Funerals in the Catholic Tradition
A Pastoral Letter of the Most Reverend Richard J. Malone, Th.D., S.T.L., Bishop of Portland, to the clergy, religious and lay faithful of the Diocese of Portland
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
The promise of eternal life with God once the earthly journey of a faithful disciple has ended is the greatest hope, comfort and strength of our Catholic faith. As St. Paul taught the Christian community of Thessalonica:
We do not want you to be unaware, brothers [and sisters], about those who have fallen asleep, so that you may not grieve like the rest, who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose, so too will God, through Jesus, bring with him those who have fallen asleep. […] Thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore, console one another with these words. (I Thessalonians 4:13-14, 17-18)
St. Paul’s exhortation that we conduct ourselves, even in grieving, as a people of hope can be a challenge. At times, our sorrow and bewilderment in the face of the loss of loved ones can be overwhelming.
Yet, everything that we believe calls us to hope. The One in whom we believe is the reason for our hope. From the moment sin and death entered the world, God remained with us to the point of offering his Son to save us. Through this sacrifice, God, who is love and for whom nothing is impossible, conquered death and promised eternal life to those who are faithful to him. Through baptism, we have been incorporated into the Body of Christ and transformed under the sign of the Cross. We have been made sharers in the Resurrection.
St. Paul calls our attention to this truth in his Letter to the Romans:
[A]re you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life. […] If, then, we have died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with him. We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more; death no longer has power over him. (Romans 6:3-4, 8-9)
Uplifted by the knowledge that Christ has won for us the victory over death, we can begin to understand what he proclaims in the Gospel: “Blessed are they who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). As Christians, our comfort is the Resurrection and the hope of new and eternal life.
Reflecting on the Paschal Mystery and the profound hope that we are called to embrace, our faith leads to action. Throughout the ages, the prayer of the Church at the time of death has been one of hope, not resignation or despair. Indeed, we have a responsibility to mark the passing of our deceased brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that gives witness to our faith and anticipates the consolation that Christ has promised us in the Kingdom of God.
As the Church, we have shared a life of faith with one another, been nourished by the same sacraments, and experienced God’s grace together. The bonds that have united and defined us as God’s people do not end with the conclusion of this earthly life. In death, we remain “one body in Christ” (Romans 12:5). Thus, the Church’s concern for her members does not cease in death.
Faithful to the Lord’s example, the Church continues to minister Christ’s sanctification so that each of us may be made holy in the sight of God. Out of love, the Church discerns a solemn duty to commend the deceased members of the Christian faithful to God. Through the funeral rites, the Church prays for the forgiveness of sins and praises God for the gift of life and salvation. All of us, as members of the Body of Christ, share this obligation to commend the deceased to God. The same faith that motivates us to baptize our loved ones and nurture one another in the faith calls us to affirm our belief in the Resurrection and join in the prayer of the whole Church.
As an expression of unity with the deceased and a fervent profession of faith, a funeral is not a private event. Rather, it is a public act of worship whereby the whole community gathers in prayer for the deceased and the grieving. For this reason, the Church has taken care to ensure that the celebration of funerals truly embodies the beliefs we hold. The signs, symbols, actions, and words which mark the various moments of the funeral rites have arisen from the tradition of the Church as ways of witnessing to these beliefs and, thus, enabling the faithful to contemplate the profound meaning of death in the life of a Christian. The funeral rites invite us to lift our gaze to heaven so that we may find hope in our sadness. Joined in prayer with one another, we are consoled, and we dare to welcome Christ into our lives during our time of grief. For as our Lord has promised, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
With all of this in mind, I ask that every funeral provide a grace-filled occasion for every participant to be evangelized anew by the Good News of Jesus. Therefore, as you plan your funeral or that of a loved one, please consider the following guidelines, which strive to articulate our beliefs and practices pertaining to Catholic funerals.
What we believe about death guides how we live our lives. As Christians, we must carry life’s crosses and bear loss with hope in our hearts. We must gaze upon the bodies of the deceased and remember that through Christ, “the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them” (Matthew 11:5; Luke 7:22). Unlike many in our secular society, we do not turn away from death nor allow ourselves to believe that death is the end. Trusting that God “will wipe every tear” (Revelation 21:4), we stand before him in grief but not in despair. The funeral rites of the Catholic Church, which I have endeavored to explain briefly, invite us to live the virtue of hope. Through these rites, the Church responds to death by celebrating the hope of eternal life. As the Church’s liturgy helps us to pray and affirm during the funeral Mass:
In him the hope of blessed resurrection has dawned,
that those saddened by the certainty of dying
might be consoled by the promise of immortality to come.
Indeed for your faithful, Lord,
life is changed not ended,
and, when this earthly dwelling turns to dust,
an eternal dwelling is made ready for them in heaven.
(Preface 78, Roman Missal)
Given on the second day of November, the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed (All Souls), in the year of our Lord, two-thousand and eleven, the eighth of my episcopate.
Most Reverend Richard J. Malone, Th.D., S.T.L.
Eleventh Bishop of Portland