Monday, July 27, 2015

FUNERAL HOMILIES AND HOW TO COMFORT FAMILY AND FRIENDS WITHOUT CANONIZING THE FAITHFUL OR UNFAITHFUL DEPARTED

We have already explored how miserable our funeral Masses have become with all kinds of banalities and sentimentality abounding.

There are three areas where sentimentality and wishful thinking (a form of therapy for those who do it or plan it) take place:

1. First the Propers are tossed (which actually pray for the deceased) and sentimental hymns of schmaltzy quality, what is called "kitsch" are chosen.

2.  Eulogies given by family members or friends after Holy Communion that speak of everything that has no Catholic ethos whatsoever and might include non-Christian poems and secular songs.

3. Homilies that canonize the deceased although the goal is to comfort the grieving.

Bishops and priests must take back the Requiem Mass as designed by the Church, even in the Ordinary Form and reform some of the bad things allowed in the Ordinary Form Requiem such as the allowance of eulogies and the Propers being replaced by hymns of good or bad quality.

But what about priests and their homilies? How can the clergy stop from canonizing the faithful or unfaithful departed even with the benign goal of comforting the bereaved?

I have to admit sometimes I canonize people who I feel are in heaven, those who have gone to confession while they were dying, received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick and the Apostolic Absolution and Holy Communion and were able to receive Viaticum moments before their last breath.

I say things like "grandma is reunited with her loved ones around the throne of God" and other such pious platitudes.

Of course even in the 1970's homiletic courses I had, we were warned not to give eulogies revolving around the life of the dead person or to canonize them but rather to preach the Paschal Mystery. We were to focus on Jesus Christ, especially His Passion, death and resurrection. How novel for funeral Liturgies, no?

But how can we clergy say something that will comfort the bereaved?

In the first place, we cannot omit Purgatory as though preaching about it and thinking that our loved one might be experiencing it would be insulting to the the deceased!

I will close with Father Longenecker's practical advice on the use of purgatory in funeral homilies and how to speak of the deceased in a loving way but without canonizing that person:

Belief in purgatory is both compassionate and common sense.

It is compassionate because it allows for a place for us to go to finish the work of becoming “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” It is compassionate because it takes human responsibility seriously and allows us to continue to co-operate with God’s grace for our soul’s purification.

Purgatory is common sense because all of us realize that very few of us are saints ready to enter directly into God’s presence, but also we know that (hopefully) not many of us are so desperately evil as to reject God forever and go to hell.

Therefore what do we say at funerals? We can be consistent with Catholic  beliefs and also be compassionate.

We can say, “Thank God for George’s life. What a terrific man he was. We’ll all miss him, and you can bet I will continue to pray that God will complete his work of grace in George’s life”

We can say, “Thank God for Jimmy. May God continue to lead him into his life, light and happiness.”

Purgatory is therefore a doctrine not only full of compassion and common sense, but also full of confidence, joy and eternal hope.

My final comment: Irish wakes are legendary. People have a good time prior to or after the Church's official Vigil for the Deceased (which might include the recitation of the Holy Rosary). It is at the wake after or before the priest or deacon (or in case of dire necessity, the pastoral minister) has executed the official Vigil for the Deceased that all kinds of things can be said about the deceased, seriously or in good humor, where songs of all kinds can be played or sung and people can raise a glass of cheer. Don't do any of this during the Vigil for the Deceased, at the Funeral Mass or Liturgy or at the Rite of Committal. At these liturgies simply read the black and do the red and do so scrupulously!


12 comments:

John Nolan said...

I suppose in the Novus Ordo we can't escape the homily - the liturgy, despite the fact that it's in the vernacular, can't possibly be allowed to speak for itself - which is yet another reason for opting for the traditional form.

About twenty-five years ago a friend of mine died unexpectedly in his early forties. He cordially disliked the post-V2 liturgical changes; I recall showing him a photograph of the 1984 centenary Mass at the London Oratory and his saying 'That's what a Catholic Mass should look like!'

His widow was not a Catholic and his funeral Mass was organized by his sisters, who came down from Yorkshire or somewhere. One of them was an EMHC in her own parish. Mawkish sentimentality and banality were the order of the day, and it did not help that the parish priest was known for his liturgical creativity and informality. The widow was in pieces throughout, and I couldn't help thinking that the objectivity of the traditional rites might have consoled her somewhat.

I knew that my friend would have hated the whole performance and so took a place at the back and recited, sotto voce and in Latin, the traditional prayers. Later I mentioned this to the widow who said 'Thank you. He'd appreciate that'.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John Nolan - The homily is not intended to speak for the liturgy.

