You’re probably witnessing liturgical abuses when the woman in the pew behind you asks out loud, “What the hell is he doing?”
This happened at a funeral. A visiting celebrant (at a parish that I do not belong to) left the sanctuary before we prayed the Our Father. He repositioned people in the front few pews and lead the prayer while holding the hands of various family members and pall bearers, even though the coffin was in the way. This followed and preceded other changes to the liturgy that brought too much attention to the celebrant, confused the family, frustrated the servers, and had the rest of us wondering what would happen next.
Funeral liturgies should be what they are intended to be: powerful moments of transcendence that point us to questions that only faith in Jesus Christ can answer—questions about death and life, sin and salvation, humanity and God. The faithful, the lapsed, and the uninitiated should experience in ways proper to each the promises and mysteries of revelation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “[t]he death of a member of the community…is an event that should lead beyond the perspectives of this world and should draw the faithful into the true perspective of faith in the risen Christ” (par 1687).
This leading us beyond is a means of catechesis and evangelization. But when funerals become events of liturgical showmanship or poor (if not heretical) catechesis—or when they center on the sentiments of the survivors rather than the salvation of the deceased—the Church cannot teach as she ought. Nor can she evangelize as she must.
A funeral or a Mass of canonization?
Of the Catholic funerals I’ve attended, many have contained one or two (or more) emphatic statements that the deceased (along with all family members that have gone before them) are most certainly with God in heaven. If it were not for the proclamation of Scripture or the prayers of the liturgy one might never hear the words hope or mercy.
When hope that the deceased will enter into heavenly glory is conveyed as certainty, the funeral Mass becomes just another therapeutic moment of letting go rather than a Eucharistic offering to God, who does not wish us to let go but remain in communion with him and the deceased. After all, everyone who dies needs our prayers.
There are understandable pastoral temptations to suggest instant sainthood—especially if the preacher knew the deceased well. But putting to one side the Church’s lengthy investigations of the miraculous, we typically aren’t privy to a person’s particular judgment. This implies a more pressing pastoral need to preach the truth.
A woman I’ve known since childhood (I’ll call her “Sandy”) lost her husband after years of illness. Speaking with her a few weeks after the funeral, Sandy cried as she struggled to say these words: “I don’t know where my husband is anymore.”
During the days before and after the funeral, friends and family stressed with certainty that her husband was in heaven with God. But if she really believed it, why was she so uncertain when we spoke?
Sandy had not practiced her faith in years. But she knew her husband better than anyone—even her children. During our conversation it became clear that she had honestly evaluated his life and wasn’t so sure about his place in heaven. And so she wondered, what other option was there?
Fortunately, the funeral celebrant hadn’t made promises that he couldn’t be sure of. His homily stressed the need to pray for the deceased. He spoke of the paschal mystery, the forgiveness of sins, and God’s desire for justice and mercy. He preached about purgatory because he knew he was preaching to the lapsed—to a family that needed to hear this good and realistic news.
Sandy’s grief would not be easily consoled, but at least the disposition of her husband’s soul—her not knowing where he is—didn’t force a choice between the improbable perfect and the potentially unthinkable. Now having access to knowledge of purgatory, truth slowly comforted her anguish.
Funeral homilies that promise sainthood over the more likely need for purgatory may discourage the living from praying for the dead. They also force the poorly catechized and the uninitiated to choose between what little they know of heaven and what they fear most about hell. And often, as Sandy demonstrated, no matter how many times a loved one hears that the deceased is in heaven, it is understandable if they spend the rest of their lives secretly wondering otherwise.
On the other extreme, should the faithful and the lapsed (who may only attend Mass at funerals) hear over and again that everyone goes to heaven, why wouldn’t they think that the same applies to them and those they love, like their spouses and children?
Preaching instant sainthood thus comes with terrible consequences: it either sows unrealistic certainty or despair among survivors or it falsely assures us that no one really has “sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (cf. Rom 3:23). And if that is the case, what need is there for prayers for the dead, the grace of God, and the Church that offers it sacramentally?
