In light of a growing practice of not providing deceased family members with a funeral Mass, Bishop McManus has written a pastoral letter (full text below) entreating all Catholics to recognize the importance of prayer and Mass at the time of death.
“When a member of the Catholic community dies, the Church, who is our Mother and Teacher, exhorts the remaining members of the Church, in particular the family members of the deceased, to gather to offer the Holy Eucharist for their beloved dead, thus commending the deceased to the merciful love of God and pleading for the forgiveness of his or her sins,” he writes in a letter to be distributed in parishes this weekend.
Today is All Saints’ Day, a holy day of obligation. Tomorrow is commonly known as All Souls’ Day. Traditionally during the month of November, “the Church exhorts her sons and daughters to pray for those souls who are in purgatory, undergoing a process of purification before they enter into the presence of our merciful and loving God where they will experience eternally the joy of heaven,” the bishop says.
In the letter, Bishop McManus reiterates the three parts of the funeral rite which include the wake, the Mass and a committal service. He says the Church reminds us that the Mass is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.
He says it is “theologically inaccurate” to call the funeral Mass a “celebration of the life” of the deceased person, since that celebration of the individual is more fittingly done at the prayer vigil, or wake. The wake is the proper moment “to reflect on and remember the life and accomplishments of the deceased. In fact, it is becoming quite common for pictures of the deceased to be displayed at the wake and for familiar stories to be told about the deceased,” he notes.
“The Mass of Christian Burial is the privileged time when we pray for our beloved dead, asking God to forgive his or her sins and to render a merciful judgment to our brother or sister who has gone before us marked with the sign of faith,” he says.
He cautions people to recognize the importance of praying for the dead because even though “we hope that all will enter into heaven after their death, we cannot presume that this is always the case. Therefore, it is one of the spiritual works of mercy to pray for the dead, most especially by offering the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, the Church’s most powerful and efficacious prayer, for their eternal repose.”
A family that eliminates the Mass as part of a person’s funeral denies “that person a source of healing and forgiving grace,” the bishop reminds us.
He also writes of our spiritual solidarity and the ancient teaching about the communion of saints. Those who are baptized are united to Christ and through him are united to all those who are also members of his Body – the Church.
“In this way, the communion of saints is established and this communion lasts for both time and eternity. Because of the communion of saints, our prayers for the dead can be spiritually beneficial for those who are in purgatory,” he says.
“My fervent hope is that this month of November dedicated to the souls in purgatory will provide a time for us to retrieve a venerable practice of praying for our beloved dead. This prayer can be a significant source of consolation and hope for the living as well as a source of spiritual benefit for the dead,” he writes.
November 1, 2013
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,
In the pastoral life of the Church, the month of November has traditionally been designated as a special time to pray for our beloved dead. On November 2, the liturgical Commemoration of all the Faithful Departed, commonly known as All Souls’ Day, the Church exhorts her sons and daughters to pray for those souls who are in purgatory, undergoing a process of purification before they enter into the presence of our merciful and loving God where they will experience eternally the joy of heaven.
At the beginning of the month of All Souls, I would like to address in this pastoral letter a situation that is becoming all too frequent within the Catholic community. I refer to the growing practice of Catholic families of not providing their deceased family members with the Mass of Christian Burial. The funeral rites of the Church consist of three distinct parts: 1) the prayer vigil for the deceased (the wake), 2) the celebration of the Mass of Christian Burial (the Funeral Mass) and 3) the Rite of Committal. Of these three rites, the Church reminds us “the Mass, the memorial of Christ’s death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral.”
In the Catholic tradition, the Mass is offered daily for both the living and the dead. When a member of the Catholic community dies, the Church, who is our Mother and Teacher, exhorts the remaining members of the Church, in particular the family members of the deceased, to gather to offer the Holy Eucharist for their beloved dead, thus commending the deceased to the merciful love of God and pleading for the forgiveness of his or her sins.
In recent times, we often hear the Mass of Christian Burial described, even by priests and deacons in their homilies, as “the celebration of the life” of the deceased person. Such a description is theologically inaccurate. The Mass of Christian Burial is the privileged time when we pray for our beloved dead, asking God to forgive his or her sins and to render a merciful judgment to our brother or sister who has gone before us marked with the sign of faith. It is through the Passion, death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ that sin and death have been definitively destroyed and that we who have been united to this redemptive mystery through faith and baptism have been given the hope of eternal glory in heaven.
