This week, Richard III will be re-buried in Leicester Cathedral.
I’m not here to weigh in on the Great Richard III Debate: evil Shakespearean villain or a cruelly-maligned medieval teddy bear?
Part of me wants him to be innocent. He was last king of the House of York, the rightful claimants to the throne, (down with those dastardly Lancastrians!) and frankly, anyone who hated the Tudors is alright by me. Another part of me, however, knows that Richard III probably did order the murder of his teenage nephews — and a host of other despicable crimes. (Hey, he was a medieval king! They ate murder for breakfast. Where do you think George R. “Everyone You Love Dies” R. Martin got all his ideas from?)
The whole beauty of a truly Christian approach to death, however, is that we can put that aside.
On Monday, a requiem mass was offered for the repose of the soul of Richard Plantagenet. A requiem mass does not exist primarily to celebrate the life of the deceased or to bemoan their failings. That’s not our call to make.
Our business is not to cast judgement on another soul, even one like Richard III. Rather, ours is to beg for God’s mercy. In a sense it doesn’t matter to us whether he murdered the princes or not, he needs God’s mercy. As Cardinal Nichols said in his homily,
We pray for him as a sinner, like every other person, even if his life was lived on a more spectacular scale and in a more public arena than most. Today then we seek not to assert the greatness of Kings but the greatness of God’s mercy towards them and towards us all.
Instead of either eulogizing or condemning the dead, a Mass for the Dead is offered for the sake of the dead. It’s offered for their needs, not primarily for our needs. We pray for what they need, that God would have mercy on them and bring them into the joy of His kingdom.
The Cardinal continued,
The prayer we offer for [Richard III] this evening is the best prayer there is: the offering of the Holy Mass, the prayer of Jesus himself, made complete in the oblation of his body and blood on the altar of the cross, present here for us on this altar. This is the summit of all prayer, for it is made in and through the one person, the eternal Word, through whom all created beings have life. It is a prayer that arises from the very core of creation, the cry of the Word returning to the Father and carrying within it the totality of that creation, marred and broken in its history, yet still longing for the completion for which it has been created.
We don’t presume to know whether this soul died in state of grace. We don’t guess — let alone decree — who is in hell. That’s why there is no burial for sinners and another burial for People We Really Like.
There is only one Mass for the Dead.
There is only one sacrifice for sins.
It is the atoning oblation of Christ Jesus to the merciful Father for the salvation of the world.