There is probably nothing worse in the modern Church and the liturgy than the state of Catholic funerals that almost seem like you are attending either a canonization service or some Pentecostal type of Protestant funeral service. This is specifically true when it comes to most homilies that one encounters at such funeral Masses. Priests often in trying to act pastorally in such situation end up using language such as “today we gather and celebrate so and so” Or “Do not be saddened but rejoice for so and so who is now with God in the joys of Heaven.” This reality although meant to be pastoral in nature for the grieving friends and family members ends up being a cruel act towards both the deceased individual and his or her friends and family members for many reasons and is based on a false charity and compassion.
This type of pastoralism that is often found in most Catholic funerals is far from being what the ideal funeral is supposed to be, namely offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass (the perfect prayer and sacrifice of the Church) for such family members. As Peggy Frye states:
“We forget that the duty of a priest (or bishop, or deacon) at a funeral Mass is not to make people ‘feel good’ by telling them that Aunt Flo or Uncle Bob is now ‘in heaven with the Father’; instead he is to offer worship to God for Christ’s victory over death, to comfort the mourning with prayers and the Eucharist, and to pray for the soul of the deceased—commending him or her to God’s merciful love. Period. Only the Church has the authority to canonize an individual. To presume the deceased is in heaven is to presume we know the mind of God. Of course we can go straight to heaven. But let’s face it, most of us won’t.”1
Let’s face it as the quote from Peggy Frye states, although it is possible for someone to go straight to Heaven, the majority of us don’t. There are many times when a funeral Mass is celebrated for individuals who perhaps lapsed from the faith, were only converted on their death bed, or who might have lived a particular type of sinful lifestyle, or who battled with any particular sin or vice. By treating the funeral Mass as some sort of canonization service are we not also canonizing such particular vice and sin as virtuous, such as straying from the faith, or any other particular vice that the individual may have committed?
The Catechism states the following about the purpose of the Funeral Mass:
“When the celebration takes place in church the Eucharist is the heart of the Paschal reality of Christian death. In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom. It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who “has fallen asleep in the Lord,” by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him. (CCC 1689)
The ideal funeral Mass ties in very well with the Catholic teaching on the doctrine of Purgatory which Holy Writ testifies. Holy Writ and the Catholic Church have always shown the reality of purgatory after death for those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030).
Or when St Paul tells us that “Every man’s work shall be manifest: for the day of the Lord shall declare it, because it shall be revealed in fire: and the fire shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide, which he hath built thereupon: he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work burn, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire.”(1 Cor 3:13-15)
Lastly the biblical passage of Second Maccabees ties in well with the same idea of the Mass being offered as a prayer for the dead so that they may enter the joys of Heaven:
“And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead. (2 Macc. 12:43–45)
It is for this reason that treating the funeral Mass as either a canonization process or a protestant funeral service is the contrary to being pastoral and charitable. What if such deceased individual is in the process of being purified for past sins in Purgatory that he needs to be cleansed from? When the priests says things that make it seem like so and so is in Heaven when they clearly are not then the friends and family get the assumption that they do not need to pray for that individual anymore since he is in Heaven. How uncharitable and cruel is that? When the priest could have used such opportunity to instruct the Faithful to pray for that individual so that it may enter Heaven as quickly as possible, he rather remains trapped in the fires of purgatory for even longer.
I highly admire the Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass which is usually the embodiment of what an ideal funeral Mass should be. All the gestures of the priest at the Requiem Mass, including the wearing of black vestments show the reality that the funeral is not a canonization process for the deceased individual, nor some simple therapy for the bereaved. On the Contrary it shows the reality that the funeral Mass is offered as a prayer to God for the deceased individual that he or she may be cleansed from all stains of sin and imperfections so that it may enter the glory of Heaven as quickly as possible.
Similarly there is perhaps no greater hymn to be offered at a funeral Mass that shows the purpose of the funeral as well as of pleading to God for Divine Mercy than the Dies Irae which I recommend everyone to hear and follow along with the Latin Chant as well as the accompanying English translation. Rather than being all about doom and gloom the Dies Irae is perhaps one of the best and most beautiful medieval poems and prayers that expresses someone’s pleading to God for mercy.
- Peggy Frye “St. Dearly Departed”