My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
The recent death of Springfield Mayor Timothy Davlin, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, has raised questions for some people regarding Catholic Church teaching about suicide and funerals for those who take their own lives.
The church teaches that, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of. … Suicide is contrary to love for the living God.”
However, the church also teaches that, “Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. 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.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2280-2283.)
From 1917 to 1983, the church’s canon law said that “those who killed themselves of a deliberate purpose” were to be deprived of ecclesiastical burial. This provision was dropped from the revised Code of Canon Law promulgated by Pope John Paul II in 1983, which is still the current norm. One of the main reasons for this change is a greater understanding of the “grave psychological disturbances” mentioned above that can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide.
A Catholic funeral Mass has the two-fold purpose of commending the deceased to God and comforting the grieving in their sorrow. When I was installed as bishop of the Diocese of Springfield in Illinois last June, I said that I was a “shepherd of souls.” The family and friends of the late Mayor Davlin as well as many others of the Springfield community were grieving his death. My place was to be shepherd of the flock in their time of grief.
His funeral Mass took place at the parish where the Davlin family has belonged for many years. The pastor of the parish, Father David Hoefler, preached the homily and very effectively addressed the pain and anguish of those present and set them appropriately in the context of the mysteries of our faith. Father Hoefler and I wore violet vestments, the color of repentance and mourning. In my remarks before the Final Commendation at the end of Mass, I explained that a commendation is not a condemnation or a canonization. We were not there to condemn anyone nor to declare anyone a saint. We only commend the deceased to the Lord, that is, we turn them over to God and entrust them to his merciful judgment.
The official prayer at Mass for one who died by suicide expresses this:
God, lover of souls,
you hold dear what you have made
and spare all things, for they are yours.
Look gently on your servant Timothy,
and by the blood of the cross
forgive his sins and failings.
Remember the faith of those who mourn
and satisfy their longing for that day
when all will be made new again
in Christ, our risen Lord,
who lives and reigns with you for ever and ever. Amen.
(From the Order of Christian Funerals, Prayers for the Dead, no. 398.44, for one who died by suicide.)
After the funeral, family members and friends continue to mourn the loss of their loved one. When that person has died by suicide, the grief is often compounded by guilt or at least questioning whether something could have been done or said that would have prevented the person’s death. Such castigating of oneself is not helpful. Nothing can change now what has happened and most likely nothing could have been done or said to have prevented it. What is needed most for survivors of suicide is a loving outreach so they are not alone in their time of anguish and grief. As people of faith, we can also be heralds of hope and messengers of love.
May God give us this grace. Amen.