Monday 17 September 2012

More Bones

I like the Scousers: I even like the accent, needing only hear that gutteral enunciation (the ck in 'chicken' pronounced rather like the ch in a Scottish loch) to smile and know that for the next few minutes I am very unlikely to be bored.

The decline in the city has been very sad, and matched by the decline in the Church's presence there. What was once vibrant and strong, a city and a small hinterland making a diocese all on its own for reason of sheer numbers, has dwindled to the point where, I am sure, they are wondering whether they ought to be thinking of hooking up with a neighbouring diocese like Salford or Lancaster. Lots of reasons, of course, not least the decline in the shipping industry.

In the popular mind, 'Liverpool' now calls to mind the Liverpool Care Pathway, a means of speeding Granddad out of this world and into the next with the least bother to anyone (except Granddad, of course, but he'll be asleep most of the time).

And now Archbishop Patrick Kelly proposes that lay people be commissioned to celebrate funerals. This has drawn a certain amount of negative comment, not least from The Tablet, who seem to consider that priests should be available to do whatever the laity want them to do (take orders from their most articulate lay parishioners, follow the liturgical fashion of twenty years ago, stay out of the bedroom and, most crucially, bury Granddad), but not what some of the laity themselves want to do themselves (pronounce on doctrine, give out the sacraments, hold onto the chequebook, preach &c).

Far be it from me to disagree with such a magisterial publication as The Tablet, but in this case (and no doubt for once many of you will be agreeing with The Tablet and disagreeing with me) I have a certain sympathy with Archbishop Kelly's decision.

If you are reading this post, or The Tablet, for that matter, the chances are that you are a believing and practising Catholic—at least to some extent. Your funeral will honestly and genuinely reflect that faith, and you won't want anything to interfere with that. You will want a proper Requiem and, no doubt, you will get it.

But so many funerals that we do are not like that. On arrival in the Adur Valley in 2004, my first funeral, for a local undertaker, was truly shocking. The undertakers' conductor (a woman dressed in fish net stockings, a very-mini-skirt, tail coat and top hat—all she needed was a whip to get a part in the local circus) had noted all the quasi-liturgical and musical demands of the family and simply announced to me 'that this and that' was what was happening. The only Catholic involved was the corpse, and she had ceased practising some time after her first Communion way back when. But demands were made for a lot of very unsuitable rock music, and when I gently tried to persuade the family that this was simply not appropriate, we had tears and hysterics, and lots of 'but we were promised by the undertakers that we could have it' and 'there's never any problem at the Anglican church'. We reached a compromise in the end, one with which I was still very unhappy, and then when the funeral began, the undertakers simply marched in and did what they originally had planned, rock music and all. What was I to do? Create a scene in the middle of a Requiem Mass? No, of course not; I had just to carry on. Afterwards, though, I let it be known that that firm would not officiate again in our churches. In a while, it was all smoothed over. The firm now behave themselves well, and no doubt have me marked down as a priest of overwhelming unreasonableness and prickliness.

I do, actually, see the Funeral Directors' dilemma. They, entirely reasonably, see themselves as providing a service for which grieving people are paying (a lot of) money. Therefore, they hold, the grieving people, who pay the piper, are entitled to call the tune, and the churches are part of this process. It isn't helped by the fact that some non-Catholic churches are very willing to do whatever is required by the family and friends. I have been to a funeral of a practising Christian, where the majority the mourners were practising Christians, and where God hardly got a mention, though there was plenty of the 'Fred loved a drink and a good dirty joke' sort of thing from the officiant.

At a funeral, we are there to provide a service, yes, but a service principally to the deceased, not to the mourners. It is not intended to be the deceased's last show, but an opportunity to pray for him, to commit his soul to God, to thank God for all the blessings with which He endowed him on his life on earth, and to reflect on the eternal verities. It's just that these things go over a lot of people's heads. Their minds are fixed on this world, not the next.

It has rightly been said that a funeral is an opportunity to engage people's faith, even if there's only a little of it. But it doesn't need a Mass to do that. And one often has the complication of a churchful of, well, mostly pagans, in front of the celebrant, all in deepest black, unresponsive, uneasy, wondering when they will get to the bit where the priest sexually abuses the servers. You have to tell them as kindly as you can about the Communion discipline, but inevitably some will present themselves anyway ('it's something I wanted to do for Nan', as if Nan had wanted them to commit sacrilege on her behalf). More distant mourners will sit throughout the service (despite being asked to stand or kneel), looking bored or aggressive, and will pointedly ignore you or be deeply cold if you try to speak with them after the Mass.

