Stan Musial passed away on January 19, 2013 at 92 years of age. His wife of nearly 72 years died the previous year. Thousands of friends filed through the Cathedral Basilica in St. Louis during the six-hour public visitation. The funeral Mass for the man who played 22 years in a Cardinal uniform was presided over by a Cardinal of a different sort, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, along with St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson and Bishop Stika. Hundreds filled the Basilica for the two-hour funeral Mass, while many stood outside. All came to honor an exceptional human being and to pray for the repose of his soul.
Since we all spend most of our existence in eternity, the funeral Mass is of critical importance as a ritual whose purpose is to usher us into a blessed and eternal union with God. Musial’s funeral is a salutary event for everyone especially at a time when, in our increasingly secularized society, the importance of the afterlife is commonly de-emphasized. Testimonials to his untarnished life on and off the field are also important in an era in which it has become more and more difficult to believe that a great athlete can also be a great human being. Broadcaster Bob Costas, his voice crackling with emotion during the eulogy, said that Stan Musial’s achievement was “more than two decades of sustained excellence as a baseball player and more than nine decades as a thoroughly decent human being.”
Andrew Edwards, one of the Musials’ eleven grandchildren, remembered him as the unassuming grandpa, the son of a Polish immigrant, who bought McDonald’s meals for the family every Sunday. He recalled a fan telling him, “Your grandpa’s best attribute is he made nobodies feel like somebodies.” The even-tempered Stan the Man had 1,815 hits on the road during his long career and exactly the same number at home. He had two hits in his first game on September 17, 1941 at age 20, and two hits in his final game on September 29, 1963 at age 42.
The funeral Mass is our finest and best ritualized declaration of hope for a soul’s passage into heaven. It is often accompanied by tears, but, as in the case of Musial, is essentially a joyful occasion. “The world is peopled,” as St. Francis de Sales once wrote, “to people heaven.”
In January, earlier this month, I attended what most, if not all the people present regarded as a joyful funeral Mass. It took place in a small Polish parish where the church and its adjacent elementary school and cemetery form the spiritual center of parish life. The proximity of these concrete images of life, death, and resurrection provide parishioners with an unmistakable down-to-earth realism.
The deceased passed away just shy of his 88th birthday. In one sense, he was a simple man who earned his bread by cleaning hallway floors in various institutions. More significantly, he was lighting corridors through which his children and grandchildren would pass to discover more enterprising endeavors. The pathfinder is no less important than those who benefit from the path he blazes. Death, of course, is the great leveler, making equal the high and the low, the rich and the poor, the celebrated and the hidden. How we live in the eyes of God, needless to say, is the only thing that really counts.
But the lowly in the eyes of the world can be capable of extraordinary virtue. It was said of the deceased that he never had a bad word to say about anyone. Appropriately, the following words of St. Faustyna were inscribed on his obituary card:
Help me, O Lord, that my tongue
may be merciful, so that I should
never speak negatively of my
neighbor, but have a word of
comfort and forgiveness for all.
He once lost a chess game to his brother, an event that proved very disappointing to his daughter. Though a man of few words, he had an important lesson he wanted to give her. “There is no dishonor in losing to a worthy opponent,” he said. Then, so that his daughter would not regard him as a “loser,” he added: “If one can rejoice over his brother’s victory, he cannot be said to be a loser.” Here is some wisdom that could be most beneficial, especially, these days, to sports celebrities.
While he served in World War II he always felt that he was under God’s special protection. At one time, he came perilously close to death. A Russian soldier was about to assassinate him when fate (or Providence) intervened. At the very last second, the Russian was dispatched by another soldier. I looked at two of his darling little grand-daughters with new appreciation, realizing how close they came to never being. We are all beneficiaries of Divine Providence, much more than we can possibly realize.
Abundantly evident at the funeral Mass was the love of the family, the faith of the community, and the loyalty of friends. Afterwards, there was the festivity of good food and sparkling fellowship. The experience altogether was, indeed, joyful, though there was a note of expressed sadness.
At the close of the Mass, the celebrant commented on how sad it is that funeral Masses are becoming less common. Why is it that even Catholics seem less enthused about eternal life? Is this symptomatic of a general anti-life attitude that has infected what that great Polish Pontiff, Blessed John Paul II called, “The Culture of Death”?
It is exquisitely ironic that the funeral Mass for the dead can be an effective catalyst in reviving our appreciation for life. The afterlife is more enduring than the one we live in the present. The funeral Mass can inspire us to live better lives so that our eternity is blessed. Catholic novelist Anthony Burgess has made the remark that, “Wedged as we are between two eternities of idleness, there is no excuse for being idle now.”
When I learned of the passing of Stan Musial, the Legend, I emailed a friend of mine in St. Louis expressing my condolences. His reply was both respectful and humorous: “Yes, it is a great loss for St. Louis. On the other hand, the signed baseball I have has now doubled in value.” We pray that Musial’s joy has been increased a hundredfold.