QUAERITUR: Mass “in honor” of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I have received a few emails asking me (again, this year) if it is appropriate to celebrate Mass (again, this year) in honor of the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I look forward to the day that Masses are arranged by the same people for the intention of the late President Ronald Regan.  how about Susan B. Anthony?

Of course that isn’t going to happen, is it.

Holy Church does not permit Masses in honor of a dead person who isn’t a saint or blessed with an cult approved by Holy Catholic Church. It is not permitted to celebrate Mass on honor of a person who has no official cult.  As a matter of fact most blesseds can’t even be honored at the altar unless there is permission given for that locale or institute.

On the other hand, I think it is entirely appropriate to celebrate Mass to pray for the repose of the soul of someone who is dead.  Surely Dr. King was a sinner, just as well are all sinners.  Prayer for the dead is a work of mercy.  We should pray relentlessly for the dead.

I suppose the Mass formulary they choose for such an occasion could reflect something of important social interests, such as the defense of human life. The late Dr. King would have appreciated that, I believe, given the fact that Planned Parenthood aimed at abortion of as many black children as possible.

Masses for a dead person mustn’t be reduced to a “celebration of someone’s life”.  That is not what Catholics do.  During Mass we pray that God will be merciful to them.

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  1. Katherine says:

    The Cardinal here has announced he is celebrating a votive Mass for justice and peace on the MLK Holiday that will commemorate Dr. King. The archdiocese and the various parishes have been fairly consistent in using that terminology though I imagine in causal speech people will talk about a Mass in honor of Dr. King.

  2. mike cliffson says:

    Mass “in honor” sounds DREADFUL. “yours is the honor …./” etc. Even if sadly that be the motive of any lay organizers, subscibers to stipends etc. What you Fr can explain -remove comment if appropriate – is the “divine” economy of prayer for the dead, I’ve understood if the soul one is praying for HAS undergone any necessary purgatory, or even-God forbid , but it happens- is in the bad place, the prayer switches by default to some pour soul as needs it, presumably Masses ditto, I remember chitchat about masses for the repose of Hitler’s soul, (at least not otherwise billed). My apologies if you Have blogged on this and I missed it.

  3. PostCatholic says:

    Martin Luther King was nominally a Baptist but his theological training was Unitarian. (Witness his famous line of “the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice” being lifted from Theodore Parker.

    I’d be glad if Catholics honored the civil rights leaders’ legacy with meditation on racial inequality. I think Dr. King’s legacy on reproductive issues is mixed. He was honored by Planned Parenthood with its Margaret Sanger Award (who was a pretty vile character in terms of race), but I don’t believe he was in favor of abortion. Then again, 50 years ago, neither was Planned Parenthood.

  4. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    Perhaps next we should have a Mass of Reconciliation commemorating Gen. Robert E. Lee and Maj. Gen. George B. McClellan on the Feast of the Battle of Antietam?

    Commemorating the dead is certainly a praiseworthy practice. One would think that this is sufficient, especially if they are not canonized (although I do recall seeing the figure of Dr. King at Westminster Abbey in London…do the Anglicans honor him with a feast?)

  5. traditionalorganist says:

    I’ve been to a Mass where the retiring music director was “honored.” Is a Mass in honor of a living person permitted?

    I found the whole thing rather strange, but strangeness isn’t really a sufficient reason to condemn. Besides, I’m trying to avoid the pessimistic approach of saying “no” all the time, as you advise, but to demonstrate a positive appreciation for the “better way.”

  6. Fr. Basil says:

    \\s a Mass in honor of a living person permitted?\\

    Masses for the intention of a living person, usually expressed as “for the health and salvation of X,” are celebrated all the time.

    However, traditionally the church has honored saints not on the days of their physical birth, but on their HEAVENLY birthdays–that is, when they died. There are, of course, notable exceptions for this.

  7. Gail F says:

    But a mass on MLK Day is not a problem is it? We have masses on other non-Catholic holidays. The terminology in Katherine’s post above would then be correct, I assume.

  8. Jayna says:

    They usually do one at the cathedral. We are in Atlanta, though, so it’s kind of big deal down here. Unfortunately, all of the churches in metro Atlanta have been closed since Monday, so no one has had a single Mass yet this week.

  9. Centristian says:

    I’m just in hysterics trying to imagine what a “Ronald Reagan Mass” would look like.

