Friday, March 11, 2016

Not Quite On The Mark

My brother had an interesting comment on Mrs. Reagan’s funeral.  He said that her children, in their eulogies, referred to their mother’s belief in “spiritualism”—the beliefs and practices associated with communicating with the dead. We all do remember the controversy unleashed over her consulting mediums and astrologers when she was First Lady.  But then her children were followed by a priest who read the Episcopal Burial Service (orthodox Christian doctrine rejects the premises of spiritualism).  It makes one think about the paradoxes of faith and practice but I also think it betrays a flaw in our funeral liturgies.
I hadn’t watched the ceremony myself.  I am usually a sucker for these occasions and have a historians obsession with interpreting detail, but I myself had been at a funeral this afternoon.  It was a devout Catholic lady in her 80’s, a remarkable mother and grandmother who had raised her five children alone after her husband had died when they were still very young.  She was an avid reader of Commonweal and America and never backed down in an argument even with a priest, especially with a priest.  To argue her faith was life-giving to her and she knew her points well.   She was an active member of her parish, a rather feisty old broad actually, who drove past 7 other Catholic Churches to get to the parish to which she belonged because she liked the preaching and the music in what had been years before a “Real Vatican II: parish.”  But there was something wrong about the tone of the funeral: it was a “celebration of her life” but I am not sure it was a proclamation of the Gospel.  I think the current funeral liturgy somehow or other misses the point.  It is a bland service—granted, with plenty of options of readings and music—but at the end of the day it is, well, bland. 
On the other hand I remember the old pre-Vatican II funeral Mass where flowers were removed from the altar, clergy wore black vestments, and the coffin, surrounded by orange candles in black stands, lay before the closed gates of the sanctuary as the organist sang (in Latin, thankfully):

Day of wrath and doom impending,
David’s word with Sibyl’s blending,
Heaven and earth in ashes ending.

O what fear man’s bosom rendeth,
When from heaven the Judge descendeth,
On whose sentence all dependeth. 

Wondrous sound the trumpet flingeth,
Through earth’s sepulchers it ringeth,
All before the throne it bringeth. 

Death is struck, and nature quaking,
All creation is awaking,
To its Judge an answer making.

Lo, the book exactly worded,
Wherein all hath been recorded,
Thence shall judgment be awarded.

When the Judge His seat attaineth,
And each hidden deed arraigneth,
Nothing unavenged remaineth.

What shall I, frail man, be pleading?
Who for me be interceding
When the saints are mercy needing?

It was a pretty frightful scene.  The deceased stood at the gates of judgment awaiting sentence for a lifetime of crime.  Actually, to the ten year old I was at the time I first heard it,  it was sort of fun—like mixing Church and Halloween. 
Of course there are those who see everything in terms of the “four last things”—death, judgment, heaven and hell.  And I think we need to keep those four last things in mind daily but I don’t think our faith in the Resurrection of Christ—and our resurrection in him—should be obscured in any way by a view of God that seems ultimately to be a judge and we as standing at his tribunal.  Jesus “doesn’t go there” in the Gospels.  (The closest is the Last Judgment in Matthew 25 and it has a far more balanced tone.)  But there are Catholics who do see things that way, in fact there are Christians who see things that way, but it is ultimately more a matter for some collaboration between one’s spiritual director and one’s mental health worker. 

Frankly, however, I have had enough of this happy-clappy Christianity that has taken the teeth of out discipleship.  In regards to the rituals surrounding death I think we need some further reform to focus us on the solid   questions with which our faith presents us.  It may be more a matter of ritual than homiletics—though I find most funeral sermons to be appallingly saccharine and theologically uncommitted.  Father Scalia, as I pointed out in a previous post, struck just the right balance in the sermon at his father’s funeral.  I think there needs to be more gravitas in our funeral liturgy, a less pallid explanation of what it means for the individual to come face to face with God—not in fear of condemnation, but in the honest self-appraisal of the particular judgment.  A liturgy must not obscure the truth about what we celebrate and the truth is that in death we come face to face with God and that encounter strips away all our lies and myths and self-deceit as we come to see ourselves with the same brutal honesty with which God sees us.  In this encounter we never forget the key truth that God so loved the world that he sent his only Son that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life, but neither can we be flip about what will be the most profound moment of our existence.   


  1. I have a question. In the old Latin funeral liturgy, wasn't the funeral mass conducted in VIOLET vestments, then the body escorted to the door, after the mass,with the priest wearing a black cope?

    Special Requiem masses and daily masses for the dead were said in black.

    At least, that's the way I remember it. Thanks.

    1. no Black was the color for all Requiem Masses before Vatican II--though the funeral of a baptized young child (before the age of reason) was not a Requiem Mass and was conducted in white vestments. It was referred to as a "Mass of the Angels" but this is a bit misleading because what gave it the name was that usually the musical setting for the Mass was Mass VIII--the Missa de Angelis. As far as I can find out there was no text proper (collects, readings, etc) to the Mass for the burial of a young child. Violet replaced Black with the liturgical changes after the Council but the American Bishops, in getting the Rites approved for this country, petitioned Rome and got permission for white vestments. Some neo-trad (but not Tridentine) churches use violet even these days. You may have noticed that Father Scalia--not at his father's Mass where he wore white vestments but at the ceremonies at the Supreme Court--wore a violet stole that he found at the back of some 1940's closet.

    2. you know, I was thinking and what might have confused you is that the frontal (antependium) on an altar holding the Blessed Sacrament (which pre-Vatican II was almost always the "main altar" except in cathedrals and the tabernacle were never decorated in black. Violet was used for both the antependium and the tabernacle veil while the clergy wore black vestments.

