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.


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!

Kennedy-Shriver Funerals


  1. Austin,

    Great thoughts on the OCF, and its theology. You're right on the mark.

    I'd be interested in hearing people's thoughts about why so many find it necessary to change, or augment, the church's liturgy of funerals. What is it that seems "lacking"? I can tell you that I've even met some bishops who think nothing of changing ritual elements at a funeral to "make it more personal....about the deceased."

    I believe that many pastors have lost sight of the Paschal nature of OCF....we need reminders like your words, to bring us back to center.

    Keep up the good work. I will talk with you soon! Peace.

  2. "The Church’s invitation to families here is to participate in preparing the celebration of the rite, not to rewrite the rite."

    Well said.

  3. The Shriver funeral, as well as the whole end-of-life health care concerns that are occurring as a result of the health-care debate, show us once again the need for good catechesis. Father Austin, I believe that is one of the gifts of your blog.
    Please use this tool of evangelization to continue to educate and in the process transform us so that we may see the richness of our faith and of our rites so that we can indeed "be not afraid".

  4. I have so many thoughts on this with little time to share them at this moment.

    What I will say, from my own perspective (limited though it may be) as someone actively involved in funeral ministry and also working in a parish office, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

    Now I did not always think this way, but I have come to see that the liturgy is truly the "source and summit" for all, including funerals, perhaps in a most particular way there.

    Your Shriver post caused me to get into more than one challenging conversation, both in person and via email, with some who see otherwise. This is a big topic and I am glad you are addressing it here.


  5. I think that the desire to make the funeral fit the family's desires is evidence of a larger tenancy. There is a common desire to inject all kinds of things into the liturgy of the mass as well. Often, there is nothing wrong in these things in and of themselves, it is just that they are not appropriate for the mass, or that changing the liturgy of the mass is not appropriate.

    I think one of the biggest reasons that this happens is because so many people's spiritual lives are so sparse. They go to Sunday mass, if even that, and that is pretty much it. They therefore have a need to jam all of their spiritual needs and spiritual practices into the mass and those infrequent extra-mass occasions.

    And with funerals specifically, I think there is something similar. We so infrequently celebrate the lives of people, and funerals often end up serving as the last and best chance to do so. Our families are fragmented, the notion of a celebratory wake is pretty foreign to most of us.

  6. I am very interested in knowing more about the Catholic funeral process. I have felt that they are not as personal as some other faiths funerals. I also feel that it is confusing when you see masses for celebrities that are different than they are suppose to be and it seems like what is good enough for them should be good enough for all. That said though, I think that the family should be given an outlet for the family and others to celebrate the persons life. You said “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." I believe that who heartedly. I believe that is what the reception is for. Maybe there needs to be a better planned reception for those that have deceased.

    I once went to a funeral for someone that my husband worked for ((Unitarian) and I found out so much about that person and I really felt privileged that my husband was able to share in his life and we were able to hear about it. I would like that for people that I love and care about (especially those in my parish). Is there a way to make that happen.

    Please continue to post about this. We can only keep learning. I did not post before because the summer is a busy time. You also have to remember that many people read, but few write.


  7. Mary S. here...

    Three brief comments:

    Here is a link to the homily delivered by Pope John Paul II at the Mass of Christian Burial for Cardinal Eduardo Francisco Pironio: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/homilies/1998/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_07021998_pironio_en.html
    It appears to be largely about how Cardinal Pironio lived out the Paschal Mystery.

    Secondly - today it is true that when a Catholic dies, many of the people in attendance may well not be practicing Catholics. I think it is important to bear this in mind and recognize that those persons are trying to find a meaningful way to bring meaning and closure to their relationship with their friend/family member. It becomes a teachable moment, not in terms of "this is the way we do it", but this is how your friend united to Christ in living out the Paschal mystery.

    Thirdly, this promises to be an eventful week as we reflect on this subject. I look forward to seeing how it all unfolds. I will make time for it. I do not know if the President will be sufficiently brief for your taste, but I have no doubt that he will be spiritually and morally inspiring and that he will invite us to follow in the path of justice and peace and concern for the needs of the poor. I cannot imagine anyone else to whom I would rather listen.

  8. Thanks for setting up the new discussion here, though I read your later post about the lack of attention it has received. I hope I didn't lead you astray!

    I have a couple of thoughts about your point. You are absolutely right that the focus on the Mass of Christian Burial--as on any public worship of the Church--is on the paschal mystery. Our worship of God is most complete when we are drawn into that mystery and experience it in the liturgy. While a "votive Mass" can include other concerns (prayers at the beginning of the school year, a Red Mass, a Mass for the Dead), the central mystery being celebrated is Christ's death and resurrection.

    At the same time, events in our lives--birth, marriage, death--are given a richer context by the paschal mystery and they also reveal something about that mystery at work in our lives in this particular way. So while the paschal mystery remains the focus, it should not be to the exclusion of the occasion. Our faith is incarnational and part of a funeral Mass should deal with the life of the deceased as a witness of the faith. Examples from the individual's life should be given not as a eulogy but as a witness to the power of faith, the dynamics of Christ's reconciling death and life-giving resurrection at work in this concrete example of the life of the deceased.

    Often we hear complaints by both families and the pastors that the funeral would have been a better experience if the presider/preacher knew (or knew something about) the deceased. A generic funeral homily that does not reference the individual in any way seems to me to be as much of a problem as a "homily" that is nothing more than a eulogy. Maybe I'm wrong, but I suspect that the allowance for a member of the family to speak after communion is a pastoral recognition that the presider/preacher might not know the person well enough to meet the challenge of the funeral homily.

    Of course, how to reach that balance so that the life is a point of illumination, a showing forth, of the mystery is part of the craft and there can be differences of "taste." In general, though, we know it when we hear it.

    Anyone who has been to the funeral of a priest and heard nothing more than a rehearsal of his assignments knows that the clergy are often offenders of the rule. That's as bad an example as a "state funeral" where family members go overboard on the postcommunion eulogy. I wish that the USCCB would simply remove that option entirely, but there is a bit too much of the pot and kettle going on, as well as the problem of anonymous funeral homilies. But those are other issues. I'm interested what others think about getting the right balance between the individual's life and the mystery. of faith.

  9. Great idea!!!! I read your post, that's so impressive. I really like your blog. Thanks for the nice comments. I am also interested in it. Keep up the Good Work.


Please THINK before you write
and PRAY before you think!