The Funeral Liturgy: Let Eulogies Be Heard
By Chris McDonnell – Liturgy is a cultured conversation, a public celebration, a relationship with each other and ourselves with God. We get used to the words and the pattern in which they are set.
Liturgy tells us about now, our present circumstance, linking us to the previous experience of the Christian community.
It is not enough that we repeat year after year patterns of language and practice that once were common. If liturgy is to offer us the necessary encouragement of a living faith, then our liturgical practice must reflect where we are now.
Nowhere is this more apparent than when we celebrate the sacraments of baptism, marriage and funeral. We look for tailor-made liturgies that suit particular families; there is nothing wrong in that. There is, however, a pattern and language that we should recognise, a framework that not only suits our time but has a tap root in the faith of the Church.
Let’s address the details of Eucharist at a funeral, recognising first of all that it is prepared when edges are still raw and personal grief hinders clear thinking.
Surely this is a time of community, when those who have shared the Eucharist with us over the years come together consoling each other in helping us greet the Lord. It is a time of supportive talking, of taking the load off someone’s back already weighed down with sorrow.
It is here that the listening guidance of our priest can gently assist and sensitively support. It is a time of exchange where the wishes of a family and the needs of liturgy come face to face. One should not contradict the other.
What are our expectations of the celebrant? Can he always meet our demands? How can we assist him in his role as presider over our assembly? How can we assist him sensitively to fulfil his function of caring for us and for the conduct of the liturgy; how can he assist us?
We often forget that a priest is called upon time and again to mark the passing of parishioners, married or single, old or young. What is the emotional cost to him? I recently heard of a priest in Ireland who had six funerals in one week. That is indeed a load that would test the resources of any man.
We are fortunate that the liturgy of the funeral Eucharist gives a spinal thread round which we can all gather, which is good.
In recent years, it has often been the case that a family member would give a brief eulogy in memory of their loved one. It is the time when the event is personalised and words of farewell mark a life before burial.
Yet this has given rise to conflict when either the bishop or parish priest feel this to be an intrusion in the liturgy. At a time of natural sadness, such an attitude only exacerbates further family anguish.
For the one giving the eulogy it is not an everyday occurrence, they may need some words of guidance on the way — guidance that is not instruction or rejection.
The community that gathers for a funeral is often diverse. Some, the family and close friends are well acquainted, not only with each other but with the rites of passage that are customary in the Church. Others may have been work companions who have rarely, if ever, been inside a Catholic church.
Process must not come before sincerity, shared laughter can help ease the pain of loss. In the end it is all about talking and understanding, honest sharing, in the brief days prior to the funeral.
With weddings, there is usually much more time to talk, plan and prepare, a time when new clothes are bought, readings chosen, receptions booked and numerous guests invited. The tone set by the celebrant both in the sermon and at the time of commitment is important, for it should reflect the joy and love that two people are publicly declaring, witnessed by the community of guests they have invited.
Again as with the celebration of a funeral Mass, the congregation will be diverse so the marked memory of the day will, for many, be a one-off experience.
With the baptism of a newly born baby, the gathering is usually smaller, yet still the ritual is to be respected. A hastily rushed baptism on a Sunday afternoon is now often replaced by baptism within the Sunday Eucharist where the larger community can welcome the child into their midst.
Whatever the circumstance, all three sacraments should reflect the sincerity of belief, the realisation that preparation is important and that the imposition of legalistic patterns only serves to leave uncomfortable memories.
Tolerance demands the time to understand another point of view, to listen and reflect in times of tears and occasions of joy.
This article was first published in the Catholic Times.