  2. A quote from Cardinal Sarah: “Men who devise and elaborate strategies to kill God, to destroy the centuries-old doctrine and teaching of the Church, will themselves be swallowed up, carried off by their own earthly victory into the eternal fires of Gehenna.”

    I have a feeling that the reign of Leo XII redivivus will be upon us soon enough, so I shouldn't worry too much about the survival of happy-clappy funerals. Or the survival of any who aren't judged "pure".

    1. I am not sure what Cardinal Sarah had for dinner the night he allegedly said the above rant but hopefully the above rant, whatever he was referring to, was the product of passing dyspepsia. As for any hopes of Leo XII redivivus, I think it will come about when Barbarosa emerges from the Kyffhäuser and Tut reigns again over Upper and Lower Egypt. While our next pope is all but certain to be a step back from the breathtaking pontificate of Francis, the hopes of any restoration of the ancien regime, ecclesiastical or political, is the product of an over-stimulated imagination.

    2. It's a quote from the new book/interview with him by Nicholas Diat. The Cardinal is discussing the proposals surrounding the divorced and remarried at the Synod, with particular reference to Cardinal Marx. In Cardinal Sarah's defence, he begins his (longer) comments on the subject by saying he likes and respects Cardinal Marx.

      We may not get a return to the ancien regime in the style of Leo XII, but the "krazies" are clearly sizing up candidates for a new Pio Nono or Gregory XVI, at least.

    3. Your response to this posting made it seem that Cardinal Sarah's remarks were directed towards matters liturgical (which would attack legitimate liturgical evolution) whereas they were in regard to a far more challenging issue of radical rethinking of the Sacrament of Matrimony where I think the ice is a lot thinner for change. I would be appalled at that remark in regard to the Sacred Liturgy but agree with it as a necessary monitum to proceed cautiously in regard to Matrimony and matters of sexual morality.
      as to Leo XII, or PioNono or Gregory XVI--let the krazies size up all the candidates they want--the krazies don't get a vote and those who do might go back ten years but not 200.

  3. Why do you say that Francis' pontificate has been 'breathtaking' ? What has he done exactly that is 'breathtaking' ? If you like his politics (I'm on the bubble), say so. I loved JP2 and was OK with Ratzinger but I wouldn't say they were 'breathtaking.' I'd say "I like what he is doing and I like where he is taking the Church.' If you think so of Francis, say it and tell us why.

    Substance aside, his style is (as you admitted on the birth control issue) all over the map. The two Synods were a fiasco. His off-the-cuff remarks pop up every few weeks, whereas for JP2 and Benedict you could go years without riling the pot. It's like Twitter following Donald Trump around 24/7 -- you don't have to wait long for something controversial to come out.

    Breathtaking? Hardly. Confusing ? Absolutely.

  4. Well, first of all, I would say that there were episodes in John Paul II's reign that were "breathtaking." (breathtaking is not something you can manage for 27 years straight). The fall of communism was one, His rock-star approach to papal trips was a second. And, if "breathtaking" can be seen in the negative as well as the positive, his abandonment of the Church in Latin America to push for this (highly successful) ostpolitik would be a third.
    Why I say Francis's reign is "breathtaking" is that one never knows what twist and turn for the direction of the Church awaits us, but he has managed to turn the negative tone of the last thirty years to the positive. His emphasis on God's Mercy, on the need forgiveness for all, on reconciliation, on inclusivity has given thousands and thousands reason to feel at home again in the Church. "So what do think of the Pope?" is probably the most frequently asked question I get and I find that my enthusiasm is usually more measured than my questioners.

  5. Back to funerals. Like many things, I place the blame for the travesty so many funeral liturgies have become on cowardly bishops who leave it to priests to have to deal with mourners who clamor for one or more "remembrances of the deceased" which overtake the liturgy (whether done before the Mass starts or after Communion) and are often entirely inappropriate. Such things -- already strongly discouraged by the official rubrics -- should be enforced by decree throughout the diocese so that priests do not have to deal with these highly stressful situations. (Much could be said here along similar lines about wedding liturgies. And to be fair, ordination rites as well). When these services become overly-focused on the decedent/couple/ordinand the liturgy as celebration of the paschal mystery -- and our participation in it -- is subsumed under culturally-driven considerations to the detriment or even loss of the properly liturgical intent of the rites. Given that so many of these charades are attended by marginal Catholics, it seems to me best to conduct them outside the context of the Mass altogether. After all, if the Eucharist meant/means nothing to the participants any other time, I find it hard to believe why it suddenly becomes important on the day of one's funeral or wedding.

    1. I could not disagree with you more. eulogies are a regular part of funerals in my own parish --and I attend at least one a week. The eulogy is given when the family first arrives at the Church and is seated, before the funeral Mass begins. Our priests work closely with the family members. The pastor will permit up to two, totaling no more than ten minutes. they must be written out and submitted beforehand and the priest will do some editing if he thinks it necessary. the theme he asks them to develop is the particular way the deceased has witnessed to Christian values. The priests then weave some of these insights into the homily because, as our assistant pastor says, "The Gospel is written more clearly for all to "read" in the Lives of Jesus's Disciples than it is even in the Books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John." Everyone in our parish agrees that that the eulogies are extremely helpful to the mourners and I have never seen a problem develop. As the Mass continues the priests have a wonderful way of weaving it all together with the mysterium of Christs Life, Suffering, Death and Resurrection.
      what I find interesting is your sentence that "given that so many of these charades are attended by marginal Catholics...." You are quick to judge and a bit hard of heart. I know that many at our funeral Masses are not practicing Catholics and even more are not Catholic at all, but people flock to our parish precisely because we take a personal approach to pastoral service. more churches should try that.