Renewing faith, cherishing the dead
My dear brothers and sisters in Christ:
During this month of November, the rich tradition of the Church encourages us to remember especially our deceased loved ones who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith and who rest in the sleep of peace. We renew our prayers for our beloved dead, asking the Lord, through His mercy, to grant them eternal rest and peace in Him.
The Preface for the Dead, prayed at the Mass of Christian Burial, reminds us that for the Lord's faithful people, in death "life is changed not ended." As believers in the corporal resurrection of Jesus, we see this life as a preparation for eternal life, life forever with God. "For life is to be with Christ, where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom" (St. Ambrose as cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1025).
Our union with Jesus Christ begins in this life at Baptism and reaches its earthly culmination in our reception of the Eucharistic Christ in Holy Communion, which prepares us for eternal union with Him. "Having passed from this world to the Father, Christ gives us in the Eucharist the pledge of glory with him. Participation in the Holy Sacrifice identifies us with his Heart, sustains our strength along the pilgrimage of this life, makes us long for eternal life, and unites us even now to the Church in heaven, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and all the saints" (Catechism, no. 1419).
Noting then the centrality of this most august Sacrament in our earthly journey en route to the heavenly Jerusalem, I wish to express my serious concern about the number of Catholic funerals that omit the most essential part of the Order of Christian Funerals, namely the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Only in the most extraordinary circumstances should the funeral rites proceed without Mass. It is particularly disheartening when a good, faithful, practicing Catholic is deprived of Holy Mass at the time of his or her funeral because those preparing or arranging the funeral have not given due consideration to this essential celebration upon one's return to the Lord. Thus, it is so necessary that one's desire to have Holy Mass celebrated according to the Order of Christian Funerals be clearly stated in writing and made a part of one's Advance Directives.
I also encourage the laudable and efficacious practice of scheduling the offering of Holy Mass for the repose of the souls of our deceased loved ones on their birthdays, anniversaries of death, or other occasions. Here it is important to recall the Church's teaching about Purgatory: "All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect..." (Catechism, nos. 1030-1031). In meditating upon the reality of Purgatory, we are further instructed according to the tenets of our Catholic faith that: "From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God" (Catechism, no. 1032). For us who profess the Catholic faith, there is no better way to cherish the memory of our beloved dead than to have Holy Mass offered for them. The Mass also renews our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and in the eternal life wrought by His rising from the dead.
Another area meriting reflection is the option of Words of Remembrance in the Mass of Christian Burial. Over the years, in some circumstances, the Words of Remembrance, which are not intended to be a eulogy, incorrectly have shifted the focus of the funeral liturgy away from the Mass of Christian Burial. It should be noted that including Words of Remembrance is optional and, therefore, not a requirement mandated by the Order of Christian Funerals.
The document Norms for Words of Remembrance at Funerals in the Diocese of Rochester, promulgated on May 20, 2012, by my predecessor, the Most Reverend Matthew H. Clark, Eighth Bishop of Rochester, clearly articulate the diocesan guidelines to be followed for this option (see Diocese of Rochester, Funeral Guideline - Funeral Policy, Appendix 1: Norms for Words of Remembrance at Funerals in the Diocese of Rochester, pp. 9-11). Among the subjects discussed, the policy notes the following:
* "The most appropriate time for Words of Remembrance is at the Vigil for the Deceased ..." (The vigil is commonly known as the wake.)
* "One person only speaks in the name of all when the Words of Remembrance occur at the Funeral Mass or Funeral Liturgy outside Mass.
* "These Words of Remembrance should be brief: no more than 3-4 minutes (one typed page). The representative speaker should be reminded that these words are within the good flow and dignity of the liturgy ...
* "The Words of Remembrance should be prepared beforehand, and ideally reviewed with the priest. .. to avoid undue length or an embarrassing situation.
* "The Words of Remembrance provide briefly some insight into the faith and values of the Deceased ..."
