This morning, the St. Joseph of Arimathea Pallbearer’s Society of St. Ignatius High School held a prayer service for the dead at Potter’s Field on the east side of Cleveland. The Pallbearers serve the indigent deceased of the Cleveland area and their mourning families and friends (if they had any or if any were still living). The group was founded five years ago under the guidance of Mr. Jim Skerl and others in the St. Ignatius community, including, I’m sure, a group of students. Since then, the Society has buried over 500 of our beloved dead, including over 140 since Easter 2009.
What I find particularly attractive about my alma mater’s ministry (as well as the St. Benedict Joseph Labre homeless ministry) is its grounding in prayer. Prayer services, which occur on a biannual basis (the other service occurring on All Souls’ Day), mimic the structure structure of the Eucharist. These gatherings are the source and summit of the Pallbearers’ ministry. Without such prayer services (as well as praying at the funeral Mass and the graveside of the deceased), the ministry would be devoid of meaning. Yet, of course, the ministry is not limited to prayer. Indeed, it would be nearly fruitless if the young men serving in this ministry merely prayed. Without giving them a proper burial, prayer for our dead indigent brothers and sisters would be greatly less effective. So, the ministry excellently lives out the whole of the Christian life, the tension between prayer and service, faith and good works, spiritual and corporal works of mercy. It’s no surprise that Ignatius men find this tension attractive. Hundreds have served this society over the past five years. Perhaps over one hundred gathered for the prayer service this morning.
The service itself began with Mr. Skerl’s opening remarks, followed by a procession of bagpipes, crucifix, pallbearers, banners, Fr. Canfield, and others, to set a solemn, prayerful mood for the rest of the morning. After Fr. Canfield opened the official service in prayer, the men read a simply perfect reading from Scripture (Revelation ch 21 – “Behold, I make all things new”) and a responsorial psalm, before Father’s reading of the Holy Gospel’s account of St. Joseph of Arimathea himself (i.e. Luke 23:50-56; I don’t remember exactly which account he read). Mr. Skerl gave some reflections on the readings, noting especially St. Joseph’s courage in following the call to attend to Jesus’ dead, bloody and beaten body against the culture which had just killed Him.
I had thought about the magnitude of St. Joseph’s gesture here before, but something new about it struck me this time. St. Joseph was a member of “the council,” that is, of the Sanhedrin. This very council had condemned Jesus to death. Joseph did not go along with the unjust opinion of the majority (Lk. 23:51). He had the courage not only to defend a just man against the opinions of his peers, but to follow through with his conviction by giving Jesus as proper a burial as he could. Probably wealthy, Joseph could have hired a slave to bury the body, but he elected to do so himself, giving Jesus’ body the personal attention and love it (and every human body) deserves.
What’s more, by performing this deed, it is conceivable that St. Joseph, who had had encounters with Jesus in the past and was secretly his disciple, implicitly assented to Jesus’ promise of the resurrection of the body. Many or most of the Sadducce-dominated council would perhaps be scandalized by this act of faith, as Sadduccees outright rejected the resurrection on grounds of its absence in the Pentateuch. St. Joseph’s act is thus not merely that of a just man giving the dead their due according to Jewish custom. It is an act of faith in the salvific promise of Jesus.
The service continued with a few minutes of silent prayer and reflection, during which those present were encouraged to wander around the cemetery to pray for those buried there. Things wrapped up with general intercessions and Fr. Canfield’s priestly final blessing.
Please remember to pray for the dead and for those who mourn them during this Easter Triduum; that they may experience the joy of the Resurrection, and that their loved ones still in this earthly vale may find consolation at their birth into eternal life.
A blessed Maundy Thursday to you all.