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Archbishop’s message: Scattering ashes not OK

The Archbishop of Santa Fe used to be a big deal; if you’ve ever read or heard of Willa Cather’s novel Death Comes for the Archbishop, that’s Archbishop Lamy, who was at the time Archbishop of Santa Fe, and for whom the nearby town of Lamy is named. The town of Santa Fe still looks very Roman Catholic, but isn’t as Catholic as it used to be: St Catherine’s Indian School closed years ago and sits decaying on the northeastern side of town waiting for a buyer, the Cathedral School at the St Francis Cathedral has closed and been replaced by yet another arts school, and the former Church-run hospital closed years ago; last year when the archdiocese wanted to tear it down the city told it no, the hospital building is of historical significance. So it sits idle waiting for a new occupant too.

The current archbishop is Michael Sheehan, and he’s been at his post since 1993 [link]. He makes fairly frequent appearances on the local Immaculate Heart Radio station, but I’ve heard him only rarely. Most of what he’s had to say is fairly straightforward Catholic party line, except when he talks about Evangelicals. On the basis of his comments I gather that there have been a fair number of local Catholics who have left the Roman Catholic Church for Evangelical churches.

Archbishop Sheehan made the paper recently for his comments on cremation [link], where in an official press release [PDF] he reminded faithful Catholics that they should be sent off with a Burial Mass and at the very least entombed in a Catholic cemetery:

From ancient times, the heart of the funeral of a Christian has been the celebration of the Eucharist for the departed, with the earthly remains of the deceased present whenever possible. This is the Mass of Christian Burial.

I urge the use of our Catholic Cemeteries if possible and the burial of our deceased loved ones in consecrated ground. This provides a sacred place where loved ones may visit and pray.

I have a certain sympathy for Archbishop Sheehan here; after all, it’s his job to mind the budget of the archdiocese, and if he doesn’t do stuff like this occasionally a great many programs and buildings will fall into disrepair. On the other hand, it’s hard not to see what he’s doing here as self-serving; he isn’t just reminding parishioners that services are available, and that their time in Purgatory may be extended if they don’t avail themselves of them, he’s also creating and sustaining jobs for Church employees.

In the handful of conversations I’ve had with lapsed Catholics over the years, especially the ones who became born-again Christians, there was typically some story involving money that caused them to leave the Catholic Church some time before they became Evangelicals, or born-agains, or what-have-you. The priest wanted too much money to marry them, or did a less-than-workmanlike job of burying some family member, or made it entirely too clear that Church services were necessary for the salvation of one’s soul, but only available for a fee.

I have been surprised how often a person’s conversion story was as much a social story (“I fell in with X and his friends…”) as a theological story (“I gradually realized the Gospel must be true…”) and I’m equally surprised how often someone’s apostasy story is as much a social story as a loss-of-faith story.

So I won’t say there are lots of decaying unoccupied Catholic buildings here because the Church has a bad attitude about money, because all I’ve got to go on is a handful of anecdotes. But I would say that other churches would do well to be careful when making spending decisions the messages about priorities these decisions suggest.

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