You know those funerals where person after person gets up and shares their memories and stories about the deceased? If you tuned in on Saturday for the funeral of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, you didn’t see that.
Amid scaffolding set up for a new mural project, friends, family, supporters and political luminaries—Catholic and non-Catholic alike—gathered at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for a funeral Mass for the longtime jurist, who died on Feb. 13 at the age of 79.
A Catholic funeral Mass isn’t like a memorial service or funerals from other religious traditions. It is, first and foremost, a Mass, in which there are Scripture readings, psalms, hymns and the Consecration of the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are transubstantiated into the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ.
In introductory remarks before Mass began, attendees were directed to use their programs to follow the ceremony, if they were unfamiliar with it, and to refer to guidelines therein for the reception of the Eucharist in Communion. While Mass attendance is open to all, Communion is reserved for practicing Catholics in good standing (with some exceptions for Orthodox Christians). Any others may come up in the line and receive a blessing, which some did during the Mass.
The only person who spoke at length about Justice Scalia was his son, the Rev. Paul Scalia, a priest in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, one of his nine children. Some in the media have said he delivered a eulogy, but that’s not accurate.
While Rev. Scalia did indeed speak warmly of his father and share remembrances during his remarks (moments at which his voice wavered slightly), what he delivered was not a eulogy, but a homily. It’s a sermon that’s a regular feature of the Catholic Mass, in which the priest or deacon usually reflects on the designated Scripture readings (one of which was delivered at the funeral Mass by Justice Clarence Thomas, a Supreme Court colleague and friend of Scalia’s and a fellow Catholic).
Appropriately, after thanking those who have supported and prayed for his family, and the announcement of a memorial on March 1, the Rev. Scalia began with:
We are gathered here because of one man, a man known personally to many of us, known only by reputation to even more; a man loved by many, scorned by others; a man known for great controversy and for great compassion. That man, of course, is Jesus of Nazareth.
It is He whom we proclaim, Jesus Christ, Son of the Father, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified, buried, risen, seated at the right hand of the Father. It is because of Him, because of His life, death and Resurrection, that we do not mourn as those who have no hope, but in confidence we commend Antonin Scalia to the mercy of God.
One humorous moment came when Father Scalia recalled Justice Scalia mistakenly finding himself in his own son’s Confessional line, “and he quickly departed it.”
Father Scalia recalled, “As he put it later, ‘Like heck if I’m confessing to you.’ The feeling was mutual.”
He also took the opportunity to echo Justice Scalia’s belief that faith should not be driven from the public square or …
… when we refuse to bring it there. He understood that there is no conflict between loving God and loving one’s country, between one’s faith and one’s public service.
In addition, the Rev. Scalia echoed a famous quote by Catholic Saint Thomas More—patron saint of lawyers—who said, before King Henry VIII had him beheaded for refusing to support Henry’s divorce (which followed his break from the Catholic Church and his declaration of himself as the head of the Church in England), that:
I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.
Scalia said, of his father, that God had …
…blessed him with the desire to be the country’s good servant, because he was God’s first.
The Mass was beautiful and stately, starting with the casket being carefully carried in and laid on the steps of the altar. The pallbearers were Supreme Court police officers, with Scalia’s former law clerks as honorary pallbearers. Prior to and subsequent to entering the sanctuary, the casket was draped in an American flag. During the Mass, it was draped in a white “funeral pall,” symbolizing the white garment of baptism.
During Communion, Father Scalia stood to one side of the casket to deliver the Eucharist to those in line; later on, he incensed the box containing his father’s body.
Through all, he showed great poise and composure.
The casket was then carried out, rewrapped in the flag and taken down the church steps, as the assembled priests, deacons, bishops, etc., sang– unaccompanied and in Latin — the traditional Catholic hymn, “Salve Regina.”
Following were Scalia’s large family, and more slowly, the assembled congregation. On hand were former presidential candidates Speaker Newt Gingrich and Sen. Rick Santorum—both Catholics—and current candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, an evangelical, who took time for several photo-ops with admirers while still inside the Basilica.