The prayer vigil, however, is more fittingly the proper moment in the funeral rites to reflect on and remember the life and accomplishments of the deceased. In fact, it is becoming quite common for pictures of the deceased to be displayed at the wake and for familiar stories to be told about the deceased. This practice is commendable as an appropriate and respectful way of celebrating the life of the deceased.
It is true that God wills that all people to be saved and that none be lost (1Tim: 2:4). However, while we hope that all will enter into heaven after their death, we cannot presume that this is always the case. Therefore, it is one of the spiritual works of mercy to pray for the dead, most especially by offering the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, the Church’s most powerful and efficacious prayer, for their eternal repose. Not to have the Mass of Christian Burial offered for our beloved deceased family members, especially someone for whom attendance at Mass had been an integral part of his or her life as a practicing Catholic, is to deny that person a source of healing and forgiving grace.
During this month of All Souls, I would urge the Catholic faithful of the Diocese of Worcester to reflect seriously on our spiritual solidarity and care for our beloved dead. An ancient teaching of the Church which we profess in the Apostles Creed is the communion of saints. On the day of our baptism, we are individually united to the person of Christ and enter sacramentally into his redeeming death and Resurrection. Indeed, in the water of baptism we die with Christ so as to rise with him to new life. By being united to Christ, we are also united through him to all those who are members of his Body, the Church. In this way, the communion of saints is established and this communion lasts for both time and eternity. Because of the communion of saints, our prayers for the dead can be spiritually beneficial for those who are in purgatory.
My fervent hope is that this month of November dedicated to the souls in purgatory will provide a time for us to retrieve a venerable practice of praying for our beloved dead. This prayer can be a significant source of consolation and hope for the living as well as a source of spiritual benefit for the dead. In this spirit, I conclude with the words of a prayer that has been recited for centuries as a profession of faith in the mercy of God and our common hope of sharing in the peace of the Risen Christ forever.
“Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. May they rest in peace. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.”
With every prayerful best wish, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Robert J. McManus Bishop of Worcester
The funeral Mass: A spiritual powerhouse
By Msgr. Robert K. Johnson
Special to The CFP
Several years ago, the world witnessed in the funerals of Mother Teresa of Kolkata; Diana, Princess of Wales; and Blessed Pope John Paul II, great examples of the power of ritual as it speaks to the reality of death. Most notable perhaps was the desire of the people of Kolkata, England, and throngs of the Christian faithful from around the world to be present in Rome to remember, express their grief, and to pray.
In England most could have easily watched the funeral rites for Diana on television but instead chose to take to the streets to be intimately present as her body passed by enroute to Westminster Abbey and again as it made its way to her final resting place. To watch this powerful scene was to observe the crowds of people lining the route of procession to be present to the moment or to honor her with the endless stream of flowers being tossed upon the hearse containing her body.
In Kolkata the need to be present to the body of Mother Teresa was so great that her coffin was left open during the entire funeral liturgy and procession to her grave. The massive crowds that stood and waited for her body to pass by was a powerful reminder of the legacy of this woman who ministered to so many, often as they lay dying on the streets of Kolkata. The body that was an instrument of healing for India’s poor was honored by the presence of a multitude who felt the need to be present to her in her death.
The throngs of people, in the millions, converged on the city of Rome as our beloved Holy Father, Blessed Pope John Paul II was near death, and then, in the days following his death, to view his body, participate in the funeral liturgies, visit his tomb, and to pray in solidarity with the Catholic faithful from all over the world.
Ritual, particularly our Catholic rituals surrounding death, link us in often unique and powerful ways with the reality of life, and the need to tangibly express grief in the face of death. When we are present to the body of a loved one who has died we recall this person’s name, their story of faith, their relationships, and even their continued spiritual presence among us. When confronted with the mysteries of life and death we find that we need ritual to help express what is deep inside of us. It is in confronting and ritualizing the reality of death that we are able to move through the stages of grief, comfort one another, and allow ourselves to be comforted.
In a Sept. 22, 1997 article of Newsweek, Kenneth L. Woodward, the magazine’s religion editor, expressed his thoughts this way: “Grief demands ritual. To die alone is bad enough, but to grieve without rituals that lift the broken heart is worse.”
The Catholic Church addresses the human person’s need for ritual in two important ways. First in speaking plainly about our understanding of the sanctity of the human body, and secondly, and perhaps most importantly, about the centrality of the Roman Catholic Mass.
Our Catholic funeral rituals speak eloquently and consistently about the sanctity of the human body and the fundamental dignity we share as sons and daughters of God. We share the dignity of Christ who was incarnated, who took on flesh to redeem humankind from the certainty of everlasting death. In Christ, God has given our mortal flesh immortal value.
