The Importance of the Community at Catholic Funerals
It is not uncommon for people to request a “private” funeral at the Church for their loved one. Some are surprised to learn that Funeral Masses are often scheduled in parishes at times when the parish community is present. Normally these times coincide with the regularly scheduled daily Mass. At Holy Family Catholic Church, for example, Funeral Masses are scheduled at the 8:30AM daily Mass on Tuesday or Thursday.
Why is the presence of the community so important? It all flows from our Catholic understanding of liturgy and sacraments. Those who are older may remember when sacramental celebrations took on a more private and individual tone. Over the course of time the communal and public nature of sacramental celebrations began to be overshadowed by a more private and individual celebration. For this reason, the Church endeavored to restore the true nature of sacramental celebrations.
This restoration began with the Constitution on the Liturgy [CSL], the first document issued at the Second Vatican Council in 1963. Here it clearly states:
“Liturgical services are not private functions, but are celebrations belonging to the Church which is the sacrament of unity . . . Therefore liturgical services involve the whole Body of the Church.” [CSL, 26].
The council fathers realized that restoring the communal and public nature of sacramental celebrations would require a revision of all of our liturgical rites. As a result, all of our sacramental rites were revised to emphasize the important of the presence of the community and to highlight the public nature of these celebrations.
The renewed emphasis on the public and communal nature of sacramental celebrations started over 50 years ago, yet we still have a long way to go to get this message across to the faithful. Comments such as the following are often heard in some parishes that reflect the privatized notion of sacramental celebrations:
“We want a private baptism for our child.”
‘Why do I have to sit through a baptism at Mass on Sunday?”
“This is my Mass and I can’t pray my prayers with all this singing and responding going on.”
“My family wants a private funeral for our loved one.”
Some may ask, “Is this such a big issue? The answer is “yes.” Our understanding of sacraments goes to the very heart of what it means to be Catholic. Saint John Paul II explains it best:
“It is not enough that the disciples of Christ pray individually and commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ inwardly, in the secrecy of their hearts. Those who have received the grace of baptism are not saved as individuals alone, but as members of the mystical body, having become part of the People of God. It is important that they come together to express fully the very identity of church, the ekklesia, the assembly called together by the Risen Lord.” (Dies Domini, #31)
Our communal identity begins with Baptism. Baptism does not just wash away sin. Baptism also changes us. Through Baptism our identity is transformed. Baptism incorporates us into Christ and we are transformed into God’s people. Through baptism we are incorporated into the Church. Thus St. John Paul II proclaims that we are not saved as individuals alone, but as members of the mystical body. To be Catholic is not to be a random group of individuals, but a gathering of God’s people. In liturgical celebrations, we transcend individualism. For this reason, all of our liturgical celebrations are by their very nature public and communal and are to be organized to encourage and foster an awareness of mutual interdependence.
The Order of Christian Funerals [OCF] places great emphasis on the role and presence of the community at the funeral rites. Just as baptism makes members of the Body of Christ, so too, when we die, the members of the Body of Christ come together to affirm and express “the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of saints.” [OCF, 6].
The Introduction to the OCF is replete with references on the importance of the church community at the time of death.
“ . . . those who are baptized into Christ and nourished at the same table of the Lord are responsible for one another.” [OCF, 8]
“ . . . when a member of Christ’s Body dies, the faithful are called to a ministry of consolation to those who have suffered a loved one.” [OCF, 8]
” . . . The Church calls each member of Christ’s Body – priest, deacon, layperson- to participate in the ministry of consolation. . . “ [OCF, 8]
“ . . . The responsibility for the ministry of consolation rests with the believing community.” [OCF, 9].
The Church emphasizes, however, that the main involvement of the community involves their presence at the Funeral Mass.
“The community’s principal involvement in the ministry of consolation is expressed in its active participation in the celebration of the funeral rites, particularly the vigil for the deceased, the funeral liturgy, and the rite of committal. For this reason these rites should be scheduled at times that permit as many of the community as possible to be present.” [OCF, 11].
For these reasons, many parishes now schedule the Funeral Mass at times when a significant number of the community is already present. This is our responsibility. This is who we are as Church. As Catholics, we are called to gather with the family and friends of the deceased to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death. “Through the Holy Spirit the community is joined together in faith as one Body in Christ to reaffirm in sign and symbol, word and gesture that each believer through baptism share in Christ’s death and resurrection . . .” [OCF, 129.] No longer are funeral masses seen as “private” occasions with just a few members of the family and friends present. No. The Church is present with you because this is who we are.