Regína sacratíssimi Rosárii, ora pro nobis!

John D. Azzara, Sr., RIP

Semper fidélis

Mass on the Day of Burial

Readings on the Day of Burial

   About three or four years ago one of our parishioners donated some very nice white lace surplices for our altar servers to wear over their black cassocks at Mass. John was one of our men who was enthusiastic about serving Mass, and loved to wear the fancy surplice as often as Church regulations allowed. One day, when the surplices were very new, he turned away from me as he vested for Mass-I was horrified to see blood coming out of the back of the surplice! I got John out of the vestments immediately, threw the surplice into the sink in cold water, and administered first aid (yes, in that order). It turns out that John had been carrying around a piece of Korean War shrapnel in his back, and it had finally worked its way out, fifty years later. Korea was John’s second combat assignment, having served in the South Pacific with the 1st Marine Division in World War II.

    In recent years, John had a few difficult hospital stays-events that he might not have survived if it were not for the kindness of friends who were close to him-a survival that might not have been possible for a man who lacked the tenacity of United States Marine.

    But, finally, the bullet that had John’s name on it took him down in the form of a stroke. Some might say that death always wins, being the end of all mortal men and women. But I don’t think John would agree that death had gotten the better of him. Knowing John, I suggest that he would say that, in every way that is important, death lost.

    Death is a natural thing, common to all living beings that inhabit the earth. From the least complex organism to the most, it is the common heritage of all of God’s material creatures. For being material creatures, a vast complexity of things must work together to keep us alive. But it is the nature of material things that, with time, they break down and become more and more disordered. A man can live with some of this disorder. He can cope with the loss of a limb, or eyes that don’t see too well. He can get some help from his physician. He can cope with a little Korean steel in his back. But, eventually, it becomes impossible to hold everything together, and he goes the way of all living creatures.

    But there is a part of man that is not material, and not subject to decomposition-his spirit-his soul. Does man have a soul? Of course he does! It is not hard to recognize the soul in man, for man is much more than just the material parts. Man-like God and the angels-has both intellect and will; that is to say that man is capable of both thinking and of loving. These powers of the spirit transcend the limits of material being.

    Man seems to be unique in this among his fellow creatures. We do see something that resembles intellect in the higher animals; we do see something that resembles love-but it is difficult to distinguish these qualities apart from animal instinct.

    Man, on the other hand, plans, and designs, and builds. He makes tools which give him far more strength and speed than the animals-tools which today even help him to think faster. He protects himself from the elements: the heat, the cold, the rain, and the wind. He protects himself from predators, both the four-footed and two-footed varieties. His intellect leads him to society with other men, joining their strength and their minds to his own so that everyone can be better off. Man is a builder of magnificent bridges and skyscrapers, he forms symphony orchestras, and even fighting organizations like the United States Marine Corps-and he is capable of using all of these things for the good of humankind.

    Man’s intellect allows him introspection. He knows his own existence, and the part he plays in his society and in his world. He can look down into his own heart, where his conscience dwells, and where he knows the Holy Ghost to reside. He can also look above on a clear winter night, and recognize in that order and beauty the handiwork of God. Man alone among his fellow material creatures is endowed with these gifts of God.

    Man is uniquely capable of abstraction. That is to say that his soul can draw concepts out of the material things around him. He can contemplate concepts like truth and justice and freedom, compassion and love. He can contemplate these things, and he can desire them, and he can strive to make the concepts into realities. Something far more than just his material being is capable of going our from him to the poor and the sick and the confused. His love for his wife and family and friends is above and beyond his material being. Again, man is more than the sum of his material parts, for his soul, the seat of this reason and love-like God and the angels-goes on forever.

    Now, some will ask why God made man out of the same complex, and therefore breakable, materials as the rest of earthly creation. We can speculate about God’s reason, but we know from God’s revelation that He intended somehow to preserve men and women from the disintegration suffered by the lower creatures. He gave Adam and Eve special gifts which protected them from sickness and toil and even death. They and their descendants would have lived forever if they had not lost those special gifts through sin. (Lest anyone be tempted to complain that this was unfair to their descendants, first recognize that none of us has done any better than Adam or Eve.)

    And, even in their sins, God did not abandon His children. He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, true God and true man, into the world to heal the rift between God and man. By Jesus’ death on the Cross, mankind as a race is redeemed from the sin of Adam. Through the preaching of Jesus’ public life we are made aware of God’s Commandments for our behavior, and made aware of the things which God wants us to know and believe about Himself. By the Sacraments which Jesus established, we are capable of taking that belief, and earning the graces that will bring us to eternal life.

