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    A View from the Pew
    Saturday
    Oct012011

    Preaching or Eulogizing at a Funeral Mass? Where Did the Homily Go? 

    This week I attended the funeral of a friend who died at the ripe old age of 91. As Catholics, we believe ‘that all the ties of friendship and affection which knit us as one throughout our lives do not unravel with death’. (Order of Christian Funerals: Vigil for the Deceased, 71) We really do want to find renewal and sustenance with the paschal mystery of faith. So when the circle of family and friends gathered in Bob’s little parish church seeking that rekindling nourishment within the context of a funeral mass, I anticipated that the person in charge, the pastor, comprehended the potency at his disposal – the prospect of revitalizing faith, awakening faith, encountering faith through a celebration of the sacred mysteries revealed through thoughtfully celebrated worship and a well honed homily. I really do set myself up for disappointment.

    The typical circle of friends and family gathered in Bob’s little parish church. The funeral choir forgot to announce the hymn numbers in the book so that we could sing - or maybe they just don’t do that. The assembly thumbed through their books to find the page, nudged one another to indicate where to locate the hymn in the book, or gave up and remained silent. Family members carried paper copies of the sacred scripture to the ambo rather than using the lectionary, bowing to the tabernacle the preside, the cross (and maybe Isis at this point, who knows) instead of the altar.  I did give full props to Bob’s daughter and son-in-law, faithful Catholics who sang in their own parish choir and mutually led the assembly from the ambo in a partially sung version of Shepherd Me, O God (they skipped verse four and five). No, we should not use hymns as psalms, but I prefer this to spoken psalmody, always deadly (pardon the pun). Familiar to the assembly, we sang the refrain without needing to refer to a worship aid. But the real stunner came after the presider proclaimed the Gospel.

    We prepared to hear a homily. We received a eulogy. The preside never once referred to any of the readings or unpacked the word of God. He remembered Bob and his personal encounters with him throughout Bob’s recent illness and confinement. We got a blow by blow description of the kind of drinks that they both preferred and the humor they enjoyed, how well they nurtured one another. Very lovely, very nice. But I wondered: what happened to the homily? The pastor’s comments about his bond with Bob offered a perfect segway into the relationship that Christ desires with all people, an outpouring of ‘God’s compassionate love on the paschal mystery of the Lord, as proclaimed in the Scripture readings.” (OCF 27) So what happened? Where did the homily go?

    The Order of Christian Funeral states: “A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings at the vigil service; but there is never to be a eulogy.” In other words, those who preach should preach, a far different task than eulogizing. Preaching requires knowledge of scripture, prayer and preparation, skill and effort. The power of the Word cracked open with a well prepared homily assists family and friends to ‘receive consolation and strength to face the death of one of their members with a hope nourished by the saving Word of God.” (OCF 27)

    Wait! This story gets better! After the presider delivered his ‘eulogy’, he invited one of Bob’s sons to offer another eulogy, the family spokesperson who would ‘remember’ Bob.  I felt as though someone hit me with a stun gun. God’s voice silenced, both eulogies replaced one homily. What a missed opportunity! When our priests fail to verbally discharge the magnanimous love of God revealed in sacred scripture by unpacking the Word of God to a gathered assembly, particularly at a Mass of Christian Burial, everybody loses. Some of these people may not have set foot inside a church for years. Seize the day, boys: preach!

    Later in the week, I received a Tweet from the newspaper Our Sunday Visitor, entitled, What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Funerals. Hm, I thought, timely. I opened the online version to read the exposition and found a large discrepancy in the piece. I blogged back in the ‘Comment’ section. The Editor of OSV contacted me and asked me to reframe the comment as a Letter to the Editor for OSV’s printed version. My ‘letter’ contextualizes my experience of the homily that went missing at this week’s funeral. I offer the respective letter here in my own blog along with the link to the article What Every Catholic Needs to Know About Funerals.file:///C:/Documents%20and%20Settings/Administrator/Desktop/Denise's%20Stuff/What%20Every%20Catholic%20needs%20to%20know%20about%20funerals.htm

    Dear Editor,

    The article What Every Catholic Needs to Know about Funerals illustrates only a portion of the Order of Christian Funerals. In its full implementation, the OCF offers a profoundly robust and deeply pastoral celebration within the Vigil for the Deceased, the Church’s rite that may occur within the ‘wake’ in a funeral home or more potently celebrated within the church that will celebrate the Funeral Mass on the following day. Within a Vigil for the Deceased, opportunities exist for mourners to not only pray for the dead but embrace a confident message of hope and consolation without denying that the reality of death includes grief, pain and loss. The Church, ‘as a tender mother’ (OCF Decree xi) offers this pastoral-liturgical rite of the Vigil for the Deceased that acknowledges that the period of time ‘immediately following death is often one of bewilderment and may involve shock or heartrending grief for the family and close friends.’ (OCF 52)  For the people of God, the rite provides a gentle accompaniment in ‘their initial adjustment to the fact of death and to the sorrow this entails’ (OCF 52) within the context of scripture, psalm and hymnody, litany and prayer. The Vigil for the Deceased also affords the opportunity for mourners to share their narratives and remembrances of their deceased loved one after a prayer of intercession. (OCF 62), which eliminates the potential debacle of post-communion eulogizing at the celebration of the Funeral Mass. While 'remembrances' may be prohibited, denied or tolerated by pastors within funerals, the Church acknowledges that memory evokes grace and offers a pastoral opportunity for people to share their stories and memories of their deceased loved one within the context of prayer and support from the pastor and community within the context of the Vigil.

    Might not a thoughtfully planned and beautifully executed celebration of the Vigil for the Deceased draw estranged Catholics into the realm of faith and awaken those to whom some kind of faith life has never been made available to them? Hearts open and become very vulnerable when death makes itself present; seize the day. The opportunity to celebrate the Rite of Penance also presents itself at a Vigil for the Deceased. Pastoral staffs need to attend not only the dead, but to the living who experience death that may 'bring about in the mourners possible needs for reconciliation." (OCF 53) The ENTIRE Order of Christian Funerals is something that every Catholic needs to know about, prepare for and be involved in, not just the Funeral Mass.

    Respectfully,

    Denise Morency Gannon