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Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Rights of the Faithful Departed

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger blesses the grave of Blessed John Paul II (photo from St. Peter's Basilica)

Redemptionis Sacramentum reminds us that the faithful have the right to a properly celebrated liturgy.  I believe that this right to the Rite also extends to the faithful departed.

Having gone through funeral preparations first-hand (my mother's, my paternal grandmother's and my maternal aunt's), I know that this is one of the hardest things for a family member or a close friend to do.  Funeral directors who are well-versed in the Rites of the Church can be (and are) very helpful.  Lamentably, it has been my sad experience that those who should be the most knowledgeable, the clergy themselves, wind up causing the most harm.

One of the saddest instances is a lack of availability on the part of some of the clergy.  In the document Ecclesia de Mysterio, the Church specifically states that:

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.

In my own area, on not a few occasions, pastors send the laity to conduct the Vigil for the Deceased or the final rites at the cemetery.  While Ecclesia de Mysterio does make some provisions for the laity to be involved in these particular rites, it should only happen when there is a "true absence of sacred ministers."  This means that such involvement of the laity could certainly be useful in outlying missionary territories (or even outlying areas such as Alaska and rural parts of Canada) where a priest is only able to make limited visits to impart the sacraments; however, I do not believe that such a provision is meant for urban areas where both deacons and priests are readily available. Even in those cases when the laity are involved, Ecclesia de Mysterio requires that these individuals be properly trained.  Unfortunately, even in these instances, those laity who are involved in either the Vigil or at the cemetery, tend to misrepresent the Church's teaching, either almost canonizing the deceased or offering a reflection that is not necessarily in step with the Faith.  

Death is the time when the faithful most need their parish priests and/or their deacons.  Even those of us who are properly formed in the Faith need the consolation of the clergy.  I know that when my own mother died, I was blessed to have my parochial vicar from my parish in Austin support me through the process.  The pain was very deep.  This is also a time to also evangelize those in mourning who have left the Church. Pope Francis encourages pastors to be close to their flocks, even to the point of knowing the name of the family pet.  Certainly, the death of a family member can afford clergy the tine to offer consolation, through the Rites of the Church, to those families in need as well as prayers and supplications for the person who has died.  At one funeral I attended, I saw the disappointment in the family when an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion showed up for the final Rite at the Cemetery.  They had expected the priest to be there and he did not come.  This is not the first time this has happened. 

Another stickling point centers around the music used at these particular liturgies.  Some clergy, as I have experienced, seem to have a misguided pastoral sense, allowing everything and anything to be played and sung at the funeral Mass.  Down here, one musician includes "Heaven Must Have Needed an Angel" as his repertoire.  The song's bad theology and equally horrid musicality conflict with the sacred nature of the Eucharist.  On a few occasions, Mariachis have been used for funeral Masses.  This particular genre is ill-suited for the Mass and seems to stand in opposition to the Rites. Other funeral Masses have featured the use of recorded music.  This violates the Church's liturgical practices and is not allowed.

The Church is not inflexible when it comes to these kinds of liturgies.  The families are free to select appropriate readings from the Lectionary.  Unfortunately, even at that, there are some clergy who will not even give the family that opportunity.  The readings are pre-selected by the parish and not much wiggle room is given to the family, even though the relatives do have that legitimate option. Ironically, parishes like this tend to not be as vigilant over the music. Nonetheless, insofar as that is concerned, ideally, through proper guidance, families can also select fitting music for the funeral Mass.  

The final issue centers around the "eulogy".  According to the Order of Catholic Funerals, "there is never to be a eulogy at the funeral Mass."  Inasmuch as the celebrant may allow a relative or a friend to say a few brief words about the deceased at the concluding rite, such remarks might best be made after the Vigil or after the rite of committal.  This is not a moment of canonization of the deceased.  This is a moment of prayer for the soul of the departed.  We also tend to misunderstand what a funeral liturgy is. It is not a celebration of the deceased's life.  The Funeral Mass offers supplication for the deceased and comfort to the survivors. 

One of the corporal works of mercy is to bury the dead. One of the spiritual works of mercy is to pray for the living and the dead.   If we hold true to Redemptionis Sacramentum, than part and parcel of both of these works of mercy is to ensure that the dead rightfully receive the proper Rites. 

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