8/20/09

Speaking of funerals...

I had just completed writing a very long post to follow up on my earlier comments on the Shriver funeral. Before wrapping up the post I checked my email and there was a comment from a reader named Peter encouraging me to continue the discussion on funerals but not in the context of the Shriver rites. So, at least for now I'm going to follow Peter's suggestion. Here follows the first part of what I was about to post. (There are a few references here to the Shriver funeral but I don't believe they're of a critical nature and they do help me get at some of the basic issues here.) Let's see how folks respond to the following...

Whenever possible, ministers should involve the family (of the deceased) in planning the funeral rites: in the choice of texts and rites provided in the ritual, in the selection of music for the rites, and in the designation of liturgical ministers.
(Order for Christian Funerals, no. 17)

I’ve already posted on the funeral of Eunice Shriver. My criticism of the manner in which her funeral Mass was celebrated drew a number of diverse comments. Although I noted in my post that my remarks were certainly not directed at Mrs. Shriver but rather at those responsible for assisting her family in preparing the funeral liturgy, some readers thought my tackling this subject was prematurely timed. I’m not sure just how long one should wait before commenting on a funeral which received international attention.

Others chided me for not posting, instead, on the wonderful life and work of Eunice Shriver. Well, I don’t think the media let us down in that regard. And I did post a lengthy excerpt from a beautiful essay on Mrs. Shriver’s faith by her son, Tim, with a link to the whole article.

Then, there are those who evidently believe that at the time of a funeral the Church and her ministers should abandon just about all liturgical principles and guidelines and accede to whatever the family of the deceased may want to do. Some have hinted that this is what Jesus would do. Well, I can’t speak for Jesus on that matter but I believe that the Church’s prayer has a well-deserved integrity and that in almost every instance, celebrating the liturgy as the Church intends will yield a prayerful, meaningful, spiritual, healing experience for at least all believers and also, often, for those who do not share our faith in the risen Christ.

That’s what 36 years of celebrating funeral liturgies has taught me.

The quote at the head of this post is from the introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF). Clearly, it’s the mind of the Church that the family have the opportunity to be personally involved in preparing the funeral liturgy. And that’s just how it should be: nothing less than this - not too much more than this, either. The Church’s invitation to families here is to participate in preparing the celebration of the rite, not to rewrite the rite. Unfortunately and for various reasons, some have come to expect that they have a right to fashion the Church’s prayer according to their own tastes and inclinations. The invitation to families in the OCF does not share that vision and it’s often the work of parish ministers to help families understand this.

Every sacramental celebration is marked by the warm fingerprints of those who celebrate it. In the liturgy, we are human beings sharing in the eternal and divine liturgy of Christ’s paschal mystery. While it’s appropriate and inevitable that the liturgy bear the traces of our holding it in our hands, the liturgy’s first purpose is to glorify God with thanks and praise and for us to become more like Christ through, with and in whom we pray.

Some have the mistaken notion that a funeral Mass is, “A Celebration of the Life of John Smith.” Not only is this not what a funeral Mass is about but such a notion seriously misunderstands the liturgy in general and the Mass of Christian burial in particular. Every liturgical rite is a celebration of the Paschal Mystery: the salvation that is ours in the death and resurrection of Jesus. A funeral Mass celebrates the life of the risen Christ and the decedent’s share in the Lord’s Resurrection.

(In the same way, a wedding Mass is not “A Celebration of the Love of Mary and John.” A nuptial Mass or ceremony is a celebration of the mystery of God’s love revealed in Christ, in which love the bride and groom are about to seal a lifelong covenant of fidelity.)

And all of this is not just pious fluff - this is how Catholics are called to understand their faith, their prayer and their Church.

Especially at a time of loss and sorrow, there is an understandable desire for personal recognition of the one being prayed for and opportunities for those close to the deceased to express their affection, their sorrow and their prayer that God will be mercifully faithful to the promise of eternal life offered the deceased in baptism. Fortunately, the funeral rites of the Catholic Church offer many opportunities for all of this. In fact, at the time of a death there are a number of opportunities for personal expression within and outside of the Church’s ritual. A problem arises, however, when there is a desire and an effort to have the funeral Mass bear the burden of all or most of that personal expression and emotion.

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Ok! Prescinding from the particulars of the Shriver funeral, what do you think of what you've read above? What questions does this post raise for you? Does it answer any questions you had? What do you think?

H/T to Peter!

-ConcordPastor
Kennedy-Shriver Funerals