In the movie The Farewell, the central plot hinges on the question of an individual vs. communal approach to the burden of end of life care. One of the central characters has cancer, and the issue surrounding the family is whether the person with the disease should know or not. In the US, as the movie acknowledges, such duplicity would not be likely to happen, but in China, where the movie takes place, society often allows for such things because they believe the burden of suffering is to be carried by the family and friends rather than the sick or afflicted. I found that to be a fascinating concept because most of us have experienced the loss of someone due to cancer, and the question of death and mourning is a very present concern to all of us. I would recommend viewing the movie, if for nothing less than to understand the potential hardships of walking with someone who is about to die and with those that love them.
Our faith acknowledges that our time on earth is not all that there is, but rather that we are made for heaven and joining God. The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares: “The Christian funeral is a liturgical celebration of the Church. The ministry of the Church in this instance aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral, and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community (CCC 1684).” As Catholics, we believe that there is life after our life on earth. So the funeral and death itself serve as reminders of the Paschal Mystery and our hope for all—and in particular, those who have just died—to have eternal life in heaven with the Lord. The prayer spoken while receiving ashes on Ash Wednesday is a poignant reminder of this: “Remember you are dust and from dust, you shall return.” Time on earth is fleeting, but time in heaven is eternal.
As Catholics, we are part of a community of believers. We must not only accompany the one who is preparing to die, but also those who the deceased is leaving behind. This is not the responsibility solely of the priest or deacon presiding over the funeral rites, but rather a shared responsibility of all the church. The Catechism goes further to explain that funeral ceremonies have the Eucharistic Sacrifice as a critical component because: “It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who ‘has fallen asleep in the Lord,’ by communication in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him” (CCC, 1689).
It is essential as a community of faithful to also accompany those left behind who are grieving the loss of a loved one. This grief is normal and completely human, but it means that we need to accompany those grieving and serve as a living reminder of Christ’s presence in their lives. We are called to serve as witnesses to those we encounter daily, whether we know them well or not. As stated in the book the Art of Accompaniment: Theological, Spiritual, and Practical Elements of Building a More Relational Church: “Witnessing can be effective even if a deep, committed relationship is not yet formed…witnessing demonstrates an example of an integrated Christian life within the one who witnesses. … Witnesses are essential to the process of spiritual accompaniment because, ‘modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers it is because they are witnesses (Evangelii Nuntiandi)’ (Art of Accompaniment 16)” Times of suffering and hardship are especially profound moments for evangelization and witness. As a Church, we can offer hope and healing to those who are dying or grieving the loss of a loved one.
For more resources on Accompaniment, please click here.
I distinctly remember a few years ago when I looked a friend in the eyes over coffee just prior to Advent and said, “I’m so grateful that Advent is about to start - I’m ready for other people to be waiting, too.”
The reality is that we spend a lot of our lives waiting - waiting for the light to turn green, waiting for a relationship to be mended, or waiting for the Lord to reveal more of His plan to us. The waiting is inescapable - and yet it is so easy to feel like waiting equals failure. Our world would have us believe a lot of lies about waiting - mainly that waiting means that God isn’t faithful, that He has somehow forgotten us.
There have been so many times in my life where I have believed the lie that God is not faithful in the waiting - that the waiting is wasted. In a season of life that contains its fair share of waiting, I have had to remind myself again and again that He is in the waiting.
As Christians, we know there is such a thing as waiting well— as not only seeking God in the waiting, but knowing that God is seeking us in the waiting. I’m sure that the relief that I experienced in that conversation with a friend a few years ago speaks a lot of truth about the ache of our own hearts - an ache that is lived out during Advent.
The Church gives us the Advent season not only to prepare our hearts for the coming of our Lord at Christmas, but to also remind ourselves of the beauty in the waiting. The beauty of being a Christian is that we CAN hope in the waiting - we can hope in the waiting because we know Who we are waiting for. “Let us allow ourselves, then,” Pope Francis encourages, “to teach hope, to faithfully await the coming of the Lord, and whatever desert we might have in our life will become a flowering garden.”
This Advent, I am going to breathe another sigh of relief and of gratitude that others are waiting with me, but that we have a God worth waiting for. May we as a Church wait hopefully for the coming of our Lord together, knowing that He is in the waiting. And may the desert of our waiting reveal to us, as Pope Francis said, a flowering garden this Christmas.
"With all vigilance guard your heart, for in it are the sources of life."
When I was first hired to teach at my high school and was told I was going to be teaching social justice, I was very excited. I had learned a lot from different teachers over the years about social justice issues plaguing our society and I wanted to ignite a fire in my students that they could make a difference and impact society. I knew it was going to be a challenging topic to teach, especially to high school students, but I never realized the toll it would have on me. Halfway through my first year of teaching, one of my students handed me a post it note with Proverbs 4:23 written on it. The interpretation she had written was “Above all else, guard your heart. For everything you do flows from it.” It took me some time to realize what she was trying to tell me through this passage, but once I realized what she meant it changed my thinking and my outlook on what I was teaching and the world around me.
Some of the topics we cover are racism, prejudice, and poverty. I very quickly realized that in order to make the girls aware of the problems in the world around them, I had to bring in real world examples. At the beginning of every class, my students were invited to bring in news articles or experiences of their own that related back to the topic. I would also research different events or issues myself. After reading and hearing somewhere around 100 different examples of where our society has gone wrong and how we are hurting each other, I began to get a sense of hopelessness. My heart began to hurt because we have so many solutions on how to make our society better, and still nothing ever gets done. It reached a point that I didn’t think society would ever change and I started to stop believing in what I was teaching.
Every morning we wake up and turn on the news and see news report after news report of our society tearing each other apart and forgetting the value that each one of us has. That kind of destruction and hurt takes a toll on you; especially your heart, and can make you feel helpless. My student recognized what was happening to my heart and saw me breaking after every news report and life experience I heard in class. She left me this note to remind me that despite the world we are living in, we have to guard our hearts because that is where your drive and spirit comes from. She showed me that if I protect my heart and keep faith and hope in God and the world he created, things could get better.
It is really easy to lose faith and hope and have your heart get hurt if you don’t guard it. Once you lose hope and your heartbreaks, everything in your life is affected. Your heart is the center of everything and it drives your life and your passion. If you don’t guard it and keep it safe, you can’t be the best version of yourself.
Erin Flynn serves as a high school religion teacher in the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York.