ALIVE OR DEAD WE BELONG TO THE LORD (Rm 14:8)
The Vicar General, Diocesan Chancellor and Deans of our various Deaneries; The Vicar for Religious, The Vicar for the Laity, The Diocesan President of the Catholic Laity Council, Diocesan, Deanery and Parochial Leaders of the CMON, CWON, CYON and the YCMO & YCWO, Grand Knights of the various Knight Groups,
Traditional Leaders from the different Kingdoms of Esanland; Resource Persons and Invited Guests; Delegates from all the Churches in Uromi Diocese;
We are very pleased to welcome you all to our first ever Diocesan Pastoral Assembly. This Diocesan Assembly is the fruit of a lot of listening that has gone on since we assumed office a little over five years ago. We are very grateful for the many insights that have been proposed to us during meetings, especially the Diocesan Pastoral Council meetings; speeches and interactions during official visits by various groups; feedback from the faithful during pastoral visits, and many other occasions where we have enjoyed the pleasure of the company of the good people of Esanland, at home and in diaspora.
While a wide range of issues came up during these listening opportunities, certain matters were recurring, across different sections and parts of the Diocese. We can classify these matters under the category of burial practices. In our listening, one could readily discern a willingness on the part of the people to build upon the laudable efforts of the traditional institutions of Esan culture and heritage, and to respond to modern day realities, as far as burial practices are concerned.
This is why after a period of prayerful reflection, we decided to call for a Pastoral Assembly, where as a family and under the light of the Gospel, we can freely share together from our common experiences. To the glory of God, and in recognition of the hard work of the Planning Committee set up for this Assembly, we have gathered together today to commence our deliberations. May the name of the Lord be blessed now and forever.
In the section of his letter to the Romans devoted to discussing the duties of Christians, St. Paul writes “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose from the dead, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living”. (Rm 14:7-9). In this passage of the Scripture, St. Paul gives us a teaching that in many ways, lies at the heart of what will occupy us for the next few days, and it is helpful that we understand this better.
What does it mean to be a Christian, a follower of Christ? The dictionary tells us that a Christian is one who professes belief in the teachings of Jesus Christ. But what does professing belief in Jesus Christ entail? St. Paul makes us understand that being a Christian means living unto the Lord. It means seeing the entire purpose of our existence as consisting of doing the will of God, and living in such a manner that it gives glory to God. The true Christian is preoccupied with serving the Lord in all circumstances, because he/she sees himself/herself as belonging to the Lord, whole and entire, body and soul.
The Christian is one who has been baptized in the name of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, incorporated into the Body of Christ, and empowered by the Holy Spirit. The Christian is nourished by and receives strength from the Eucharist, where the body and blood of Jesus is
broken and eaten. From the table of the Eucharist, the Christian is given the charge to make the gospel of Jesus come alive in his/her life, as a sign of the Lord’s dominion over him/her.
St. Paul wants us to understand that the Lord’s dominion over us is total; we belong to the Lord, every part of us, at all times and in all places, even in the grave. Since we live for the Lord, we are always the Lord’s — we remain His when we are laid in the grave, and we remain His in the world to come.
The Church, as her role as Mother and as the visible representation of the Body of Christ, assists the Christian in carrying out the will of God. She makes available to him/her all the possible means to salvation, – the word of God, and the sacraments, especially the Eucharist. And the Church’s assistance does not end at death. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Church who, as Mother, has borne the Christian sacramentally in her womb during his earthly pilgrimage, accompanies him at his journey’s end, in order to surrender him “into the Father’s hands.” She offers to the Father, in Christ, the child of his grace, and she commits to the earth, in hope, the seed of the body that will rise in glory. This offering is fully celebrated in the Eucharistic sacrifice; the blessings before and after Mass are sacramentals.” (CCC 1683)
For us people of faith, we believe what the Church teaches us, that the death of any Christian is simply the conclusion of our earthly existence, and the beginning of the eternal life in the presence of God. This is why we pray in the Preface I of Christian Death, “Lord, for your faithful people life is changed, not ended. When the body of our earthly dwelling lies in death, we gain an everlasting dwelling place in heaven”.
