You might not have noticed them, but hope and presumption were there at the last funeral you attended.
One of the pivotal virtues for Christian living is hope, by which we trust that God in his infinite mercy will one day welcome us into his eternal Kingdom. We realize we're not there yet, and we need to persevere to the end.
One of the sins against hope is presumption (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2092), which takes many forms. One form of presumption, commonly witnessed at funerals, is the attitude that in the end God will forgive us irrespective of our cooperation with grace. According to this mind-set, heaven is the inevitable and more or less universal sequel to this life.
As many of us know, the prevailing view at funerals today is that the deceased is “in a better place.” It comes as no surprise, then, that funerals increasingly have become in practice “mini-canonization” services.
Against this backdrop, many are startled to learn that the Catholic Church actually forbids eulogies at funerals (General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 382; Order of Christian Funerals, No. 27). Rather, the homily at the funeral Mass, which must be given by a bishop, priest or deacon, should “illumine the mystery of Christian death in the light of the risen Christ” (Catechism, No. 1688).
“As bearers of the tenderness of the Church and the comfort of the faith,” priests are called to “console those who believe without offending those who grieve” (Order of Christian Funerals, No. 17). Balancing this pastoral ministry with the prohibition of eulogies has become increasingly difficult.
Grieving Catholics often consider it something of a “right” to be able to eulogize deceased loved ones at length during the funeral Mass. In recent months, Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., and Bishop Frederick Henry of Calgary, Alberta, have issued decrees that prohibit even “brief remembrances” of the deceased during funeral Masses.
Here some clarification is in order. First, the funeral rites have three discernible phases: 1) the vigil (or “wake”), which marks the time between death and the funeral liturgy; 2) the funeral liturgy itself, which may or may not include a Mass; and (3) the Rite of Committal, which typically takes place at the graveside.
While the Church has preserved the integrity of the homily at the funeral Mass, the rite does provide for a “remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation” by a family member or friend. The “remembrance” is not supposed to replace the homily nor should it cross the line and become a eulogy, which is an address in praise of the deceased.
The remembrance is a legitimate part of the funeral rites and it can provide an appropriate outlet for the expression of the mourning experienced by those who survive the deceased. Yet remembrances can be unpredictable and difficult to control in the context of a sacred Church liturgy. For that reason, Archbishop Myers and Bishop Henry have restricted the remembrance to the vigil or the graveside service.
Why is this important? Because the Christian funeral is not a celebration of the life of the deceased person but a celebration of the saving mystery of Christ's death and resurrection. After all, the merits of Christ's sacrifice, made present and effective at Mass, are ultimately the basis of our hope and comfort when confronted with a loved one's death.
Further, we must break through the presumption that the deceased is already in heaven. Instead, we need to pray and offer sacrifice for the deceased, which Scripture describes as a “very excellent and noble” practice (cf. 2 Maccabees 12:43; Catechism, No. 1032). What better way to do this than by offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass?
When we lose sight of the fundamentally paschal character of funeral Masses, we not only fail to pray for the dead, but we also miss a teachable moment for all of us. The reality of death affords all of us the opportunity to reflect upon our own mortality and thus seek to restore a right relationship with God.
Part of the grieving process involves our being able to share with others our memories of our dear departed loved ones. Spending time with those who have recently suffered such a loss is indeed a praiseworthy act of mercy. But there's a time and place for everything.
An analogous situation might be that of a marriage. There are many “moments” that are rightly part of the celebration, but nonetheless it's proper to keep matters more appropriate to a rehearsal dinner, wedding shower or reception out of the sacred marriage liturgy. The same applies to funerals.
I often think of a dear friend who died more than a year ago. He had a tremendous sense of humor but, particularly as his terminal illness progressed, he always got very serious when talking about his impending death. Even though he was a daily communicant for decades and devoted his “retirement” to service of the Church, he pleaded with me to not assume “he made it” after he died but rather to offer prayers, alms and works of penance on his behalf. His approach might seem extreme or scrupulous to some, but in reality it was a magnificent display of hope — in God, not our own efforts.
Leon J. Suprenant Jr. is the president of Catholics United for the Faith and publisher of Lay Witness magazine.
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