Barney over the Funerals Guidelines

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.

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30 Responses to Barney over the Funerals Guidelines

  1. Matthias says:

    “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 – and right!”
    Currently reading a book on WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO HELL ,which describes the fuzziness around the after life within Christianity .
    And although he gives a page attention to purgatory and in his opinion the unscriptural aspect of it,he actually makes the point that hell is a forgotten point that needs to be picked up and talked about with tears in one’s heart and mind and not gloating,to this current culture.

    • Tony says:

      How would you incorporate HELL into a funeral service without distressing the loved-ones, Matthias?

      • Matthias says:

        I would not if they were Christians because we have the Hope of the resurrection, and I would concentrate upon that , and for unbelievers , as my once upon time clergyman brother said, he concentrated upon the good things about the deceased. I think i would agree with Fr Bob and say it is a family affair,and follow that aspect. Both of my parents ahd Christian funerals where the resurrection was freely talked about. Other funerals i have been to most recently have been conducted by civil celebrants ,and it seems that people are being at least honest arguing that as they did not go to church ,it would be hypocritical of them to have a church funeral.

        • Matthias says:

          I should add that at my parents funerals the pastor talked about Christians being freed from the curse of death ,judegement and hell through Christ’s atoning death and resurrection .At my Mum;s funeral Romans 8:35-39 was read out ,and a large number present were not christians ,thus the verse
          “there is nothing in heaven or in the earth ,or under the earth (hell) that can ever separate us from the Love of God which is in Christ Jesus Our Lord”

  2. Tony says:

    But with respect, Barney, no one asked you (or Father Bob, or Archbishop Freier) what YOU think “a funeral” is.

    I suppose there are many ways of responding to this issue but I’d have thought the ‘who asked you?’ line would not be one of the better ones. After all, we’d all be eliminated from commentary if that were the line in the sand.

    Having read the document — or most of it — I don’t have a real problem with it as long as it is handled pastorally by priests (and I suspect most will do that). Setting boundaries for funerals is not just about ‘the message’ from the church’s point of view, there are also practical considerations.

    I know a few people in the funeral industry and they can tell any number of stories about funeral services that go on and on with stuff that is more about the ego of the speaker or a living witness to their incapacity to speak well in a public setting.

    But there is a deeper issue, and a whole other hill of beans, of how church governance works. It may be Australian’s in particular, or people living in demorcracies in general, but the ‘prounouncement from on high’ type of announcement just doesn’t go down well anymore. Good leaders are aware of this and adapt. The church so often gives the impression that it doesn’t appreciate this or doesn’t care.

    • Alexander says:

      The Church is, generally, very good at explanations. The problem is that they are written by highly intelligent and educated people who are writing them with accuracy and precision as their most important feature, as they’re generally intended for “insiders” (priests, normally) who will explain them to the general public pastorally. Add a dash of anti-Catholicism and you get a nice appearance of “pronouncement from on high”.

      What is the Church supposed to do, mark any document describing or explaining rules as “private and confidential”? That’ll look great.

      Of course the Church should adapt its leadership style to the extent that it can, but this cannot mean relaxing the rules. If anyone is to respect the Church, surely they can’t appear to be a company trying to get as many clients/customers as possible, adapting their product to the market. As David likes saying, the Church is meant to be countercultural, adapting the “market” to the “product”. Because many things the Church advocates were a part of Western civilisation until only a few generations ago, people like to say it’s “conservative”, but whereas conservatives will gradually accept things like contraception as reasonable, the Church never can and never will. One day its ideas will probably even seem progressive/radical again as they did in the early days.

  3. Gil says:

    Hmmm. I read the guidelines and though – “Oh good. That explains what we need to do and what we need to avoid.”

    It does not appear to be a “lecture” from on-high because it *explains* the thinking behind it.

    A lecture from on-high is where someone says “thou shalt allow unmarried gay couples to adopt” with NO rational or reasonable explanation for the decision.

  4. Peregrinus says:

    We’re for ever saying that the church is counter-cultural. Here is a very real daily example.

    One of the dividing lines between Catholics and Protestants (and I’m including Anglicans on the Proddy side) is in our beliefs about, and attitude to, the dead. Protestants do not pray for the dead; Catholics do. This difference in practice reflects real theological differences.

    Unsurprisingly, these differences in belief and practice have profoundly influenced the funeral rituals of both traditions.

    And this in turn has influenced the secular, social funeral practices of societies which are, culturally, predominantly Catholic or predominantly Protestant.

    Irish influences in Australia notwithstanding, Australian funeral practices and attitudes strike me as, well, pretty English. And even Australian Catholics can’t help but be influenced by their Australian-ness. I think this is where the desire for “celebration of life”-type funerals comes from.

    There’s nothing wrong with a celebration of someone’s life and, as I’ve said in earlier comments, I think it’s necessary and healthy in connection with marking a death. So when faith confronts culture in this particular respect, it’s not confronting something that is inherently unhealthy or undesirable; quite the reverse.

