The priests of the Diocese have had some discussions among themselves and with me in recent times on the conduct of funerals in our parishes. One of the concerns raised is in regard to the taking up of collections at funerals. I would, therefore, like to make some comment on that matter and then go on to mention some other points in regard to the celebration of the Funeral Liturgy.
A) Collections at Funerals:
Collections at funerals have become common in recent times – this custom started in other churches and has spread to our own. It is not necessary to take up a collection at a Catholic funeral, and the clergy have not been the promoters of such collections. Some priests have asked though that when such collections are taken up some consideration should be given to contributing something towards the Church in which the funeral has been held. That is a fair suggestion, especially when congregations are small and the cost of caring for churches increasing
In our discussions there were two opinions on the matter. Firstly that we should not have these collections at all – this opinion is particularly strongly felt by the clergy in the Southern Isles, in whose parishes funerals are frequent and where pressure seems to have grown to have such collections. Because Catholic funerals are the norm in these communities the Church can take a particular stance, and I go along with the local priests in asking that collections are not taken up in our parishes in these Islands at the end of Funeral Masses.
Priests in other parts of the Diocese advise me that when the norm is that collections are taken up at Non-Catholic funerals it would be awkward to stop them in the Catholic Churches. If that is the case I accept their judgment, while insisting that no family should feel any obligation to have a collection at funerals in our Churches.
B) Honouring the Catholic Understanding of Funeral Rites:
It is important that we uphold our Catholic faith when we pray and celebrate the funeral rites for our dead. This is particularly true of the Funeral Mass (or the Requiem Mass as it is also known). Although there is an element of thanksgiving for the life of the deceased person the primary purpose of the Mass is to pray that their sins be forgiven and that, purified by the Lord´s Death and Resurrection, they may come to share eternal life with him in heaven. Certainly the prayers of the Funeral Mass and the Rites of Burial tell us exactly what we are praying for, but sometimes expression such as “A Mass of Thanksgiving for the Life of…..” can take away from the Catholic emphasis when burying our dead. When preparing funerals with families priests should explain this well and encourage an understanding of the need to pray for the eternal happiness of the deceased, while remembering their time here on earth and the good memories (unfortunately not always) of what they did. The choice of Scripture readings and hymns should always reflect the Christian understanding of death and our hope of resurrection, and unsuitable secular music should not be part of our Funeral Masses.
C) Spoken Tributes at Funeral Masses:
Sometimes a family member or a friend of the deceased wishes to say a few words about them – after the Post-Communion Prayer and before the Prayers of Commendation would seem to be an appropriate time to do this. It should always be well prepared and short – in fact it should be written out beforehand and shown to the priest conducting the funeral. Such tributes can be well done and be very appropriate, but sometimes they can be too long and some things expressed would be better not said in the setting of a funeral. In the Catholic Church we must always be aware that the Rites celebrated, and the words used, belong to the Church, and we don´t make them up ourselves. We draw great comfort from them, and it is not good to allow too many other words to distract from their power and the Church´s prayer for our loved one.
Sometimes the person who has died may have distinguished themselves in a special way and more than one person may wish to recognize this and pay tribute to them. At such funerals perhaps some time could be made before Mass begins for these more formal tributes, so that the Funeral Liturgy is not broken up too much by what we want to say. We are there first and foremost to listen to God´s Word and pray for his mercy, for the living and the dead.
D) Remembering and Praying for Our Deceased Relatives and Friends:
As Catholics we do keep the memory of those we have known and loved in this life alive in our prayer, in our intercession for their eternal rest. We remember the dead always in the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass, uniting our prayers for them to Christ´s self-offering on the Cross. It is part of our tradition to ask that particular deceased persons be remembered by the priest as he offers Mass particularly when they have recently died or at the time of their anniversaries, and this is an expression of our faith in the power of the Mass and our hope that the person prayed for by the priest, along with all the faithful departed may share in the Lord´s resurrection. In asking for Mass to be said, or Mass cards to be signed, we also make a generous offering to the priest who undertakes the obligation to offer Mass for that person. This is a way by which Catholics support their priests, and when priests receive more Mass intentions than they themselves can offer they pass them on to others who don´t receive sufficient Mass intentions in their parish or other ministries. We can see, therefore, that through sharing Mass stipends priests support each another, and the obligation to offer Mass for our deceased loved ones is fulfilled.
I hope this reflection on funerals, and on praying for the dead, explains some aspects of this very important part of our Catholic faith and practice, and helps priests, deacons and the lay faithful in our responsibilities in praying for the departed and in the conduct of their Funeral Masses and Christian burial rites. It may provoke other questions and I am sure your own parish priests will provide good answers and continue to provide an exemplary service in the Church´s care of and prayer for those who die and all who mourn their passing.
+ Joseph Toal
1st February 2012