Of tributes and eulogies at the Kennedy funeral

Dina Rudick/Boston Globe Staff

(For those who think I'm too strong on these issues, check this priest's take on the funeral over at the Deacon's Bench.)

I spent a part of the afternoon watching the video of Ted Kennedy's funeral Mass. Regular readers know that funeral rites have been the topic of a series of posts here over the past couple of weeks.

From the beginning, my concern has been the impact of celebrity funerals on parish personnel. As I wrote in the first post on this topic:
It's unfortunate and a burden for local pastors when the funeral rites of celebrities place before millions a ritual that departs in many ways from what the Church intends. Such events set a false standard which makes assisting grieving families in preparing a funeral liturgy for their loved ones an even more difficult task.
It's one thing when a family says to their pastor, "But Fr. Smith over at St. Mary's lets more than one person speak after Communion." It's another thing when the family asks, "How come the Kennedy's get to do what they want?" Well, they got to do what they want because the clergy helping them prepare the funeral liturgy let them.

The comments on these posts have covered a broad range. There are some who believe that whatever the family wants is what they should be able to do. My response is that such an approach fails to understand what the liturgy is, what it offers and what how it's intended to function in the life of the Church. Wanting to discuss the matters in those terms elicits the charge that the Church is unfeeling, cold, legalistic and impersonal.

One has only to look at the liturgical books to know that this is not the way the Church wants to minister or be perceived. The failure is much more in the hands of individual clergy than in the liturgical directives. Some priests fail to understand the rites, some priests may understand them but celebrate them carelessly and others adopt a "do whatever you want" attitude when asked for exceptions to be made. Of course, many priests understand the rites, celebrate them reverently and work with family towards understanding how the Church prays and why.

In the Archdiocese of Boston there is a policy regarding family members or friends speaking at funeral Masses. The policy is based in the directives found in the liturgical books indicating that there is never to be a eulogy at a funeral Mass. What is permitted is for one person to speak no more than five minutes after the post-Communion prayer and before the Final Commendation. At the Kennedy funeral, three people spoke for a total of 38 minutes and that was about 5 minutes longer than the entire Liturgy of the Word -- which included 10 family members offering Intercessions all based on the writing and speeches of the late Senator.

(For those who are to young to remember and for those who have forgotten: before the liturgical reforms of Vatican Council II, there was not even a homily at a funeral Mass.)

Funerals should, of course, comfort the bereaved but that is only one of the reasons the Church so solemnly and sacramentally marks the passing of a brother or sister. Folks I've heard from generally found the Kennedy funeral Mass to be warm, moving, evocative and wonderful. I wouldn't for a moment quarrel with them and say that their feelings are wrong. What you feel is what you feel. And how you make ritual is how, what and why you pray - and hand that prayer down from generation to generation.

A good deal of poor liturgical example (beyond the eulogy issue) was set in this celebration. At least in Boston, pastors will be working with the fallout from this for quite some time.

-ConcordPastor Kennedy-Shriver Funerals


  1. seems that a funeral should comfort and, if you will, please, the family more than it should the pastor/celebrant of the funeral. I'm not sure why anyone should get so worked up and pedantic about it.

  2. Oh CP, I have been in some interesting conversations, both in comm boxes and in person on this one.

    I am with you on this matter.

    And what was up with the music? I did not think it was altogether well chosen, although what was not to like about YoYo Ma and Domingo? I did love the Ave Maria, but then again I am always do.

    No sung psalm? And Psalm 72? And no Gospel acclamation? Lordy. No sung parts of mass.

    In any case, I watched every minute and did shed some tears, but overall, but I did not love it.

    FWIW I did think the homily was good.

  3. Austin,

    Once again, you're right on the mark regarding the vision of OCF.

    How sad it is that diocesan officials such as Bishops, Cardinals, and even Worship Office directors don't have the tools to teach "Celebrities" about the depth of the beauty of our liturgical practices.

    My prayers are with you, and all who seek to spread the Good News of the best of the Church's liturgy.

    The best of the Church's Liturgy may be the best-kept secret of our faith.

    Hoping that you keep the faith,


    Gene Vavrick

  4. Anonymous, may I ask you from what should the family of the deceased find comfort?

    The Church encourages all of us to console the mourner. This is an ongoing process. There are plenty of appropriate places and times to share memories of and pay to deceased loved ones. The Mass of the Resurrection is not one of them.

    The Order of Christian Funerals suggests that the true source comfort is derived from "Christ’s victory over sin and death." and that the purpose of the funeral liturgy is not intended to be a memorialization of the dearly departed but "to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to seek strength in the proclamation of the paschal mystery." (OCF 129)

    This is what the Church teaches and this my hope and where I find my consolation.

    FWITW, I, too, found the homily worthy and my eight year-old was astute enough to query as to why the psalm and acclamations were all spoken. I regretted that I had no sufficient reply.

  5. Anon said..."seems that a funeral should comfort and, if you will, please, the family more than it should the pastor/celebrant of the funeral."

    True! Actually,the rites, if followed correctly do just that! We believe it is Christ who is doing the comforting. It is Christ present among us praying with us. The funeral mass is not just a "service". For Catholics, the Mass is the most important act of worship. It is the source and summit of Catholic life. The Mass also unites those grieving families with all others who are present and worshipping with them... and...with those who have gone before us.
    Culture and society dictate that we need not be slave to every little liturgical rule. Some rules can and should be adapted to the particular family and assembly. The Boston Archdiocese did just that by allowing a few words of remembrance (which the OCF does not include for the mass) following communion. The problem is that some pastors allow more than one speaker and don't review the words before hand. There "brief" words turn into a long eulogy and sometimes are uncomfortable to hear in a church environment. There is a time to speak about the life of the deceased. A time we can cry and laugh about past events. That time is before the mass at the Vigil/wake and/or after the mass at the cemetery or recption.
    How we worship and pray effects people at many levels. We should be very careful what we do because our main concern should be the building up of the body of Christ. I think that when we overlook certain aspects of the liturgy for what we may believe is a pastoral reason, some times we are not being pastoral at all. This proves, I think, that the liturgical reform is ongoing. We still have lots to learn.

  6. To Fr Gene,
    I currently serve on a Diocesan Liturgical Commission and have been significantly involved in planing liturgies at National conferences in the past; my take is more often than not Worship offices and Diocesan Liturgical commissions DO have the tools but their input is not sought and, if offered, it's not welcomed.


Please THINK before you write
and PRAY before you think!