In the past few months of ministry I have had the unfortunate experience of burying many people who died, not of old-age, but because of sudden and unexpected medical complications. There is only one thing that is certain about this life, and death is its name. All of us are going to die, and as much as we would like to think we have control over this, we really do not. “For you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night” (1 Thes 5:2). All of this helped me to wake up a little-bit in my own spiritual life. Every once and awhile I am reminded of the tangible reality of my death before me, and I begin to reassess my priorities in life. When we face the finality of death there is no more time for repentance. Death brings a type of finality that is similar to the finality of wet-concrete transitioning into something hard. Once my soul is fixed in a particular way, it is that way for all eternity. The malleability in this life, within the context of grace and time, gives us the chance to be conformed to the image of Christ who teaches us what it means to be truly human.
Not only does the prospect of my own certain death cause me to no longer “put-off” or procrastinate the call to interior, zealous conversion, but it also has caused me to reflect on the matter of Funerals. I regularly celebrate funerals, and I often am confronted by the demands and expectations of the people who have been poorly formed in their own faith for the last few decades. I don’t claim to know who exactly is responsible, but one thing I can say with certainty is that changing the way we do things is both necessary and difficult at the same time. People are accustomed to funerals which involve informal canonizations, where we twist facts about their life, and present the dead person as if they were perfect, and that God’s mercy had no limits, including an unrepentant soul. We know this isn’t the case when we read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
1864 “Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven men, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven“(Mt 12:31; cf. Mk 3:29; Lk 12:10.) There are no limits to the mercy of God, but anyone who deliberately refuses to accept his mercy by repenting, rejects the forgiveness of his sins and the salvation offered by the Holy Spirit.137 Such hardness of heart can lead to final impenitence and eternal loss.
For some, the notion of a soul not willingly accepting mercy seems both abstract and a remote possibility for themselves. This is an example of a doctrine not having enough application or integration. If we are truly humble and down-to-earth about ourselves we realize that we are all guilty of “rationalization” whereby we justify our own sinfulness in such a way that we change our own mind to believe what is good to be what is evil and what is evil to be what is good. When the Jewish elders accused Jesus to be casting out demons by the power of demons, were they not accusing the Holy Spirit of being something evil? If they make God into their enemy, do they not therefore make themselves an enemy of God and all his moral laws and truths, and instead fashion a God they would prefer to worship (idolatry). This is a common and sad state within the human race. Often it is perpetuated because of fear, which doesn’t allow ourselves to take responsibility for our sinful shame. We would rather “hide” as Adam and Eve did, convincing ourselves that we are “good” when the reality is we need to be saved from our wretchedness. That down-to-earth acceptance of the fact that we need forgiveness and we need to face our bad decisions is made easy to us because of God’s all loving and merciful nature, who allows us to bear our shame before Him. But when we fear God and do not believe Him to be as good as He really is, we hide from Him and our lack of faith is expressed in our cowardice. We convince ourselves we are not cowards, but we do so by self-justification and rationalization, the very definition of self-righteousness. What we need to do is stand before the naked truth of our soul, and allow God to love us. We might re-echo the words of Christ to “not be afraid.” Therefore we find ourselves in a tension between two sins against Hope: Despair and Presumption.
Presumption is the idea that we can be forgiven without true repentance. It is a sin against hope because it replaces a genuine Hope with a false-hope, and fearfully hardens the person to presume upon God to forgive our sins without actual sorrow for sins. A particular type of sorrow that meditates on the particular sins we have committed, not some abstract and “safe” examination of sinfulness. Despair is often at play as well, and may at times be underneath the rationalization that springs forth presumption. Despair is also a form of pride, as is presumption because we take upon ourselves God’s prerogative to judge ourselves, and thereby limit God’s mercy claiming that our sins are somehow bigger than His love for us. Sometimes despair can be in the affect, but despair that is a choice is sinful. The affect may be in darkness, but what we choose is what we are responsible for and the acts of despair often lead us away from the sacrament of reconciliation and the Eucharist. We believe ourselves to be so unworthy that we cannot approach Him and we commit spiritual-suicide as Judas did. In this case we have again made God a cruel entity within our mind, one who’s Justice is not aimed towards our own conversion but our destruction. In such a case we have convinced ourselves that we are more powerful than God, because we can change His mind about His love for us.
