Liturgy, Loss, and Grief
February 16th, 2015. My uncle died, riddled with cancer, at 51. My mother, his only sibling, found herself sullen with inconsolable grief. I felt little. I did not visit him in the hospital as often as I should have. My family is small, and I was not sure how to handle death. I knew the dark figure was lurking, always lurking, in the background, ready to snatch life away at the opportune moment. “If I avoid my uncle,” I thought, “perhaps this wretched nightmare will end. Perhaps all will return to normalcy.” It did not.
I was told that my uncle had wished he attended church more often. Our family has not attended regularly since my first Communion. In his final months, he received the necessary conditions for his departure: anointing of the sick, sacramental confession, and Communion. By this time, I was attending a Baptist church but considered myself (in all save the name) an atheist. I was asked to read at the funeral service in St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church. The church, where I was baptized and received my first communion, had been renovated in our fifteen-year absence. I was to stand at the far side of the altar, read from a binder, bow toward a lit candle, and take my seat again. I muddled through the scripture, which was slipped inside of a dust jacket to prevent proper intimacy with the words. There was no chant, no real Mass for the dead. Instead, a few words were spoken, condolences were offered, and my uncle’s ashes were to be kept for several weeks while the ground thawed.
I ignored the Baptist church services. I paid attention to little, including the gaping hole in my chest. Of the three living relatives I had, one was gone. It burned in me for months. I backed away from the Baptist church, withdrawing into myself and our family’s collective grief. I remained in that limbo for too long.
On the encouragement of a few professors, I tiptoed back into Catholicism. I was put off by its modern lack of empathy and its perceived coldness. The Baptist church, for its many faults, was always personal. Every member knew me, at least on some level, and I knew them. The laity in the pews at this Catholic church attempted to know me, but I did not reciprocate. I found a church that had done an excellent job of pretending to be Catholic. It used the dressing of proper liturgy to hide what appeared to be base Protestantism. Where was the romanticised church I read in history textbooks? Where was the Latin? Where was the intimacy with a Christ that everyone said was there? Why should I continue to attend a church that hides what it should be?
Yet, for some reason, I continued. I attended more lectures and classes concerning Church history. I kept going to the, although well-intentioned, poorly actualized Christian Initiation classes. Several months later I was received into the Church, fully this time, and oddly optimistic. I was still dissatisfied with what I saw as Catholicism’s similarities to the Protestants that surrounded us. The Mass was still valid, but something was missing. Was this the Mass that so many people considered audacious enough to protest all those centuries ago? If the Mass still held the transubstantial properties that make it valid, what else could matter? A sense of liturgical taste, that’s what.
I found taste in Rome. On a study abroad trip, a professor took us to a Latin Mass, a remnant of the pre-Vatican II reforms. It was, I feel no shame in saying, magnificent. I cried as the smoky incense rose in the domed pilgrim church of downtown Rome, just blocks away from the Vatican, Piazza Navona, and the Roman Forum. Chiesa della Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini would forever become my spiritual parish church. It was a surreal moment. The faith I feigned for so long had become solidified and real. I felt the pangs of regret I am sure my uncle must have known, finally understanding the weight of time spent away from such true beauty. I felt love and devotion that I had never known. The frustration and sorrow I carried since my uncle's passing began, although I did not know it, to heal. The Latin prayers presented to God gave a glimpse of the eternal. The parishioners sang in a homogenous union that lifted the soul in thanksgiving. Weeping on my knees, I, too, was grateful.