I was not aware that there was any “backlash” against the Archdiocesan Guidelines on Catholic Funerals, until someone told me that at Mass on Sunday they heard a priest say in the homily “we will do funerals the way we have always done them: following the rite of the funeral mass but with sensitivity to what the family wants.” Well, yes, was my reply, that is rather what the Guidelines say, don’t they? But, said my informant, who had not read the guidelines, everyone is saying how insensitive and unpastoral the new guidelines are. Have you read them? I asked. No, I’m just going by what I read in the paper.
Ah yes. The papers. The source of all wisdom and knowledge… I had a bit of a laugh at something John L. Allen Jnr wrote the other day on this: he described religion journalists as “pundits who “know how to write better than anyone else, but who seem to have a problem with reading”.
Which brings us to Barney Zwartz’s piece in todays Age. Barney isn’t Catholic, but that has never stopped him having an opinion about how Catholics really should be doing things. Actually, his article isn’t too bad for the most part. He points out what a Catholic funeral is understood to be, and therefore concludes:
The Catholic guidelines basically highlight that a church funeral service is still a church service. Its purpose is to commend the deceased to God and proclaim the Christian hope; it is explicitly not a secular celebration of a completed life. Such a celebration is a natural, proper and desirable thing, but the occasion for it, according to the church, is a separate gathering. According to traditional Catholic thinking, the main priority at a church funeral is prayer for the deceased, and nourishing the grieving with the word of God and the Eucharist.
And if he had left it there, that would have been just fine. But he then does a complete 180 degree turn and gives his own two-pennies worth:
But times move on. The alternative view, shared by Father Bob, Melbourne Anglican Archbishop Philip Freier and others, is that it is about the living, and the main priority is pastoral.
Father Bob says he prefers to think of funerals as ‘‘family affairs attended by clergy, not a clergymen’s affair attended by family’’, suggesting only about 10 per cent of Catholics feel comfortable with these ‘‘sanitised’’ rituals. The rest want the ritual to reflect their lives.
There’s also the practical question of whether the deceased was a churchgoer. As Archbishop Freier says, ‘‘Often we first know the family through the death of a loved one, and that a very different ministry from someone who has been a regular congregation member. The funeral is about the grieving and the living.”…
For myself, I think funerals are for the living, and that you cannot separate the church from the culture. While I sympathise with the thinking behind the guidelines, I wish they were more flexible.
But with respect, Barney, no one asked you (or Father Bob, or Archbishop Freier) what YOU think “a funeral” is. The point of the Guidelines is that a Catholic Funeral should be what a CATHOLIC Funeral is. Of course protestants, like Archbishop Freier or Barney, who do not believe in those funny Catholic doctrines like Purgatory or offering the mass for the dead, wouldn’t get that a Catholic funeral is precisely about those things.
The Archdiocesan guidelines are not trying to restrict people in their practices of farewelling the dead. They are just about what the Catholic funeral rites are. The funeral mass is not a party put on by the Church for the family (as Fr Bob seems to think), it is something the Church does for the deceased person. That doesn’t rule out in anyway the grieving family doing what they think is appropriate, but (as Barney acknowledges) the Catholic funeral IS a service of the Catholic Church.
My friend, who told me about the homily mentioned at the beginning of this piece, asked “But can’t the funeral be both? Why do you have to be so strict about it?” The answer is fairly straight forward: because the Church has a message – the hope of Resurection to eternal life – which she doesn’t want garbled at this crucial moment by the inclusion of other messages which compromise that proclamation. Christian funerals, from the very beginning, were always counter-cultural. It was the witness to the Resurrection hope over against all the other pagan religious rites and beliefs around it, which proved to be a powerful persuasion to to those pagan cultures. We all know how fuzzy people’s thinking on the Christain doctrine of the afterlife is – the funeral is the most important point in time to get that message clear: Christ will raise the deceased to life again!
And, I pray, that “time” will never “move on” in regard to this central doctrine of the Catholic faith.