"The Homily is part of the Liturgy and is highly recommended, for it is necessary for the nurturing of the Christian life. It should be an explanation of some aspect of the readings from Sacred Scripture or of another text from the Ordinary or the Proper of the Mass of the day and should take into account both the mystery being celebrated and the particular needs of the listeners." (GIRM 65)

John Nolan said...

Fr K

Stop quoting the GIRM at me - I know it inside out and backwards in both Latin and English, and my first sentence merely reinforces your point. The idea of the homily as part of the Liturgy of the Word actually predates the GIRM, being found in Inter Oecumenici (1964).

Neither apply to the classic Roman Rite. Before the sermon the priest removes his maniple (and sometimes even the chasuble) to indicate that the liturgy is interrupted at this point.

Rather than restate the obvious, you might have addressed the substantive content of my post. But that's not your style, is it?

The Greek said...

In the 1962 rite, what is the practice of a bishop giving a homily?

In Russian churches, a priest gives a homily after the Gospel (which is seen as an interruption of the Liturgy), but a bishop gives it at the end. Greeks have moved the homily to the end of the Liturgy, regardless of the rank of the celebrant.

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John Nolan - When the GIRM supports my position, I will quote it liberally. And I happen to think that the GIRM, in questions of liturgy, is rather substantive.

The "classic" Roman Rite has undergone hundreds, maybe thousands of changes over time. That the homily was once thought to be extrinsic to the liturgy is of little or no consequence, inasmuch as we now understand it to be intrinsic thereunto.

I don't agree with you that the "classic" funeral liturgy, sans homily, is sufficient to communicate our beliefs about death and the hope for resurrection. That is especially the case when the "classic" liturgy is celebrated in a language that is not spoken or understood by those in attendance.

Bee said...

For my mother's funeral liturgy we requested to the pastor to use as the first reading of her funeral Mass the Old Testament passage of Elijah being taken up to heaven by chariots of fire in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). The pastor is quite traditionally minded, and when I explained my intention was to draw on the fact that death is not the end, but that like Elijah, a person is carried in spirit to the presence of God, he permitted it.

During the homily, the priest (also traditionally minded) said that Elijah prefigures Christ's Ascension into heaven, where He goes to prepare a place for us, and the where righteous are promised everlasting life.

He did a wonderful job using the Scripture passages to speak of our Faith, and that we are not without hope, but know living faithful lives, as did our mom, our Merciful Savior will bring us into His everlasting kingdom.

My mom was not at all canonized in that homily, even though she had the Grace of God to receive the Apostolic Blessing (Absolution) and the prayers of the Commendation of a Soul to God and I was able to receive Viaticum on her behalf on her death bed (she was in her last hours at that time, and not responsive, but I believe she could hear us, because she was holding fast to a small crucifix I gave her, and seemed to know we were with her). She had received the Sacrament of the Sick and made a confession a few months before her death, even though she was not able to make a confession on her death bed.

Her funeral Mass was very beautiful, and no one spoke to eulogize her, or did anyone do anything outside the normal Catholic Mass. I pray each day she is truly in heaven, but am comforted to know because of her belief in God she is at least in purgatory, since Jesus said, I am the Resurrection and the Life. He who believes in me, even though he dies, will live. (We used this Scripture for the Gospel.)

John Nolan said...

Fr MJK

In the 1962 rite there is no homily in a Requiem Mass after the Gospel. Should the priest wish to preach, he must request permission in writing from the local Ordinary and he speaks after the Mass, having removed his Mass vestments to underscore that what he is doing is extra-liturgical. It's not 'thought to be' extrinsic to the liturgy; it is extrinsic to the liturgy.

The GIRM, the 'Order of Christian Funerals', or anything emanating from the liturgy and/or music departments of Bishops' Conferences apply only to the Novus Ordo. I'm not against preaching, and if in the Novus Ordo requires a homily at a certain point and says it's part of the liturgy then fair enough. But it's not retrospective.

We are all equal in death, and the traditional rite which involves no options emphasises this. Bespoke funerals can all too easily become 'a celebration of the life of N.' or be seen primarily as 'a ministry to mourners'. They can also descend into the kind of mawkish sentimentality which Fr McDonald castigates and which nearly all of us have witnessed first-hand, or become an Anglican hymn sandwich.

At the traditional Requiem I spoke about the congregation were given booklets so that they could easily follow the rite (and they did so; I could see this clearly from the choir loft). So when the schola was singing in succession the Gradual, Tract and Sequence they could properly follow the texts as they were sung and meditate on them, which is how one should approach the Chant if one is not actually singing it.