We all become angels?
Then there is the expectation that when we die we become angels. No matter what is revealed in the Gospel or spoken in the Eucharistic prayers, the poorly catechized often add pleasant but gnostic imagery of souls becoming not like angels, but actual angels—beings who are and who will remain pure spirit and intellect and have no need of physical bodies.
Thus what we know about being human—of having a body and a soul—contrasts with the expectation that our eternal rest will include only half of who we are, or were. And that comes with uncomfortable implications. If by the grace of God we do meet our loved ones after our death, such a gnostic version of heaven offers no hope of ever hugging them again or enjoying the goodness of creation’s physicality.
I know from the death of my long paralyzed, bed-ridden aunt that there is comfort in knowing that one’s broken body is no longer a cause of suffering. Thus we speak of “being released” from our fallen bodily existence. But this does not imply that this separation is a good and intended end for all eternity. No wonder so many Catholics—even among the practicing—are forgetting our promised rise in eternal, bodily glory.
Those attending a Catholic funeral who do not know the treasures of Christ’s revelation—perhaps it is their first time at a Catholic Mass or their first time in years—could very well hear talk of becoming angels and think that Catholicism isn’t really different than those comforting New Age beliefs that come without the expectations of moral and physical sacrifices. And if that were truly the choice, which belief system do you think they will choose?
God is the author of death?
A common refrain among the lay faithful and even some celebrants is that death has some intended place in God’s plan. “God has a purpose for this,” we hear well-meaning friends tell an inconsolable widow, as if God takes pleasure in the consequences of sin.
Lost is the understanding that the only death ordained by God—the only one that can bring eternal salvation—is the death of Jesus Christ. All others deaths, our own included, are not of divine origin.
Again, there are pastoral inclinations to tell shocked survivors that good can come from the death of a loved one. But this is different than implying that death is necessary or that the cosmos will somehow be better off because your teenage daughter died of bone cancer.
People know that death isn’t right, even if hearing otherwise brings brief comfort. When time offers the opportunity to reflect on the goodness of life and the unfathomable losses of death, survivors discern that while God may bring good out of evil, he should not and does require its existence to bring about some good.
The importance of the liturgy for the living and the dead
I’ve noticed that many funerals at many parishes are accompanied musically by “On Eagles’ Wings” and “I Am the Bread of Life.” Families probably demand this music because that is all they have ever heard at funerals.
And while I’ve watched only one celebrant rearrange people in the front pews to hold their hands, many do preach Masses of Canonization. They might even tell us that the deceased, who is now an angel, is making spaghetti in heaven with their mother, father, spouse, and anyone they ever knew and loved—not that I would have anything against a heavenly banquet that includes pasta, but there are other things that need to be stressed, things about salvation, which we find only in the Gospels and hear the Eucharistic Prayers.
Many funerals offer a eulogy. If so, we will likely hear an understandably emotional but uncatechized friend or relative tell funny stories about the deceased. After we all laugh, they may instruct us that God has brought the deceased home through willing the terrible evil of death. Sadly, many may remember only these words.
All this contrasts with a recent funeral of a man whose son is a seminarian. The church provided a transcendent beauty focusing on the paschal mysteries. It was a worthy setting for the celebrant’s homily, which centered on the deceased’s faith in the Eucharist. (The poor man had suffered greatly after an accident and found undeniable comfort when he would be brought the Body of Christ.) The funeral hymns soared and the many seminarians in attendance served with great dignity. There was no eulogy—the readings, the homily, and the prayers of the Eucharist had said what needed to be said. All this made for a moment of profound grace and solace—a moment of divine continuity. Even the uninitiated could tell that something important was happening, that Someone important was present.
When funeral liturgies are thus oriented and conducted, we are all reminded of realities far greater than the offerings of errant and comfortable words that do not last. We remember (or perhaps learn for the first time) what Christ has done for us. And we find hope in what he promises: that in communion with God and with the saints, we can offer our prayers in expectation that the person we love might be offered true joy in heaven.