Last year, I encountered something rather interesting, but, sadly, not uncommon in my diocese. In under a week, I attended two Vigils for the Deceased. Both times, they were "presided" over by laity. We do not have a severe priest shortage in our diocese, nor are we lacking in permanent deacons. In fact the parishes where the deceased belonged to each had two priests and a deacon assigned to them.
What caused me this consternation was the fact that Ecclesia de Mysterio, an authoritative document of the Holy See, notes the following:
Leading the Celebration at Funerals
In the present circumstances of growing dechristianization and of abandonment of religious practice, death and the time of obsequies can be one of the most opportune pastoral moments in which the ordained minister can meet with the non-practicing members of the faithful.
It is thus desirable that Priests and Deacons, even at some sacrifice to themselves, should preside personally at funeral rites in accordance with local custom, so as to pray for the dead and be close to their families, thus availing of an opportunity for appropriate evangelization.
The non-ordained faithful may lead the ecclesiastical obsequies provided that there is a true absence of sacred ministers and that they adhere to the prescribed liturgical norms. (111) Those so deputed should be well prepared both doctrinally and liturgically.
The laity are not properly trained. During the first service, the layman leading the vigil declared in his reflection that the deceased was in heaven and that he would be helping out the survivors. He also made a point of going to the body after the service as it to bless the corpse. I spoke to him after the service and told him that the Church only makes that kind of judgment when a canonization is involved and this is not the time for us to be making statements like that. I also told him that only clergy should be blessing. The man told me that he was annointed to do this and that he does not follow what the Pope says, but, what God says. That was a big red flag. He also said that he did not have to obey someone who sins. I was flabbergastged, to say the least.
Then, later in the week, I went to the second Vigil. I was disappointed because a layman led the service. He really had no clue as to what he was doing, but, at least he did not attempt to bless and pray over the body. As I said in my opening comments, the parish where the deceased was from has two priests and a deacon. After the service, I spoke to one of the religious brothers who was in attendance and I told him that what happened should not have occured. He told me that it was time for the laity to start taking over these duties. I told him to read Ecclesiae de Mysterio. He told me that if I didn't agree with empowering the laity, then I should found my own church. Once again, I told him to read the documents, but, he ignored the comment.
Now, truth be told, I had to face this situation four years ago when my paternal grandmother died. I very reluctantly had to do the rosary for my beloved paternal grandmother because the funeral home couldn't find a priest in Austin to do it. I was very disappointed with my grandmother's pastor. Having seen what the laywoman did at my step-grandfather's rosary, I did not want the same thing to happen for my grandma. It was frustrating. It just seemed to me that there wasn't much importance given to the Vigil for the Deceased. I certainly did not "feel empowered."
My point is this: it should not be a question of empowering the laity. Rather, priests and deacons should own up to the responsibilities given to them at their ordinations. I can understand if there are communities that are isolated, as is the case in some parts of the United States and Canada (where our Canadian brethren living in these areas get a visit from the priest once a month, or so). There are many priests and deacons in my diocese who do preside over the Vigils of the Deceased. They take the time to be with the grieving families and to pray for the deceased. I am hoping that what I witnessed was an anomoly that is found only in a couple of parishes. But, nonetheless, as laity, I believe that we should only come into play in the event that there is a grave necessity. That is why this function of the laity is called "extraordinary" because it should happen only in extraordinary occasions.
Anyone wishing to read Ecclesia de Mysterio can find it in its entirety at:
We should note that one of the Congregations involved in writing this document was the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith whose prefect, at the time, was the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger.