Maison Hullibarger’s parents describe the 18-year-old college freshman as “passionate and opinionated,” a strong student and a devoted Pittsburgh Steelers fan. So when Maison killed himself on Dec. 4, his parents wanted to plan a funeral service that would capture the way he lived, not the way he died. Jeff and Linda Hullibarger met with the priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Temperance, Michigan, and requested an uplifting message. To their horror, however, the Rev. Don LaCuesta delivered a homily that acknowledged Maison’s suicide explicitly and contemplated the fate of his eternal soul. Jeff Hullibarger was so disturbed that he says he approached the priest in the pulpit as he spoke, and whispered: “Father, please stop.”
After the funeral Mass, the family gave several interviews to reporters in which they called for LaCuesta to be removed from his post. “It’s not OK,” Jeff told the Toledo Blade. “He needs to be held accountable.” The backlash to the homily was swift. Various media reports have characterized it as cruel, saying LaCuesta was “criticiz[ing]” or “condemn[ing]” the teen and “lectur[ing]” the mourners. The family’s GoFundMe page for funeral costs has more than doubled its goal, with many commenters expressing disgust with the priest. (The family also objected to the presence at the funeral of Maison’s football coach, whom they have accused of bullying him. He was apparently fired in response to his conflict with the family.)
The Archdiocese of Detroit reacted almost as quickly, issuing a formal apology for the fact that the priest “was unable to bring comfort to a grieving family.” It announced that LaCuesta will not deliver homilies at funerals for the foreseeable future, will have his other homilies reviewed, and will receive professional help “to probe how and why he failed to effectively address the grief of the family in crisis.” The archdiocese also released a copy of LaCuesta’s full homily online.
Now, however, some Catholics are pushing back against the demonization of what they argue is a perfectly appropriate funeral message. “God bless Fr. LaCuesta,” Edward Peters, a professor of canon law at a Catholic seminary in Detroit, wrote on his blog. “Flatly contrary to how LaCuesta’s homily has been portrayed in the media, I don’t see Hell mentioned anywhere, anywhere. … Instead I see clarion reminders of the mercy of Christ recited at least half-a-dozen times.” An editor at the conservative Catholic news outlet EWTN tweeted that the homily was as good as any priest could conceive for the circumstances, adding that “the attacks on him by the family are grievously unjust, and hierarchical reprimands are scandalous.” Another site described LaCuesta as “muzzled” by his archdiocese.
The conflict illustrates the widening chasm between the sober rituals of a Catholic funeral and the expectations of families who prefer an upbeat “celebration of life.” In the Catholic tradition, a funeral is not just a time for consolation—though it is that—but also a worship service, and an obligation to pray for the soul of the deceased. “The church is very clear that [homilies] are not to be eulogies,” said Michael Heinlein, a columnist for the Catholic publication Our Sunday Visitor. “The problem is that’s what people want. Many priests have simply given in to that.” (The Order of Christian Funerals, the church’s guidebook for funeral services, specifies that eulogies are best delivered at the wake, rather than at the funeral itself.)
Suicide often complicates the tension between pulpit and pew. For centuries, the church banned Catholics who died by suicide from receiving full Catholic funerals and from being buried in Catholic cemeteries. Those strictures are no longer in place, and the church now acknowledges that mental illness and other suffering often plays a role in suicide. But the stigma lingers, as it does in much of secular culture.
“He basically called our son a sinner,” Linda Hullibarger told the Toledo Blade. Within Christian theology, every human being is a sinner, and LaCuesta did call suicide an act “against God who made us and against everyone who loves us.” He also said that the finality of suicide means the deceased “cannot make things right again.” But a close read of LaCuesta’s homily also reveals an overarching message of hope and redemption. The homily wrestles with the question of hope from the start, posing the question, “Is there any hope to offer in this moment?” LaCuesta answered clearly and repeatedly in the affirmative. “Can God forgive and heal this? Yes, God CAN forgive even the taking of one’s own life. In fact, God awaits us with his mercy, with ever open arms.”
For many Christians, the repeated assurances of God’s grace and forgiveness would have been a profoundly comforting message. “People will debate over whether or not that was the right place for it,” Heinlein said. “I’m torn on it. The homily was blunt in some places, but I thought what he was doing was what a pastor should do—being a shepherd of souls.”
Needless to say, the family did not receive it that way. “We—including Father LaCuesta—acknowledge that he could have displayed more sensitivity to a family in mourning by focusing on the young man’s life instead of his death,” Detroit Archdiocese spokesperson Holly Fournier told me by email.
Heinlein sees disputes like this one as failures of “catechesis”—instruction in the traditions and beliefs of the church. If the family expected a funeral that their parish couldn’t provide, they should not have discovered that disjunction as they sat in the pews mourning for their son. “We pull off funerals well, but in terms of catechesis and preparing people for them, we don’t do a good job,” Heinlein said. “The church has really missed the ball.”