“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). Jesus poses this question to Martha, sister to Lazarus and Mary, three of Jesus’s closest friends. The Gospel we have just heard today clearly shows that Jesus loved Martha, Mary and Lazarus very much.
At the beginning of the Gospel, Jesus receives bad news about Lazarus’s health: “Lord, your friend is sick.”(John 11:3). Sickness brings us face to face with our own vulnerability and the mystery of our death. The sick often endure moments of great humiliation, as all they have loved and cherished begins to yield and drift away. The Church accompanies them at this trying time with the sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. When death is upon us, the Church offers comfort through what we call the Viaticum, which is the sacrament of Anointing of the Sick accompanied by the Holy Eucharist given to those approaching the last moments of their life on earth as sacred nourishment for the journey that leads to eternity.
We bishops would like to encourage our faithful to immediately request the assistance of a priest whenever they are admitted to a hospital or residential care. It is important for us to make this choice and let those responsible for our care know of our wishes.
Death comes and it comes for all. It is a moment of separation, as well as, for Christians, a moment to reflect and discover the power of the Lord Jesus who was crucified for us and rose again. Jesus, when faced with the mystery of His friend’s death, cried (John 11:35). His tears are sincere. This reminds us that He is God made man and that the mystery of death does not only frighten us weak, human beings, but strikes everyone to the core.
It is fitting and comforting for a priest to be called the moment one of us passes away. Those who made it known they would like to receive prayers when they die in hospital also receive this service from a member of the clergy who is also present to pray with relatives and provide the solace of the Word of God. In such trying moments, there is no need for much dialogue as the priest’s presence in itself soothes the heart and soul of the person concerned.
We bishops wish to thank all diocesan priests and religious who offer their service in our parishes and communities, at our hospitals and care homes, who are present when a person takes his or her last breath and who provide support, comfort and consoling words to relatives of those who have passed on to eternal life.
When one of our relatives, a dear member of our family, passes away, it is recommended that, in unison with the Church, we recite the short and poignant prayer: ‘Eternal rest grant unto him, or her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him, or her, may he, or she, rest in peace.’ We should repeat this prayer every time we think of somebody dear to us who has made their final journey from this earth to a better world, to eternal life.
In Malta, we have become accustomed to a priest accompanying us from the morgue to the church for the funeral, and then from the church to the cemetery where the burial takes place. However, due to the steady decline in the number of priests in our parishes, and the length of time it is taking for clergy to travel to the morgue and back to the church due to increased traffic, it is with a heavy heart that we have taken the difficult decision that priests will no longer make the journey to and from the morgue. This new arrangement will also mean priests can fulfil a long-felt need to be present at the church before the funeral service takes place to console relatives and friends as well as hear confessions. Our loved ones will still be accompanied on this part of the journey by their dear relatives, and priests will be waiting to receive the cortege at the church door where the blessing will take place before the celebration of the Funeral Mass.
The new measure will take effect immediately after Easter and more detailed instructions on how it will be put into practice will be issued shortly.
We bishops trust that the celebration of the Funeral Mass will always be an act of faith in the salvation brought to us by Jesus, the faith with which we believe He is “the resurrection and the life”. In a few days’ time, we will celebrate the resurrection of Jesus from the dead and His victory over the mystery of death that brings us so much anxiety and sorrow.
The Funeral Mass – which is a very specific expression of faith characterised by sober, dignified and meaningful liturgy – is immediately followed by the rite of the final farewell, which is an expression of this same faith and the way in which we thank God for all He has done for our departed brethren, as well as entrusting them to the grace, mercy and compassion of God.
Our dear clergy will continue to take part in the procession from the church to the cemetery, even though this process can be difficult and time consuming. We bishops request everyone’s cooperation at this important moment – when the Church accompanies its children – and implore the faithful to ensure their loved one’s final journey is carried out in a respectful manner, in a genuine spirit of faith.
The burial rite – during which the remains of our brethren are returned to the earth and the slabs are placed over the burial place – is a very particular and heartrending experience. We would like the Church’s prayer, and the presence of our clergy, to provide consolation, compassion and support to each and every one of us at this very trying moment when we are mourning the loss of a loved one.
We are living in a society that is afraid to face sickness and death. Yet we Christians have a different response to these aspects of our existence that cause us suffering and profound sorrow. It is our faith in Jesus, who rose from the dead and also bore our sickness Himself, who took on our suffering, our shame, even our sin. We crucified Him through our sin but he rose again because He had full trust in the Father.
The entire funeral rite should be an act of faith through which we, those of us who are still here, entrust our dearest ones – who loved us so much and who we continue to love forever – to God, who is love, into the hands of the Lord who confidently tells Martha, who is grieving the loss of her brother: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And in response to the question Jesus asks each one of us: “Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26), may our answer be Martha’s: “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world” (John 11:27). We sincerely bestow upon you our pastoral blessing.
✠ Charles Jude Scicluna
Archbishop of Malta
✠ Joseph Galea-Curmi
Auxiliary Bishop of Malta
Fr Charles Bugeja