A Month’s Mind for Fr. John Pearce - A Reflection
Fr. John CP, our ex-Parish Priest died suddenly and without warning in NZ on May 5th, 2019. Being a Passionist Father, the Passionist community had taken charge of honouring and burying their brother, along with the family. It was a terrific celebration to match the terrific man he was.
But some families close to John, including mine, felt a lingering need afterwards to continue grieving as a Parish community - to give full voice to the unspoken stories, cry the yet unwept tears and carry on laughing with huge affection.
It was suggested that we hold a “Month’s Mind” - a memorial Mass 30-60 days after death. The name is just lovely – for me, it conjures up “bringing to mind”, “calling to mind”, “minding one’s own”. It is not a new tradition by any stretch (it’s old!); but to some of us, unaccustomed to the celebration, it was as if a treasure had been unearthed.
The Month’s Mind is a profoundly beautiful way to formally connect again with each other and honour someone lost, after the initial shock and raw emotion has had time to subside. We grieve in hope, with a sense of life continuing – ours, without the person we lost and theirs, with God.
A date was set (John’s birthday weekend) and the Month’s Mind very quickly became a lightning rod for the participation of all the Parish – lay people and Parish staff and leaders.
We were making another powerpoint reflection so people shared their photos. Funnily enough, these were John dressed up for Trivia Nights, on the beach with Family Groups, mucking around with kids and building sandcastles. These were photos of John cracking open champagne bottles, sharing Easter eggs with the Greek Orthodox priests across the road, eating with school staff, dressing in pink for a Pink Stumps cricket match.
These were John as the families had known him outside of the church building, a John of celebrations, a yarn, someone who totally relished simple, unadorned family life.
Fittingly enough, the Month’s Mind Mass was equally no-frills.
The Music Ministry was consulted. One or two favourite hymns linking to John’s own strong sense of social justice were carefully chosen, but otherwise the music for the weekend was to be what the choirs knew.
The Prayers of the Faithful one by one highlighted those things John had worked so hard towards achieving.
These were tweaked by a number of fresh eyes who felt empowered to say “what about we pray for this? John always lived this - he felt this was important…”
These conversations both called us to distill the essence of the person we knew and to go on being influenced by his example.
John had discovered later in life that he shared Aboriginal ancestry - a fact he was hugely proud of. An Acknowledgement of Country before the Mass was said and will continue now to be said as part of his legacy. Again, this is absolutely nothing new. But by re-examining John’s story, suddenly these important things surfaced and his life, once again, would influence our community and make for positive change, after his death.
John had brought the Baptismal Font to the middle of the sanctuary to remind us that this was the whole focus for our Christian lives and our community. It had been moved when John moved on to his next Parish, but it was reinstated back again for the Month’s Mind and will be there to stay.
Like John’s approach to pretty much everything with us at Marrickville, this was a plain gesture but absolutely full of meaning.
The Month’s Mind (celebrated at all weekend Masses) went to plan. They weren’t tricky, ran as normal and with no special rostering. It was business as usual at our place that weekend. A good deal of his family came and there were naturally some tears, a good laugh at the photos and some time set specifically aside to remember.
On the Sunday night, John’s beloved sausage sizzle was laid on to provide another opportunity to continue the sharing. Characteristically for our community - it was a loaves and fishes moment with the advertised sausages miraculously becoming spring rolls, cakes, chicken, salads, wine. Stories were just as abundant and organic.
A number of things emerged from the experience of organising and celebrating a Month’s Mind.
The “noble simplicity” of the Mass holds space for a community in grief and connects us. The Month’s Mind makes full use of our Catholic traditions, rituals and symbols - it is neither tricksy-clever nor complicated. In fact, the simplicity of it, empowers people to make suggestions and participate in planning. At no time did anything require “special” knowledge, so everyone - from the mums to the Parish Secretary, felt they had permission to contribute ideas.
Interestingly enough, many of those who made contributions were not leaders of formal ministries in the Parish, they were people who had a strong connection to John and wanted to make sure the celebration reflected the man they knew.
Praying for the dead is every baptised Christian’s responsibility and by being invited to help plan and celebrate, the community wholeheartedly embraced the ministerial role so rightfully theirs.
By coming together 30-60 days after the death, the Month’s Mind provides an opportunity to laugh, cry and tell stories again. In an age and culture where grief can be truncated, hurrying us up to get back to “normal” - the luxury of another time, place and space beyond the funeral to express the unexpressed, or to express it again, taps into the real timeline of grief, which does not honour work schedules or waning sympathy from those who do not share our experience.
Finally, the Month’s Mind for Fr. John served as a reminder that this is a possibility for anyone. Fr. John was a high profile member of our community, so it was an opportunity for many, many people to grow in understanding of the significance and role of this beautiful tradition. It has opened up possibilities and unlocked one of the gems of our faith, hidden in plain view. Obviously, we worked within the structure of the Mass, but by doing so, became more deeply aware of the opportunities every Mass affords us to remember those who have died.
It was and is, a moment of evangelisation.
Our hope is that this begins a movement towards more of the same and that people will ask for a Month’s Mind to be celebrated regularly in our Parish.
Our community will continue to struggle and be transformed in its loss, but like John himself, the Month’s Mind provided us with what we needed in the simplest of ways.
It was an encounter with the generosity of time, patient communal prayer, heartfelt listening to the Word and to one another. It was breaking bread and being strengthened by it and experiencing God’s grace and the consolation that comes from sharing in one another’s lives and losses.
John would have loved it.
Paige Bullen (GriefCare - Ministry of Consolation Educator)