With these given principles I would like to convey how a funeral liturgy seeks to avoid them. There are options that priests have in regard to funerals, specifically in regard to the colours that a priest can wear when celebrating the liturgy. White was previously used (prior to Vatican II) only when a funeral was celebrated for a child. This particular colour reassured the couple that the child was likely in heaven due to the promise of eternal life poured out in baptism and the absence of personal sin due to the age of the child. Black was regularly used for those who had died – but it didn’t mean that the funeral they celebrated was for the damned. No one would presume to know the judgment in such a case. The priest, who is a sacrament of Christ-head, wears black to remind the people that Christ Himself put on death like a garment. This is an incredible source of consolation for all of us, because it reminds us that none of us have to go through death alone, but that Christ has infused the grave with His own presence. This is a sign of God’s great compassion, that He was willing to suffer (passion) with (com) us. Furthermore it reminds us that even in the darkness of death, it is a holy and sacramental experience. The tomb, the burial and the funeral all remind us that the dead body is a sacramental sign of Christ’s body waiting for the resurrection within the tomb. This sacramental sign, collected in the cemetery becomes a place reminding us of “awaiting” final judgment, and the resurrection from the dead. Finally, after Vatican II, purple is also permitted to be worn during a funeral. This is of great pastoral importance, and although the Canadian Ordo suggests that purgatory shouldn’t be spoken of during funerals, it can be nonetheless stated that praying for the dead is a major priority within the liturgy itself. Perhaps a doctrinal homily (that is, a homily meant to teach only, and not specifically deal with the funeral of the said person) on purgatory isn’t meeting people’s needs in that particular occasion, but speaking about the power of our own intercession is of incredible importance. Finally, the kids think the black vestment makes me look like batman. Who can argue with that?
Purple reminds the people that there is actually something we can do for the deceased. When the priest wears purple it reminds us that our own sacrifices and penances and fasting are counted as helpful towards the soul that may be suffering in purgatory. What does this imply? It implies that the Church does not abandon those who have died, but is invited into that transition from this life to the next. Think back to the Gospel’s telling of Lazarus being raised from the dead. As he came forth from the tomb, he was still bound, and those bindings represent sin, which places us into the grave. Christ called the people to unbind him, reminding us that in the next life, the whole community unbinds us of our (venial) sins and effects of a sinful-nature. Therefore, it is quite a beautiful and hope filled practice for the priest to wear purple, because it gives us something to-do for the dead person. This is commonly the way that God works through His Church. He wants us to be a part of what He is doing, and involved in the sanctification of each other. He could directly save each soul, privately, but Christ wants to save both the individual and the community, and our cooperation with His grace, and in relationship to one another is how He weds the community together.
White can be worn, and I think it has its place, especially in the Easter season. What I do not want to encourage through this post is a reaction against what is legitimate. White can and should be used especially when feelings of despair are found within the family or when a child has died. It is left up to the discretion of the presider to determine what is of pastoral importance. Unfortunately sometimes priests these days think that white is the only pastoral choice, because their theology about black and purple has been twisted so as to perceive them in a pejorative and hopeless manner. The generational baggage that is unfairly assigned to these colours simply demonstrates the need for clergy to learn about the faith they have been teaching for years. It also demonstrates that the lay-faithful are often catechized-against the faith, given a untrue image of what various external signs are, and thereby developing a social reaction towards anything that doesn’t imply the person is already in heaven and to be canonized. This level of presumption might be the result of a people-pleasing mentality. It is no secret that priests also get a donation of money (often) after celebrating a funeral. There are many temptations and trappings that might be involved in pleasing the people as we prepare a funeral. What is important is that we discern what God wants to say to them – and God always sees the whole person. He knows the affect, the intellect and the will of the person and He ministers to the entire person. But often today we only know a part, and usually we minister to the affect (emotions/desires) of the people. Our theology tells us to take this into consideration, but that we also must remember that our desires and emotions are not always aligned to reality and the truth of a situation. We should not be narrowly focused on what might console a person affectively, but what will give genuine consolation real roots, which is truth and the tradition of our faith. Otherwise all we do is reinforce a fanciful faith that can be swept away quite easily.
The Eucharist is such an essential aspect of the funeral, and although funerals without a mass are becoming more and more common, we should ask ourselves why this is the case. The truth is, when we celebrate a funeral, we are offering the sacrifice of the people united to the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the salvation of the particular person’s soul and in thanksgiving for their life. But today we encounter people who think “little-old me” shouldn’t have something big, but wishes to go unnoticed. Perhaps our big-lavish funerals that praise and canonize people have turned others off, and they do not want a contrived celebration to insult the reality of their own life. On the other hand it may be the case that there is a false humility or an absence of good understanding as to why the Mass is not really about them.
