Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Dilemmas and the Priesthood

I have had two occasions to work with priests closely, and get to know them on that level. The first was in the early 1990s, when I was a paid sacristan at a Jesuit parish in Georgetown which shall remain nameless. The second is my current apostolate, as a Master of Ceremonies for a Traditional Latin Mass at a parish in the Virginia suburbs of DC. I have been with the latter for three and a half years.

Some of the priests in my diocese come from other parts of the country. When they go home, even to the parish where they were "bread and buttered," they are reluctant to celebrate Mass, never mind CONcelebrate. With the former, they can't predict the level of aggressiveness on the part of "communion ministers" approaching the altar, or they are reluctant to use female servers. With the latter, they cannot predict how the main celebrant -- usually the pastor, and often one drowning in narcissism -- will behave at any given point. Sometimes it puts them in an awkward position. So they resign themselves to saying a private Mass for their parents and/or family members.

Another delicate area concerns funerals. People expect to be able to give a "eulogy" after Communion, a form of remembrance of the deceased. There are good intentions to bring comfort to those who grieve, but often it occurs at the expense of the true nature of Christian burial, which is the occasion to pray for the repose of the soul of the departed, not assume they are already in Heaven. To paraphrase The Bard, you have come to bury them, not to praise them. (Julius Caesar, Act III, Scene 2.)

It is a fact that eulogies are not permitted at Catholic funerals. No kidding, they really are not. The instruction in this area is quite specific. The most that can be permitted is for a person close to the deceased to make some sort of brief remark, but “never a eulogy of any kind.” In the interest of full disclosure, I have done two of them. The first was for a friend, and I regret that occasion (although I was quite good at it). The second was for my very saintly paternal grandmother, who lived to be one hundred. I read a transcript composed by a cousin who could not be present, then added a postscript of my own. I regret that occasion as well, but only a little.

Of course, the bishops themselves make matters worse, probably more so than even Mr Voris suggests in his latest video. Even "conservative" bishops are not above practically canonizing a departed priest, even as the latter's confreres in concelebration will go back to their parishes, and tell Mr and Mrs Dick and Jane McGillicuddy, that their dear sweet Aunt Minnie McGillicuddy will NOT have her praises sung while HE'S in charge. (Yes, Diocese of Arlington, that means you!)

I have already written something for Dad. It is very brief, includes an appeal to pray for his soul as he would wish, and is most assuredly not a eulogy. Alas, I will probably be outvoted by my brother and sisters, who will naturally assume I'm being Mister Big Shot From Washington coming home to show off. (It could happen.) I will have a Requiem Mass said for him at a privileged altar downtown, which will release him from Purgatory. But if there's a eulogy, I'll get up and walk out. As the Irish love to say: “Their friends already know, and their enemies wouldn't believe you anyway.”

I know the Old Man all too well. He'd walk out too.


Gail F said...

The last funeral I was at handled this very nicely and with what I think is a schedule okay with the Church. The visitation was held in the church itself, with the casket in an aisle. When the visitation ended the priest asked everyone to sit in the pews for a few minutes before mass began. Then the family gathered up in front for little tributes.

The main speaker, the deceased person's son, is a lawyer and did a very nice little talk (about 10 minutes) about the man's long and interesting life. When he was done, the family sat down and the mass began. It was not quite a "regulation" funeral mass, but it was a lot closer than anything I have ever seen in this diocese -- not that I've seen all that many. It was an uninterrupted funeral mass that to me seemed exactly what it should be: about Christ and death and the hope of resurrection. It was SO much better than a mass interrupted by long personal anecdotes, or (understandable) breakdowns from distraught family members. The worst is "a celebration of life" full of happy music, with the poor family barely able to function, but doing their best to "celebrate Mom's life because she would not want us to cry." Why put them through that and forbid them to grieve?

I was once at a funeral of a man who dropped dead at a major family get-together -- no long illness or time for the family to prepare. It was traumatic and horrifying for his family, but the mass was one of those happy affairs and they were all in agony. I thought there was something obscene about it.

David L Alexander said...


What you describe may be an improvement by comparison, but the fact that such tributes took place in the church itself is enough to give pause. (Several of them lining up in front? Just imagining that is troubling.) No doubt the priest is trying to change some very bad habits, but that change hasn't happened yet. Such remembrances should occur afterwords. "Irish wakes," they used to call them.

Gail F said...

I know what you mean but I think you do have to make concessions for what have become habits. People today want all that stuff to happen at the funeral. They think that's where it SHOULD happen. That's where they expect to speak and what they expect to hear when they go to a funeral. I think it's a nice compromise.

I spoke to a deacon about it today and he said this sort of thing should happen at the funeral home. I can see his point, but again, that's not where people expect to hear it. I think this funeral was trying to do that by having the visitation in the church. BTW, the body was taken out of the church for the "pre-funeral wake" and brought in during the actual funeral, which the deacon told me is important.

David L Alexander said...

"People today want all that stuff to happen at the funeral. They think that's where it SHOULD happen."

They are wrong.

One must draw a distinction between "wants" and "needs." People WANT something to happen because they have been misled into believing that it should. That does not oblige the Church to indulge them. In the Catholic teaching on remembrance of the dead, the NEED is to pray for their deliverance in the next life, which is made harder by indulging the whims of THIS life.

When I die, I don't want anyone to "compromise" while I am standing in Judgment. I want heaven to be deluged with prayers on my behalf. Will this be more likely, or less likely to occur, during a "celebration of life," where my place in Heaven is already (and falsely) assumed?

No, thank you.

David L Alexander said...

"They are wrong."

Oh dear, that is harsh when you look at it on its face, isn't it?

Going back home to Cincinnati for a wedding, or any church-related event, is like stepping into a parallel universe. Everything that is one way, is the other. Everything that is clear, is through a glass darkly. You watch others as they go through motions, knowing that they have been sold a bill of goods, perhaps for years. You wish you could tell them. Where do you start?

Anyway, looking at that last comment of mine, that is how it feels. That's just me.

Anonymous said...

Our priest likes to tell his favorite eulogy story:

"The deceased's brother got up to the ambo, and began speaking. About 5 minuted into it, he said: 'Let's raise our glass to John'. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a can of beer. Throughout the congregation, other beers appeared and they all popped the tops at the same time and took a sip."

I told my wife I wanted a requiem EF mass with the priest celebrating in black vestments. I don't want a eulogy, and I'd like the priest to preach about purgatory during the homily. Do not under any circumstances give the assembled the idea that I'm in heaven. I'm probably hanging by my fingertips in purgatory, and I need all the prayers that I can get. :)