Tuesday, 8 September 2009

The purpose of a Catholic funeral

I hope to have some photos from the Solemn Pontifical Requiem sung for Mrs Marian Scarrabelotti in Canberra yesterday shortly, but thought in the meantime I'd draw your attention to a couple of excellent posts on other blogs that gone up on the subject of the purpose of a Catholic funeral.

Yesterday's Requiem

Yesterday's Requiem was, from my perspective at least, pretty close to the ideal Catholic funeral; a most solemn and splendidly stark affair.

It was conducted in Canberra's vastly improved cathedral, with black vestments, black altar frontpiece and all due ceremony, all very well executed. The celebrant was Bishop Jarrett of Lismore, with Fr John Parsons as deacon, Fr Glenn Tattersall as sub-deacon, Fr Define FSSP as Assistant Priest, and Fr Popplewell FSSP as first MC. All of the FSSP priests currently in the country were present, and other priests were also present, all very good to see.

The choir, comprised of local and interstate singers, was conducted by Hugh and Maria Henry and featured chant propers, Victoria's Requiem, the Lobo motet highlighted in my previous post.

And the bishop gave an excellent homily before the Mass started, touching on, amongst other things, the nature and purpose of a Catholic funeral (but I'm afraid I didn't take notes or obtain a copy). A few recent blog posts touch on some of the same issues.

Modern conceptions of what a funeral should be

The most important purpose of a Catholic funeral (after of course the worship of God) is to pray for the repose of the soul of the deceased. No matter how subjectively certain we may be that the person concerned is in heaven, the Church's teaching is that we should assume that they are in purgatory - for if they are, they can no longer do anything for themselves, and urgently need our prayers; and if they are not, our prayers will surely benefit some other poor soul.

By contrast the typical modern funeral - of which a classic example one gathers was the recent funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy - instantly canonises the deceased, and "celebrates their life". Aside from potentially costing the deceased much pain in purgatory, it fundamentally undermines what should be a time of reflection for us all, for the implicit message of this approach is surely that heaven, hell and purgatory do not really exist, and all that counts is the visible works of this world.

Bring back the Dies Irae

Jeffrey Tucker has written a nice post on this on the New Liturgical Movement website, entitled Bring back the Dies Irae. He starts off by explaining why eulogies are generally prohibited:

"...There are many reasons for this ban, but one reason is to put a stop to the tendency of all eulogies to state with certainty that the person who died is in Heaven right now. Of course we cannot know this. It is outrageously presumptuous of us to pretend to know the mind of God and the eternal destination of the recently deceased. Why do we so badly want to do this? Is it because we want the best for the person who died? Certainly but the Church encourages us to pray for the dead to fulfill this pious impulse. [This is the crucial point - traditionally, a funeral is not about reassurance for us but about concrete work we can do for the souls in purgatory].

Another reason, perhaps the real reason, is actually more selfish. We are trying to comfort ourselves, give ourselves assurances that we are in God's good graces and so should have some sense of certainty about our own eternal destinations. We are declaring ourselves to be Heaven-bound and thereby shielding our own eyes from our sins that have stained our souls and might have separated us from God. We are seeking comfort not in truth but in the tapestry of myths that we are weaving about ourselves: all sins aside, we all deserve salvation and we are going to get it..."

Tucker goes on to make the point that the famous sequence, Dies Irae has some important messages for the living:

"Of course none of this makes any difference. The eternal destiny of the dead is not up to us. Neither will our own fates be of our own making after the day of wrath. That's an interesting phrase, isn't it? The Day of Wrath. There is a hymn that was once prescribed as part of every Requiem Mass, from at least the 13th century. Without debate and without explanation, it was removed from the Missal of 1970, so that several generations have Catholics have never been exposed to its terrifying truths. The Church has known that we want to avoid the truth when we face the death of others; we were given this hymn, the Dies Irae, to remind us of what death should teach the living. The chant tune itself is still with us, appearing in movies and popular culture and even in video games.

The music is ominous, even astonishing. The words are even more so. It contains such thoughts as:

Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis:
gere curam mei finis.

In English verse:

Low I kneel, with heart submission,
see, like ashes, my contrition;
help me in my last condition.

Followed by:
Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

In English verse:

Ah! that day of tears and mourning!
From the dust of earth returning
man for judgment must prepare him;
Spare, O God, in mercy spare him!

So you can see what is being addressed. This is a song about the dead, yes, but mostly it is song directed toward the living. We need to hear this because society will not tell us these things...."

Tucker makes the point that this is a fundamentally counter-cultural message, challenging assumption of our society that things are under our control rather than God's. Do go and read the whole thing.

A parish priest on Fr Z

And Fr Z explores some of the same issues, drawing on an email from a parish priest on the Kennedy funeral. I've extracted what I think are the key points:

"Catholic Funerals are not about the person’s past achievements. Since Holy Mass is part of it, first of all, the Funeral is about worship of God.

Secondly, it is a profession of our Catholic Faith...

Thirdly, Holy Mass is offered for the repose of the deceased immortal soul and asking God’s mercy on him.

Fourthly, we pray for the consolation of those who mourn.... "


Matthew said...

Thanks for this, a good article (as I have come to enjoy from this blog) I also attended Marian Scarrabelotti's funeral and was very moved! It was as much a heartfelt and grand farewell as a sombre and solemn occasion to pray for her soul, as a funeral must be.

And I too think that the Dies Irae needs to be brought back, it was at least from my perspective a most moving part of the Requiem Mass.

Let us pray that more people will have the opportunity to be farewelled in such a prayerful manner

BTW I think you got the Deacon and Sub-Deacon the wrong way round, Fr Parsons was the Deacon and Fr Tattersall the SD

Terra said...

Thansk Matthew - and for the correction, which i'll mkae forthwith!

Louise said...

I hate eulogies. And I have been to two funerals this year of Catholic women (both of whom were much loved) where their children described them as "non-judgmental."

What the heck? Is it that people particularly expect Catholics to be "judgmental" and are then pleasantly surprised when they are not?

Louise said...

What does one have to do to get so many priests and a bishop to celebrate one's requiem Mass?

Terra said...

Louise - I plan on writing a proper obituary for Marian, but the short answer in her case is, be a saintly, outstanding member of the community who makes substantive contributions to both Church and State. And it helps that the bishop is a family friend.

The slightly longer answer is, Dr Marian Scarrabelotti was a practicing clinical psychologist who made important contributions academically on topics such as obsessive-compulsive behaviour and multiple sclerosis. She was a member of several government committees and several professional associations. She was active in several catholic causes, including Canberra's Karinya House. She was a member of the Board of Campion College.

With her husband Gary (editor of the Oriens Journal and a former president of the Ecclesia Dei society), she was an active member of the traditional mass community nationally and in Canberra. She was always hungry to learn more about our faith, and eager to help others.

She struggled heroically with cancer over the last twenty one months, providing a model of how the catholic should prepare for death, and of redemptive suffering offered for others. She was 55 at the time of her death, and was truly an inspiration to those who came in contact with her.

I'll write more anon.

Louise said...