This article was previously published in Sword & Spade magazine.
Fr. Alan Mackey, pastor of Our Lady, Help of Christians, in Huntsville, Ala. considers the blessing of a cemetery for parish life.
Our Lady, Help of Christians in Huntsville, Alabama, is fortunate to be situated across the street from a cemetery. Several parishioners are buried there, bringing multitudinous benefits, both spiritual and temporal. Many parishes must go to “the cemetery,” but we are afforded the place of burial as “our cemetery,” as a place deeply united to our actual parish, united manifestly to our history and people in a particular place, but also reminding us constantly of our ultimate home.
At the conclusion of the Requiem Masses, due to the proximity of the cemetery to the church, we are able to have a procession from the church to the cemetery. A rosary is prayed on the path of the procession for the souls of the faithful departed. There is great comfort and stability for the family of the deceased, to have their beloved buried near their parish. They are able to visit the graveside frequently to pray for the souls of their loved ones, and it is a reminder of the faith and hope we have in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church.
In our cemetery is the grave of Father Jeremiah Trecy who was born in Ireland but in 1860 arrived in Alabama to serve in the Diocese of Mobile. He was tasked with establishing a Catholic parish in Huntsville (St. Mary’s of the Visitation). It is a unique privilege, on All-Soul’s Day, to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass next to the grave of the priest who established a Catholic presence in Huntsville. Both my parishioners and I anticipate November for it affords us the opportunity to practice a Spiritual Work of Mercy in praying for the dead, and during the first week of the month, when the beneficence of Holy Mother Church allows for a daily plenary indulgence. It is a beautiful and encouraging sight to see families bring their children to the daily rosary processions in the cemetery. What a witness to the virtue of charity and the efficacious power of prayer.
A close union with the deceased is as old as the Church. Priests in the nascent Church, in the midst of a violent, all-encompassing three century persecution from the Roman Empire, surreptitiously offered the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on the tombs of the martyrs in the catacombs. An admonition to pray for the Church Suffering (the souls in Purgatory), this act was also a remembrance that the Church Triumphant (the saints in heaven) were praying for the Church Militant (the members of the church on earth).
Nikolaus Gihr, in his book The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, states that: “The Ordinance of Pope Felix I (about 270), to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass ‘over the tombs of the martyrs’ merely confirmed a long existing custom. Later on, the remains of the saints were transferred from their place of burial to the interior of newly erected altars.” Closeness to our burial places is an ancient and beautiful custom.
A Good Place for Prayer
This past year provided an unforeseen opportunity for meditation and serenity during the national lockdown. The serpent, our ancient enemy, endeavors to isolate and attack us with temptations to despair and of anxiety. It seems he has leveraged the current state of affairs to his demonic advantage. With his angelic intelligence, he observes our defects and drives on them. To combat this personally I made sure to keep an order to my day, and an integral element was praying the rosary in the cemetery. It was an opportunity to pray for the dead and also to meditate on my mortality. I encourage this frequent meditation on the four last things (death, judgement, heaven, and hell). The world is militating against the supernatural and the transcendent while encouraging a disordered fear of death. Death is treated like some stalking and unnatural end, one which we must avoid at any cost (and we have seen that cost). Cemeteries helpfully remind us of death as a fact of this life and put our fears in perspective and in their place.
Finally, it was also an aid to pray at the graveside of Fr. Trecy. He began the erection of St. Mary’s during the Civil War. It is a compelling reminder that Our Blessed Lord places us in a particular time in history, with a particular vocation. We are called to be faithful to that vocation, no matter the obstacles placed in front of us by the devil, the flesh, and the world. We are afforded the actual graces necessary to be faithful along with the efficacious prayers and intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, and saints. Fr. Trecy did not shrink from the task of honoring our Blessed Lord and the Virgin Mary during the height of the Civil War. He began the construction of St. Mary’s and went to the hospitals and battlefields to hear the confessions of the soldiers. The current climate is a difficult one for a practicing Catholic, but we can not shirk the duties of our vocation or living the life of virtue. We must go forward with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and charity and not curl up in a ball on a fainting couch. We are called to holiness and to become saints. For as St. Paul reminds us in Hebrews 13:14 “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come.”