A funeral liturgy is firstly given to God because it is “Truly Right and Just.” It is truly right and just to give God what He deserves, which is thanksgiving (the meaning of the Greek word “Eucharist”). Furthermore, it is important to realize that as Catholics we believe the Eucharist to be the re-presentation of the very moment when Christ died on Calvary, as well as the merging of Heaven on the altar. This is why we sing with all the angels and saints, “Holy, Holy, Holy…” at every mass. We are truly united to the moment of Christ’s crucifixion when He died for all of us by name, as well as the eternal Hope of heaven. To omit the Eucharist is to quite literally omit Christ’s death on the cross for the salvation of that person’s soul, as well as to not be united to the Hope of Heaven. Having said this, it would seem entirely irrational to not offer the Eucharist. If that mistake was made, it might be a good idea to remedy it by offering a memorial mass for that particular person – go to your Church office and have a mass said for that person.
The second reason for a funeral liturgy is to support and help the person who has died enter into heaven. While it is true that we do not know if the deceased is damned, we operate with hope that is not the case, and offer our prayers and petitions towards their own salvation. This is rooted in the Jewish custom demonstrated in Maccabees.
And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection, (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead,) And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. (2 Macc 12: 43-45)
Therefore, we offer sacrifices because it pleases God and because the whole community has a role to play in the salvation of souls. Was it not the faith of those who lowered the paralytic into the house that led Christ to heal the man that couldn’t appeal for himself? This is the case with our faith, and reveals again to us, that to not assist such a soul is consequently to abandon them spiritually. When we offer the mass for the dead, we are giving a great consolation to the people left behind, that something as powerful and authoritative as the blood of Christ is used to redeem the said person. It might also be said that having the people assist another in his or her own redemption is in fact an act of redeeming ourselves since we are approach Christ with faith in an act of mercy, thereby conforming ourselves to God’s own call.
Finally, the mass is of importance for all those in attendance because it offers consolation and the hope of the resurrection. If however the mass is replaced by a spirit of Eulogizing and canonizing, then Christ is often supplanted by the dead person. Christ is – and be sure of this – the centre of the liturgy. We would never replace God with another person, lest we make them into a god, and if that is the case, we should be concerned. On the other hand people have a genuine desire to hear about the deceased and if they lived a life of virtue, it should be reminded that all of this was an image of God’s own goodness shining through their own life. A person’s virtue can inspire others to change, and if such examples and stories of the person give a directive impulse towards holiness and God himself, then they can be shared. What must be preserved is the centrality of Christ who is the source of our Hope.
But what happens when we find ourselves celebrating funeral for a person who committed many grave-sins, didn’t attend mass for the wrong reasons, and rarely prayed. If the priest creatively canonizes the person is he not condoning that life, thereby giving the impression to all-else that we can attain heaven through unrepentant sin? Of course, it would outside of our purview to come to such a conclusion, and there is always a spark of hope that any soul that truly turns to God in sorrow can be forgiven. But this small glimmer of hope should be perceived as what it is: small. Do we condemn the person who lived wrongly? No – that is God’s judgment. But we must speak of judgment, and the urgency to turn toward God. If we do not, as priests, we become responsible for fostering a culture that presumes on the Lord’s mercy in that unhealthy way spoken above. And if this is the case, then we condemn ourselves to hell, because those souls entrusted to us, that needed to hear the truth about repentance had their ears tickled with false-consolation. A priest should not be so sentimental to consider himself devoid of temptation in watering down the gospel. The enemy has laid many snares around the planning of funerals because Satan knows how much grace can be poured out upon the people in such difficult times.
I cannot imagine how hard it would be to hypothetically consider one’s family member or friend in hell. But this is only the case because we rarely consider that for ourselves. Either we are forgetful of judgment and death, or we are presuming upon the Lord. But God is Love, and in love, He respects freedom and kidnaps no one into His Company.
What then is to be done? We as priests must carefully navigate the people’s hearts and minds so as to free their will to choose life and mercy. We must incline them towards the things of heaven and not towards sin which corrupts all earthly goods. We must fashion a hope that is genuine that avoids presumption and despair, but does the hard work of conveying the choice we have before us. A harsh truth is better than a false-hope, but the truths of Christ need not be harsh if we are ready to leave all things behind for Him.
One last note of suggestion to all those reading this. It is becoming more and more common for families to not be concerned with preparing funeral liturgies for their loved ones. As a result often devout Catholics act as they have for generations before, assuming their children will make sure a funeral is celebrated. But this might not be the case. Greed and apathy can come into play, where the family wants to save money from the estate or they don’t want to give the time of day to a bunch of rituals they see as pointless. Such adults need to be prepared, therefore to make plans in order to safeguard that they celebrate a funeral. This can be done if they go to the funeral home and plan it out, or write it out and give it to their children. We do not live in the days when we can assume people will know or abide by our own wishes. Make sure that the last thing you do is to give God what is truly right and just. It may be the very witness that brings about conversion in your children and those in attendance of your funeral.