Seeking Consolation for Grieving Hearts

By Lefevere, Patricia | National Catholic Reporter, October 5, 2001 | Go to article overview

Seeking Consolation for Grieving Hearts

Lefevere, Patricia, National Catholic Reporter

In New York, church supports survivors, prepares for funerals

While people at Ground Zero continue to deal with the grim reality of finding body parts rather than survivors of the terrorist attack that tore down this city's twin trade towers Sept. 11, other New Yorkers are trying to return to some semblance of normalcy.

Many have found solace on their knees. Churches are packed, and some area priests have reported Sunday Mass crowds the size of those on Christmas Eve. The number of churchgoers at daily worship has also climbed.

"There's a national mood of sadness that Americans haven't experienced in over 30 years," Fr. Gerald Murray, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul in Lower Manhattan told NCR.

Murray rode his bicycle to St. Vincent's hospital within minutes of the hit on the World Trade Center and stayed at the hospital for two days, anointing the injured and blessing people, whether they were dying, recovering or looking for loved ones.

Among the most difficult jobs was comforting two young women whose fiances were missing. "I thought of my sisters and how happy they were with their husbands," said Murray who has cried many times since Sept. 11. "It's inhuman not to cry."

Murray and scores of other New York area priests are in for more crying as they plan funerals in their own parishes and attend those in others. Funerals have been attended by thousands of mourners, the crowds often pouring onto the pavement. This occurred Sept. 24 at Good Shepherd Church in Brooklyn where Bishop Thomas Daily presided at the funeral Mass for Fire Captain Timothy Stackpole. The father of six children, ages 7 to 18, died in the collapse of Tower 1.

Stackpole had survived an earlier encounter with death in an East New York fire. He could have retired then with full pay, but told a reporter that God "told me in my prayers, in my mind, to hold on," Daily recalled in a tribute to the fireman and his wife, Tara.

The recovery of Stackpole's body made the fireman's funeral different from many taking place without a body. Directives on celebrating funerals of the dead when no body has been found or when only body parts have been recovered have gone to pastors from chancery officials in dioceses across the Greater New York area.

Celebrating a funeral liturgy without a body requires a careful selection of scripture, music and prayers that best reflect the pastoral situation. Pastors have been instructed to use the Order of Christian Funerals in planning such liturgies. Liturgical directors and vicars general have issued guidelines that suggest a cross or paschal candle, along with a picture of the deceased, be set at the place the body would normally occupy during the liturgy.

Identifying ashes

In cases where body parts have been recovered, the church directs that these remains be placed in a coffin or container and that a funeral Mass be said. In other instances, if it is not possible to recover a recognizable part of the body, but it is possible to positively identify ashes from any part of the cremated remains of an individual's body, these may be placed in a worthy container and the funeral Mass may be celebrated.

Pastors have been told they can hold a "communal celebration" when there are many deceased parishioners in one parish. In such cases, an individual vigil service and rites of commendation can be done for each person. The guidelines leave much to the judgment of the pastor.

Murray expects that many families will choose to have a funeral or memorial Mass now, but others will wait until as many remains as possible are gathered and DNA testing can be done on body parts and tissue, leading to positive identification of victims. The church's role is to counsel and to reassure people, Murray said, adding that now this has become the task of the entire church -- most especially of priests, teachers and parents.

The deaths of more than 1,200 foreign nationals in the trade tower attacks has brought clergy from overseas as well as the offer of grief counselors and other support personnel from dioceses across the nation.

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