Mr. Shaun McAfee, O.P. is the author of Reform Yourself! and other books, is the founder and editor of EpicPew.com, and contributes to many online Catholic resources. He holds a Masters in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. Shaun has made his temporary profession as a Lay Dominican and temporarily lives in Italy.
From time to time we see Catholic writers commenting on the lives of recently passed persons, and other times sharing insights from those who are still living, and neither of which might be Catholic.
With the many familiar personalities passing away in 2016, I saw numerous comments to the effect of, “Why are we mourning this famous celebrity and not mourning the lives of [other lives]?” or “Why does [insert media source] have to write a post about a dead Catholic celebrity?”
Why should we do that? Why should we take the time to highlight a moment or the life of a person who is indifferent to our faith or maybe even rejects certain articles of our faith or moral beliefs?
I need to clarify, first, what we are not doing and I want to make it very clear: posts like that are not written because they are famous or because they are rich or because we think more of them than we think of our family, including those whom we share solidarity in our Catholic faith. Why, then? Why is effort put into remembering their lives? Are we caught up in their celebrity status? No! We do it because all life is precious and some people are gifted to touch our lives with great effect. Some people are so generously gifted that they rise to a level that gives them some legacy, a perpetual mark on the lives of multitudes of people.
People like the “dead celebrities” are people too, and in fact, might have nobody else to pray for their loved ones, or better yet their eternal souls. Jesus Christ proved this to be true when he told the Pharisees who objected to his dining with tax collectors and other sinners, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17) And again in Luke’s Gospel, “For the son of man came to seek and save the lost.” (19:10) Paul continues this message with total continuity: “The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. And I am the foremost of sinners.” (1 Timothy 1:15)
The truth is, you and me and our prayers together might be the only thing that stands between some people an eternal torment. That’s a reality we can ignore, or we can embrace.
Aside from this, do you know what the real issue is concerning literary reporting? The real issue is whenever nobody has anything remotely religious to say about someone’s passing, makes no mention of the lessons we can pull from their lives, and no indication of a need to pray for them. The real danger not the embracing the fact that celebrities exist, but embracing a lethargy that cripples our ability to discuss them with relation to the gospel. I thank God when I see a Catholic mixing religious dialogue with that of the secular world. A careful editor will ensure there is no mixing of problematic ideas contrary to our faith, but the writer is evangelizing the world when they hold up their faith adjacent to that of a person who the whole world knows.
Do you know what St. Francis de Sales said to St. Jane de Chantal before his death? She told him that he was going to be a saint very soon and his reply to her was to pray for his soul, and more for others who did not know Christ and added, “Perhaps, but the cause will be taken up long after you are gone.” It turns out that she hand-wrote letters to hundreds of people who were not part of her religious order, and many more seculars who we not Catholic. She learned this from St. Francis, who in his great humility was wrong about her: she went on to provide the bulk of testimony and cause-related documentation for his beatification and eventual canonization. She went on to be canonized, too, and yet, here are two Counter-Reformation saints who shared an extensive part of their time with non-Catholics, and praying for their souls when they departed, many of which were protestant clergy or nobility – the celebrities of their day.
Should we shine our lights on those who endured the faith with great courage and conviction? Yes! But what good does it do the world if we keep those prayers exclusively for people who agree with us? In the words of Jesus, “If you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” (Matthew 5:46)
Many people have memorized John 3:16:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.
But few people remember the words that came after that:
For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
If we refuse to pray for all lives, we are not true followers of Jesus, for His offering is universal. We might not know the condition or the hearts of others when they pass away, but our first assumption should not be one of indolence for their salvation. We should always, even after their death, pray for those who need it – which pretty well covers all of us.
Like Paul, we should see ourselves as the ones who are the foremost of sinners, the ones who are in the most need of his grace and love. Until then, we produce a false altruism, a self-love that promotes the benefit of ourselves only by approving of only those who approve of us. This is utterly against the Joy of the Gospel.
It’s okay to honor or remember people who don’t agree with every idiosyncratic detail of our faith. It’s absolutely certain that we must pray for them. The Catechism says, “Our prayer for them is capable of not only helping them, but also of making their intercession for us effective” (958). Please don’t take away someone’s time to mourn someone those they love just because you might not see any relevance in it.