DEACON VIVACQUA, LEFT, assists Father Scalia at his father's funeral.
DEACON VIVACQUA, LEFT, assists Father Scalia at his father's funeral.
It has been a privilege to have been one of the contributors to the "Seminarian's Diary" column in The Evangelist. However, this will be my last article as a seminarian.

I have shared my experiences of attending The Catholic University of America and Theological College Seminary in Washington, D.C. These rigorous programs have been preparing me for the priesthood -- to be a shepherd of Christ who is not only academically sound, but holds a deep sense of compassion and mercy.

For my final column, I'd like to share which may be my last significant liturgy in Washington as I prepare to complete my formation for the priesthood: Justice Antonin Scalia of the U.S. Supreme Court passed away Feb. 13, and I was a participant in his funeral Mass.

I was surprised to receive a phone call asking if I was available for a Mass being held Feb. 20 at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. I assumed I would be one of the emcees. A few hours later, I received another call explaining that it was Justice Scalia's funeral Mass and asked to be the Deacon of the Eucharist.

Keeping the information quiet until the official press release, I found myself in deep prayer as I contemplated the mystery of the death and resurrection of our Lord.

On Friday, I made my way to the Su­preme Court of the United States to pay my respect to Justice Scalia as he lay in repose in the Great Hall. With dignity and reverence, the justice's clerks stood vigil next to his body throughout the night and into the morning.

A large portrait of Justice Scalia stood at the far end of the Great Hall. In the painting, next to Scalia's hand, is a picture of the great theologian St. Thomas Aquinas, demonstrating the Justice's deep Catholic faith.

At the basilica Saturday morning for the funeral Mass, security was in full force. I was not truly prepared for what was about to take place. As Rev. Paul Scalia (the celebrant and Justice Scalia's son) and I proceeded down the lengthy aisle to greet the body at the entrance of the Basilica, the feelings were surreal.

Father Scalia sprinkled holy water on his father's casket. I was reminded of my own mother's casket being blessed, as well as so many others I've witnessed. Before the ceremony, Father Scalia and I had discussed what it was like to preside or participate over a parent's funeral Mass as "something we can do: We get to be the priest, to pray the Mass for our own parent. What a gift it is."

This is the realization of the funeral Mass: that we are gathered to celebrate the Eucharist and pray in thanksgiving for the life of a loved one.

Father Scalia started his unforgettable homily with the following: "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."

At that moment, Father Scalia reminded all 4,000 in attendance, believers and non-believers, of the reason for gathering together in the presence of the body. Father Scalia did not eulogize his father. Instead, he reminded us that, together, we celebrate the holy Eucharist of Jesus Christ and gather in prayer.

Father Scalia reminded me of my own presence at a funeral Mass when he said, "We continue to show affection for him and do good for him by praying for him: that all stain of sin be washed away, that all wounds be healed, that he be purified of all that is not Christ. That he rest in peace."

How often do we forget the purpose of prayer and the richness it holds when we neglect our prayers for the deceased and are consumed with logistics and speeches?

Walking shoulder to shoulder, Father Scalia and I headed back down the aisle at the conclusion of Mass. As we waited in the giant arched doorway for the casket, I whispered to him, "Well done," as I began to tear up.

At that moment, soft light was streaming in, and Father Scalia stepped forward to receive his father's body. It evoked an image of Jesus Christ greeting Justice Scalia as he came to the judgment seat of the Father. The darkness in the entranceway was expelled by the glorious brightness of the sun as his body was brought down the great stairs outside the basilica.

Our prayers are most significant during moments such as these. It is our prayers which assist the soul to the presence of the Lord. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we come to understand that, even though we may mourn the death of a loved one, we glorify God for the gifts and love we have experienced.

The most important words spoken are not the ones recapping the life of the deceased, but the words we say to God in order to assist our loved one from this world to the next.

Standing at the foot of the basilica steps, lined with priests from the Arlington Diocese and an honor guard, I was again reminded of the beauty and peace which surrounds a funeral liturgy. Aside from the music, all the people and ceremonial intentions which encompass such a liturgy, the most substantial part of this experience was the ability to pray with a family who realized that, at that time, the greatest thing they can do for their loved one is just that: to pray.

(Deacon Vivacqua is a native of Our Lady Queen of Apostles parish in Frankfort who was previously a teacher. He is scheduled to be ordained a priest along with three other seminarians in June.)