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Father, how true is it that the person who committed suicide cannot be brought to the church for a funeral Mass?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church deals with suicide in numbers 2280 to 2283. The second part of 2282 reads: Grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide. No 2283 states: We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.

In the past the Church was very strict in not allowing persons who had committed suicide to have a Catholic funeral. The reasons for this are in Nos 2280 to 2282 of The Catechism: We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of . . . Suicide contradicts the natural inclination of the human being to preserve and perpetuate his life. It is gravely contrary to the just love of self . . .

But with the great development in psychology in modern times we have come to understand much more the inner suffering of so many persons that can lead them to a sense of despair. In my experience as a priest for nearly 49 years the Church shows great compassion in cases of suicide. I have been at funerals of persons who took their own lives. My own instinctive reaction when I hear of such a happening is a sense of God’s overwhelming compassion. One Sunday morning 35 years ago when working in a parish in the USA for part of the summer I got a call from a parishioner who had just returned with his wifefrom a weekend away and found their daughter, aged 18 or 19, dead on the floor. She had apparently taken an overdose. One could not but feel a deep sense of sadness, not condemnation.

A couple of years ago while at home in Ireland I was at the funeral Mass of a friend who was a person of deep Catholic faith and who had been very much involved in peace-making in the context of the conflict in Northern Ireland in the latter part of the last century. I was totally unaware of her inner suffering.

When I was a young priest studying in the USA a religious sister, a counsellor, advised me to take any talk of suicide seriously. I found her advice to be life-saving in a number of subsequent situations. There have been at least three occasions when I am certain that, through God’s grace, I was instrumental in preventing suicide. On one of those occasions I was ‘chatting’ online with a friend on the other side of the world.

I have also learned that some persons with deep, committed Christian faith, can be very fragile.

One who has written quite a bit about suicide is internationally-syndicated Canadian columnist Fr Ronald Rolheiser OMI. If you google ‘Ronald Rolheiser, suicide’ you can find many of his columns on this topic.

This question and answer do not deal with those who deliberately take their lives and those of others such as suicide bombers. Nor does it deal with the question of euthanasia / 'assisted suicide', which has been legalised in some countries and is, as The Catechism states, 'morally unacceptable' (Nos 2276-2279). They deal with those who take their lives because of inner pressures that they find unbearable.

A final word, when a priest is giving the homily at the funeral Mass of someone who has committed suicide, he must proclaim the reality of the Resurrection in a way that gives hope to those present without in any way justifying the act of taking one’s life, which is always objectively, gravely wrong. But only God can fully understand the deep suffering of the person who has died as well as the suffering of those left behind.