A Michigan priest has been disciplined after preaching about the immorality of suicide during the funeral service of a teenager who had killed himself.
The Archdiocese of Detroit issued an apology Monday for how “an unbearable situation was made even more difficult” because of Rev. Don LaCuesta’s sermon at the funeral of 18-year-old Maison Hullibarger.
“Our hope is always to bring comfort to situations of great pain, through funeral services centered on the love and healing power of Christ,” the archdiocese said in its statement. “Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case.”
The archdiocese said the priest, who leads Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, will not be preaching at funerals for the “foreseeable future.” LaCuesta will also have all his sermons reviewed by a “priest mentor” and will be seeking “help from professionals ― on human, spiritual and pastoral levels” to help him understand how he failed the family, the archdiocese said.
Hullibarger was a freshman at the University of Toledo studying criminal justice, according to the Detroit Free Press. He died on Dec. 4, and his funeral took place on Dec. 8.
His parents, Jeff and Linda Hullibarger, devout Catholics, told the Detroit Free Press that they met with LaCuesta before the funeral to talk about the eulogy.
“We wanted him to celebrate how Maison lived, not how he died,” the teen’s mother said.
The parents were reportedly shocked and hurt when LaCuesta spent a portion of the sermon talking about death by suicide.
“I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right,” the priest said during the funeral, according to a copy of the sermon posted online by the archdiocese. “Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth ― that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us.”
LaCuesta later attempted to reassure the Hullibargers that God can “forgive suicide” and that “nothing ― not even suicide ― can separate us from the unconditional love of God.”
But this wasn’t the message the grieving parents said they wanted to hear during the funeral.
“He basically called our son a sinner in front of hundreds of people and judged him when he didn’t even know him,” Linda Hullibarger told ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV in Detroit.
Jeff Hullibarger said he walked to the pulpit at one point during the sermon and told the priest, “Father, please stop,” but LaCuesta continued.
At the end of the church service, the family reportedly told LaCuesta he wasn’t welcome at their son’s burial. Instead, the family chose to recite their own blessings for the teen at his gravesite.
The Hullibargers are now asking for LaCuesta to be removed from his position at their church. The parents said they don’t plan to return to the parish.
“I don’t want to see him do that to anybody else what he did to us,” Jeff Hullibarger told WXYZ-TV.
But in 1992, a revision to the church’s catechism, a list of core Catholic teachings, acknowledged that “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” and that God can offer those who die by suicide a chance to repent.
The archdiocese said that LaCuesta was attempting to “offer a message of confidence in salvation” that aligned with the teachings of the Catholic Church. However, it acknowledged that the family was expecting a homily based on the teen’s life, not one addressing how he had died.
“The family was hurt further by [LaCuesta’s] choice to share Church teaching on suicide, when the emphasis should have been placed more on God’s closeness to those who mourn,” the archdiocese said.
LaCuesta himself apologized for the sermon in a statement published on the archdiocese’s website, admitting that he had “added” to the family’s pain during a time when they needed comfort. He said he’s hoping to stay at the parish and has pledged to work on being a better minister.
“This work will involve some deep interior reflection ― by myself and with the help of others ― on how I could have missed the mark so completely in this case,” the priest said.
Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit author and editor at large of the Catholic website America, wrote Monday on Twitter that this was “indeed a pastoral disaster.”
“The role of the priest here is to console the family, and offer hope, not scold the deceased,” Martin wrote.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.