrifice.

Fourth, we need to recall that houses of worship are, first of all, houses of God, not our personal living rooms. In “the Church of Nice,” that notion is often belittled. The church edifice exists to give glory to the Triune God, not to make us feel good. “Feel-goodism” didn’t happen for the first time in New York on February 15. Back in 2013, at “Old” St. Pat’s, ex-Legionary priest Thomas Williams had a grand Nuptial Mass; in 2020, another ex-Legionary priest, Jonathan Morris, had an equally magnificent wedding at the current Cathedral–all in violation of the rescripts of laicization, which forbid any such public extravaganzas. Those two events caused a goodly amount of wonderment and scandal as well.

Fifth, how can we not see this scene as intimately tied in to Fiducia Supplicans, giving the green light to all kinds of blessings for all kinds of “irregular” unions? Yet again, was it any surprise that the very next day, the indomitable Jesuit James Martin rhapsodized on the occurrence, musing that this would have been unthinkable even a generation ago? Indeed.1

Sixth, Father Salvo’s post-debacle declaration was spot-on. Particularly welcome were the graphic adjectives he used to describe the event. Likewise, welcome was the notice that a Mass of Reparation had been celebrated to atone for all the blasphemies and sacrileges. Disappointing was the fact that the Mass was not open to the public and offered by the Cardinal himself. It seems to me that the public outrage required a public act of atonement.

Last but not least, the language and behavior of the “congregation” were problematic for two other reasons: Such lunacy is embarrassing to those who suffer sexual disorders in noble silence. Beyond that, it also makes it that much more difficult for serious Catholics to accord to those with “disordered” inclinations that dignity and respect called for in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

In an 1836 sermon, the then-Anglican clergyman, to become St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, could assert, without fear of contradiction:

To believe and not to revere, to worship familiarly and at one’s ease, is an anomaly and a prodigy unknown even to false religions, to say nothing of the true one. Not only the Jewish and Christian religions, which are directly from God, inculcate the spirit of reverence and godly fear, but those other religions which have existed or exist, whether in the East or the South, inculcate the same. Worship, forms of worship — such as bowing the knee, taking off the shoes, keeping silence, a prescribed dress and the like — are considered as necessary for a due approach to God.2

What we witnessed last Thursday would have shocked even the pagan Greeks and Romans of old.

Endnotes:

1Subsequent to the event, Father Martin tweeted: “I had been invited to preach but was out of town.” Why are we not surprised?

2“Reverence in Worship,” P.S. VIII 5 (October 30, 1836).

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