Next month the Dominicans at Holy Cross priory in Leicester will sing a Requiem Mass for Richard III according to their Use of the Roman Rite which has changed little since the 13th century (and was itself based on older models). It is not greatly different from the 1962 Roman Rite which is little changed from that set out in the Missal of 1570. Perhaps you can enlighten us as to the 'hundreds, maybe thousands' of changes to which the rites were subject until 1962. In fact there has been little change in over a thousand years. The Sequence was added (not universally) in the 13th century and the Preface for the Dead (retained in the NO as option 1) was added in the early years of the 20th.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Of course FrMJK is being contentious if not disingenuous . He celebrates Mass in Soanish and surely there are Anglos present who not understand a word. One would hope the former PI provides them an English translation.

Our Cathedral often has bilingual Masses with a written translation in one's native tongue for those who do not comprende.

Former PI is too young to remember that's generation knew how to use a hand missal to follow the changing parts of the Mass. As I recall, the priest also read the Gospel again in English prior to the sermon.

Today though most who attend the EF Mass make s concerted effort at knowing what is being prayed nostter their native tongue.

Fr. Allan J. McDonald said...

Damn auto correct one iPhone!

John Nolan said...

Fr AJM

Ironically, if the Anglos at PI's Spanish Mass were familiar with the Mass in Latin they would have no difficulty in following it. In St Peter's at Vespers they sing some of the psalms and antiphons in Italian (but to the correct Gregorian formulas). I would find no difficulty in singing and understanding them, and I don't speak Italian!

Fr. Michael J. Kavanaugh said...

John Nolan - I don't know at what point preaching fell out of favor, do you? And do we know why?

I would be inclined to think that this sad happenstance came about as a result of a general distrust of the Protestant appreciation of Sacred Scriptures, an appreciation the Church feared for obvious reasons. I am speculating here, so if you know the reasons, jump right in.

In any event, the rediscovery of the homily as an integral part of the liturgy cannot be seen as anything but a blessing. I readily admit that, in some particular circumstances when the homilist's skills are sub-par, the blessing may not be as evident. But as I have said before, just because a choir offers a truly terrible performance of Handel's Messiah does not mean that that oratorio should be removed from the repertoire.

J. Ratzinger wrote, "The word of God's natural home is in the midst of the people of God, especially at worship.” (Biblical Interpretation in Crisis, The Ratzinger Conference on the Bible and the Church ed. Richard John Neuhaus, 129). This includes the homily which, as we know, is to be based on the readings of the day, to explain the meaning of those readings, and to help the congregation apply the meaning to their daily lives.

If there is to be "mutual enrichment" between the OF and the EF, then one of the greatest enrichments the EF can obtain is the homily.

John Nolan said...

Fr MJK

I don't think preaching ever fell out of favour. The Dominicans are officially the Order of Preachers. In the Middle Ages sermons attracted such large audiences that they often had to be delivered outdoors. When literacy was by no means universal the spoken word was more important than it is nowadays. Preaching was an important adjunct to the Liturgy (in modern terms one might talk about liturgical outreach) and so were mystery plays and other forms of popular devotion which often used liturgical texts and mixed Latin with the vernacular.

The more extreme Protestants abandoned formal liturgy altogether and so preaching assumed an exaggerated importance. Puritans in the 17th century might hear three sermons on Sunday, each lasting an hour. Yet Catholic churches had pulpits and the Council of Trent stressed the necessity of good preaching. The Gospel message was not brought to the mission territories simply by priests celebrating Low Mass in Latin. Sermons by such important 19th century figures as John Henry Newman and Gerard Manley Hopkins are in print and make wonderful devotional reading.

Yet I cannot accept that they are in themselves liturgical, although the LOTH does use the writings of the Church Fathers in a liturgical context. A preacher is using his knowledge and skill to extrapolate from what the Liturgy already has. One man's words, however erudite, inspiring and compelling, do not the Liturgy make. Inter Oecumenici interpreted the term 'liturgy' in a fairly broad way and so they could claim the homily to be part of the Liturgy in a way that it never was (apart from anything else, from 1964 the Liturgy of the Word was usually in the vernacular so a vernacular homily would fit in).

The EF Sunday Mass has a homily, preceded by the parish notices and (usually) the reading of the epistle and gospel in the vernacular. I don't think the weekday Mass needs a homily, although in the OF it is probably justified since to say the whole thing using the recommended weekday EP II could hardly take more than a quarter of an hour (as opposed to 25-30 mins for the EF)