Go forth Christian soul

Sunday 30 November 2014 — Homeport: Falmouth Harbor — End of the Year of Grace 2014

Some say funerals come in threes, but I don’t think so. Our parish can go weeks without a funeral but recently we had six funerals in seven days (you can’t hold funerals on Sundays). I have been in “funeral mode.” 

Today is the last day of November, ending a month of prayer for the Holy Souls. Today is also the First Sunday of Advent. The Church focuses our attention on the Second Coming of the Lord. Not surprisingly, my thoughts turn to the last things.

I’m always moved by the Rites of Christian Burial. The rituals by which the Church honors the body, remembers the brother or sister, prays for his or her soul, expresses hope in the resurrection of the dead and at the same time allows for the expression of human grief are very powerful indeed. 

Here at St. Patrick Church, we constantly strive to improve the solemnity of the Funeral Mass (and also its heartfelt consolation) by using to the fullest the words and rituals provided. This takes careful preparation. Sandy, a member of the Funeral Liturgy Planning Team, has begun visiting the homes of the deceased to review the Liturgical options with the family. Previously, they met in the rectory. For the survivors, their own home is the most comfortable place to sit and discuss the Funeral Liturgy, surrounded on every side by reminders of the deceased in happier days now sadly passed. 

There’s a funeral choir available (without cost). The funeral choir volunteers their time and talent not only at every Mass of Christian Burial celebrated here, but also in regular rehearsals and practices. They want to offer an ever-increasing repertoire of music suitable for a funeral to provide the best hymnody of which they are capable. 

Placing religious symbols in addition to the crucifix on the casket has become the custom here. It’s a personalized expression by the grieving family in remembering and celebrating a life of faith now ended. I have previously mentioned well-worn prayer books, favorite Rosary beads, and hymnals. Recently, there was a well-earned Marian Medal placed lovingly atop the coffin. 

Since the baptismal font has been relocated to the door of the church, the connection of the life and death of a Christian with the Sacrament of Baptism is now made clearer. I am able to draw the water with which to bless the casket directly from the baptismal font itself. 

One day I was standing at the font awaiting the arrival of a funeral procession when I suddenly thought of a tradition followed by the Cistercian Order (Trappists). The body of their dead Brother monk is brought down the church aisle proceeded by the Paschal Candle. I quickly handed the Paschal Candle to the fast-thinking Mass server and the candle led the procession that day. The body of the deceased went to the usual location before the altar with the Paschal Candle placed at the head (the church has two Paschal Candle stands). With the ritual use of both the font’s water and the Paschal Candle, the connection with Baptism became even more obvious. The poor altar servers assigned to me, however, never know what I’m going to do next; neither do I. 

Then there is the thorny issue of “eulogies.” Brief words of remembrance by a friend or family member were formerly an option following the Prayer after the Communion. That option is still in the old prayer books, but no longer available. In fact, it is expressly disallowed in current instructions from the Vatican. But families have grown to expect the opportunity for “eulogies” in church. What’s a poor pastor to do? You don’t want to flagrantly disobey direct orders but neither do you want to create a firestorm on such a sensitive occasion. I’ll tell you what I do when the family insisted on a eulogy, if you promise not to report me to the Liturgical police. 

Once the casket has reached the head of the aisle and the Paschal Candle been placed, before I enter the Sanctuary, I invite one member of the family to come to the microphone near the casket and offer brief words of welcome and remembrance. I simply sit in the pew and listen. When the person has finished, I venerate the altar and begin Holy Mass. Not only does it seem to work well, but it also gives me personal information to weave into my homily that day. 

Then there is the matter of the bells. Since ancient times, the church bell has been tolled at the Funeral Mass. But I’m occupied celebrating Holy Mass. It would be unseemly for me to leave the Sanctuary to go and ring the bells. The solution? Father Peter John taught the altar server. Now Nathan tolls the bell until the cortège (I always ride in the cortège) has passed from sight. Falmouth Village is alerted. A funeral cortège is passing down Main Street. 

Say a prayer as another Christian soul goes forth from this world.

Anchor columnist Father Goldrick is pastor of St. Patrick’s Parish in Falmouth.

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