In this series of ti morceaux, we’re focusing on funeral rituals in the Church. These moments of worship reflect what we Catholics believer about death, and as I said last time show us the best ways to act in the face of death.
Now I’m going to cast caution to the winds and boldly assert something that “the official Church” teaches but that “popular religion” has been slow to embrace. It’s not because of ill will, I’m sure, it’s just that people often are so “set in their ways” that they find it more comforting to “do the same old thing” rather than to do what they perceive is a “new” thing – even if this is a better thing!
I’m speaking about the prayer that typically accompanies the period of visiting (often called the wake or vigil). Once upon a time this was usually done at home, but now is much more commonly hosted by a funeral home or by the family’s Parish in their church building or hall. It is during this time that the liturgy which the Church recommends is so often ignored, and replaced by other devotional elements, popular activities, or – most sadly – nothing at all.
What the Order of Christian Funerals prescribes as the “principal rite celebrated by the Christian community in the time following death and before the funeral liturgy” is a “Vigil for the Deceased” (see nos. 51-97). In this ceremony, the faithful assemble first to hear and respond to God in a Liturgy of the Word, for within the Bible is found the inerrant and unchanging message of the Lord to us in the face of death: the Paschal Mystery. In Christ’s own death-and-resurrection we find the model of our own transition from the limitations of this world to the glory of the next. In understanding Christ and what He did and why, we are more prepared to face our own mortality, and can more properly pray on the occasion of the death of others. And this Vigil service is led by a priest – or deacon or lay minister authorized by the Church to preach on such occasions, since it’s not a Mass – thus uniting the community not only with each other but with the broader, hierarchical Church community beyond the limitations of one single time in one single place.
Yet all too often instead devotional prayer such as the rosary replaces the proper Vigil service. Devotions are a proper supplement to worship, but ought not attempt to replace it. Even less desirable substitutions are completely secular stories and “partying” attitudes and behaviors that really thwart faith and piety at such a sensitive, special time.
Yes, death often catches families unawares, and unprepared to plan carefully the various parts of the funeral ritual. This is why the considerate guidance of Parish priests and other ministers is best followed. After all, insisting that the proper rituals of the Church be accomplished is never the wrong choice!