  10. my kidz mom says:

    News blurb from The Catholic Sun:
    “Catholics honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. will gather Jan. 17 for a 3 p.m. Mass at St. Mary’s Basilica in downtown Phoenix.
    The 19th annual Mass — hosted by the Diocesan Office of Black Catholic Ministry — will be celebrated by Bishop Thomas J. Olmsted with Bishop Shelton J. Fabre as homilist. Bishop Fabre serves the Archdiocese of New Orleans as an auxliary bishop.”


  11. AnAmericanMother says:

    We’re in Atlanta, too, Jayna, and our church is on top of a hill at Mt. Paran and Northside.
    They’ve been frozen in but celebrating Mass in the rectory chapel for any who want to attend.
    I went by today (in my 4WD truck – 2WD is really not safe yet) and they’ve managed to get out of the rectory driveway, but that area is still very, very icy. Choir practice has been cancelled and the church office is opening at 11 a.m. tomorrow on an experimental basis.

  12. AnAmericanMother says:

    As for MLK . . .

    Reason #4,562 why I am no longer an Episcopalian: we went to the Diocesan Choral Festival one fine January, and were handed the music, which included a hymn that began, “Holy Martin, Blessed Martyr”.

  13. Geremia says:

    I have heard a priest call MLK a “secular saint.”

  14. Dr. Eric says:

    He was a good man and a great leader for the civil rights cause. Was he a martyr? No, he was not killed “in odium fidei” or “in odium Ecclesiae.”

    I wrote a term paper on his murder and was trying to prove a conspiracy. All my sources pointed to the fact that James Earl Ray (all assassins get the three name treatment except Sirhan Sirhan) was a racists and wanted to be a “big shot” once he got back to prison. When he did time previously, Ray was looked down upon by the big thugs in prison because he was just a petty thief. James Earl Ray did not kill King because he was a Catholic (he wasn’t) nor because he was a Christian pastor, he didn’t even kill him because he was a civil rights leader. James Earl Ray just wanted to be famous.

    Any mass for MLK Day should be for his soul and I don’t think that it would be scandalous to mention how hard he worked and how much he suffered for the civil rights cause. I offer my prayers for Dr. King through the intercession of St. Martin de Porres.

  15. Agnes says:

    I have just spent a few days substitute teaching in a Catholic school and touched upon MLK in social studies – it tied in very nicely with the Religion lesson, that all men are children of God, created with equal dignity. We also bear equal responsibility to the proper stewardship of God’s creation and the common good of our brothers and sisters in Christ. The students well understand that in regards to race and religion, it is not the color of the skin that matters, but the state of the soul. And to treat another soul with something less than dignity is to degrade one’s own, even to the state of mortal sin.

    I think it is entirely appropriate to have a Mass for the repose of MLK’s soul and to preach upon the high points of the civil rights movement. Not to make it a religion unto itself, like some of the radical environmentalism out there, but to reiterate the Church’s social teaching of solidarity and the preferential option for the poor. Occasionally we forget, or even scoff, saying “Oh, this is too much liberal hand-holding! Kum-buy-ah!” but we do need solidarity. We absolutely need BOTH the corporal and the spiritual works of mercy. We are all created in the image and likeness of God. And the Body of Christ was not a blond haired, blue eyed Caucasian.

  16. uptoncp says:

    do the Anglicans honor him with a feast?

    I don’t know about US Episcopalians, but he isn’t in the Church of England calendar. IIRC the CofE will not add anyone to its calendar, except for martyrs, within 50 years of their death.

  17. MattW says:

    Dr Eric– “all assassins get the three name treatment except Sirhan Sirhan”

    Well, Sirhan Sirhan Sirhan just sounds ridiculous.

  18. TNCath says:

    Yes, we’re having the same thing in Memphis again this year. Of course, this is the place where Dr. King was assassinated, but still…

    From the West Tennessee Catholic:

    Father Fisher to Preach at MLK Celebration By Pam Flynn Managing Editor

    On Monday, January 17, the Diocese of Memphis will host a celebration at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in honor of the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The theme is Sustaining the Legacy, Carrying the Torch.

    Bishop J. Terry Steib, S.V.D. will be the presider at the celebration which begins at 10 a.m. with a musical prelude. Father Norman Fischer, Pastor of St. Peter Claver Catholic Church and Chaplain of Lexington Catholic High School in Lexington Kentucky, is the speaker.

