Role of priest above all is ‘to be there, and to listen’

Courtesy of | By Andrea Gordon | Posted 05.30.2014 | Published 09.29.2017

Religious traditions provide a structure for grieving that can comfort.

The request came from one of Rev. Canon Allan Budzin’s most spirited senior parishioners. She wanted a New Orleans-style Dixieland band to play at her funeral.

So when she died at 85, Budzin hired the best one he could find. And on a brilliant May day in 2008, the congregation at St. Philip’s Anglican Church in Etobicoke was “jumping with joy” as the musicians played. After, they led a procession to the cemetery playing When the Saints Go Marching In.

“I was so enthralled by the music that I left behind my prayer book in the church,” recalls Budzin. “When I got to the graveside, all I could do was improvise — in true Dixieland style.”

Such are the rewards of celebrating a life well-lived and a person well-loved. But Budzin, 62, also knows what it’s like to struggle for words in the face of a child’s death, or to reach for his water glass to hide his breaking voice during a difficult eulogy.

Each funeral finds its own particular balance of mourning, gratitude and remembrance.

Over his career as a Roman Catholic and then an Anglican priest, Budzin has presided over hundreds of services, including ceremonies for stillborn babies and great-grandparents who lived to 104. Some last 20 minutes, others two hours. They may be in packed churches or involve a handful of mourners.

Regardless of the circumstances, he says, his role is “to be there and to listen.”

Every religion plays an important role by providing a framework to deal with grief, and an individual — be it a priest, rabbi, imam or other faith leader — as a source of comfort and support.

“It offers people a way to grieve, a way to feel sorrow, a way to say ‘I love you’ to someone who is no longer right there with them,” he says. “It is a structure and a person who’s there that allows them to cry, to laugh, to be angry, to speak, to sing, to be silent.”

Much has changed since Budzin, who grew up in South Bend, Ind., and attended a seminary in Boston, was ordained at 28. He left the Catholic church 10 years later after falling in love, then married and became an Anglican priest. These days, people attend funerals via Skype. Memorials often include slideshows, videos and online tributes.

The balance has shifted too, a result of demographics and declining church membership. He used to preside over as many baptisms and weddings as funerals. Today, funerals outnumber the other occasions.

But his responsibilities to the living remains the same. He got his first lesson in how tough that can be during his first year as a priest in California.

One Sunday afternoon he was called to the hospital. A Mexican family, in town visiting relatives, had been out walking when a drunk driver lost control of the car and struck the stroller.

The distraught parents spoke no English but made it clear they wanted a priest. Budzin remembers the broken body of their 1-year-old son on the gurney.

“How do you pray at a moment like that? What do you pray for? Do you even believe in a God who lets something like this happen?”

Somehow he found words for a blessing.

At the time, that neighbourhood was also fraught with gang violence. One year there were 78 murders. Sometimes both victim and killer belonged to his parish.

He’d do the funeral, then drive out to the county jail to see the perpetrator “who all of a sudden was wanting Jesus after being arrested for murder.”

How do you not become overwhelmed with despair?

It helps to have support from fellow priests, and these days many turn to a spiritual director to help cope with the emotional demands and offer guidance. The Toronto diocese recently held a workshop on dealing with death.

But there is something deeper that keeps Budzin going.

“Death makes me — any of us — more human really,” he says.

“Death brings us in touch with the fragility of goodness, the vulnerability of being human. Perhaps God is touched most deeply in the darkness.”

Mobile usersClick to listen to Rev. Canon Allan Budzin remember the death of a 1-year-old boy in his first year as a priest

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