“I couldn’t believe my emotional reaction to what I had heard at one Friday midday Mass in late June 2017, with regard to the reference made between sin and suicide,” said Whanganui parishioner Dale Greenbury.

Dale Greenbury

At the start of Mass, parish priest Fr Marcus Francis of the Whanganui Pastoral Area — Te Parihi Katorika Ki Whanganui, conscious of the five recent deaths by suicide in as many days in the city, prayed for the souls of the departed and prayed for compassion and love for their grieving families.

These two words — sin and suicide — immediately prompted Mrs Greenbury to make an appointment to speak with Fr Francis early the following week to clarify and put in context what he actually said.

“I was going to have him on about it,” she said.

That weekend she travelled to Taupo. In a mysterious way this road trip became a symbol of an inner journey into her personal self as she reflected on why she reacted so strongly. She gradually came to realise it was a guilt-related decision made nearly 60 years prior, because of a mistrust.

In October 1993, without any obvious warning signs, her big brother committed suicide aged 48. The guilt Mrs Greenbury felt stemmed from a decision that was taken not to give him a Catholic requiem Mass. She could not guarantee that this Catholic Church could bless his body or bury him with love and understanding.

Growing up in a devout and generous Catholic family in the 1950’s and taught by the nuns in a small Taranaki town shaped a permanent image on her 7-year-old impressionable mind that God and the angels were all these wonderful magically figures looking out and after her. Hell was the flip-side with bodies burning forever because of their sins and suicide was a mortal sin.

“With these rigid teachings of the Church at that time surrounding suicide, I had made the decision that the Catholic Church could not be trusted, until after my conversation with Fr Marcus that is,” said Mrs Greenbury.

As a self-described returning Catholic since 2015 she had gradually embraced the huge changes in attitudes in the Church enabling her to trust again, but not around the treatment of suicide victims. Then something surprising and beautiful was offered to her. Fr Francis suggested that having a memorial Mass would help heal her further with trust issues and enable her to say yes, when she had said no to a Catholic burial for her dead brother.

With family, friends and parishioners, some who offered empathy having lost loved-ones through suicide, Mass was celebrated on Saturday, July 16. “People who take their lives in suicide is terrible, but this does not make them terrible people”, said Fr Francis.

“It is an irrational act that damages the family and the wider community. Today we are righting a wrong since nothing can come between us and God’s love.”

When Fr Francis apologised on behalf of the Catholic Church for its past cruel judgements of those who committed suicide leaving those left behind in dark shame and unnecessary anguish, bought a peace that Mrs Greenbury could never have imagined possible and was as real as it was profound.

With no more guilt and no longer stuck in the old belief system, she embraced the fact that absolutely nothing can come between the unlimited love and mercy of Christ and us all.

The second week in October is National Mental Health Awareness Week. What has transpired from Mrs Greenbury’s story of healing is that on Saturday, October 14, the morning Mass at St Mary’s Catholic Church will be celebrated to pray for the souls of those who have taken their lives and their family and friends.

Hopefully this gesture will offer similar comfort and relief to those in the wider community still troubled or trapped by pre-Vatican II thinking towards suicide.

From a 2014 letter from Bishop. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, Ghana, published by Vatican Radio.

Canon Law no longer specifically mentions suicide as an impediment to funeral rites or church burial. Canon 1184 of the Code of Canon Law mentions only three cases of those who can be denied funeral rites or a Church burial: (i) a notorious apostate (someone who has renounced the Christian faith), a heretic (someone who holds or teaches doctrines contrary to those of the Church) or a schismatic (someone who has broken away from the Church); (ii) those who requested cremation for motives contrary to the Christian faith; and (iii) manifest sinners to whom a Church funeral cannot be granted without causing public scandal to the faithful. These restrictions apply only if there has been no sign of repentance before death.

The local bishop weighs any doubtful cases and in practice a prudent priest should always consult with the bishop before denying a deceased person a funeral Mass.

A particular case of suicide might enter into the third case — that of a manifest and unrepentant sinner — especially if the suicide follows another grave crime such as murder. In most cases, however, the progress made in the study of the underlying causes of suicide shows that the vast majority are consequences of an accumulation of psychological factors that impede making a free and deliberative act of the will.

Thus the general tendency is to see this extreme gesture as almost always resulting from the effects of an imbalanced mental state and, as a consequence, it is no longer forbidden to hold a funeral rite for a person who has committed suicide, although each case must still be studied on its merits.

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