The Church celebrates the death of a Christian, to afford the Christian community a moment to express our union as Church militant, with the Church triumphant (the Church in heaven), in the communion of saints. As we read in the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, “Though separated from the living, the dead are still at one with the community of believers on earth, and benefit from their prayer and intercession” (No 6). Indeed, everything that we do during the burial of a Christian is rooted in this belief, one that we profess every time we recite the creed, that “we believe in the resurrection of the dead, and in the life of the world to come”.
The Rite of Christian funerals consists of different rituals with which we pray earnestly for the eternal salvation of our brother or sister who has died. It also serves as support to the family and friends of the deceased. In their period of grief and mourning, the Church offers them hope and consolation in Jesus Christ, enabling them to keep in mind the fact that their loved one while alive, experienced God’s love and bountiful goodness. Now that he/she has died, we are to pray for the forgiveness of their sins and for their entrance into eternal life. (Cf 2 Macc 12:46).
The funeral liturgy is closely related to the sacrament of baptism that the dead person received while alive. We see this in the rich symbolism of water, (used to bless the remains of the dead at the entrance of the Church, during the final commendation and blessing of the grave); the pall or white cloth that is placed on the casket, to remind all that this person was baptized; the Bible that is placed on the casket, a reminder of the word of God that was the rule and guide for the
departed Christian during his/her life; and the Paschal Candle, reminding us of the resurrection of Jesus, the hope of all who die in Christ. This is why it is clear that when we celebrate the burial of a Christian, we are actually celebrating his/her faith, and we are celebrating this in the context of Christ’s victory over death and suffering.
When the Church insists on the celebration of the funeral of a Christian, she is only helping to fulfill the wishes of the deceased, who during baptism, after rejecting Satan and all his works and empty promises, was anointed with holy oil with these words “the God of power and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ has freed you from sin, given you a new birth by water and the Holy Spirit, and welcomed you into His Holy People. He now anoints you with the chrism of salvation. As Christ was Priest, Prophet and King, so may you live always as a member of His body, sharing everlasting life”.
The baptized Christian has declared for Christ, and remains a member of Christ body, both while here on earth and in the world to come. Hence we read in Can 1176 §1 “Christ’s faithful who have died are to be given a Church funeral according to the norms of law”. In the following subsection, we also read that “Church funerals are to be celebrated according to the norms of the liturgical books. In these funeral rites the Church prays for the spiritual support of the dead, it honours their bodies, and at the same time it brings to the living the comfort of hope. (Can 1176 §2).
We are aware that sometimes there could be tension between the socio-cultural realities surrounding the death of a Christian, and the Church’s way of catering for the dead. Such tensions are often founded on misunderstanding and lack of comprehension, which could be mutual or one-sided, depending on the case in question. Such misunderstandings are easily resolvable when there is honest dialogue between the parties concerned, and respect for the legitimate rights of individual persons to practice their beliefs according to how it suits them, and for believing community to do its best to affirm these rights.
This Pastoral Assembly offers us such an opportunity for clear and honest dialogue. As delegates from the different parishes and stations in our diocese, you have already participated in your parish assemblies. We thank you again for your generosity, and for the openness with which we spoke about these matters which affect each and everyone of us. We will soon listen to the reports from the Deaneries, which is a compilation of the voices of all of us during the parish assemblies. We will consider these reports as a combination of our attempts to state the situation as it is, as well as our genuine wishes for a better way of handling these matters, a way that will be truly Christian while being truly Esan.
We will also have the opportunity to learn other perspectives on burial practices during these days of our Assembly. This is important if we are to reduce, if not eliminate entirely, the misconceptions and misrepresentations that have turned what is supposed to be a celebration of faith and culture, into a period of anxiety and undue tension.
At the end of this period of listening and learning, we hope to have a common understanding that will go a long way to helping us remain true to our culture as Esans and Christians, through the propositions that will hopefully be generated in the coming days. We thank all our delegates here present and those still to arrive, for your willingness to give your time and energy to this process. May God bless you and bless our deliberations.
Trusting in the maternal intercession of Our Lady, Mother of the Church, and in my humble capacity as the Bishop of Uromi Diocese, in the name of the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, I hereby declare this Pastoral Assembly, open.
Most Rev. Donatus A. Ogun, OSA Bishop