Eulogies at funeral Masses
Q: I am wondering why I was almost unable to read a eulogy at my mother's funeral. The pastor of the church said that they were eliminating family eulogies because of occasional improprieties in such talks and the extended length of the service. Due to the undertaker's pleas on my behalf, I was finally allowed three minutes to speak.
My parents were both devout Catholics, and I am greatly offended by this experience; I will continue to pray, but I will never return to church. (Sewell, N.J.)
A: The issue of family remarks at funeral Mass calls for a delicate balance between what is proper and what is pastoral. Fortunately, the official ritual book, the Order of Christian Funerals, published by the Vatican in 1989, gives a pastor room to create that balance.
Section 141 of the ritual restates the long-standing prohibition of eulogies at Catholic funerals: "A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy."
But further on, the same ritual (No. 170) allows that: "A member or friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins."
While these two sections may first appear to be contradictory, they are actually not, and they hint at what a funeral Mass is supposed to signify.
It is not (despite what many funeral programs say) a celebration of the life of the deceased, even less a canonization.
Instead, it is a tribute to the merciful love of Christ and to the victory over death won by Jesus, together with a prayerful plea that the merits of that victory be extended now to the person being prayed for.
The homily, then, should focus on the promises of Jesus about eternal life. It is helpful, and comforting to the family, if the priest can speak personally and give some examples of the ways in which the deceased person gave witness to Christian belief and values.
Sometimes, though, the priest never knew the deceased; this may be especially true in large suburban parishes or in areas where neighboring churches have recently merged.
Particularly in such circumstances it is desirable — I would almost say necessary — for a friend or family member to speak about the deceased.
But the ritual's guidelines envision that such remarks be brief (coming, as they do, at the end while the priest is standing and waiting to pray over the casket) and should use examples of how the deceased's life was one guided by faith. (Most of the priests I know consider three to five minutes as an appropriate length for such remarks.)
These family comments should not consist of a biography (the place for that is the obituary) or an endless chain of humorous stories about the decedent (those are more appropriate at the wake service the night before or at a luncheon following the funeral).
The celebration of a funeral Mass ought to be comforting for the family, even uplifting, focused as it is on the promise of eternal life and the hope of eventual reunion.
But sometimes, when a celebrant has done all that he can to highlight those themes, the good he has done unravels when a family member gets up at the end and, overcome by emotion, actually deepens the grief of the mourners.
I know of a few parishes where pastors have chosen to place these "words of remembrance" at the very beginning of the liturgy rather than at the conclusion, so that people can be assured of leaving the church on the upbeat.
All of which brings us back to the balance that I mentioned at the start.
A funeral Mass should be hopeful and faith-filled, but not a heavy lesson in theology. Personal references can help to soothe a family's sorrow, so care should be taken to work those in.
I am sorry for your unfortunate experience, and I hope that the church's guidelines were explained to you with understanding. But I am even more saddened to think that you would deprive yourself forever of the strength and comfort of the Eucharist as a result.
Fr. Doyle is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, N.Y. He is the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service and director of media relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
(Questions may be sent to Father Kenneth Doyle at firstname.lastname@example.org and 40 Hopewell St., Albany, N.Y. 12208.)