September 25, 2009

Disconnect with the Dead

This is a spiritual incongruity in my ministry on which I have been reflecting lately:

On the one hand, it is a commonplace to complain that funerals are not really funerals but 'celebrations of life.' There's some truth to the complaint; through the stations of a funeral liturgy, the 'mourners'--in my experience--often speak and behave as if guaranteed that the deceased is already enjoying the peace and joy of heaven. A disapproving glance sometimes comes when we pray for forgiveness of sins for the deceased, or for merciful judgment. "He's at peace now," and "She's with so-and-so in heaven" are the sort of little pieces of the script that illustrate the spiritual mood. I have never offered a funeral Mass in anything but Easter white; never in penitential violet and much less in the black of mourning!

On the other hand, and seemingly incongruously, there is an unmanageable demand for Masses to be offered for these same dead! The intentions for our regularly scheduled Masses are filled at least six months in advance, and an intention for something besides and individual or group of the dead is so rare that sometimes, when one is about to occur, the one offering will call the day before just to make sure, 'Father doesn't say that I'm dead.'

So, how does it make sense to offer funerals with the apparent assurance that the deceased is already enjoying his place among the saints in the Church Triumphant, but then to anxiously schedule many further Masses as if he were ensconced in purgatory and in need of the Sacrifice to be offered to help him on his continued journey of purification? The saints do not need our Masses; it is they who should be praying for us, not the other way around.

Could it be that we are misguided on both counts? Could it be that, on the one hand, we have forgotten that the journey toward heaven continues after this life, and, on the other, that we are not offering all of these Masses for the dead for their sakes, but for our need to memorialize them on the natural level?

12 comments:

Adoro said...

I think part of the problem is that people think that the funerals are for US, the living, not the dead. They have the very misguided notion that a funeral is a "celebration of life" of that person, but never mind the fact that person maybe wasn't perfect and might need prayers as they face their Judgment.

No one wants to think about Judgment; partially because if it's true the deceased might not be perfect, well...what does that mean about US? Might we actually have to CHANGE before we go to meet God ourselves? Oh, heavens NO! Let's just celebrate life and push all that unpleasantness under the rug and consider it maybe in private AFTER the funeral.

And then, yes, maybe the guilty conscience creeps up and the person realizes... oh, I didn't pray for that person enough, better have a Mass offered.

Yet we know Masses offered for the living are more efficacious than those for the deceased, although of course the Holy Souls in Purgatory DO need them as well!

I believe the Church needs to do more to speak about the Holy Souls; so many don't know about this teaching, or think it's old-fashioned. They're confused. Protestantism has crept in, and as we know, they deny the Doctrine of Purgatory.

I have even heard a Priest, one we all considered to be quite orthodox, say very directly that "The Church doesn't really believe in Purgatory any more...that's old fashioned."

We were so horrified that we were struck dumb.

I think the problem you note comes from a lot of different sources, misperceptions, and bad catechesis.

We have a LOT of work to do if anything is going to change.

Hidden One said...

I think that's quite possible and equally profound.

Brother Charles said...

It's true Adoro; last year when All Souls fell on a Sunday I preached the good news of purgatory. Several parishioners came up to after Mass in astonishment. Some because they had never heard a homily on it, and others because they weren't aware that purgatory is part of God's mercy. Here's the homily.

Thanks for the encouragement, as always, Hidden One.

Karinann said...

I agree with Adoro on many of her points. Since my return to the Church,this attitude of assuming the deceased is automatically in heaven has really bothered me. I will be honest though, pre-reversion I would have been one reciting the platitudes. I think the best remark I ever heard from someone who is dying came from one of parish priests whose Mom when she was dying from cancer told people "don't tell people I am in heaven because then no one will pray for me." This woman got it! More of us need to. As Adoro said we need more catechesis.
Thanks for stopping by my blog earlier. Hope I didn't sound preachy in that post- wasn't my intention.

Jeanne said...

It might be theologically incorrect to automatically assume the deceased is in heaven, but it would be rather cruel to say otherwise to someone who is grieving. I just avoid the whole thing by using other platitudes - "I'm sorry for your loss" and "I know you miss so and so and I'll pray for him" work fine without mentioning the after life :)

NC Sue said...

