I have recently been sent a book for review, entitled “Why Be Catholic?” by Patrick Madrid. It is sub-titled “Ten Answers to a Very Important Question” and I have not yet had an opportunity to read it. But I can already think of one reason for being Catholic off the top of my head without consulting Madrid’s book: it is because you are given the very best ritual for leaving this world for the next.
Almost everyone desires some kind of public acknowledgement or special occasion when they die. For those who are secular the service might be readings of favourite poems and the strains of favourite pop songs or passage of classical music. I once attended a crematorium service of this kind for a brilliant young physicist who had died suddenly. The most affecting moment in the rather functional surroundings of the room was when his grieving father read a passage from the writings of a famous scientist on what had inspired him to pursue a scientific career.
But for a fusion of beauty and truth a sung Requiem Mass surpasses everything. I say this because yesterday I went to the funeral at the Oxford Oratory of the Catholic writer Stratford Caldecott who died of cancer aged 60. The music was Faure’s Requiem and a helpful note in the Mass booklet reminded us that the music “after some darkly dramatic passages, always yields to a sense of soaring hope.” Being human, we are all familiar with the darkness experienced in the face of death, when someone we love dies; but trusting in eternal life in the midst of the darkness is a purely Christian thing.
Sometimes people try to comfort the bereaved by saying “At least they didn’t suffer long” or “All their troubles are now over.” But the most consoling words that any of us could ever hear are those of the sacred liturgy, as in the Prayer of Commendation at yesterday’s Mass: “Into your hands, Father of mercies, we commend our brother …in the sure and certain hope that, together with all who have died in Christ, he will rise with him.” This is entirely different from the vague and wishful sentiment that someone “has now gone to a better place”.
Stratford had been a convert to the Faith. His wife Leonie, also a convert, told me the Requiem had been planned to be as welcoming and as meaningful as possible to those family members who are outside the Church. The Mass booklet was a model of kindly and tactful guidance to those unfamiliar with the liturgy. For example, the note under the “Libera Me” sequence, sung after the Agnus Dei, pointed out that “it expresses the sense of seriousness with which we take the spiritual dangers that beset each of us as we pass through life, the reality of evil and its destructiveness…” Everything on this most solemn yet inspiring occasion spoke of the dignity of man and his true supernatural dignity and divine destiny.
Stratford’s first mentor, the writer who introduced him imaginatively to the reality of this war between good and evil, was JRR Tolkien, in his trilogy, “The Lord of the Rings”. So it is very fitting that he should now be buried in a plot close Tolkien’s grave in Wolvercote Cemetery. May he rest in peace.