The Ave Maria at Funerals

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


The Ave Maria at Funerals

ROME, NOV. 29, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A woman whom I know, who is Catholic, and very near death, has requested that the "Ave Maria" be sung at her funeral. However, when her daughter, my friend, went to the parish to make arrangements for her mother's funeral mass, she was told by the funeral director that the "Ave Maria" was "outdated," and furthermore, was not "liturgically sound" for a funeral. The funeral director flat out refused to honor the dying woman's selection as part of parish policy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I have heard Schubert's version of the "Ave Maria" sung at a Catholic funeral before. Was this an unsound liturgical practice that is also not current in Catholic liturgy? — T.W., Las Vegas, Nevada

A: Opinions vary widely regarding the use of classical versions of the Ave Maria within Catholic liturgy, especially for weddings and funerals. In some places it is discouraged and even forbidden, while in many others it is considered totally acceptable. There is practically nothing official on this subject either way.

I think some distinctions are pertinent. First of all, there is the text of the Ave Maria itself which has been used for centuries as an antiphon in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has not been used as an official liturgical text in the Mass but in many places has been used as a meditative hymn, either during the presentation of gifts, or after communion.

Another question regards the version to be used, and this raises the complex question of acceptable musical style. Some melodies were composed directly for the Ave Maria, while others, such as Shubert's, were originally composed in a secular context although not devoid of religious sentiment.

In general the Church has a longstanding principle to avoid using profane music in the liturgy, while at the same time she does not make definitive judgments regarding musical sensibilities. Because of this it is possible that certain musical forms might be excluded at one time and admitted at another, and some originally secular works have now become inextricably associated with the religious version.

Musical style, however, is just one principle involved. There are others such as the ability of the music to be conducive to prayer. Even when making no moral judgment regarding a musical form, the Church can still exclude it from the liturgy if it is incapable of fulfilling a liturgical function. For example, St. Pius X banned those "Masses" which were composed directly for the liturgy in the late 19th century but which were inspired by the style of the opera house and which required an operatic mode of execution which drew attention to the singer and away from the mystery.

Regarding the Ave Maria, some classical versions such as that usually attributed to Schubert have lost almost all connection to the profane original, in this case a German version of Ellen's prayer to Mary taken from Sir Walter Scott's poem "The Lady of the Lake." Because of this religious context I personally see no difficulty in using it at the appropriate moments at weddings and funerals.

Indeed, the Ave Maria was used in precisely this manner in a very public setting on occasion of the funeral of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in the presence of a cardinal and other prelates.
It might even be said that the Ave Maria, with its insistent appeal to Mary, Refuge of Sinners, is especially apt at funerals, serving as to counterbalance the tendency toward instant canonization of the deceased. Its use could thus act as a reminder of the reality of sin, the doctrine of purgatory, and the need to intercede for the souls of the dead.

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Follow-up: The Ave Maria at Funerals [12-13-2011]

In the Nov. 29 piece on the Ave Maria I said that it "has not been used as an official liturgical text in the Mass." I referred, above all, to the complete text of the Ave Maria.

One reader pointed out, however: "While not used completely, the first portion of the prayer ('Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum: benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui') is appointed in the Graduale Romanum as the Offertory for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, and as the first option for the Offertory in the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary. With that in mind, would it not then be perfectly legitimate to use a version of Ave Maria as an Offertory on those occasions?"

Regarding funeral liturgies in general, a Chicago reader asked: "My cousin recently passed away and the family turned to me to help arrangements for the Mass. I did some research in his home city to find a church that offers more traditional liturgy and found one that regularly offers a Novus Ordo in Latin with a sacred-music choir. I called the parish, requesting a simple requiem Mass for my cousin, with Gregorian chant and perhaps some sacred polyphony, and was flatly refused. I was told that the parish could offer a 'regular' funeral Mass with a hymn like 'Amazing Grace' or 'On Eagles' Wings,' but that it would not be possible to offer a requiem Mass. As someone who chants in a schola, I know that the chants for the traditional requiem Mass are not complex (Kyrie, Sanctus, Angus Dei, In Paradisum); I was not asking for Mozart's Requiem with a full orchestra. My question is, do the faithful have a canonical right to a requiem Mass with Gregorian chant (assuming that there is a competent and available cantor, which in this case there was)? Or must we be subjected to the banal sentimentality of hymns like 'On Eagles' Wings' or a Protestant hymn like 'Amazing Grace' at the funerals of our loved ones due to the will of the pastor?"

I would be loath to interpret the pastor's reasons for refusing the requiem Mass; he might have had other good motivations in this particular case.

In general, however, I would say that while it is not possible to speak of an absolute "right" of the faithful to a particular form of Mass, one can say that the faithful do have a right to the Mass as proposed by the Catholic Church. Since the texts of the requiem Mass are all officially approved and found in the liturgical books, there is, in general terms, no good reason to refuse to allow their use in any funeral celebration if there is someone who can execute them.

Even if the Mass itself is celebrated in the vernacular, the common parts and the proper texts can all be sung in Latin. Also, since these texts often correspond to the official antiphons, they would have preference over any other hymns or songs. It must be admitted that there is a poignancy and pathos in imploring God that the angels lead the deceased in paradisum (into paradise) to be welcomed on arrival by the martyrs and introduced into the heavenly Jerusalem that is not quite captured by songs such as "On Eagles' Wings."

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