Perhaps in an odd and disjointed way, bot the "celebration of the life" at the funeral liturgy and the Masses said for the dead at some later time are BOTH in some way comforting to the loved ones of the dead?

Adoro said...

All I can say is this: PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD AND ALL THAT IS HOLY, please be cruel to my family when I die!

Make sure they KNOW I'm probably not in heaven, but burning in the fires of Purgatory, where I'll also be praying for THEM!

It is only in considering eternity, our final ends, that ANYONE comes to conversion!

Certainly there is a tactful way to go about it, and the liturgy of the Church provides this very thing...when it is done correctly.

My own mother has asked not to be "canonized" at her funeral because, above all..she wants to be remembered as a sinner in need of prayers from her family.

For that reason (and out of obedience to the GIRM), when she dies, which will be sooner rather than later I fear, I will not allow any eulogizing at her funeral although no doubt the priest at her hometown parish has a record of allowing a parade of canonizing testimonies.

*sigh*

Catechesis, catechesis, catechesis.

The teaching on Purgatory is beautiful...not insensitive. It's based in reality...eternal reality combined with our natural reality.

Karinanne ~ Yeah, I've been there, too, and have placed "several" people and pets in heaven. I'm cringing now, and praying for Holy Souls who maybe aren't getting prayers because of my false platitudes.

Am better at the neutral ones myself and emphasizing I'll pray for the deceased...and the family as they deal with their grief.

Anonymous said...

Adoro, if purgatory is no longer operative then both me and a lot of people I know are in serious trouble. When I have to do something that some would deem unpleasant and someone jokes that it means less time in purgatory for me, I always reply that I am striving to make it to purgatory, because then I know that I can attain eternal salvation. I think most people realize that, and when they extol the deceased as someone who is assured of heaven, they know in their hearts that even people who strive to do their best in life sometimes fail, because that is what humans do, and the prayers are needed.

Qualis Rex said...

Father Charles, very good and poignant observations. I think on the one hand, some people are only able to overcome their grief by assuring themselves and those around them that the deceased is already in heaven. Then they later come to their senses about it and think they should do all they can to ensure this by praying for their souls. I think you are doing an excellent job by not playing into their preconceived notions on the subject, and by stating church teaching clearly. We don't know if so-and-so is in heaven right now or not. It can only help the deceased to begin praying for their souls immediately/ASAP. So, you are definitely doing the right thing there.

P.S. if you do MY funeral, please feel free to wear black. Will you be wearing black for All Souls day this year?

pennyante said...

What I often think about is that Time is different for God than it is for us humans. We really have no idea (of course, I recognize I am not as theologically read as many who have commented) what purgatory is, except that if a person is not perfect they cannot enter heaven. Or since they are not evil enough to be denied the beatific vision of God forever, there must be an intermediate place. That would be purgatory, where souls are purged of their sins and what better way than being purified by fire.

To go back to the idea of Time: who is to say that purgatory is a long event for a person... God can make this purging as short as the blink of an eye. One realizes the horror of sin against the beauty of God. That recognition and the sense of loss due to sin might come into play here. I guess we will recognize that fully at our death.

I am guessing that many people in celebrating their loved ones' life, are trusting God to take care of their loved one in His great mercy and love. That God's justice will be tempered by that mercy...

Adoro said...

Anon ~ I understand what you are saying, and some friends and I were once saying the same thing while talking with a priest we knew. He asked us, "Why are you aiming for Purgatory when you SHOULD be aiming for Heaven????"

His point was that we are called to be SAINTS, and we have to AIM for that. Not for the lesser. If we are aiming for Purgatory, it means we are settling for the status quo...not what we are called to do.

So you may want to consider his words, too. You're not called to Purgatory. Recognizing you (and we all) are sinners is a good thing. The Saints did that...and set about becoming Saints.

Personally, I want to be a Saint. I'm failing miserably at the smallest steps towards that, but if my goal was Purgatory...I'd just give up right now.

Thom Curnutte said...

I've thought of this often. Thanks for approaching the topic, Father.