Believing and Praying

The Power of Homilies

It’s often been said that by reflecting on what we have received in the tradition of liturgical prayer we can discover what we believe; prayer as a source of doctrine. The reverse is also true. What we believe determines what we pray — or what we don’t pray. Two liturgical experiences have brought this home to me in a vivid way. I travel a lot in my work and have the opportunity to participate in liturgies all over the world. The first involved a funeral Mass for a teenager who had committed suicide. The second involved a special Mass for babies who died without baptism, either through miscarriage or abortion.

In light of recent events in the Archdiocese of Detroit, where a priest was severely reprimanded for not adequately comforting the family at a Mass for their son who had committed suicide, my reflections below on this recurring liturgical challenge may be of use. I’ve read the text of his homily and think it was very good, and very adequately transmitted the truth of our faith in a compassionate and merciful way that would have been helpful for all those attending, as well as evoking prayers for the deceased. However, the public-relations statements of the archdiocese indicated that he was being banned from preaching at funerals until he got help in being more sensitive. In my opinion, he should have been commended for his homily. After reading my comments below on the funeral I attended for another tragic suicide of a young person, see what you think.12


The Mass I attended was for an older teenager who had taken her own life. She was beautiful and popular and the Church was full. As the Mass proceeded I found myself grateful that the Church now allowed such Masses and held out the hope of mercy and salvation even in such instances. There were many young people at the Mass and much grief at such a tragedy. As the Mass proceeded, it became clear that it was becoming a celebration of the dead teenager’s entry into Heaven. In the homily and at other points during the Mass, it was affirmed over and over that the dead teenager was now in Heaven, in a “better place,” and was now an “angel,” an intercessor for us. We hope, we pray. But no, we didn’t hope or pray. We presumed and celebrated. Troubled by this, I turned to the Catechism to see how the Church deals with this question today.

We read that suicide is gravely wrong, contrary to love of self, love of neighbor and family and love of God (2280–81).

We also read that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282).

And the response of the Christian community when faced with such tragedy?

“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives” (2283).

Unfortunately, there was not much praying, in hope, for the salvation of the dead teenager. Primarily there was homiletic and other affirmation that the young person who had taken their life was now in a much better place. We hope, but we don’t know. And so we pray, or at least ought to.

Unfortunately, this homiletic bending of the truth, led to an absence of the only helpful action in this case; intercessory prayer for the salvation of the one who died by taking their own life. But perhaps an even graver damage had taken place.

What of the many living young people who were at this funeral Mass? What message did they get? Were they, inadvertently, given permission to travel the same road of suicide? Is it unreasonable to think that some of them might be struggling with depression or hopelessness or despair or gender identity and be tempted to suicide? When there’s only one possible destination on the other side of death — Heaven — doesn’t death become more and more an attractive solution to the problems and pressures of life?

The second Mass was conducted as a memorial service for babies who had died through miscarriage or abortion. The assumption was that all these babies were in Heaven, and so celebration was the main note sounded. The homily was used to give comfort to grieving parents and to celebrate their “saints” now interceding for us in Heaven. Everyone seemed to like the service very much, but I found myself troubled by the lack of advertence to the truth of Original Sin, which at least poses a theological question about the fate of unbaptized babies. While the concept of Limbo (a state of natural happiness lacking the Beatific Vision) remains a theological speculation, it is one acknowledged by the Pontifical Theological Commission as still a legitimate option. It is an attempt to deal with a real issue about the problem of Original Sin. Here also I turned to the Catechism.

The truth of Original Sin, and the necessity of baptism, is, of course, affirmed.

Born with a fallen human nature and tainted by original sin, children also have need of the new birth in Baptism to be freed from the power of darkness and brought into the realm of the freedom of the children of God, to which all men are called. The sheer gratuitousness of the grace of salvation is particularly manifest in infant Baptism. The Church and the parents would deny a child the priceless grace of becoming a child of God were they not to confer Baptism shortly after birth. (1250)

The Catechism then deals with all the special cases and elaborates the sound theology of baptism by blood, and by explicit and implicit desire (1257–60). Then it considers the special case of children who die without baptism.

As regards children who have died without Baptism, the Church can only entrust them to the mercy of God, as she does in her funeral rites for them. Indeed, the great mercy of God . . . allows us to hope that there is a way of salvation for children who have died without Baptism. (1261)

There is no treatment of the concept of Limbo in the Catechism, but the index refers us to #1261 when consulting the entry of “Limbo.” Is there anything besides hoping that we can do to help such infants? Yes, the Catechism tells us we should pray for their salvation.

“With respect to children who have died without Baptism, the liturgy of the Church invites us to trust in God’s mercy and to pray for their salvation” (1283).

What we don’t know and can’t say with certainty is sometimes as important as what we do know and can say with certainty. The bottom line is that in the case of infants who die without baptism we don’t know with certainty what happens. Because of God’s great mercy, we can hope for their salvation. But hope is much different than presumption. And because we hope — but don’t know certainly — the Church urges us to respond with a particular action; to pray for the salvation of infants who have died without baptism.

At this particular liturgy, because the salvation of unbaptized infants was presumed, there was no prayer for their salvation. Because the homily stated the salvation of unbaptized infants as a certainty, there was probably little or no prayer for these infants in subsequent weeks or months as well.

