ROME – Before an unusually small congregation of mourners, albeit one that featured U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Callista Gingrich and her husband, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a funeral Mass for Cardinal Bernard Law was celebrated behind the main altar in St. Peter’s Basilica on Thursday afternoon.
Pope Francis took part in the ritual, not celebrating the Mass but offering final prayers at the end, reading the prescribed prayers for the final commendation of the deceased to God and the final valediction.
The Vatican’s foreign minister, British Archbishop Richard Paul Gallagher, was also on hand for the funeral Mass.
The main celebrant for the liturgy was Italian Cardinal Angelo Sodano, acting in his capacity as the Dean of the College of Cardinals. His role was controversial, given that like Law himself, Sodano has a checkered history when it comes to the child sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic Church.
For much of the late 20th century, Sodano was a patron of the late Mexican Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, whose pattern of sexual abuse and misconduct was eventually recognized by his own order following a Vatican investigation that Sodano had opposed.
In 2010, Sodano again stirred controversy when he suggested during an Easter homily that critics of Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of sexual abuse controversies were engaging in “petty gossip.”
In his homily on Thursday for the funeral Mass, Sodano appeared to allude to Law’s association with the abuse scandals in the United States, saying that cardinals too make mistakes and fail, and adding that’s why Catholics include a confession of sins at the beginning of every Mass.
One of the opening prayers for the Mass read: “O God, who chose your servant Cardinal Bernard Law from among your priests and endowed him with pontifical dignity in the apostolic priesthood, grant, we pray, that he may also be admitted to their company forever.”
Thursday’s Mass was not broadcast over any of the Vatican’s media services, as funeral Masses for deceased cardinals generally aren’t carried, and likewise Sodano’s homily was not distributed through Vatican media channels.
In general, the absence of tributes for Law in the usual venues in Rome has been striking. Often when a well-known cardinal dies, there will be admiring pieces on his life and legacy in Italian Catholic media, and comments from senior Church officials in television interviews.
This time around, however, there’s been little official acknowledgment of Law’s death beyond Thursday’s funeral Mass.
None of that, however, has stopped some critics from questioning the wisdom of staging the funeral Mass at St. Peter’s and involving the pope.
Father James Martin, a well-known commentator on Catholic affairs in the United States, tweeted out on Thursday that “there is no need always to follow the norm” and that “it is exceptionally painful for abuse victims to see this.”
Martin suggested instead that the funeral Mass should have been held at the Basilica of St. Mary Major, where Law was installed in 2004 as the archpriest following his resignation from the Archdiocese of Boston.