The bishops of our country in their document “Reflections on the Body, Cremation and Catholic Funeral Rites” state, “Even death cannot rob us of our fundamental dignity as human persons. As painful as dying and death are to the human community, Christians are confident that, as they have imitated Christ in his death, so shall they imitate him in his resurrection.”
We celebrate in death what we have known throughout our lives that our bodies are the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Msgr. James P. Moroney in an address to the Catholic Cemetery Association states: “The human body is so inextricably associated with the human person that it is hard to think of a human person apart from his or her body. It is from this fundamental belief in the sanctity of the body that the Church extends a strong preference for the presence of the human body at the funeral liturgy.”
In 1989, the Church in accord with the desire of the Second Vatican Council, revised the celebration of Christian funerals. In the revised Order of Christian Funerals what is apparent is the Church’s desire to link the celebration of baptism with the celebration of our funeral rituals. The symbols of water, light and clothing testify in the celebration of the sacrament of baptism and the celebration of Christian funerals that the human body is made in the image of God. When the body is signed with holy water what is recalled is the sacrament of baptism when this person entered into a new life and became a child of God. In the solemn clothing of the body with the white pall or garment, we remember with love the day this person was clothed with a similar white garment and declared a new creation, a holy creature in the sight of God.
The presence of the Easter candle, abiding sign of the Risen Christ, light of the world, is reminiscent of the lit candle given to parents and godparents, asking them to assist in keeping this light of faith in the risen Christ burning. In our coming to birth and in our death, the Church uses symbols that remind us of the important and nurturing concern of God and the Church in all of human life.
The Church firmly believes that there is inestimable value to the full celebration of its funeral rites. For centuries the center of every funeral has been the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
In our day the question of whether a funeral Mass should or should not be celebrated has become central as so many are opting for no Mass to be celebrated as part of a funeral.
But why is the Mass so important, and why does it remain so even in our own day?
The Mass unlike a memorial service forms the very center of the Church’s ministry to all people living and dead. The Mass is the sacrifice of the New Covenant in which Jesus Christ, through the ministry of the priest who celebrates the Mass, offers himself to God in an un-bloody manner under the appearances of bread and wine.
While remembrance of the life of the one who has died is an important dimension in every funeral, our Catholic funeral rites and in particular the need and centrality of the holy sacrifice of the Mass remind us that we need to do more in the face of death than just remember the life of the one who has died. The Church through these rites call us to an awareness of the truth of the matter, namely that when we die, heaven, as life itself, is a journey and not a moment. Through death, judgement and purgation, our prayer, particularly that of the Mass, has the greatest power available to assist our loved ones on this journey to the fullness of heaven.
Besides the purpose for which the Mass is offered and the effects that it produces, there are also special fruits of the Mass. The fruits of the Mass are the blessings that God bestows upon the celebrant, upon those who serve or participate in it, upon the person or persons for whom it is offered, and also upon all humankind, especially the members of the Church and the holy souls in purgatory.
In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his departed child of their sins and their consequences, and to admit them to the paschal fullness of the table of the kingdom, heaven.
Our Catholic faith teaches us that we remember the dead because this helps us. We pray for the dead because this helps them as they journey to heaven. It is an acknowledgment that those in heaven do not need our prayers, we need theirs. At the same time we can assist those who have died through the power of our prayers especially that of the Mass.
We have been reminded of something that we probably have known all along. The person who has died is a noble expression of God’s image both in life and death. Our bodies are not a commodity to be used and casually disposed of when the usefulness is apparently ended, rather we carry the dying and rising of Jesus Christ in our bodies and in life and death we fundamentally belong to him.
As a child of God it is the wish and desire of every Church, every parish, every priest, every community that we participate most fully in the rituals that best express our faith as well as the sure and certain knowledge that every one of God’s children is returned to him at the end of their lives surrounded by the community of faith and family, commending our loves ones into the loving and merciful arms of God using the best and most powerful expression of our faith, the Mass. So great is the Church’s commitment to this that no person or family is refused a Catholic funeral Mass due to lack of funds, or family difficulties or even estrangement from the Church.
Ritual, particularly our Catholic rituals surrounding death, link us in often unique and powerful ways with the reality of life, and the need to tangibly express grief in the face of death. The holy sacrifice of the Mass prayed for the living and for the dead is a great spiritual powerhouse that assists those who have died in their journey from this world to the fullness of the heavenly kingdom of God. Perhaps we need to assist our families and friends to know again all that our loving and merciful God offers them through his Church, particularly in death.
- Msgr. Johnson is director of the diocesan Office for Divine Worship.