When I was a priest of the Archdiocese of Miami, I learned an important lesson that has served me well throughout the years as priest and bishop. I learned that the wishes, the intention of persons requesting certain things be done by the Church and its ministers following their death should be done unless what has been requested by the person would clearly be immoral, contrary to divine or positive law, or result in scandal for the faithful and that this principle is enshrined in the Church’s Code of Canon Law in many canons.
At the time I was the Administrator of a parish in the Archdiocese. I was approached by a man who stated that he was the executor of the estate of a deceased member of the parish who had provided in his will that he wanted a large bequest be made to the Parish on the condition that the Parish would construct a statue of the Blessed Mother in front of the Church and dedicate it to the memory of the individual who was reputed to have been a Mafia Don. I approached the Archbishop and asked whether I could accept such a large donation under the prescribed condition. The Archbishop replied that ordinarily such a donation could be accepted and the statue of the Blessed Mother could be erected even though such erection was done in memory of a Mafia Don as long as the dedication was only a mental dedication in the mind of the donor, but since the donor wanted a plaque affixed to the base of the statue with the name of the Mafia Don I could not accept the donation. The wishes of the donor must be respected, the Archbishop said, unless those wishes would cause scandal and in this case he thought they would cause scandal.
Later, in another parish where I was Pastor, a wealthy woman wanted to give property valued at over $1,000,000 to the Archdiocese and also to give the funds for the construction of a retirement home for priests. I approached the Archbishop and he instructed me to take up a survey and determine the interest in priests in the Archdiocese and in northern arch/dioceses in living in such a retirement home.
Unable to find any interest among priests for such a home, the Archbishop told me to thank the woman but to tell her he could not accept the gift under her conditions.
In the last decade of the 20th Century a group of bishops challenged the Board of the John G. and Marie Stella Kenedy Foundation over the administration of the Foundation, seeking to gain control of the Foundation and make it a Texas-wide foundation under the control of all the bishops of the State, even though the Foundation Board had for ten years regularly given grants to their dioceses. The Holy See appointed a Commission consisting of Cardinal John O’Connor, Cardinal Bernard Law and (then) Bishop Raymond Burke to mediate the dispute. A meeting was held with all of the bishops of Texas and the Commission. (Cardinal Burke later told me that Cardinal O’Connor never invited him to another meeting of the Commission after this meeting.) At the meeting I insisted that the Foundation Board was acting properly in making over half of its grants to entities in South Texas since that is what Sarita Kenedy East had in mind when she established her Foundation in memory of her parents because in her lifetime the majority of her generous giving was to entities in South Texas. Cardinal O’Connor replied that no one could know what Sarita Kenedy East had in mind. I, and the other members of the Board were shocked to hear a Cardinal of the Church say such a thing since the documentary evidence was so plain as to what the mind of Sarita Kenedy East had been.
More recently, a priest I know was asked, in writing, by an elderly priest to preach the homily at his funeral Mass when he died. Months later the elderly priest died and when the priest showed up at the church prepared to preach the homily, as he had been asked by the deceased to do, the bishop told him that he would preach the homily. The priest showed the bishop a copy of the deceased priest’s letter, but it made no difference. The bishop preached the homily, clearly against the wishes of the deceased priest, who did not like the bishop.
Even more recently, another priest I know was asked, in writing by an elderly priest to celebrate his funeral liturgy using the Extraordinary (Tridentine) Form of the Mass. The elderly priest died and when the priest who had been asked to celebrate the funeral liturgy attempted to do so he was forbidden by the bishop who himself celebrated the funeral liturgy using the Novus Ordo Form of the Mass.
0I cannot explain these cases. Clearly the Church has always believed and taught and the Revised Code of Canon Law promulgated by Saint John Paul II in 1983 clearly gives basic rights to all members of the Church. Surely among those rights that Catholics have are some that pertain to the reasonable, lawful requests that they make of us regarding the disposition of their mortal remains and their property after they die.
Very thoughtful and insightful. Thank you! Michael Drake