Carol DeChant still recalls the awe she felt while listening to the televised eulogy for Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, in 1996. In fact, the speech was so memorable that DeChant, 72, said it immediately came to mind more than a decade later when she began brainstorming for her collection of tributes to deceased Catholics. The result, Great American Catholic Eulogies (ACTA Publications, Feb.), honors a diverse group of the faithfully departed. ACTA will be promoting the book at the Religious Booksellers Trade Exhibit, meeting this week (May 31-June 2) in St. Charles, Ill. DeChant spoke with Religion BookLine by phone from her home in Ocean Ridge, Fla.
RBL: Does a eulogy teach more about the person giving the eulogy or the person being eulogized?
DeChant: It’s both. What a person chooses to honor about the deceased really tells you about the eulogizer. Particularly interesting are those given by someone who, in life, was on the other side of a divide, like the tribute a rabbi wrote about Cardinal John O’Connor for a Jewish newspaper. It stemmed from a deep friendship that was not typical in their era. But there is one in the book that I chose because of what it told about the eulogizer.
RBL: Which one?
DeChant: It’s called “Mr. O’Connor is Dead.” We don’t know anything about Mr. O’Connor beyond what Dorothy Day, the eulogizer, writes [in The Catholic Worker]. She did her readers the honor of telling it like it was. He was ungrateful, not truthful, sometimes violent, and a member of the Catholic Worker Movement until he died. It demonstrates that we are called to love difficult people, and she obviously did.
RBL: Were other eulogies equally honest?
DeChant: They tend to be on the side of honest. Early on, there was a tradition in this country to include a lot of flourish and purple passages as part of the eulogy. For a war hero like Gen. William Sherman, the tribute would tend to focus on the heartbreak of the country. As you get into the modern era people are more candid about the flaws of the deceased.
RBL: Was if difficult to find a diverse group of Catholics?
DeChant: Finding ethnic diversity wasn’t a problem, but the big difficulty was gender balance. It wasn’t that women didn’t serve American interests equally, it’s just that they weren’t often paid tribute. This was our American culture as well as our church. A lot of these women were so humble they insisted on not being paid tribute, so for tributes to people like Katharine Drexel or Elizabeth Ann Seton I looked to an anniversary celebration or a canonization.
RBL: What can readers learn from this collection?
DeChant: It’s not all gloom and doom. Laughter is an important part of grieving. Solitary grieving can’t accommodate laughter, but in a community of people that knew the deceased and cherished him or her, laughter is healing.
Kerry Weber is an associate editor for America magazine and the author of Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students (Twenty-Third Publications).