A state funeral is a most impressive ceremony. We saw this recently with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. A nation faces its own mortality in the death of a leader. The fragility of life is enfolded in the power of the state to remind the people at the same time of both death and life. With its expression of ceremonial, a state funeral is both a sobering and a reassuring experience.

During the Austro-Hungarian empire, the funeral of a member of the imperial family conformed to the impressive demands of state ceremonies, but with an addition that may possibly be unique. The members of the imperial family lie buried in the crypt of a Capuchin convent. When the funeral cortege reached the convent, the Grand Chamberlain knocked three times on the door of the convent.

A Capuchin friar asked, “Who is there?”

The Grand Chamberlain announced the name and all titles of the deceased emperor:

“I am Franz Joseph, Emperor of Austria, Apostolic King of Hungary, King of Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Galicia, Lodomeria, of Illyria, and King of Jerusalem, Archduke of Austria, Grand Duke of Tuscany and Cracow, Duke of Lorraine , Salzburg, STIR, Carinthia, of Carniola and Bukovina, Grand Prince of Transylvania, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Upper Silesia, Lower Silesia, of Modena, Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla, of Auschwitz and Zator of Ticino, Friuli, Ragusa and Zara, Prince of Conde-Hapsburg and Tyrol, of Kyburg, in Goritz and Gradisca, Prince of Trent and Brixen, Margrave of Upper and Lower Lusatia and Istria, Earl of Hohenembs of Feldkirch of Brigance, in Sonnenberg, Lord of Trieste, of Cattaro and Marche, Great Voivode of Serbia, etc. … ”

Without opening the door, the Capuchin replied, “I do not know you.”

Again, the Chamberlain knocked on the door, and again the Capuchin asked, “Who is there?”

This time the Chamberlain announced only, “I am Franz Joseph, His Majesty the Emperor and the King.”

But again, the Friar refused to open the door, saying, “I do not know you.”

The Chamberlain knocked on the door a third time and to the Friar’s question, “Who is there?” he replied simply, “I am Franz Joseph, a poor mortal, and a sinner.”

At this, the Friar opened wide the door saying, “Come in.”[i]

Sinners are always welcome in the Church. In fact, they are the only ones who are welcome. Jesus said clearly, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.”[ii] Those who knew that they needed healing recognized this: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him.”[iii]

Yet this was the man whose first public statement had been, “Repent!”[iv] Repent: change your way of life, change your behavior, your whole way of thinking. And those who were considered the dregs of society were attracted by this call. Why is that? Why would those whose behavior was considered objectionable by those who set the standard for the culture welcome the call to repentance? Was it simply that they felt rejected by the culture in which they lived and sensed that Jesus was someone who would accept them?

That is certainly part of the attraction. Jesus had said, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”[v] Yet He still demanded repentance. He proclaimed to those who came to Him, “Your sins are forgiven,”[vi] but He also told them, “Do not sin any more.”[vii] Jesus accepted sinners as they are, but He would not let them remain as they were. “Repent!” Metanoeite! Change your whole mindset.

This was a challenging demand. Not everyone would find it welcome. Jesus said that the healthy do not need a doctor. The sinless do not need repentance. There are two kinds of people who consider themselves to be sinless, or at least who believe that they commit only slight sins that really don’t need forgiveness. The first are those who are proud of their religiosity and their moral behavior. They keep the laws, they do good, and they have nothing with which to reproach themselves.

The other people who do not repent are those who do not want to change. They are comfortable with their state, even if it pains them. When Jesus saw the man at the pool of Siloam who had been ill for thirty-eight years, He asked him, “Do you want to be made well?”[viii] Instead of saying “Yes, I want to be healed,” the man evaded the question and described the difficulties he encountered in healing himself. We prefer what is familiar, even if we realize that it is harmful. We can clutch our weaknesses lest we be healed, for if I am healed I will have to live differently. I will have to think differently. We can even consider our behavior to be virtuous. So, again, such persons have nothing with which to reproach themselves.

Are there really any who are sinless? Jesus and Mary are the only ones who can claim that title, and Mary admitted that she had been redeemed: “my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”[ix] The rest of us either recognize that we need healing that only God can give, or we reject the thought. Those of us who admit that we are sinners do want to change, even if we struggle and feel that we cannot do it.

In every Mass, we begin with the Penitential Rite. There we proclaim publicly that “I have greatly sinned…through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault.” All of us who say this proclaim ourselves to be sinners. We then beg forgiveness as the priest says, “May almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins, and bring us to life everlasting.” All those of us who reply, “Amen” are admitting that we are sinners. Forgiven sinners, but still sinners. We are not sinless; we have not saved ourselves. We have begged for healing, and we believe that we receive it. Yet it is as forgiven sinners that we go up to receive Communion:

“For as often as we eat this bread and drink the cup, we proclaim the death of the Lord. If we proclaim the Lord’s death, we proclaim the forgiveness of sins. If, as often as his blood is poured out, it is poured for the forgiveness of sins, I should always receive it, so that it may always forgive my sins. Because I always sin, I should always have a remedy.”[x]

I had not planned to write this article to coincide with Lent. It simply worked out that way. Yet it is excellent timing. Lent is a period of repentance. I have read that in some places more people go to Church to receive ashes on Ash Wednesday than go to Church on Christmas or Easter. Like the sinners in Jesus’ time, we sense that we need healing and forgiveness, and we trust that we will receive them.

In my next article, I will write about the glory of being a sinner!


[i] https://nobility.org/2011/07/burial-protocol-austria/

[ii] Matt. 5, 31-32

[iii] Lk 15, 1

[iv] Mk 1, 15

[v] Matt 11, 28-30

[vi] Matt. 9, 2 et alia

[vii] Jn 5, 14 & 8, 11

[viii] Jn 5, 6

[ix] Lk 1, 47

[x] St. Ambrose, De Sacr. 4, 6, 28: PL 16, 446; Catechism of the Catholic Church #1393

Image Credit: Photo by Nik Shuliahin 💛💙 on Unsplash 

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Sr. Gabriela of the Incarnation, O.C.D. (Sr. Gabriela Hicks) was born in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, in the Gold Rush country of California, which she remembers as heaven on earth for a child! She lived a number of years in Europe, and then entered the Discalced Carmelite Monastery in Flemington, New Jersey, where she has been a member for forty years. www.flemingtoncarmel.org.

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