Fr. Paul Scalia’s homily at the funeral of his father, Justice Antonin Scalia, was “remarkable in its moving profundity,” as one of my colleagues wrote. But why was the homily so good? Can we analyze it and understand why it was so perfectly appropriate and profound? Such reflections can be helpful to both pastors and the faithful.
Perhaps Fr. Scalia was inspired and wrote it spontaneously in an hour. But more likely he worked on it for hours, painstakingly. And this is the first thing I want to say: the homily was tremendous, because it was born of love, hard work, and much prayer. Of course, Fr. Scalia knew that he would be speaking before thousands of persons in the shrine, and before hundreds of thousands or even millions, on television. However, consider this. As a professor, I often spend several hours preparing for a lecture to twenty students. Yet I cannot remember the last time I was at a parish with only twenty persons in attendance at the Sunday Mass: the typical Sunday Mass has hundreds of persons in attendance. If a priest spends a proportionate amount of time preparing his Sunday homily, he will devote many hours on it—as the best homilists do.
Second, the homily had a clear structure, based on a verse from Scripture, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday today and forever.” Thus the homily had three parts: one in which the homilist invited the congregation to reflect on the past in thanksgiving; another in which he looked to the present in sorrow; and a third in which he looked to the future in hope. A homily needs a clear structure, so that it can be followed easily and remembered. The congregation is hearing everything for the first time, and only has a few moments to follow it! So much the better if its structure comes from Scripture.
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That Scripture verse was itself an allusion. That verse was the same one which Pope John Paul II made into a theme for the turning of the new millennium. I was in St. Peter’s Square and heard the Holy Father say those very words as his first statement on January 1, 2000. So in using that verse, Fr. Scalia was alluding to the papacy of John Paul II, within which his father’s life as a Supreme Court justice was largely contained. Fr. Scalia was thereby saying, in effect, that this papacy provides the broader and deeper context for understanding Justice Scalia’s life as a Catholic. Fr. Scalia thereby implicitly introduced all of the deep ideas of John Paul II’s papacy and the interpretation of Vatican II, such as the role of the laity in sanctifying earthly realities; and the need to testify to God through our work and the use of our talents, especially our reason; and the importance of religious freedom and the gospel of life. He did not need to say all these things outright—that would have been heavy-handed and tedious—he only need to allude to them.
There was a second prominent allusion. When near the end of the homily, Fr. Scalia implored, “We must allow this encounter with eternity to change us, to turn us from sin and towards the Lord,” he was alluding to the season of Lent, which is a time, the Church teaches, of conversion from sin and conversion to God. So both of Father’s key allusions served to place the funeral Mass in time as the Church observes time: both within the broad movement of time which is the New Evangelization, and in the particular period of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving which is Lent.
As a small point, one might mention here too Father’s brilliant reference linking Catholicism with early America, when he quoted a prayer, frequently used at Catholic funerals, which was a favorite of the English Dominican, Father Bede Jarrett, and which incorporates phrases from a prayer of William Penn, including “while you prepare a place for us, prepare us also for that happy place.” In a homily which said explicitly that Justice Scalia was blessed by a love for his country, and with a conviction that, the better he became as a Catholic, the better he became as a citizen and patriot—it was intensely fitting to quote a prayer favored by an early twentieth-century English Dominican priest which was indebted to the American religious pioneer, William Penn.
Third, the homily was bracing and masculine in its presentation of the truths of the faith. It avoided sentimentalism and those sappy family stories, of the sort so common now at funerals, which would have little significance beyond the Scalia family. It was masculine because it avoided emotions and rested upon reliable structures and truths. For example, when Fr. Scalia invited the congregation to give thanks with him for the blessings which God gave to his father, what did he mention? He mentioned not subjective experiences but objective sources of objective grace. “We give thanks that Jesus brought him to new life in baptism, nourished him with the Eucharist, and healed him in the confessional. We give thanks that Jesus bestowed upon him 55 years of marriage to the woman he loved.” Baptism, confession, marriage—objective means of grace instituted by Christ which do what they signify.
