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Vito Rizzuto, who last year returned to Montreal from a U.S. prison and (by all appearances, several of them bloody) resumed his career as a major Mafia boss, is dead of natural causes. Will he be granted a Catholic funeral, as was his son three years ago?  Nicolo, who was doing his best to uphold the family tradition while his father served time for the Brooklyn murders, did not die of natural causes, except in the sense that they who take up the sword are likely to perish by the sword. Yet he was given a very public funeral Mass at Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense, in Little Italy, which has hosted more than one Mafia funeral . Nothing, to my knowledge, has changed. Though canon law allows the local ordinary in exceptional circumstances to deny a family’s request, this very rarely happens. Vito’s funeral is scheduled for Monday.

Now Canon 1184 is admittedly rather vague and flexible of application:


§1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:


  1.  notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;

  2.  those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith;

  3. other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.


§2. If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment must be followed.



Might we not well assume that one who dies of natural causes may have given some sign of repentance beforehand? Is it not charitable so to assume? And Rizzuto, after all, was not a notorious heretic; nor has he chosen to flout the Christian faith by deliberately disrespecting his own body. He was, however – not least because of his disrespect of the bodies and indeed lives of others – a manifest sinner whose funeral Mass will scandalize at least some of the faithful.

I confess that I’m with the scandalized.  Only if repentance was public, or at the funeral is to be made public in a way that  averts scandal, should there be a public funeral Mass.  If there was a private or sacramental repentance that never had time to bear fruit in public works of penance, then let there be a funeral Mass held in private, out of the public eye. And if there was no clear sign of repentance at all? Then let the local ordinary not take false refuge in the ambiguities of Canon 1184 from the very real pressures (particularly in Mafia cases) likely to be brought to bear on him. Let him rather proclaim the gospel by reminding everyone that repentance, like believing, is not an optional feature thereof.

Afterwards, of course, he must do his best to assist with care for the living, both those who have repented and those who might. But all of this only goes to show that public rebuke and, if necessary, excommunication is called for while men live, in hopes that they might indeed repent before they die.

Footnote :  The Montreal Gazette’s feature today on Rizzuto opens with the statement that he was “born to be a mobster.” By all appearances he remained a mobster to the end, disciplining his enemies with death. If he is nonetheless to be buried as a Catholic, the Archdiocese of Montreal can hardly avoid the implication that its own discipline is non-existent.

Image : Mural in Notre-Dame-de-la-Défense celebrating Mussolini’s signing of a Church-State concordat in 1929.

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