For one of my first funerals as very new priest over 17 years ago, the adult children of their deceased father, in our planning meeting, asked me not to eulogize their father in the homily, because Father So-and-So a year earlier had done that for their mother at her funeral: “Father, we didn’t know what he was talking about! He didn’t know our mother, and the things he said simply were not true, as he tried to pretend that he knew her.” Ever since then, I have been quite aware of the concrete difficulties of eulogies given by a priest or by friends of the deceased.
I remember a eulogy given by a young man for his grandmother: after staring blankly at the congregation for what seemed like an eternity, he went on and on about slippers Grandma had made him “which he never liked and never used anyway”. In another eulogy I remember a man trying to get the congregation to do “the wave”. I remember another occasion when a woman eulogizing her deceased husband told dirty jokes that degraded women and the marital embrace. At my own mother’s funeral I remember somebody spontaneously standing up at the wake service to eulogize her, and what this person said simply was not true. I remember another eulogy that was ten minutes of nothing but sobbing, with half syllables and broken words, such that the congregation could understand nothing. On another occasion, the person eulogizing tried to get the congregation to sing “We Will Rock You”. I could write a book with such anecdotes. Suffice it to say that one of the problems with eulogies is simply that the priest can never guarantee the content will be solid, nor that the eulogy will be well-executed. The priest has to care for every aspect of the Mass, because people are formed by the experience, for good or for ill.
But these practical problems are not the primary reason for avoiding eulogies during the funeral Mass. The basic reason for avoiding eulogies is that the eulogy does not fit into the purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. When I am pressured by a family to allow a eulogy, I feel that I am being pressured to ignore the explicit instruction of the Church’s funeral rite; and that I am – from a pastoral point of view – adding to the post-Vatican II confusion regarding the true nature of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. The Order of Christian Funerals says the following:
“A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy. The homilist should dwell on God’s compassionate love and on the Paschal Mystery of the Lord has proclaimed in the Scripture readings. Through the homily, the community should receive the consolation and strength to face the death of one of its members with a hope that has been nourished by the proclamation of the saving word of God” (Order of Christian Funerals, 27).
“A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading at the funeral liturgy […] but there is never to be a eulogy” (Order of Christian Funerals, 141).
Of course the priest is going to try to say something specific about the deceased in a way that will console and lead people to the Lord. But the funeral Mass is not “a celebration of the life” of the deceased, as I have heard it called so many times in eulogies. The purpose of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is fourfold: adoration, thanksgiving, petition, atonement. What a consolation for the mourners to turn to their Rock and Savior, Jesus Christ, in adoration, even in the midst of grief! Again, what a consolation for the family to enter into the greatest possible act of thanksgiving – which is the Mass – that they could possibly offer for God’s blessings upon the deceased throughout life (The Mass is the source of all the good accomplished in the life of the deceased). In the Mass we always petition on behalf of the deceased; and in the funeral Mass we often explicitly name the deceased for this purpose in the Eucharistic prayer. Finally, the Mass accomplishes atonement, making up for past sins. The one perfect sacrifice of Jesus on behalf of humanity is re-presented and applied to the deceased. God truly uses the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to shepherd our loved ones into His embrace.
Asking families to avoid eulogies in the Mass means encouraging them to let the Mass be what it is, rather than pressuring it to accomplish something outside of its own character. If we appreciate and understand the purpose of the Mass, we should be more than willing to let the Mass be what it is. [It is the source and summit of the Christian life!!]
I fully understand the need a family experiences at this time to speak about their deceased loved one. I have been through enough of my own family’s funerals to experience this need. But to ask families not to give eulogies at the funeral Mass is not in the slightest to rob them of an opportunity to speak publicly about the deceased. There is ample opportunity outside of the funeral Mass publicly to speak about the deceased. When we suggest that families eulogize their loved one at the vigil service, they sometimes say there are never enough people there. To remedy this, you could easily state in the obituary that the vigil service will include “a time of remembrance”, which will include eulogies. I have seen this done here in Paulding already, since my becoming pastor, and it was done very successfully. People knew the vigil service would be the time for the eulogy, so a good crowd attended. And I heard rave reviews about how nice a job the family did. Another opportunity would be at the funeral luncheon after the burial. Almost everybody attends the luncheon, and I can think of no better topic for conversation at such a luncheon than the life of the deceased! If need be, we could hook up a microphone to accommodate eulogies at the luncheon. Finally, a family member could speak at the graveside commital service.
Please prayerfully consider what I have written. I hope this teaching will help us honor our beloved deceased even better, and enhance our appreciation of the power of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, celebrated for our loved ones. Remember St. Augustine, speaking of being with his brother at the bedside of his dying mother, St. Monica?:
We were overwhelmed with grief, but she held her gaze steadily upon us, and spoke further: “Here you shall bury your mother.” I remained silent as I held back my tears. However, my brother haltingly expressed his hope that she might not die in a strange country but in her own land, since her end would be happier there. When she heard this, her face was filled with anxiety, and she reproached him with a glance because he had entertained such earthly thoughts. Then she looked at me and spoke: “Look what he is saying.” Thereupon she said to both of us, “Bury my body wherever you will; let not care of it cause you any concern. One thing only I ask you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” Once our mother had expressed this desire as best she could, she fell silent as the pain of her illness increased (Confessions, book 9.10-11).
On another note, we had another pastoral council meeting last week. The project for the evening was determining the task of the new committee to consider Mass times. Eight names were collected since the last pastoral council meeting – representatives from each campus. The committee will be tasked with trying to create a survey to learn parish opinion/preference on Mass times in three categories: weekend Masses (especially to see if a Mass can be offered on Sunday in Payne somehow, since this complaint showed up numerous times on the parish survey), holy day of obligation Masses, Christmas and Easter Triduum Masses. The process for creating the survey will include discussion of the current Mass schedule in each category, and the various pros and cons for possible new proposals. Leaving the Mass schedule in each category as it currently is will always be an option on the eventual survey. Committee members especially devoted to a particular campus, and representing a wide range of age should provide for a rich conversation!
Have a blessed week!
In cordibus Iesu et Mariae,