Indeed, Fr. Scalia referred to the Shrine itself in which the funeral Mass was being celebrated as a stable and objective source of grace, available during the Jubilee Year of Mercy, since the Shrine has designated “holy doors,” to which a plenary indulgence is attached: “What a great privilege and consolation that we were able to bring our father through the holy doors and for him gain the indulgence promised to those who enter in faith.”
A good homilist never tires of repeating basic truths about the faith. He constantly points his congregation to means of grace such as sacraments and sacramentals, and he highlights special blessings such as the special indulgences of the Year of Mercy. Who knows how many viewers of the funeral in this way learned for the first time that indulgences were still available in the Church, that they were available in a special way in the Year of Mercy, and that there was such a thing as a “holy door” which had such indulgences associated with it. (How many points of doctrine, you may ask, were touched upon, taught, and imparted in this one well-crafted homily?)
Fourth, besides avoiding sentimentalism, the homily avoided the common mistake—and indirectly criticized the mistake—of canonizing the deceased at the funeral Mass. “We also know that although dad believed, he did so imperfectly, like the rest of us. He tried to love God and neighbor, but like the rest of us did so imperfectly. He was a practicing Catholic, ‘practicing’ in the sense that he hadn’t perfected it yet. Or rather, Christ was not yet perfected in him. And only those in whom Christ is brought to perfection can enter heaven.” How refreshing to hear a priest speak this way! But note the other doctrines which are implicitly taught in Father’s statement, namely, the reality of that condition which Catholics call “Purgatory,” and its commonsense necessity, and also the value of praying for the dead. “Let us not show him a false love and allow our admiration to deprive him of our prayers,” Fr. Scalia asked.
Fifth, and finally, Fr. Scalia established a beautiful and completely fitting connection between his homily and the Sacrifice of the Mass which was to follow, by using the three-fold scheme that provided the organizing structure of the homily—Jesus Christ the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. He used that schema to introduce both the variety of prayers one offers at a Mass, and the Mass itself. Our prayers show the same three-fold division, Fr. Scalia implied, as we can pray for the past in thanksgiving, for the present in expressing sorrow (or joy, as the case may be), and for the future, through petitionary prayer for oneself or others. As for the Mass, it reaches back to the past, in its recalling the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. It concerns the present, insofar as it makes the Body and Blood of Christ really present. And then the Mass anticipates the eternal banquet and wedding feast in heaven, “with a view to eternity, stretching towards heaven, where we hope one day to enjoy that perfect union with God himself and to see Dad again and, with him, rejoice in the communion of saints.”
Fr. Scalia’s homily has rightly been praised for implicitly refuting the common abuse of a funeral homily to eulogize the deceased. It also showed how a funeral Mass for a public figure might be something other than a political spectacle. After all, a funeral Mass concerns the meaning and destiny of an individual soul, under the merciful gaze of a living Savior. For a Catholic, it is a final embrace on this earth of a child who has lived within the well-ordered household of a Mother.
But the homily also showed us something about preaching. Recall that the largest portion of Evangelii gaudium was an instruction on preaching. And to learn about preaching, as with anything, one needs good examples. Fr. Scalia’s funeral homily is an example of a beautiful homily in its evident care; its lucid and totally appropriate structure; its references to basic realities of the faith; and its setting everything within the time and space observed by the Church—earth, heaven and hell, and the communion of saints.
Father Scalia was my pastor when I lived in Virginia for a couple of years. When people would refer to him and say, “you know, he is the son of the Supreme Court Justice,” I would correct them and say, “What you mean to say is that ‘you know, this is the Catholic priest of whom the Justice is the father’.” A Catholic priest is, after all, an alter Christus, ipse Christus, and Christ is Iudex Noster. No matter, no need to quarrel about it: but I suppose many of us were thinking that Fr. Scalia out of circumspection would probably not be mentioning in thanksgiving another great blessing which God had bestowed on his father—namely, the blessing of having a son who is a Catholic priest.