(OSV News) — Like most priests, Father Douglas McKay has seen a number of people die over the years.
As the founder and chaplain of Our House Ministries in Philadelphia’s Grays Ferry section, Father McKay — who grew up in the neighborhood he serves — has worked with addicted and impoverished people for more than 40 years.
His nonprofit has provided recovery homes and faith-based sobriety programs to hundreds since Our House Ministries was founded in 1997, just two years after his brother Anthony succumbed to an overdose.
Now, Father McKay is making sure those he serves are assured of both a heavenly home and a final resting place for their remains.
On April 30, Father McKay joined some three dozen ministry supporters to bless and dedicate the Good Shepherd cemetery section at SS. Peter and Paul Cemetery in Springfield, Pennsylvania.
The section, featuring a large statue of Christ as the Good Shepherd and accommodating 40 cremation urns, was personally purchased for approximately $40,000 by Father McKay, who plans to be buried in a casket there as well. Our House Ministries will review and decide requests for burial in the plot on a case-by-case basis.
Our House Ministries staffer Patrick Kennedy told OSV News his sister Kelly Ann, who recently died of cancer, was among the first buried in the Good Shepherd section, along with two individuals who succumbed to addiction and related illnesses.
“Father found that a lot of people were being cremated, and the ashes were winding up in basements and not in consecrated ground,” said Kennedy. “These were people who had died of addiction (as well as) people who just didn’t have the means to be buried. And he decided that he was going to buy a place to put them. He came up with the idea of the lost sheep, so he wanted to be the Good Shepherd.”
Catholic teaching allows for standard (flame-based) cremation as an alternative to traditional burial — provided it is not chosen for reasons contrary to church doctrine — but specifies that ashes must be interred in a sacred place, rather than kept at home, divided among loved ones, encased in jewelry or scattered abroad.
The 2016 instruction “Ad resurgendum cum Christo” from the Congregation (now Dicastery) for the Doctrine of the Faith explains that Catholic burial is intended to demonstrate respect due the body, which through baptism becomes a temple of the Holy Spirit and which will be resurrected.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ doctrine committee reiterated the teaching in a March 23 statement concluding that human composting and alkaline hydrolysis, two emerging methods of treating human remains, “fail to satisfy the Church’s requirements for proper respect for the bodies of the dead.”
The Good Shepherd plot is meant to inspire all the faithful to look beyond death, said Father McKay during the dedication service, which followed the Fourth Sunday of Easter (also known as Good Shepherd Sunday for its Gospel reading) liturgy he had celebrated, with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s approval, at the cemetery’s Our Lady of the Assumption Chapel.
“We should raise our hearts and look to the Good Shepherd, to Christ, who suffered and rose for our salvation,” said Father McKay. “He has commanded that we keep watch for his coming, and he has promised to meet us when we rise again.”
Father McKay provided attendees with copies of his newly revised book “Heaven’s Homecoming,” which recounts his experiences as a chaplain ministering to dying residents of the Holy Family Home, a senior residence operated by the Little Sisters of the Poor in Philadelphia.
Based on his chaplaincy and his current ministry, Father McKay said his “theological hunch” is that “Christ takes the last breath if we believe in him,” as the Blessed Mother greets faithful souls entering eternity.
“You could be the greatest sinner in the world, but if you (accept Jesus Christ’s salvation) in the end, you’re going to heaven,” said Father McKay. “God loves us so much … (and) he does everything he can to bring us home to restful pastures and still waters.”
Like Christ, “our bodies will come out of our graves, and we will be glorified,” Father McKay said. “We will recognize one another in the kingdom of our heavenly homeland.”
Gina Christian is a national reporter for OSV News. Follow her on Twitter at @GinaJesseReina.