    And this presents quite a delicate problem. You don’t want to challenge the “celebration of life” impulse in any way which suggests, or could be misunderstood to suggest, that you disrespect it, or denigrate it, or indeed that you don’t value it. And you find yourself challenging it in people who are shocked and grieving, and really not well-positioned right now to take on and consider new challenges to their assumptions and feelings and beliefs about what is appropriate. The opportunities for the well-intentioned and faithful to give major, major scandal here are simply colossal.

    Tremendous pastoral sensitivity has to be the watchword here; anything else is shaping up for a major disaster. And I think a good deal of leeway has to be allowed to pastors and other clergy who deal with this at the coalface; excessively rigid rules emanating from the diocesan chancery with no room for discretion or sensitivity in application are absolutely the worst way to approach this.

    I’m not saying that this is what is happening. On the contrary, the published guidelines are full of references to pastoral considerations, tact, discretion, moderating, etc. And I’ve no doubt that that’s how they will be handled in practice. As David points out, it’s the media who are presenting this in confrontational, black-and-white terms, upholding the fine tradition of accurate and dispassionate journalism for which Australia is justly renowned throughout the world.

    • Schütz says:

      You don’t want to challenge the “celebration of life” impulse in any way which suggests, or could be misunderstood to suggest, that you disrespect it, or denigrate it, or indeed that you don’t value it. And you find yourself challenging it in people who are shocked and grieving, and really not well-positioned right now to take on and consider new challenges to their assumptions and feelings and beliefs about what is appropriate.

      Which is why we need to teach our people about this well ahead of time, and teach it and teach it and teach it, so that when they come to ask for a funeral, grieving and shocked, they already know what to expect and what they are asking for.

  5. adam says:

    I have two points to make on this matter of +Hart’s guidelines:
    1. why has it taken so long for these to be issued? This edict could have been made 20 years ago when Catholic funerals were becoming a mishmash of the secular the the sacred. It has now got out of hand like many liturgical practices of the past 20-30 years and this shows that some priests (or many perhaps) have just gone off on their own liturgical path and catered to the populace without really thinking that the sacred does not need to do this.
    There have been three arhcbishops of melbourne in the past 20 years. Why did none of them meet with their priests regularly and indicate what was required of them at funerals? It is a bishop’s primary duty to preserve, protect and defend the Church’s liturgical practice. It is not an individual decision that can just be made by a single priest.
    2. Related to above. Sad to say but has to be – Fr Bob Maguire may have a huge following, but he is not the bishop of the diocese. he is smart, witty, intelligent and had been a priest for a long time. But he is not the bishop entrusted with the leadership of the Church of Melbourne. DJ Hart is that man, like him or now and its about time catholic funerals were in fact just that, catholic liturgy, not preambles to matches at the MCG.

    I really think it is time for Fr Maguire to just fade off into the sunset. You’ve had your time Bob, go quietly and meekly and spend time in prayer. The Church needs to get back to its roots and its rich liturgical practices which have been destroyed by secularism since vatican II.


    • Schütz says:

      Actually, this is (as Barney correctly points out in his piece) a “reissuing” of Melbourne’s guidelines. They have been issued before. The Archbishop must have thought there was a communication problem so he has reissued them again. Thanks to the Herald Sun and the self-appointed spokesman for the Archdiocese in St Kilda, this time he got people’s attention. Now if only people will read the guidelines, we might start getting somewhere!

  6. Weedon says:


    A most fascinating discussion. Obviously this problem is not limited to funerals in the Roman communion or in Australia. My parish (Lutheran) has actually been on the stricter side for some time. There are never eulogies during the funeral service; if there is military tribute it must precede rather than follow the committal at the graveside, for the Church has the final word at the grave: one of hope and resurrection. We sing the hymns of the Church and allow no secular music. The result has been that our funerals have become one of our greatest witnesses to the larger community of what the Christian hope actually is – our conviction in the bodily resurrection anchored in the Savior’s resurrection and in the fact that baptized into Him and fed by His incorruptible body and blood, we share in a life that death simply has no power to destroy. As we like to sing at funerals:

    There is nothing worth comparing
    To this life-long comfort sure.
    Open eyed my grave is staring,
    Even there I’ll sleep secure.
    Though my flesh awaits its raising
    Still my soul continues praising:
    I am baptized into Christ,
    I’m a child of paradise.


    • Matthias says:

      Pastor my father in law was a member of the Returned Services League (like the AMERICAN lEGION)- having servied in Papua New guineau and in the British Occupation forces in japan- in fact attached to general omar Bradley ‘s HQ unit (He actually forgot to salute the Soldiers Soldier when passing him in the corridor)..When he died we had service according to the Rites of the uniting church of australia ,and after the final hymn the RSL did their bit- ,gis record of service in the Second Australian Imperial Force ,the reading of the ode to the fallen,poppies of remembrance placed on his australian flag draped coffin by all Returned servicemen -ie WW2 veterans,and the sounding of the Last Post. That is apparently how the UCA does it re military funerals over here. I note that of the 4 young aussie soldiers killed in afghanistan recently,i thought 3 were accorded Catholic funerals.