Surely in these cases it is better not to have a Funeral Requiem Mass? A shorter service at the crematorium, or even in the church gives one the opportunity to be a little more relaxed about the service, to be able to put people at their ease, even (in the Crem) to be a little more tolerant of the music.  One still has, though, a good opportunity to engage with them about the things that really matter. In such instances, I always tell people that there will be a Mass celebrated for Nan, and give them a time and date. This means that those who are coming merely to pay their respects need not come to the Mass; they have done what was expected, and they can go back to their boring little lives.

In the Adur Valley, I often pass on such non-Eucharistic funeral services to our deacon (and shortly we will have two deacons). He does them beautifully, and, no doubt, having recently taken early retirement, appreciates an extra bit of income. To deeply lapsed people there is no apparent distinction between a deacon and a priest. Lay people would be a step on from this, but I don't imagine that at least some people would be greatly upset, as long as Gran was properly seen to.

A danger to be avoided is an inevitable distancing of the priest from people; time spent on administration rather than the pastoral work for which he was ordained is not desirable. I believe that Liverpool has initiated that administration of Confirmation before First Holy Communion which in some respects is admirable. And yet, because the sacrament is administered by the parish priest, how many young people now have never even seen a bishop?

In this, as in so many things, no doubt priorities must be sorted out first. But, as long as a Mass is celebrated for the deceased, and the deceased is prayed for, I wouldn't have really rooted objections to non-Eucharistic funerals.


Anonymous said...

If we can speak of the "faithful departed" there is a presumption that there are the "unfaithful too".
I see no problem in making a distinction

Mulier Fortis said...

The problem is, Father, that these non-practicing families won't have Masses said once the funeral has been done as they don't realise that it's necessary - or even available. The funeral Mass may be the only one offered for that person's soul

Pastor in Monte said...

And my point is, Mac, that I make sure that it is done. I say it myself.

Ben Trovato said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ben Trovato said...

Fr, you make a cogent case, with which I sympathise, but I have strong objections specifically to the way in which Liverpool diocese is proceeding... (sorry, wrong link first time!)

GOR said...

I think one of the reasons for people’s secular expectations regarding funerals stems from the example of rites for ‘important people’ – like noted athletes, politicians and entertainment celebrities.

Rather than praying for the soul of the deceased, these have become ‘celebrations of the life of…’ Endless eulogies by all and sundry under the rubric of nil de mortuis nisi bonum. People dressed to the nines, there to see and be seen. All attention on the grieving relatives and little thought that the encomiums avail little to the deceased.

If that is what people want or expect, then by all means have it ‘performed’ by a lay person – but in the funeral home, not the church.

Ben Trovato said...

I am now going to reveal myself to be completely beyond the pale, by suggesting that communion for the people is not a necessary part of a Mass. So if there is serious reason to worry about sacrilegious communion, only the priest need communicate...

(That was certainly the case in the Traditional Rite - I imagine that still holds good.)

Ian said...

"It is not intended to be the deceased's last show, but an opportunity to pray for him, to commit his soul to God, to thank God for all the blessings with which He endowed him on his life on earth, and to reflect on the eternal verities."

Yes, indeed. I am currently living in Nepal; to Hindus here the notion that relatives could choose what rites to have for the deceased would seem bizarre.

gemoftheocean said...

Ben, I think your comment is about the most depressing one I've ever seen.

Anonymous said...

"...wondering when they will get to the bit where the priest sexually abuses the servers...": this piquant little description is an excellent index of how the unchurched (or dechurched, or whatever) see the Church.

The clergy do need to "meet people where they're at": but God forbid that they do this with the intention of leaving them there.

On occasion I have also made a decision to celebrate a "Mass on the day of burial" separated from the funeral service. None of the bereaved wished to attend the Mass. The funeral service was as suitable I could make it. Eulogies were given and favourite songs played at the crematorium, not in church.

Tom said...

I agree with you, Father. Having worked in both parish and school ministry it is clear that many people are no longer interested in what a Catholic is really about. Unfortunately here in Ireland everybody and his dog is expected to go to a funeral if they knew anyone in the family so they are big as well as sensitive occasions. Having lay people do the removal and the priest say the Mass the next morning is one solution adopted over here. In one parish were I was deacon we once had five funerals in one day! Good job we had a few friars around to help out. With falling vocations and increasing disconnection from the Church we have to be realistic and make life liveable for the clergy. As you say though this can lead to many Catholics never meeting a priest let alone a bishop.

On that point though the widespread adoption of contraception by Catholics has left us with just too few men! Ireland is below replacement rate at 2.01 but that's a jump from the 1.85 it had dropped to since it went below the 2.1 mark in the late 80's. The UK is at 1.9 another recent jump up from the 1.66 it had been for a number of years. Quite simply after a number of years below replacement rate there aren't the spare men in the population to provide the vocations to the priesthood so that they can look after the spiritual needs of the people.