Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Why reform of the reform is not enough, aka how to organise your own Requiem Mass

A number of my readers seem puzzled by my view, expressed in my post on What is traditionalism? that I think that increasing the use of the Extraordinary Form is ultimately going to be a more lasting solution than getting the  novus ordo said reverently and in accordance with the rubrics.

So I thought I'd try and explain my reasoning a little, and in doing so I propose to use the example of the Requiem, or Funeral Mass, as it is a good example of the problem, and a reader asked me some questions on this offline that I've been rather slow in answering (for which apologies!).

Accordingly, this is also a continuation of my previous post on Remembering Death.

The theology of rupture

My reader had attended a couple of funerals that she described as 'heartbreakingly secular' in style, and wanted to know how to avoid that happening when the time comes for her own funeral.

I think it is a common reaction among those who have a Catholic sensibility: you don't actually have ever attended a traditional Mass to feel instinctively that something is wrong when you go to most modern funeral masses.  Instead of asking us to pray for the dead, they have become little more than canonisation ceremonies that might give a false comfort to the living, and, in my view cheat the dead of their due in prayers.

By contrast, the older Requiem Mass takes its name and orientation from the first line of the Mass of the Dead: it is about imploring God to grant eternal rest (that is entrance to heaven) to the deceased.  It reminds us of the pains of purgatory, so that we will do everything we possibly can to help the deceased escape it as quickly as possible.  And it reminds us of the reality of hell so that we can do our best to avoid that fate ourselves!  I've written more on the purpose of a Catholic funeral previously here.

Think I'm making up the change in theology behind the Novus Ordo and traditional Requiem, and that the modern canonisation ceremony is just an abuse?  Here is what the Wikipedia entry on the subject says, drawing on material from various official websites:

"In the liturgical reforms of the mid-20th century in the Roman Catholic Church following the Second Vatican Council, there was a significant shift in the funeral rites used by the Church. The emphasis on sorrow and grief was to be replaced by one which also includes the whole community's worship of God and in which the deceased is entrusted to God's love, based on trust in the salvific value of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The term "Requiem Mass" was often replaced by the term Mass of the Resurrection or Mass of Christian Burial, although the former was never official terminology. In line with this shift, the use of black vestments was made optional (and had mostly disappeared by the late 20th century, at least in the United States, although their use is seeing a resurgence), with the preference of many being for white, the color of joy associated with Easter, or purple, for a muted version of mourning. The texts used for the service made a similar change, with the overall theme of the service to be a proclamation of the promise of eternal life made by Jesus."

Here's the thing.  Of course we entrust the deceased to God's love.

And if the deceased hadn't repented of their sins before they died, we certainly can't change their eternal destiny.

But assuming they have not been consigned to hell (and the Church always allows us to pray for the dead in the hope that they have escaped that fate since we can't know what was in the mind of the dead person at the end or know God's mind on the subject) we can help them get to heaven faster.  Given that we know purgation is painful, why wouldn't we devote all our efforts to doing that by making their funeral Mass as meritorious as possible, and encouraging all those present to pray hard for the deceased?

So how do you arrange a genuinely Catholic funeral?

Recognising this, my reader asked, amongst other things:
  • Is it appropriate for me to have Latin Requiem Mass if  I have only ever attended a Novus Ordo Mass with the usual Dan Schutte / Frank Anderson hymns?
  • Is it hard to arrange, does it have to be a Latin Mass?
  • Can I ask my Priest for such a Mass or do I have to just go with what I am given ?  I have not been to a funeral in our Parish but I can imagine the emphasis may be on making all the guests feel better rather than praying hard that I make it to heaven!
The first point is just a practical one.  If you've never actually attended a Traditional Mass, trying to get one organised for your funeral Mass is probably not going to be a goer.  Most priests don't actually know how to say the traditional Mass, and even if they do, if their normal fare is Dan Schutte/Frank Anderson hymns, they will likely be pretty resistant to saying one.  Moreover, you won't be there to argue for it, but have to rely on your family and friends to make the case for you.

