I write you this message this morning as I fly at 32,000 feet from San Francisco to Chicago to attend Catholic Extension’s Mission Bishops Conference. It is a beautiful morning filled with sunlight and clear skies above the clouds.
This is an event held every two years and it is a special group of 80 bishops who lead “Mission” dioceses, where resources are lacking to support the growing needs of the Catholic faith. It is a closed event and one that doesn’t get national press. I have been invited to speak about the impact of the pandemic on our funeral and cemetery ministry. As usual for me, I get nervous getting up and speaking in front of bishops. What would a bishop want to hear from me that they don’t already know? I’m not very good at telling Catholic jokes…
After taking this question to prayer, I realized that I need to tell our collective story. When you work in our special ministry, it is too easy to assume that others understand what is going on or, worse yet, that they are not interested. I’ve decided to be bold. I have entitled my presentation “Walking Through the Valley of Death”.
Our story is one like that of soldiers walking through the battle between life and death. We are witnesses who have to reconcile the pain and suffering that goes on in the world. Silently we process each day…humbled by the experience…hoping for God’s grace to heal the brokenhearted when words and actions feel lacking. My heart tells me that something unusual is going on, and that we are here for a very important mission.
A month ago, we had a man commit suicide as he knelt on his parents grave. It was traumatic for the staff. A pain absorbed…that likely went un-noticed except for a quick news article in the local paper. Just a couple of weeks later, a young 18-year old Eagle Scout took his life to the shock of his family and community…another pain absorbed…not to be forgotten except for the funerals that inevitably follow…As if that shock was not enough for our staff, we dealt with three drug overdoses of young people in the same week. These stories continue diocese to diocese, with each of you asked to serve, absorb, and continue. Elsewhere. we buried over a dozen victims of Covid-19 in a week, and this is the tip of the iceberg when you look back at the last 18 months. I can repeat these stories over and over, month to month, year to year…
If any of us thinks that this is what goes with the territory, it is not! Our world is crying and we are living in a time of despair. To make my point to the bishops, I have pulled some data that shows that life expectancy declined for three years in a row for the first time in over 100 years. The shocker is that this was before Covid-19! The reasons: 1. Suicide, 2. Cirrhosis of the liver, 3. Opioids. How?
- The suicide rate has increased 13 years in a row
- Suicide is up 30% since 1999, 40% in rural America
- Among 10-14-year-olds suicide is the second leading cause of death
- Alcohol deaths for people 25-34 has tripled in the last 20 years, it rises 10% per year
- The US is 5% of the world’s population, yet we consume 80% of the world’s opioids
When you compound these numbers with the pandemic, we have death across all age groups. Of ever greater concern, studies show that adverse mental health in youth and adults is increasingly dangerous during the pandemic. 25% of 18-24-year-olds have considered suicide. 40% of our general population is battling anxiety and depression.
What can be the root cause of so much misery? My message to bishops is that this is a story of despair. As human beings, we are wired to seek God in our lives. When we don’t, it can often be filled with meaningless substitutes like pleasure and painkillers. Our society continues to think that we can create our own happiness. We are not doing so well…There is only but one solution: Faith in God and the good news of the Gospel.
I will share a message of hope, opportunity, and faith with these bishops who continue to lead our Catholic Church which has been going through trauma of her own. On any given Sunday we often see more people visiting a cemetery than attending mass at a local parish. The cemetery is a sanctuary and holds the same status as our churches. It is sacred and holy ground. If we want to evangelize, we know where we can go to find people in need of God’s healing grace.
Please pray for me this week as I share these stories, and join me in praying for our bishops to lead our Church on a renewed mission.
With blessings and gratitude,