A Filipino priest in Michigan has been suspended by the Archdiocese of Detroit from speaking at funerals after he upset the family of a teenager who killed himself by including in the homily, questions of whether those who die by suicide can be forgiven by God.
Father Don LaCuesta of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Temperance, Michigan presided over the Saturday, December 8 funeral for Maison Hullibarger, 18, who passed away just days before on Tuesday, December 4.
Rather than celebrating the life of the teenager who was a criminal justice student at the University of Toledo, an athlete, son, and brother to five siblings, LaCuesta focused more on the issue of suicide, according to the teenager’s father.
The word “suicide” was mentioned by LaCuesta a total of six times during the homily. This, despite the parents having met with LaCuesta prior to the funeral to discuss what they wanted in the homily. LaCuesta even took notes, they said.
In a copy of the homily released by the archdiocese on Monday, December 17, LaCuesta said, “If we Christians are right in believing that salvation belongs to Jesus Christ, that it does not come from us — and that our hand cannot stop what God allows for us, then yes, there is hope in eternity even for those who take their own lives.”
LaCuesta then continued, “Having said that, I think that we must not call what is bad good, what is wrong right. Because we are Christians, we must say what we know is the truth — that taking your own life is against God who made us and against everyone who loves us. Our lives are not our own. They are not ours to do with as we please.”
“The finality of suicide makes this all the worse. You cannot make things right again,” LaCuesta added.
He did later attempt to reassure the family by saying, “Nothing — not even suicide — can separate us from the unconditional love of God.”
But that did nothing to help the situation, said the family which later gave their own blessings at the teen’s gravesite.
Jeff Hullibarger, the teenager’s father, told the Detroit Free Press that he had at one point went up to the pulpit and whispered to LaCuesta to stop, but LaCuesta continued to make statements on suicide and salvation.
“There were actually a couple of younger boys who were Maison’s age who left the church sobbing,” said the teen’s father.
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Detroit said that it regrets that LaCuesta was “unable to bring comfort” to the Hullibarger family.
“Our hope is always to bring comfort to situations of great pain, through funeral services centered on the love and healing power of Christ,” the statement read. “Unfortunately, that did not happen in this case.”
It added that LaCuesta would not be preaching at funerals for the foreseeable future and would have all other homilies reviewed by a priest mentor. It said that LaCuesta also agreed to “pursue the assistance he needs in order to become a more effective minister in these difficult situations.”
LaCuesta responded in a statement admitted that he “fell short” of providing the family with the comfort needed.
“Instead, I added to their pain,” said LaCuesta. “I deeply regret that, and I am sorry.”
Addressing the fact that many — including the Hullibarger family — have called for his removal from the parish, LaCuesta said that he preferred to stay and is working with the archdiocese to “ensure that [he] can serve more effectively in the future.”
Adding to the family’s pain, the teen’s high school football coach Jeff Wood — who was accused of bullying players on the team and was asked not to attend the funeral — showed up against the family’s wishes.
After being asked to leave, Wood lashed out on social media, and was later removed from his job.
“If you need someone to blame, I’m your man. I’m your fall guy. This is how society is when things go not as planned, we blame others for our own shortcomings,” Wood wrote in a now-deleted Facebook post.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suicide remains the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S. In 2016, suicide claimed the lives of nearly 45,000 people — a number more than double that of homicides in the same year.
From years 1999 to 2016, the total suicide rate increased 28 percent according to the CDC. The rate remained nearly four times higher among males than among females.
If you or a loved one is experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). Additional resources can be accessed at www.SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.