New Jersey sheriff’s funeral Mass shows Church’s development of approach to suicide

Sheriff Richard Berdnik funeral The funeral of Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik on Jan. 31, 2024, outside the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the Diocese of Paterson, New Jersey. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Jai Agnish

The tragic suicide of a beloved sheriff in a small county in New Jersey shows how the Catholic Church, which once banned Catholic funerals for those who died by suicide, now responds to suicide. 

“Suicide is a human tragedy that shakes families and shatters hearts,” Paterson Bishop Kevin Sweeney said in a statement to CNA following the death of Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik. Thousands reportedly gathered at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist in the Diocese of Paterson for the wake and funeral of the sheriff, a Catholic and fourth degree Knight of Columbus. 

Berdnik, who had more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement, died last month from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head.

The rector of the cathedral, Monsignor Geno Sylva, knew Berdnik and his family for many years. He gave the homily at the funeral Mass last Wednesday. In it, Sylva recalled “our sheriff” working on fixing the HVAC unit before his nephew’s baptism in the same cathedral.  

“As we gather here today, it is not about the sheriff getting into the side panel of a heating system to fool with its mechanics, but it is about recalling how Richard Berdnik got into our hearts to change our lives,” he said at the funeral on Wednesday. 

Sweeney offered the commendation prayers at Berdnik’s funeral. 

“In the face of tragedy, mercy is the healing promise of God,” he said in a press statement. “Our first priority is to protect the sacred gift of life. A close second is Christian determination to be instruments of God’s mercy for the broken and despairing.”

“While the Church has in the past forbidden Christian funerals and burials for those who take their own lives,” Sweeney noted, “developments in modern psychology indicate that emotional imbalance, grave suffering, or fear more often than not diminish responsibility for such a desperate decision.” 

For the majority of the Church’s history, those who died by suicide were buried in separate, unconsecrated plots and were not granted Catholic funerals.

The practice has since changed, with a growing focus on suicide prevention and mental health support.

Suicide rates have increased since 2000, according to one study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About 1 in 5 Americans reportedly live with some form of mental illness, and as of 2022, more than 4% of Americans above the age of 18 report suffering from depression. 

The Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (CMHM) is one ministry in the Church dedicated to helping parishes and dioceses establish mental health ministries by providing free resources. 

Deacon Ed Shoener, co-founder of CMHM, knows firsthand the importance of providing good pastoral care in the face of mental health crises. His daughter Katie, who struggled with bipolar disorder, died by suicide in 2016.

“It’s not that uncommon, sadly, for families to be affected by suicide,” he told CNA. “So, when Katie died, I thought it would be good to be very open about it here in our small town of Scranton [Pennsylvania].”

Shoener, along with family and friends, founded The Katie Foundation in his daughter’s honor. 

“There’s a lot of work that  needs to be done in pastoral care for people [who] live with these conditions,” Shoener said. “I would love to see the day come, some day, when people who have a mental health condition or mental illness think that the first place they should go to, after seeing a professional, for spiritual support, is the Catholic Church — that the Catholic Church will be known as the place that understands mental health, mental illness, and knows how to support people and guide them through this.”

Shoener’s hope came a little closer to fruition recently as the Vatican held its first conference on mental health ministries last week in Rome. 

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Shoener, who attended the event and met Pope Francis, gathered with other mental health ministers from countries around the world, including the U.S., Moldova, India, and South Africa. 

While spiritual ministry is not a substitute for professional mental health care, Shoener noted that it should not be neglected.

“We’re mind, body, and spirit, and we do a fairly decent job of dealing with the mind and the body,  but all too often the spiritual lives of people experiencing these illnesses get cut short. It doesn’t get the attention it needs,” he said. 

In addition to other free materials, Shoener, along with the chaplain of CMHM, Bishop John Dolan of Phoenix, co-wrote the book “When a Loved One Dies By Suicide.” The two also worked on a film series based on the book in the hopes of reaching more people.  

Shoener noted that there are still places where people with mental illness are “not understood,” so the ministry helps address this stigma. 

“We accept people the way we are,” he said. “If this schizophrenia doesn’t go away, that’s fine; come on into the Church. We still support you and love you. If your depression is overwhelming and you can hardly pray, please, come into the Church … That’s what this ministry is about, is providing spiritual support and letting people know that they’re loved.” 

The judicial vicar of the Diocese of Paterson, Father Marc Mancini, shared how the Church has developed its teaching on suicide in the recent past, noting how No. 2283 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church “truly captures the shift.”

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It reads: “We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance.”

“Suicide is a complex matter,” Mancini explained. “Because the person is overwhelmed with sadness and pain, he or she does not execute a fully discerned and truly free decision to suddenly conclude his or her life.”

“The sanctity of life is primary, as taught by the Church,” he added. “Always. Nevertheless, the Church also has taught, as truly just is our God, his mercy is beyond human understanding and endures forever.”

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