The Great Man


Justice Antonin Scalia

The unexpected death of Justice Antonin Scalia affected me rather strongly, as I had long admired both him and his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, a priest in my diocese.  Mind you, I am not someone who takes an especially profound interest in politics or the law.  For me Justice Scalia was a cultural and intellectual lodestar, a model of Right Reason.  Growing up, Scalia was a respected figure in my household.  I admired the way he worked his way up from an immigrant background to become a justice of the Supreme Court (the first person of Italian background ever to be appointed).  I liked his fierce reasoning, his pugnacious personality, and the caustic humor which often came out in his legal statements.  Best of all, I appreciated that Scalia modeled how to be a Catholic layman.  I find it fitting that Scalia passed away on Presidents’ Day weekend, since he was so devoted to the Founding Fathers and their ideals.


Father Paul Scalia delivering the homily at his father’s funeral Mass

After Scalia’s death my thoughts often went out to his son, Fr. Paul Scalia, who has said Mass and given talks at my parish on various occasions.  I was surprised to learn that Fr. Scalia said the funeral Mass for his father, held at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington.  His homily was a model of lucidity, humor, and faith in Christ.  It sounded like an oration that was long labored over, even though it was written in the space of a week and under the shadow of a father’s death.  Here’s how it opened:

“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.”

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“Christ Enthroned in Majesty” at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, which depicts Christ as Judge

At the very moment when all thoughts must have been focused on mourning Justice Scalia, Fr. Scalia wrenched our attention back to the real reason for the occasion, the real reason we ever gather in church – Jesus Christ.  He is our hope in life and in death, because he trod our path and showed us the way to Heaven.  His life mirrors our life, his death mirrors our death, and he is the captain who leads us on to future glory.  Along the way, Fr. Scalia also included a funny anecdote about what happened when the elder Scalia once inadvertently found himself in the younger Scalia’s confession line.  But the Christocentric focus of the homily is what most impressed me, the idea that Christ is really the Great Man that we remember at a funeral service.  (The entire homily can be read here.)

I can’t escape the feeling that we are undergoing a cultural attrition, a progressive loss of cultural capital.  We are living at the twilight of civilization, and I am saddened when every piece of it disappears.  I can sympathize with what Pope Benedict XVI once said regarding the death of his father, “I sensed that the world was emptier for me and that a portion of my home had been transferred to the other world.” I also feel, with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, that “my search has always been for something permanent, for what is behind the transitory, the contingent.  I’m fighting loss and death.”

Only faith in Christ overcomes these feelings of despair.  In his homily, Fr. Scalia evoked Hebrews 13:8: “Jesus Christ is the same, yesterday, today and forever.” Only by uniting ourselves to Him who is eternal can we escape the cycle of decay and death which we experience here on earth.  His glorified body gives us hope.

But hope must be united to vigilance; we must be prepared to meet Christ, and in order to be prepared we must be “purified of all that is not Christ.” Fr. Scalia warned lest our admiration for his father distract us from praying for him — as we must for all those who have passed from this life — and from taking care of our own souls.

“A man known personally to many of us.” This is how Fr. Scalia described the person whom we assumed at first was his father but turned out — in a brilliant rhetorical touch — to be Jesus.  What a startling phrase.  Can we really come to know Jesus the way we know a loved one? That is what He invites us to do, and what especially during this Lenten season we ought to set out to do through sacrament, scripture and prayer.  Then, united to Him, we can have faith that He will restore everything that has been lost and transform death into life.

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