So if you want a traditional Requiem in Latin (and it is a really beautiful affair), start off by trying to get the Traditional Latin Mass said regularly in your parish or area.  To do that, you need to learn as much as you can about it (perhaps buy a Missal like the nice new St Edmund Campion Missal which comes with lots of photos from, watch the Mass online, become familiar with the provisions of  Summorum Pontificum) and try and get to one (consider joining the next Christus Rex Pilgrimage, or visiting one of the Latin Mass communities next time you visit a city with one).

But in the meantime, no, you don't just have to accept whatever you are given.  You can set out your preferences for your funeral in your will; and you can also make sure your executor, family and friends know what they are so that when they make the arrangements with the priest, they can argue for your your wishes to be respected.  In the end though, it is the priest's call as to what happens, though the Instructions on the Mass do encourage him to take your views into account.

Making your Novus Ordo funeral Mass a genuine requiem

Nonetheless, it is possible, at least in theory, to have a funeral said or sung for your funeral in the Ordinary Form that looks and feels a lot like a traditional Requiem.

There are some unavoidable differences between the Extraordinary Form Requiem and the Novus Ordo funeral Mass.   But if you employ the right 'options' in the Novus Ordo, (OF), you can minimise those.

Does a Requiem Mass have to be in Latin?  No.  Latin certainly adds an appropriate sense of solemnity in my view, but technically, in the Ordinary Form, it can be said or sung in English.

What you do want though, at least in an ideal world is to get a choir to sing at least the 'propers' of the Mass, the Introit (Entrance Antiphon), and so forth in Latin in Gregorian chant (or even better a nice polyphonic setting!) because those are the really key traditional prayers that set the tone for the Requiem Mass.

But if you don't have a choir that knows how to sing chant, or don't know someone who would be prepared to come and sing, then just specify that you want the traditional propers said or sung (in English if necessary) and NOT alternative options or hymns to replace them.  Closely related to this, ensure that the splendid and pivotal (but optional in the new Mass)  Dies Irae is said or sung.  There is actually a very good article on this and broader issues around Catholic funerals by Jeffrey Tucker that you can read here.

Secondly, specify that you want black vestments.  The rubrics allow for it, but you might need to let your family know that purple might be ok as a fallback, but white would be totally unacceptable.

Thirdly, work out which of the choice of readings you want in advance - my suggestion would be look at a traditional Missal and wherever there is an option, chose the one that matches the older form of the Mass.

Fourthly, you probably do want one or two hymns (just make sure they don't displace the propers) - so specify which ones you would like in advance (Ave Maria is always a good choice!).

Finally, even if you can't get a fully satisfactory Requiem Mass organised for your funeral itself, you can still arrange for a Traditional Mass (or even a 'Gregorian Mass' set of 30 Masses) to be said for the repose of your soul - just leave some money in your will for the purpose.  There are a number of Purgatorial Societies around that will find a priest for you, or you can do it through one of the traditionally oriented Benedictine monasteries such as Flavigny.

So will the Novus Ordo do?

I've said above that it is possible, at least in theory, to organise a Novus Ordo Requiem Mass that looks pretty similar to a Traditional one and so surely has similar objective benefits in terms of the merits of the Mass itself due to the ceremonial and so forth, and in inducing people to pray for you.  Indeed, I've sung at such a Mass myself.

The problem is, such Requiems rarely happen and the odds of making it happen are stacked against you.

First you need a sympathetic priest who will ensure that the normal widespread disregard for the rubrics and liturgical abuses that are rife at such affairs will not occur.

Then you have to wade through all those options, chose the best ones and hope that your preferences will be respected by the priest and those organising and participating in the Mass.

And then there is the problem of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which does its best to undermine a traditional approach. It positively encourages, for example, the priest to take account of the non-Catholics or lapsed Catholics who may be present in selecting the texts.  Now one can argue that care for their souls should mean taking the opportunity to expose them to actual Catholicism.  I'm pretty sure that's not what it is trying to suggest though!

All in all, based on what seems to be the norm at the moment for Catholic funerals, it is going to take an awful lot of reforming the reform to get things back to where they should be.

And in the end, why go to all that effort when you can just use the Extraordinary Form?


Richard Collins said...

A truly excellent post and much needed explanation of why we need more EF Masses and especially, EF Requiem Masses.

Matthias said...

I have left instructions that my funeral will be according to the 1962 Missal0which will be a bit of a problem as my relatives are not catholic-let alone Christian.
A friend said a funeral should be all about the deceased and not be religious-but she grew up in the UCA so I can see where she was coming from.