    “In order for us to Sustain the Legacy and Carry the Torch of Christ as Dr. King exemplified,” said Father Fischer, “we must be willing to live in the fire of God’s Spirit. I look forward to being in the Diocese of Memphis and celebrating the joyous, hope-filled celebration and tribute to the great Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

  19. Martin Luther King was nominally a Baptist but his theological training was Unitarian.

    This is not, as far as I know, true. Though he may have been influenced by Unitarians, King was educated as an undergraduate at Morehouse (founded by Baptists), Crozer Theological Seminary (multi-denominational, but primarily American Baptist), and the Boston University School of Theology (Methodist).

  20. TJerome says:

    This is pandering. Do we have a Mass honoring George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, etc? I think Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , a good Republican, would be embarrassed by this, just as his late wife, Coretta Scott King, said Dr. King would rather people go to work than take a day off in his honor.

  21. irishgirl says:

    Sirhan Sirhan did have a middle name: Bishara.
    I also saw the statue of MLK at Westminster Abbey the last time I was in London. It’s on the outside, over the West Door.

  22. randomcatholic says:

    I think this is a matter of terminology. As American’s we ought to be VERY proud of Dr. King’s legacy and work. Whether or not he is in heaven is not for us to know.

    I think therefore we should say Mass FOR Dr. King on the secular holiday that honors him, and reflect on the contributions of the civil rights movement. If he is in heaven, God will apply those graces elsewhere. If he is in purgatory, the prayers will do him good. If he is in Hell (something I doubt very much, but it is not for me to know) then God will hear those prayers for other purposes.

    So I think the thing to do is honor Dr. King’s memory by saying Mass for him and reflecting on the good he did in this life. Homilists can use him as an example of how to stand up for justice. There should be nothing controversial about that.

  23. Katherine says:

    I’m not suggesting we do anything less than has been suggested above in observance of Dr. King’s birthday. But I do suggest that in addition (rather than in place), our parishes note Catholic involvement in the civil rights struggles.

    As a young housewife, I was part of a (unauthorized) group in our parish to end segregated seating at Mass and the whites only policy at the parish school. Many of the Catholic lay faithful in our group (Catholic Interracial Council) were heroic individuals. You think today’s discourse lacked civility, you should have heard the things we were called!

  24. catholicmidwest says:

    Why d0n’t we have a mass for Marilyn Monroe while we’re at it? And oH! Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck too!

    What is this nonsense?? The man wasn’t even Catholic. What are we coming to?

  25. Fr Deacon Daniel says:

    To be sure, Catholics were very much part of the heroic civil rights struggle for blacks especially in the South. I think that in many ways it was a shining moment for Catholicism here in the U.S. and Rev. Martin Luther King certainly was the centerpiece of that movement. (Then Fr. Joseph Raya, later Melkite Archbishop of Nazareth, was one who marched with the Rev. King in Alabama and Georgia, I believe.)

    One observation: In a town close by, the local Latin Catholic diocese had two parishes within a few minutes drive of each other. One was a vibrant, black Catholic parish and the other a white Catholic parish. The diocese decided in the spirit of the times to integrate the parishes and so it closed the black parish and invited all of the faithful black Catholics to join what was the local white Catholic parish. Some did join (I know one of these ladies personally) but many of the whites were very hostile to the idea of blacks joining their parish. Some blacks were unhappy with the idea as well. Eventually the whole plan blew up and an African Methodist Episcopal Church was established by those who were disaffected for the blacks to attend, which most did. Tragically an entire generation of black Catholics (and of course subsequent generations) were lost to the Catholic Church in this area. The old parish – which is a beautiful little structure that I drive past every day – is tragically now a thrift store in one of the “black sections” of town directly across from the AME church.

    Now, on the one hand, I agree with the desire of the diocese to integrate Latin Catholics, and the behavior of the white Catholics who were hostile to this idea and made their fellow Catholics feel unwelcome because of their race was fundamentally abhorrent. But was there another way to handle this other than closing the black parish and hoping that the whites would accept their black co-religionists? Would the reverse have then only disenfranchised certain white Catholics who had no desire to cross the racial and social lines in their area? Would it have been better perhaps to engage in a measured, deliberate and multi-generational effort to integrate so that none of the flock were lost? Or should the parishes have simply continued to function as separate communities? It is a difficult issue to address and I cannot say that hindsight in this case is entirely 20/20 either.

    My kidding about the commemoration of the Battle of Antietam aside, I do understand and appreciate the need to honor a figure like the Rev. Dr. King who very courageously fought for the rights of blacks in the United States. Sadly, the Catholic Church is largely regarded as a “white Church” here in the US. King did take a stand for many principles that all Catholics should embrace. Having a Mass to pray for the soul of this man and to honor his legacy (even if some who came from his movement abuse it) is a good idea.

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