Father Joseph Ferraro
Also the pastor of St. Anthony Parish, Belleville, Father Ferraro has concelebrated the Memorial Mass at Gate of Heaven Mausoleum in East Hanover and Holy Name, Jersey City, and has been administering homilies at Holy Cross for eight years.
Although he said there is no real difference between a daily Mass homily and a funeral homily, as they are both based on Scripture passages, Father Ferraro has a deep connection to the East Hanover mausoleum. His father is buried there.
Father Ferraro, after the death of his father, recalled how children view death through the eyes of AJ, his three-year-old nephew. "He wanted to come and see where 'Poppi' was sleeping. My brother and his wife were a little apprehensive because of his age and because he was attached to his grandfather."
Although concerned with AJ's ability to understand where his grandfather was, Father Ferraro brought his young nephew to the mausoleum. "We explained to AJ that he would not physically see him, but rather only (his grandfather's) name on the marble crypt. When we arrived, we showed AJ where 'Poppi' was resting and as he looked up, he spotted the name 'Ferraro' and immediately said 'He has the same name as me!'"
The little boy's family explained that he could say anything he wanted to his grandfather. "AJ paused a moment and with his eyes welled up with tears began to tell his grandfather how much we all missed him. We were all taken back with the innocence of his words as he finally told his 'Poppi' that he loved him. After that day, when visiting the cemetery, whether to preside at a committal or visit family members, I would be reminded of my nephew's first adventure to the mausoleum."
At funerals, along with his nephew's story, Father Ferraro remembers Scripture, especially the passage about the Transfiguration of the Lord as source of strength. He visited the Mount Tabor in the Holy Land—the site where it is believed the Lord was transfigured.
"The awesome experience of being on that mountaintop made the words of St. Paul become so vivid and alive in my mind," Father Ferraro recalled. "The awesome feeling of peace and tranquility. The awesome wonder of the beauty of the creation in all of its magnificence. It was truly good and peaceful to be there. As I reflect on death, resurrection and remembrance, as difficult as it might seem to bid farewell to loved ones, the inner peace and love continues in our hearts. It is through love and remembrance that we are able to go on as we await our own time to be called home to the Father."
Given his own personal connection to the mausoleum, Father Ferraro tries to infuse a personal touch into his funeral homilies. "I try to take part of the deceased's biography and tie it in to the Scripture. Whether they are a policeman or teacher, I comment that they worked for all of us and although I do not know them personally, they are here."
Father Ferraro tries to emphasize that every person was put on this earth to be learned from and each person's life is a learning experience. "Memories of our beloved dead are so important for our continued growth. We learn from the many experiences in life, the positives and the negatives, the strengths as well as the weaknesses. It is through these experiences that we learn from the failure and challenges ourselves as we open new doors in life's journey."
Some cases are particularly trying as when Father Ferraro had to celebrate a funeral Mass and deliver a homily at Holy Cross for his cousin, who died suddenly in his sleep at the age of 41. "As hard it was, I knew he would be at peace. He spoke about death and resurrection and was very faithful. His fear was of illness, not of death."
Another difficult homily was delivered to a 35-year-old that also died unexpectedly. "He was a family oriented man who wanted to take care of the members of his family. I tried to tell them not to be troubled and that all will be OK. Even though this is the physical end, he was going to experience more than we can imagine. I like to use the Gospel of John when Jesus said He was preparing a place for us in heaven. I try to explain to the family members that He is also preparing for them. They will be together again. We on earth aspire for a glimpse of what heaven is."
The most rewarding part of his job, Father Ferraro claimed, is when he unknowingly touches the lives of the grieving. "I feel like I didn't even say anything special, but there is a sense of fulfillment when I get feedback. They say I hit certain aspects of that person or I touched them. I try to just make the situation better."
Even when around the Holy Cross Mausoleum or waiting for a service to begin, Father Ferraro tries to visit plots that seem to be forgotten-a practice that he saw older priests do.
"I say a prayer for a person or family and even wonder how they had left their mark in this world. At times on All Soul's Day, I would see senior priests, walking through the cemetery praying the office of the dead and occasionally stopping at a grave that seemed not to have been visited in a while. "
Through all of the heightened emotions of celebrating Mass at Holy Cross, those he serves constantly inspire Father Ferraro. "Each time is so special as I am able to witness in awe the great faith of people who come to honor and remember their loved ones," he said. "As you look into the eyes and faces of the faithful who come, there are so many mixed emotions as they come together to celebrate, to remember and to believe in the promises of the resurrection which Jesus made to us."