by Todd Woodfill
On Dec. 4, 18-year-old University of Toledo student Maison Hullibarger died by suicide. Maison was a passionate, straight-A student and stand-out athlete adored by friends and family. Instead of celebrating his life, Don LaCuesta, the priest presiding over Hullibarger’s funeral, questioned suicide in the eyes of God. LaCuesta’s actions highlight the need for a better understanding and less judgement in some Christian communities.
Hullibarger’s funeral was held at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Temperance, Mich., on Dec. 8. The priest’s homily, which was released by the Archdiocese of Detroit, began with a message of hope before focusing on the church’s teachings on suicide as opposed to celebrating Maison’s life. LaCuesta said in his speech:
We must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. 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. Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please. God gave us life, and we are to be good stewards of that gift for as long as God permits.
According to Hullibarger’s parents, Linda and Jeff Hullibarger, they met with LaCuesta in advance and asked that he focus on Maison’s life, not his death. The Hullibarger’s told the Detroit Free Press they discussed their wishes in detail and LaCuesta took notes. During the service, however, LaCuesta focused his homily on suicide, even after Jeff walked up to the pulpit and asked him to stop.
“He was up there condemning our son, pretty much calling him a sinner. He wondered if he had repented enough to make it to heaven. He said ‘suicide’ upwards of six times,” Jeff told the Detroit Free Press. “There were actually a couple of younger boys who were Maison’s age who left the church sobbing.”
The Catholic church, which has slightly softened its stance in recent years, has long considered suicide a sin. The Catechism adds, “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives” because “God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.” While the Catechism also acknowledges that mental illness “can diminish the responsibility” of those who die by suicide, some who struggle in Catholic communities still face stigma that could prevent them from reaching out for support.
“The stigma surrounding mental illness, especially in Christian communities, keeps people locked in prisons of shame, refusing to admit that they need help,” said Steve Austin, a pastor and mental health advocate. “Yes, Christians can and do struggle with mental illness. People need to know that they are not alone, and you can still be a Christian and have a mental illness…. I’m a pastor and I once attempted suicide because my brain has an illness, no different from heart disease or cancer.”
In response to Linda and Jeff Hullibarger, the Archdiocese of Detroit released a statement that tried to clarify LaCuesta’s message while acknowledging that LaCuesta had failed the Hullibarger family. As such, LaCuesta agreed to step down from presiding over funerals for the time being. The Archdiocese continued:
Our hope is always to bring comfort to situations of great pain, through funeral services centered on the love and healing power of Christ. Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case. … Father LaCuesta agrees that the family was not served as they should have been served. For the foreseeable future, he will not be preaching at funerals and he will have all other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor. In addition, he has agreed to pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.
The church can and does provide solace for many. Unfortunately, as LaCuesta demonstrated, there’s still work to be done to better support Catholics who live with mental health issues and those who have lost loved ones to suicide. If you’re worried about critical messages you might hear about mental health and suicide in your church, Austin has an important reminder:
Folks living with suicidal ideation need to know that you are loved, that your worth doesn’t hinge on your behavior or checking some moralistic list of right and wrong. You don’t have to prove your value to anyone wearing a collar or carrying a Bible. Jesus said, ‘They will know that you follow me by your love.’ If what someone is saying or doing isn’t rooted in love, they aren’t following the Jesus of the Bible.
Although this unfortunate circumstance centered around suicide, the same can be said for a vast many other issues in the church. The bible is very clear when it speaks about judging, others (Matthew 7:1-5, Luke 6:37-42, John 8:1-8, Luke 6:31-36, James 4:11-12, and many more) in that it clearly identifies that none of us are to judge. We are not perfect and are not in a position to judge others, yet it is almost a religious pastime to do exactly that. We Christians judge people on what they wear to church, whether they smoke, whether they use vulgar words when speaking, whether they drink a beer or wine, and much more.
EVERYONE has sinned and the bible also makes it clear that no sin is greater than another (James 2:10, Romans 3:23, and many more). Yet, we Christians tend to weigh sins on an imaginary scale as though another person's sin is worse than our own. Whether that be suicide, homosexuality, or a myriad of others, we are not to judge, rather we are to love.
"Jesus declared, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" Matt 22:38 - The greatest commandment seemed to focus a lot on love and none on judgement.
How are you doing following this?
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.