One complaint from hard-core Catholics on funerals is that in the last half-century, the liturgy has become rather mushy on the topic of the last things. Admittedly, homilists get the brunt of this criticism, like here. Other criticism, like this one, focuses on the ignorance of people attending:
Pastoral experience tells me that upwards of 80% of funeral attendees and in a very grave spiritual condition. Most of them are not serious about their spiritual life, they are not praying, they are not reading Scripture, they are not attending Mass or going to any service on Sundays, and many are in very serious and unrepented mortal sin. This is just a fact.
The percentage may be higher at a ball game, at the supermarket, or in a traffic jam. But it is not likely that a preacher will be well-received in such circumstances, even though the sin may be more grave. A minister can run off the rails trying to fix the world.
The Church does have a captive audience, so to speak, at funeral rites. Is it time for education on the last things? And if so, how effective might that be?
While traditionalist Catholics tout the values of the Dies Irae and such, I’ve been feeling in a contrary mood of late, and thought the concluding prayers of the intercessions give us insight as to what to expect at funerals.
giver of peace and healer of souls,
hear the prayers of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ,
and the voices of your people,
whose lives were purchased by the blood of the Lamb.
Forgive the sins of all who sleep in Christ
and grant them a place in the kingdom.
To me, this prayer seems to keep the right perspective. There is an acknowledgement that Jesus the High Priest (not just the Redeemer) intercedes on our behalf. The suggestion is also that the funeral liturgy itself is an act of Christ–which it is. The specific petition asked is that the Father forgive the sins of the dead and bring them into eternal life.
I suppose a good homily could be based just on this prayer. We are reminded first that God is aware of the greatest need at the moment of death: peace and healing. We are reminded that our prayers join with Christ’s intentions. We are reminded of salvation, and we offer a final direct prayer.
The other prayer in OCF 167 reads:
God, our shelter and our strength,
you listen in love to the cry of your people:
hear the prayers we offer for our departed brothers and sisters.
Cleanse them of their sins
and grant them the fullness of redemption.
This prayer is more straightforward, and implies a confidence in God’s love and mercy. The petitions are simple: hear the mourners and forgive the dead. Hmm, seems like sin is very much a part of the funeral liturgy. And more, that last clause is lifted right out of Psalm 130, one of Saint Augustine’s classic penitential psalms.
Sin is explicit in OCF 401:
Creator and Redeemer of all the faithful,
grant to the souls of your departed servants
release from all their sins.
Hear our prayers for those we love
and give them the pardon they have always desired.
If the words on purgatory, hell, damnation, and judgment are muted, perhaps it is because these items are derivative of a more basic truth: salvation in Christ. And if funeral attendees are so ignorant, perhaps it is better to start with the basics: Jesus saves us and intercedes on our behalf. It is good to pray for the dead.
I’m disinclined to be directly critical of people who hope for heaven for their loved one or friend. Hope is a virtue. Much better than doubt, or even despair. (Image credit, right.)
Maybe instead, we should explore why people opt out of funerals altogether. I wonder how much of it is due to the muddled, overly-theological messages people hear. Maybe I think they need smartening up, but the reality is that religious book-learning isn’t going to save them. Only Jesus.