You’re probably witnessing liturgical
abuses when the woman in the pew behind you asks out loud, “What the hell is he
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
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 answerquestions 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
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) catechesisor when they center on the sentiments of the survivors
rather than the salvation of the deceasedthe 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
There are understandable pastoral
temptations to suggest instant sainthoodespecially 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
Sandy had not practiced her faith in
years. But she knew her husband better than anyoneeven 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 lapsedto 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 soulher not knowing
where he isdidn’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 angelsbeings who are and who will remain pure spirit and
intellect and have no need of physical bodies.
Thus what we know about being humanof
having a body and a soulcontrasts 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 Catholicseven among
the practicingare forgetting our promised rise in eternal, bodily glory.
Those attending a Catholic funeral who
do not know the treasures of Christ’s revelationperhaps it is their first time
at a Catholic Mass or their first time in yearscould 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 Godthe only one that can bring eternal salvationis the
death of Jesus Christ. All others deaths, our own included, are not of divine
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 lovednot 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
eulogythe 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 solacea
moment of divine continuity. Even the uninitiated could
tell that something important was happening, that Someone important was
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.