In an effort to be compassionate, these infants were deprived of the prayers of the believing community. In this case, false compassion led, in fact, to uncompassionate results.

Even though this may appear to some as a minor “bending” of the truth for the sake of compassion, every bending of the truth has implications for life — for prayer, for actions.

I am concerned that this homiletic presumption of salvation for unbaptized infants also could be interpreted as confirming a view that is all too commonly held today: “sometimes it is better for the baby to be aborted and go to a better life than to be born into terrible circumstances.” When there is only one possible destination — Heaven — death is increasingly seen as a solution to life’s problems. I have heard on more than one occasion women speak of sending their babies to Heaven, to become “angels,” rather than having them born into inconvenient or even truly difficult circumstances.

Truth, even in what appear to be minor details, leads to right action, including, right praying. Falsehood, even when motivated by compassion, even in small matters, leads to wrong action, including wrong — or non-existent — praying.

The responsibility of speaking the truth in love is very serious indeed. Life and death, Heaven and Hell, truly hang in the balance. The power of the homily can be very great indeed. We will be judged on whether we’ve passed on faithfully what has been revealed to us, neither adding to it nor taking anything away. We need to be able to say with St. Paul that because we’ve passed on the “whole counsel of God” the blood of our hearers is not on our hands (Acts 20:26–27).

  1. The main part of this article, in a slightly different form, originally appeared in Homiletic and Pastoral Review 104:3, December 2003.
  2. Fr. LaCuesta’s homily can be found at the following link from the Archdiocese of Detroit:
Dr. Ralph Martin, STD About Dr. Ralph Martin, STD

Ralph Martin is president of Renewal Ministries, an organization devoted to Catholic renewal and evangelization. Ralph also hosts The Choices We Face, a widely viewed weekly Catholic television and radio program distributed throughout the world.

Ralph holds a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome and is a professor and the director of Graduate Theology Programs in the New Evangelization at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit. He was named by Pope Benedict XVI as a Consultor to the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization and was also appointed as a peritus to the Synod on the New Evangelization in October of 2012.

Ralph is the author of a number of books, the most recent of which are The Urgency of the New Evangelization: Answering the Call, The Fulfillment of All Desire: A Guidebook for the Journey to God Based on the Wisdom of the Saints, and Will Many Be Saved? What Vatican II Actually Teaches and Its Implications for the New Evangelization. He and his wife Anne have six children, and seventeen grandchildren, and reside in Ann Arbor, Michigan.


  1. anne cherney anne cherney says:

    Thanks Ralph

  2. Avatar Jacqueline Dawson says:

    Beautiful article and beautiful homily. A shame he was reprimanded.

  3. Avatar Deacon James Stagg says:

    Excellent portrayal of the need for prayer for the departed….indeed, all departed, since we cannot know they are in Heaven unless the Church proclaims them saints.

    As I recall, funeral homilies are to focus on the Scripture, as a teaching tool. Too often, it seems, it is difficult to separate the homily from the eulogies.

    Thank you, Dr. Martin, for a clear presentation.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Dr. Martin,

    Your presentation is clear and orthodox. I read the homily that brought a public response in the Archdiocese of Detroit. The homily was again orthodox, but put in the context of what was reported was it comforting to the grieving? The response from the family and some friends seemed to say no. Pastoral care is not always teaching doctrine. Yes, liturgy is what we believe and what we pray, so the truth is important.

    In all of the parables of Luke’s Gospel, Jesus with the sinners does not discourse on the sin of individuals. His love called the sinner to respond. So in my view, I cannot judge any of the situations you describe. I do wonder if we can leave room for pastoral care that does not focus on the sin, but only the loving mercy of God?

  5. Avatar Fr Tom Wasilewski says:

    Thank you professor Ralph! I agree with the thrust of the article, and think the point given is badly needed… most funerals in my experience have become a ‘celebration of life’ as if the person is already in Heaven and does not need prayers… We do NEED to preach the truth in love, including the details and as a priest I know how difficult this can be at funerals.

    But, sometimes it is a fine line in preaching truth and in ministering to the grieving family. In the example from the Archdiocese, I was not there, did not hear the “tone” of the homily, and only read some of it… But I also read the comments of the family members to the media, as they were very hurt by the priest’s words, particularly his mentioning the word “suicide” over and over. I know from my experience, that a word like that can cut and hurt each time it is heard by the family, and in my pastoral practice I have sought to use words that are not so hurtful while still true: for example: “he died in difficult circumstances” Everyone still knows what I’m talking about, but it doesn’t seem like I am hitting them over the head with the fact of “suicide” at their son/daughter’s funeral Mass… That kind of sensitivity is what converts hearts! I would never say that such a person is in heaven, and would emphasize that we need to pray for them etc… but I would not make it a time to teach about the doctrine of suicide. (this can be done in a Sunday homily or in other ways) My guess is, all those family members, already know pretty well that suicide is a bad thing. As a priest, we need to be able to preach truth in love, without people getting so upset that they run to the newspapers. Something obviously was lacking in the Archidocesan case, and I would be very cautious with jumping to conclusions about the disciplinary actions taken… Perhaps they were warranted…

    I do think we priests, need to speak about this issue (suicide, and death without baptism) and teach it more… but we can do this in other contexts. It is possible to be sensitive and still not affirm that a person is in heaven… or other popular heresies at a funeral..