Formula at Priest's Funeral

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Formula at Priest's Funeral

ROME, 13 DEC. 2005 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University.

Q: Recently, at a funeral for a priest, a concelebrant read the prayer for the dead in Eucharistic Prayer II in this way: "Remember Joseph, whom you have called from this life. In baptism and holy orders he died with Christ; may he also share his resurrection." I have heard this said many times at priests' funerals or anniversaries of death, so I took it as a valid formula. However, one of the laity was offended by the formula, which to her seemed to equate baptism with ordination. Could you tell me whether the addition of "holy orders" in the prayer for the deceased priest is allowed during the Eucharistic Prayer? I was not able to find a separate book for priests' funerals to answer it on my own. I would certainly like to continue this tradition if possible, but not if it is incorrect to do so. — K.H., Rochester, New York

A: There is, as far as I know, no special book for priest's funerals, although there are particular prayers for a deceased priest.

There are some marks of distinction. The coffin, for instance, is placed in the direction that a person held in the liturgical assembly. Thus, the body of an ordained minister lies facing the assembly and the body of a layperson lies facing the altar.

Where it is customary, the insignia of the minister's order may be placed on the coffin.

Apart from this, No. 832 of the Ceremonial of Bishops notes that "The funeral Mass is celebrated in the same way as other Masses. In Eucharistic Prayers II and III the intercessions (interpolations) for the deceased are added."

I do not consider that the addition of the phrase "in holy orders" to these interpolations is quite correct, and I believe that the layperson's objection touches on a valid point.

First, there is the general principle that nobody, not even a priest, may add or remove anything from the sacred liturgy, and this addition is not found in any official liturgical text.

During the funeral of Pope John Paul II the First Eucharistic Prayer's formula of intercession for the dead was faithfully followed except, as is usual in funerals, in substituting the deceased's name for the usual silent pause. To wit: "Remember; Lord, those who have died ... especially the Roman Pontiff Pope John Paul, whom today you have called to you from this life ..."

Second, although the reception of holy orders is a wonderful thing, and the soul receives an indelible sacramental seal, it is not quite true to say that N. has died with Christ in holy orders. The expression "in baptism he has died with Christ" is redolent of St. Paul's theology in which baptism is in itself a death to sin and a foretaste of the resurrection through the reception of a new life in Christ.

Including another sacrament in this phrase tends to obscure the scriptural and theological background and, I believe, weakens rather than enhances the depth of the interpolation.

Finally, if this addition were legitimate, then logically we would also have to include the other sacrament that leaves an indelible seal on the soul and say "in baptism, confirmation and holy orders he has died with Christ ..."

* * *

Follow-up: Formula at Priest's Funeral [1-10-2006]

After our comments on the position of a priest's casket reflecting his place in the liturgical celebration (Dec. 13) a reader asked: "Is this in the rubrics or is it just a custom? Also in light of the normative posture of priests prior to 1962, was this changed after the Second Vatican Council?"

This norm is found in the rubrics, for example, in the Ceremonial of Bishops, No. 823, which describes it as a custom fittingly continued, for indeed it is a custom which predates the Council by many centuries.

Regarding the expression "The coffin ... is placed in the direction that a person held in the liturgical assembly," an English reader considered the phrase "bizarre."

He wrote: "Apart from the odd picture this presents — of the priest customarily lying on his back with feet facing the assembly — it should not be assumed that all priests now celebrate Mass facing the people. There is no liturgical law requiring them to do so."

The expression, whether bizarre or not, is taken directly from the Ceremonial of Bishops.

While it is true that Mass is not obligatorily celebrated facing the people, it can still be said that this is the priest's proper position if the entire liturgy is taken into account. The priest usually faces the people to invite them to pray, when imparting a blessing, as well as in some other forms of liturgical prayer and devotion.

A reader from Germany wrote: "Is it liturgically OK for the priest-celebrants to wear black vestments for requiems? What reasons are there for it if so? Is there any liturgical procedure for the procession with the coffin after Mass to the grave?"

Before Vatican II, black was commonly used for funerals and most Masses for the deceased. The liturgical reforms have retained the possible use of black vestments for funerals, but also permit violet and white to be used. As a consequence, black, while legitimate, has fallen into almost total disuse in most of the world.

Since colors sometimes have different cultural connotations, bishop's conferences may solicit permission from the Holy See to use a color typically associated with mourning in that country instead of the usual three options.

There are norms in the Order of Christian Burials, but since funerals, like weddings, frequently have particular local customs, the Holy See usually grants wide berth to bishops' conferences to adapt the rites to local needs, and publish their own orders based on the Latin "Ordo Exsequiarum."

Although these books contain numerous practical details they do not cover everything. Most practical questions, such as reserving seats for relatives, transport to the gravesite, and appropriate music, can be handled by the family, the officiating priest and the undertaker. ZE06011023

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