    Eternal life! Death is not the final end of man! The human soul, that non-material part of man, which reasons and loves, goes on forever. It is simply not capable of decomposition. While the body, which is not permanent, may grow old and suffer and die; the soul which is permanent, lives forever like the angels. As we will hear today in the Preface of the funeral Mass:

    We, afflicted by the certainty of dying, may be consoled by the promise of a future immortality. For unto Thy faithful, O Lord, life is changed, not taken away; and the abode of this earthly sojourn being dissolved, an eternal dwelling is prepared in heaven. The hope of a blessed resurrection has shone upon us.[1]

    What did Saint Paul just say to us? Just as Jesus rose from the dead, so will those “who have fallen asleep through Jesus ... the dead in Christ shall rise ... and we shall be caught up together with them in the air, and we shall ever be with them with the Lord.”[2]  Martha, the sister of Lazarus, knew that her brother would “rise in the resurrection on the last day,” for this was already known to God’s people-and Jesus would further explain: “I am the resurrection, and the life; he who believes in Me, even if he dies, shall live.”[3]

    Elsewhere, Saint Paul tells us that “death is swallowed up in victory ... for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall rise again incorruptible.”[4]  We know that on the last day, Almighty God will raise us from the dead and restore our souls to a glorified body; one no longer subject to sickness and death. It matters not that we died young or old, weak or strong; or even that in this life we may have lost a limb. It matters not that our graves are marked with a fancy stone, or that our remains are lost in obscurity. In any case, God will raise us up, whole once again.

    And if we have kept His commandments, we shall share some of God's glory in heaven, and our resurrected bodies shall enjoy the newfound pleasures of heaven.

    But woe to the one who dies in his sins! A soul intended to be with God, as all souls are, but eternally denied His gaze. A glorified body, intended for the delights of heaven, left to feel the pains of Hell.

    But here again, we see that God has conquered death in another way. He has conquered not only the death of the body, but also the “death” of the soul. By virtue of our Lord's life, death, and resurrection, He has even conquered sin.

    Look at how good He was to John:

  • John was raised by the religious at Saint John’s Orphanage in Wheeling, West Virginia-in those days, the Sisters of Saint Joseph. The Sisters saw to his Baptism, Confession, Communion, and Confirmation. They educated him in the true Catholic Faith, which he held steadfastly until his death. It was the example of the Sisters that formed his love of Christ and His Church and His Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. They were the ones who taught him to serve at the altar-which he did with care and precision until his final years.

  • On July 6th, 1940, God gave John a loving wife, Carinda, in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. They shared an all too brief forty-five years together, and he never remarried. Semper fi, it would seem, goes beyond the grave. I know their wedding date because it is date of my father’s death, and John always joined me in offering Mass for them on that day each year.

  • God saw him safely through the horrors of war, returning him to a productive life lasting for decades.

  • In his infirmities God sent His priest to absolve John from his sins and to give him Holy Communion while he was still able to receive It, and then a few days later, to anoint him with the Holy Oil of Extreme Unction. God allowed our Holy Mother the Church to grant him a plenary indulgence at the moment of his death in the Apostolic Blessing.

  • Both in his last days and hours, and even now after death, he is surrounded by friends who loved him, and who were concerned for his physical and spiritual needs.

    God has truly conquered sin and death!

    Yet, still, it remains for us to reflect on those words we heard from the Old Testament: “It is therefore a holy and a wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from their sins.”[5]  While sins and the punishment due to sin may be forgiven during this life, our Lord speaks of sins forgiven “in the world to come.”[6]

    We pray for the dead that God will swiftly cleanse them of those small sins and imperfections that might keep them temporarily from enjoying the glory of heaven. That, by His mercy, He might quickly forgive the punishment that is due to their sins in Justice.

    But, we also pray for the dead, that we might receive something for ourselves; that by reflecting on the realities of life and death, of heaven and hell, we might be more motivated to keep His Commandments and receive His Sacraments in order to ensure our own eternal salvation. These are things not just to talk about, for they are realities; we might even say the only realities, for nothing else matters if we lose our souls.

    Finally, we pray for the dead, so that they will pray for us. The souls in Purgatory need our prayers, for which they are eternally grateful. Remember that they are God's saints, soon to share the glory of heaven with Him; powerful intercessors on our behalf. Let us not forget those who have gone before us, lest they forget to pray for us.


[1] Preface of the Mass for the Dead.

[2] Cf. Epistle: 1 Thessalonians iv: 13-18.

[3] Cf. Gospel John xi: 21-27.

[4] Cf. 1 Corinthians xv: 51-57.

[5] 2 Machabees xii: 43-36.

[6] Matthew xii: 32.


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