Because we as Catholics believe that "The Eucharist is the source and summit of Christian life" (Catechism, no. 1324), we are blessed with a funeral liturgy that is the Lord's gift to us and a great source of consolation at the time of death. It is at this time that the "Church through its funeral rites commends the dead to God's merciful love and pleads for the forgiveness of their sins. At the funeral rites, especially at the celebration of the Eucharistic sacrifice, the Church community affirms and expresses the union of the Church on earth with the Church in heaven in the one great communion of the saints" (Order of Christian Funerals, General Introduction, no. 6). While the opportunity to share one's grief and memories is certainly part of the mourning process, these human interactions more suitably take place among family and at the funeral home where reminiscing and supportive, informal conversation occur (Diocese of Rochester, Funeral Guideline - Funeral Policy, p.4). Family members also are able to share their experiences of the deceased loved one with the parish priest or deacon who can incorporate certain points in his homily. However, the homily is to stress the eternal life that we are striving to achieve in Christ.
The celebration of the Mass of Christian Burial also transforms the grief and sorrow so deeply felt upon the loss of a loved one by our belief in the eternal life that Christ, not we, has won for us. Thus, at Mass we joyfully sing: "We proclaim your Death, O Lord, and profess your Resurrection until you come again." Through Christ, we now are blessed to share in the Trinity's eternal glory and abide with Jesus Christ forever. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass celebrated at the time of death is the Church's most perfect prayer offered to God, begging that in His mercy He will "forgive whatever sins (the deceased) committed through human weakness and in [His] goodness grant him/her everlasting peace" (Order of Christian Funerals, Prayer of Commendation).
In conclusion, I wish to offer some reflections about Christian burial and our Catholic cemeteries. The Catechism of the Catholic Church presents the consistent teaching of the Church about the proper burial of our loved ones: "The bodies of the dead must be treated with respect and charity, in faith and hope of the Resurrection. The burial of the dead is a corporal work of mercy; it honors the children of God, who are temples of the Holy Spirit" (no. 2300). Although cremation is now permitted by the Church, the long-standing practice of burying the body of the deceased in a grave or tomb, in imitation of the burial of the body of Jesus, continues to be encouraged as a sign of Christian faith. Our Catholic cemeteries, blessed and consecrated, receive our mortal bodies, which once were purified in the waters of Baptism, anointed with the Oil of Salvation, housed our immortal souls and were tabernacles for the Lord Himself at each Eucharistic Communion. Thus, upon death our bodies require a dignified burial. Again, in faith we believe, we profess that: "By death the soul is separated from the body, but in the resurrection God will give incorruptible life to our body, transformed by reunion with our soul. Just as Christ is risen and lives forever, so all of us will rise at the last day" (Catechism, no. 1016).
Even in the case of cremation, the cremated remains are to be given the same respect as the corporal remains of a human body, including the manner in which they are transported and their final disposition. They are to be buried in a cemetery or entombed in a mausoleum or columbarium. Scattering cremated remains at sea or on the ground is not permitted. Likewise, keeping the cremated remains in one's home is not the reverent disposition that the Church requires (Diocese of Rochester, Funeral Guideline - Funeral Policy, pp. 6-7).
Our Catholic cemeteries are sacred places joined to our Catholic creed. They are places of prayer that remind us of our final destination: eternal union with God Whom we have come to know and to love in this life so as to live with Him forever in heaven, "the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness" (Catechism, no. 1024).
I encourage the faithful to consider very seriously our Catholic cemeteries when making preparations for death and ensuring that one's burial reflects our dignity as the children of God, now called home to the Father.
Our lives are never lived in isolation. We entered this world, I pray, surrounded by those who love us and who continued to love us throughout our lives. Our parents, relatives and dear friends are not to be forgotten in death. As a diocesan family, in union with the whole Catholic Church throughout the world, we raise our voices in prayer on their behalf, beseeching Our Father that their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, may rest in peace. Amen.
Uniting with you in prayer for your beloved deceased, especially during this month of All Souls, I remain
Sincerely yours in Christ,
†The Most Reverend Salvatore R. Matano
Bishop of Rochester