The famous actor, Philip Seymour Hoffman was recently found dead in his apartment, from all looks of things due to an overdose of heroin. Though I know nothing of his personal story, whether he is catholic or not, the question that some might ask of a life with so much promise that ended so tragically is: “Would you give him a Catholic funeral mass?” It seems like an odd question to ask. But here is what started me thinking about that. On May 14, 1998, Francis Albert Sinatra died. No one could wrap themselves around a song like him. When “old blue eyes” sang, it was amazing. AND, when Frank Sinatra was accorded a Catholic funeral, there was quite a scandal.
“Money talks,” the cynics said. He minimally met the requirements for a Catholic burial, in that, he was baptized a Catholic. But he seldom, if ever, darkened the doors of a church. He had a very public adultery while married to his first wife, who he then divorced to marry the object of his affair. In fact, he had 4 marriages and three divorces total, (though all were eventually annulled and his final marriage was recognized in the church.) He was a womanizer, he had connections to the mob, he had people ‘beat up’, he abused women – all those things disqualified him in many people’s minds from a Catholic funeral.
But there are two reasons why I think the church was absolutely correct and ‘on’ gospel message to give him a Catholic burial and funeral mass. When Jesus tells us to ‘love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us”, they – the enemy – are not the point. WE are. Under the imperative Jesus gave to US, We are to pray for the enemy, those who persecute us. We are to give a Christian burial and mass to the unworthy and the scandalous. We are to reach out to those whose lives were less than exemplary. Why? We do so, not to endorse their way of life, but to endorse OURS.
That is what it means to ‘be a son and daughter of God.” We will love them as we are loved – by a God who lets his sun shine on the good and bad alike, who rains on the just and the unjust. Sinatra got a catholic burial, because as much as we might like to, as much as we’d be tempted to, WE will not hate our enemies. WE will pray for those of our own who have persecuted us by their behavior. We refuse to let them dictate to us who WE are. That is the first part of today’s gospel message.
And secondly, it was fitting to give him a catholic funeral because who are we to short circuit the process of grace. If God can move in the heart of a hardened criminal dying to the left of his son on the cross; if the prodigal son can find his way home; if the Samaritan Woman at the well and Zacchaeus can meet the Lord in a way that completely changes them; if Augustine who was a wild child, if Ignatius, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day all have found their way home, then God ALWAYS has the last word in the lives of his people. And we can never know what goes on in the human heart in the last seconds of their existence.
SO the question is never about the Francis Albert Sinatra’s or the Philip Seymour Hoffman’s of our world – and the many before him and the many after him – and whether they deserve a Christian Burial in the church. Rather, the question is always this: What are we about? Will WE let the sun shine on the good and the bad, will we rain God’s love upon the just and the unjust alike? THAT is where the question always lies.
I was not asked to do a funeral for Philip Seymour Hoffmann. I’d like to think that I would have said “Yes” *snap – just like that. I am asked, though, every day, to love my enemies and to do good to those who hate me, not because it is easy or convenient or even because it feels good. I am called to do it because that is exactly how God loves all of his creatures. So, as Jesus tells us, “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.”