    • Schütz says:

      Hi, Pastor Bill! Yes, I have pointed out to a number of folk (my Lutheran friends included) that there is nothing in these Catholic guidelines that are not already included in the LCA’s own guidelines on funerals – I know, because I was a part of putting them together. For instance, here too, eulogies must be given before the funeral commences, not during it, and never instead of a homily. Actually, Lutheran funerals are a model in this country for others.

  7. Jeff Tan says:

    David, it is fascinating how the comments of your friend, and Mr. Zwartz’s piece, and Fr. Bob’s opinion, are precisely why the clarification from the archdiocese was warranted and spot on. It’s another case of Christ offering more and people settling for much less.

  8. Tony Bartel says:

    “While I sympathise with the thinking behind the guidelines, I wish they were more flexible”: Archbishop Freier.

    What an odd statement. Why would he wish that another Church’s guidelines were different? How does it impact on him and his Church? Why does he even care?

    • Peregrinus says:

      It’s Barney Schwartz who wishes they were more flexible.

      • Schütz says:

        But the same difference. Barney (nb. Zwartz, not Schwartz) isn’t Catholic.

        • Peregrinus says:

          Yes, but he’s a religious correspondent and commentator. He’s paid to have, and express, opinions about religious questions, and it would be a sad lookout if he could only have them about his own particular denomination. It’s not as though he claims episcopal or other authority for his opinions.

          Besides, the Catholic church is, well, catholic. It offers itself unconditionally to all, and indeed claims the attention of all. Everyone is entitled to,, and welcome to, and encouraged to, have views about every aspect of Catholic teaching and practice. To suggest otherwise is, well, a bit uncatholic.

    • adam says:

      I agree. What the heck does it matter to the Anglican bishop? This matter has nothing to do with him – it is purely a catholic diocese matter and the last thing ought be to take any advice from a communion sect that is not in unity with the Catholic faith.

      • Tony says:

        I think there is a difference between ‘offering advice’ and having an opinion, Adam.

        If it was, for an example, a pre-condition that only Catholics need offer opinions on Sentire, half (or more?) contributors would be shown the door!

        • Matthias says:

          I agree Tony right on there mate.

        • adam says:

          ‘I wish they were more flexible’ seems to me and any intelligent reader (especially catholic) to be offering an opinion and advice, otherwise why say ‘I wish’ – thus seemingly to want his view imposed on the catholic Church’s funeral rituals.
          Best for him just to maintain silence.
          Besides, what would happen if Catholic bishops started their own ‘wish list’ of how Protestant liturgies ought be celebrated? Huge outcry I think – QED.

          I think we ought not beat around the bush on this matter – its bad enough that many priests run ‘their own liturgical shows’ and that’s been a major problem of the past 30 years. No wonder +DJ is reissuing guidelines. Good on him, that’s what leaders are meant to do.

          • Peregrinus says:

            I repeat, Archbishop Freier did not say that he wished anything; Barney Zwartz did. Reread Zwartz’s article with a bit more care. Archbishop Freier is not quoted as saying anything at all about Catholic funeral liturgies, or the Archbishop’s guidelines.

            • adam says:

              Fine. So it was not the anglican leader but Barney – so it is still giving advice to the Church – he wishes it, so its opiniated advice. Just playing with words saying its not advice only opinion. And since its a journo, probably ought be discounted even more as they always want to give their own biased advice and opinions.
              hard but true. Just read the the British press or the NY Times.

            • Peregrinus says:

              You can discount his views as much as you like, Adam, but you have no reasonable basis for objecting to his having views, or expressing them.

  9. Alfredo Watkins says:

    I wonder what this guy would think if they put the Dies Irae back..

    • Schütz says:

      Oh yes, bring it on! Actually, here’s a surprise, there is an English paraphrase of the Dies Irae in the Australian Lutheran hymnal… not used very often, admittedly.

  10. R. J. Stove says:

    Mark Twain once wrote:

    “The awful power, the public opinion of a nation, is created in America by a horde of ignorant, self-complacent simpletons who failed at ditching and shoemaking and fetched up in journalism on their way to the poorhouse.”

    But of course, compared with the average Australian journalist in 2010, the average American journalist in Twain’s day possessed a truly Cartesian intellect.

  11. Pax says:

    It is all a beat up by the press yet again. The guidelines were issued some time ago but we only have a little artificial controversy whipped up now.
    Having attended some funerals where the choice of music with disconcertings lyrics and just plain awful music any guidelines would be a welcome relief.
    The trend towards long eulogies from family members some with accompanying slides can range from simply tasteful to simply awful.
    The Church has a beautiful treasure of superb sacred music to draw on classic and contemporary.
    The guidelines were long overdue and hopefully will see a return to dignity and a real reminder that life does not end with death but is a journey towards the real destination heaven or hell with purgatory as the waiting room for heaven.
    As to denying people their football anthems once the coffin leaves the Church there is ample time to drape it with footy colours and give a rousing rendition of the team song.Funny stories and reminiscing about the departed one can occur over a cup of tea or something stronger afterwards!

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