It was to be my first funeral. I was home from the seminary but a few weeks and was still trying to learn to be a curate at Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago.
The announcement on the rectory bulletin board was quite clear: "Funeral Mass tomorrow morning at 10:30, Father Egan." Somewhat unnerved, I spent several hours that night reviewing the rubrics and preparing my sermon.
The following morning, robed in the black vestments of the time and led by two servers in starched, white surplices, I made my way to the altar, eyes cast down and chalice firmly in hand. Not until the "Collect" or "Prayer" of the Mass did I turn around to see the congregation.
It was two ladies and two gentlemen, all very much up in years, kneeling in the front row. In the center aisle there stood a metal cart upon which had been placed a modest coffin covered in grey felt. At the rear of the cathedral two young men were making a quiet visit and above the choir loft, the organist sat motionless.
The name of the deceased was written on a card which the sacristan had placed upon the altar. I took the card with me to the pulpit. Next to the name were the words: "Catholic Charities Funeral. No known relatives or friends."
That evening at supper the senior curate asked me how the funeral had gone. "We have three or four of those Charities funerals a week," he observed, "and the congregation is always pretty much the same."
"Did you meet Emily?" one of the other curates inquired.
"Who is Emily?" I asked.
"She usually sits in the front row with a few of her friends," I was told. "Every morning she checks with Lillian at the switchboard to find out if there is to be a Catholic Charities funeral the next day. Emily doesn't want anyone going to the Lord alone."
As it happened, that week I was assigned to two other such funerals, and the congregation was always the same. They followed the coffin in. They prayed the Mass devoutly. And they followed the coffin out. Anyone happening into the Cathedral would have assumed that they were elderly relatives or friends of the deceased.
It was several weeks later that I made the acquaintance of Emily and the other members of the congregation. I was passing a diner on Chicago Avenue one afternoon. The four of them were seated in a booth near the window. They waved and beckoned me to join them.
It was immediately clear which one was Emily. She was in her late seventies and stood ramrod straight and spoke with a commanding voice. "We have been looking forward to meeting you, Father," she announced. "We have been seeing you at funerals a good deal lately."
With that, she extracted from her unusually large handbag about twenty pieces of notebook paper that were rolled up and clipped together at the top. She laid them out on the diner table and reviewed the funerals I had celebrated. This one was for Charles, and I had spoken of the mercy of God. This other was for Cynthia, and I had spoken of the joy that would be ours in heaven. The third was for Gilbert, and I had spoken of Christ's sacrificial death for all without exception.
And so it went. I could hardly believe my eyes and ears. Each of the funerals was carefully recorded on an individual sheet of paper at the top of which was written in flowing, Spencerian script the words from the twelfth chapter of the Second Book of Maccabees. "It is a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead."
"A holy and a wholesome thought," Emily read slowly and with evident pleasure.
"But why do you do all this?" I asked, immediately regretting that I had not phrased my question more diplomatically.
"The Communion of Saints," one of the elderly gentlemen replied without a moment's hesitation.
"Of course," Emily interjected, "the Communion of Saints. All of us in the Church - whether in heaven, in purgatory, or still here on earth - are one family under God, our Father, and with Jesus our Brother. We are the Communion of Saints, and if we are truly that, we have to take care of one another."
There was a moment of silence, but only a moment. Emily had much more to say.
"The dear departed whom Catholic Charities send to Holy Name for their funerals," she explained, "are our brothers and sisters in the Lord, members of our Church, members of our `communion.' They deserve to have caring loved-ones praying for them at their funeral Masses, and we do our best not to disappoint them. We treat them like relatives."
"Or at least very close friends," the other lady added.
There was a second moment of silence, longer than the first. It was broken by the gentleman who had spoken earlier. "We do it," he stated as though replying to my original question in a more definitive manner, "because of the Communion of Saints."
Emily and the others nodded in total agreement.
Not long after that conversation I was transferred to live some few blocks away at the Cardinal's residence. Still, I ate lunch each weekday at the Cathedral Rectory and regularly made a visit to the Blessed Sacrament before going up to the dining room.
Often I would see the end of a Catholic Charities funeral with the "saints" walking slowly behind the wooden coffin that bore another "saint" whom they had never met but whom they dearly loved. I knew that another page had been inscribed with the words of the Second Book of Macabees. I knew that the theme of another funeral sermon had been recorded. I knew that something altogether "holy and wholesome" had taken place. I even knew that I could never doubt that the "saints" are ever in communion.
- The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
In verdant pastures he gives me repose;
Beside restful waters he leads me;
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me in right paths
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk in the dark valley
I fear no evil; for you are at my side
With your rod and your staff
that give me courage.
You spread the table before me
in the sight of my foes;
You annoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Only goodness and kindness follow me
all the days of my life;
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord
for years to come.