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Question Corner

First slide

Cremation ashes 

Q. I understand that Catholics can't spread out ashes over the ocean after cremation — and that ashes can only be buried or kept at home. Both my sister and her daughter are Catholics. My sister told me that she has instructed her daughter to use her ashes as fertilizer on plants or trees after cremation. Is this allowed? (Honolulu)


A. This question — and many similar ones that I receive — reflects readers' continuing fascination with the disposition of bodily remains. You are correct in your understanding — almost.


The church teaches that ashes from cremation should be buried or entombed in sacred ground — but not kept at home. In the church's mind, cremated remains should be treated with the same reverence as the body of a deceased person.


In 2016, the Vatican issued an instruction regarding burial practices for Catholics. That document specified that either the body or the ashes of the deceased should be buried in sacred ground and that cremains should not be kept in private homes or scattered on land or at sea, nor "preserved in mementoes, pieces of jewelry or other objects."


Burial in sacred ground, said the Vatican, prevents the deceased from being forgotten and encourages family members and the wider Christian community to remember the deceased and to pray for them.


The church's Code of Canon Law continues to express a preference for burial over cremation because it more clearly expresses the Christian belief in an eventual resurrection when the person's body and soul will be reunited. As for using the cremains for fertilizer, that is in no way envisioned in Catholic teaching — or permitted.


Baptism and non-Catholic parents


Q. A friend of mine asked me recently to find out if the parish I was raised in would baptize her new baby. My friend is not a Catholic, so I was surprised that she asked me this. The priest at my parish said that he could not baptize the baby because the parents were not Catholic.


I was disappointed that the Catholic Church would turn away anyone seeking baptism. I think that the church should welcome people from all paths of life; that would open the way for them and eventually they might come to the church.


I wondered what Jesus would do, and I think that he would baptize anyone who sought it, regardless of their faith. I am wondering what your take is on this. (New Albany, Ind.)


A. First off, let me clear up a misconception. There are some Catholics who believe that, if a child dies without ever having been baptized, that child cannot go to heaven. That is not true. At one time, it may have been the common belief of Catholics that an unbaptized child would go to "limbo," a state of natural happiness but short of the glories of heaven.


But in 2007, the Vatican's International Theological Commission, with the approval of Pope Benedict XVI, said that the concept of limbo reflected "an unduly restrictive view of salvation" and that the mercy of God offers good reason to hope that babies who die without being baptized can go to heaven.


As to your question about parents who are not Catholic wanting their child baptized, the relevant guideline is Canon 868 of the church's Code of Canon Law, which states that "for an infant to be baptized licitly ... there must be a founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion."


Baptism involves the pledge of the parents to raise and educate their child in the beliefs and practices of the Catholic faith, and the baptismal ritual itself requires an affirmative response by the parents to that pledge.


Now I suppose that, theoretically, parents who were non-Catholics might have the firm intention of raising and educating their children as Catholics, though that does seem a bit unusual. But if that should be the case in this instance, I would suggest that you have the parents of the baby speak to the priest.


Who can give blessings?


Q. Some years ago you reminded us that receiving the Eucharist at Mass is valid regardless of who distributes it — so a family should not disrupt the congregation's flow to Communion just to receive from a priest, rather than from an extraordinary lay minister.


Because I have several young children who do not yet receive Communion, we try to sit where our priest will distribute the Eucharist — since it seems more valuable for my children to receive the blessing of a priest rather than a non-uniform "good wish" from a layperson.


Can you explain more about blessings? I know that there are scriptural references to parents blessing their children, but we once heard a holy priest friend say, "If you're not a priest, you're just shooting blanks." Whose duty is it to offer prayers of blessing and to whom? What has the most merit and efficacy? (Indianapolis)


A. Normally, it is the priest who imparts a Catholic blessing. But your friend who made the remark about laypeople "shooting blanks" is way off base — if he really believes that. There are many blessings that are done properly — and perhaps more appropriately — by laypeople. The most common example is the blessing of food, which many families do each evening around the dinner table.


The church's Book of Blessings lists several blessings that are normally done by laypeople — including the blessing of sons and daughters by their parents (especially when leaving home or embarking on a new venture). Another particularly touching example recommended by the Book of Blessings is the blessing of a newly engaged couple by both sets of parents.


I have sometimes seen extraordinary ministers of holy Communion — laypeople — give a blessing to children too young to receive Communion, but technically that is improper.


The website of the Archdiocese of New York answers the question, "Should an extraordinary minister of holy Communion give a blessing to one who comes forward in the Communion procession, but who does not wish to receive the Eucharist?" in this way: "No. In this case, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion should direct the individual who wishes to receive a blessing to the nearest priest or deacon."


I can understand that, logistically, this might result in some confusion, but that is the correct technical answer. (And actually, no one needs a "blessing" at that point since, a few minutes later, the entire congregation will be blessed by the priest at the end of Mass.) One possibility, I would think, is just for the extraordinary minister to say to the child, "Jesus loves you," without giving a blessing.


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021