A Canberra Observer said...

From my limited experience of organising funerals/requiems, outside of the EF (and that can have its own issues too) it is a nightmare: 1) it will be difficult unless the wishes of the deceased are well known and stipulated in advance (noting the executor probably won't action things until you are in the ground); 2) uphill, often unconquerable hill, with most clergy (and they will think you are from Mars and try to outrank you); 3) ditto for various family members; 4) finding any good music is like looking for hens' teeth.

Richard Collins said...

I should also state that, if you specify in your will that you only wish for an EF Requiem Mass to be held, those who are charged with organising your funeral arrangements will HAVE to comply.

jeff said...

Put up money in your will for a series of Masses to be said, and stipulate that to qualify for the $$$ they will need to be either 1962 or trad Novus Ordo.

If there's, say, $500 or $1000 up for grabs for a trad Novus Ordo funeral mass then most priests will do their best to not stuff it up.

If you want trad novus ordo you will need to spell out precisely what you want--colour of vestments, name the hymns or chants (perhaps put aside money for a choir to sing them?), Roman Canon must be used, it must be ad orientem, that you want the seven penitential psalms said/chanted afterwards (specify translation otherwise it will be the dreadful Grail or if you want Latin and the musical setting, if any).

If the priest reneges on any of these counts he forfeits the $$$.

R J said...

Re A Canberra Observer's comment about finding good music, one can do as I have done: include, in the documentation containing one's will, actual photocopies of particular musical compositions which one wishes for the occasion.

PM said...

The drawback of RJ's otherwise admirable solution is that, in most places, you'll probably need to import an Anglican choir or the local non-church-based choral society to do them.

I hear of even worse things than Kate and other commenters have written about - pressure to ditch the Mass entirely in favour of burial sevices without Mass so as not to perplex or antagonise younger family members who, having gone through our wonderful 'Catholic' school system, are completely unchurched.

Anonymous said...

As a visiting priest here in Australia, I was shocked to experience how different a funeral mass is here compared to the USA.

1) no procession of coffin
2) placing flowers and pictures on coffin.
3) secular songs played
4) Eulogies during Mass
5) powerpoint pictures of deceased.

The family plans the Mass; 95 percent of them do not go to church.

Shocking! Shocking!

Kate Edwards said...

Please Fr, give yourself some identifying name so we can identify who we are talking to (a pseudonym is fine)!

But yes, it is indeed shocking.

The worst case I saw was a recent funeral where the priest, in his homily, explicitly said that the family had asked that no eulogy be given, preferring, in accordance with traditional practice to have a homily on the selected Gospel. But he then proceeded to ignore the Gospel and give a eulogy anyway...

A Canberra Observer said...

Kate, the priest you describe is I suspect actually a fairly common article statistically. They just DO know better than anyone else. They do engage in bullying behaviour. And, unlike almost any other profession, clergy can get away with it in their set piece and know that almost always noone will ever counter them in that set piece. said...

I have no problem with Novus Ordo. Things change, including, Church rites, though I do like Latin as a unifier much the same as Hebrew unifies the Jews throughout the world. One thing to keep in mind when selecting music is to ask for the original version. Here in the US as a bow to political correctness, the words of some traditional hymns have been changed to neutralize gender, avoid triumphalism (perceived violence), or otherwise water down time-honored theological representations.

Donald Link, Louisville, Ky, USA

R J said...

PM writes: "The drawback of RJ's otherwise admirable solution is that, in most places, you'll probably need to import an Anglican choir or the local non-church-based choral society to do them."

Likely enough, in many instances. But one can make arrangements in one's will for an extra sum of money to be devoted specifically to hiring such singers and an organist. Funeral directors often appear accustomed to similar things being asked for.

Scott Fitzgerald said...


Being a parish music director and former Benedictine brother, I have seen laudable practices and abuses from all sides. For my involvement in funeral masses, I am at the mercy of the family and its choices. I try and steer them away from the more banal options, but they pick them anyway. When left to my own devises, I try and keep the music more elevated. It is not just about trying to follow the priest's wishes, but also trying to console the families. I do believe, however, that all can be accomplished to varying degrees if we all play well in the liturgical sand box.