Funeral Masses

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Funeral Masses

ROME, 18 AUG. 2009 (ZENIT)

Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: Who can be buried by the Church, and who can a burial Mass be said for? If a faithful of the Catholic Church is not baptized before he dies, but had the desire to be baptized, can a burial Mass be celebrated for him? If a Catholic was baptized, received first Communion and was confirmed, but failed to have his marriage blessed before he dies, can Mass be celebrated for him also? What about a Church member who contributed financially over the years to the Church and has held positions in the Church, but after his death there was a doubt of whether he had been baptized? Can he be given a Church burial, or can Mass be celebrated for him? — D.A., Accra, Ghana

A: The Church is usually generous toward the deceased, within limits.

First, we must distinguish between offering a funeral Mass and celebrating a Mass whose intention is the eternal repose of a particular soul.

Since the latter is basically the private intention of the priest, albeit offered at the request of a particular person, and since there are practically no limitations as to whom we may pray for, almost any intention can be admitted. In cases that might cause scandal, especially if the person were denied a funeral Mass, it would not be prudent to make this intention public.

A funeral Mass on the other hand is basically a public act in which the Church intercedes for the deceased by name. A funeral Mass is one which uses the formulas found in the Roman Missal and the ritual for funerals. Some of these formulas may be used even if the deceased's body is not present.

Because of its public nature the Church's public intercession for a departed soul is more limited. A funeral Mass can be celebrated for most Catholics, but there are some specific cases in which canon law requires the denial of a funeral Mass. Canons 1184-1185 say:

"Canon 1184 §1. Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:

1/ notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
2/ those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith;
3/ other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.

"§2. If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment must be followed.

"Canon 1185. Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is excluded from ecclesiastical funerals."

In fact, these strictures are rarely applied. In part, this is because many sinners do show signs of repentance before death.

Likewise, the canons are open to some interpretation. In No. 1184 §1 notorious would mean publicly known. Therefore someone who had abandoned the faith and joined some other group would be denied a funeral; someone who harbored private doubts or disagreements would not.

Cases of those who choose cremation for reasons contrary to the faith are extremely rare and are hard to prove (see the follow-up in our column of Nov. 29, 2005).

The most delicate cases are those in No. 1184 §1.3. Many canonists say that for denial of a funeral the person must be both widely known to be living in a state of grave sin and that holding a Church funeral would cause scandal.

About a year ago in Italy the Church denied an ecclesiastical funeral for a nationally known campaigner for euthanasia who requested and obtained the removal of his life-support system. In this case the request for a funeral for someone who was only nominally Catholic was in itself a publicity stunt for the organization behind the campaign. Likewise, someone subject to excommunication or interdict (for example, a Catholic abortionist) would be denied a funeral.

Given the severity of the requirements for denial of an ecclesiastical funeral, people in irregular marriages and suicides should not usually be denied a funeral. In such cases denial of the funeral is more likely than not to be counterproductive and cause unnecessary misunderstanding and bitterness. The Church intercedes for the soul and leaves final judgment to God.

Analogous to the funeral Mass are anniversary Masses which are somewhat in between an intention and a funeral Mass. Although, strictly speaking, these would not fall under the prohibitions mentioned in Canon 1184, such Masses should not be given publicity if the person had been denied a funeral.

With respect to non-Catholic Christians the local bishop may permit a funeral in some cases as specified in the Ecumenical Directory 120: "In the prudent judgment of the local Ordinary, the funeral rites of the Catholic Church may be granted to members of a non-Catholic Church or ecclesial Community, unless it is evidently contrary to their will and provided that their own minister is unavailable, and that the general provisions of Canon Law do not forbid it (see Can. 1183,3)."

Regarding the first and third cases presented by our reader, we can also refer to Canon 1183:

"Canon 1183 §1. When it concerns funerals, catechumens must be counted among the Christian faithful.

"§2. The local ordinary can permit children whom the parents intended to baptize but who died before baptism to be given ecclesiastical funerals."

This would apply both to the person who had intended to receive baptism but was prevented by death as well as to the person whose baptism was uncertain but was active in the Church.

In the first case the funeral liturgy may be celebrated as usual, only omitting language referring directly to the sacrament. The same would apply to the second case, but omission of mentioning the sacrament should be done only if the fact that the person had never been baptized could be established with some degree of certainty.

The foundation for this is the doctrine of baptism of desire in which the Church believes that a soul who explicitly desired the sacrament will receive all the graces of baptism at the moment of death, except for the sacramental character. This last is not given because it is directly orientated toward the exercise of worship during the course of life.

Finally, Catholic funerals are not celebrated for non-Christians.

* * *

Follow-up: Funeral Masses [9-1-2009]

In connection with our Aug. 18 piece on funeral Masses, a reader from the Marshall Islands wrote: "There was a time in the past that in funeral Masses, the 'Exchange of Peace' (before the Lamb of God) was omitted. The reason for it is that the exchange of peace is a joyful expression of greeting one another but somehow discordant in the time of death, the loss of someone so dear to the family."

First, I would say that the reason behind the exchange of peace is above all to share the peace of Christ which we are about to receive from the altar in Communion. It is true that in some places it has become a joyful free-for-all, but this is not its true meaning or the correct way of carrying out this rite.

If properly understood, therefore, not only is there no contradiction between the rite of peace and a funeral, but a dignified and composed sharing of Christ's peace can actually be a source of spiritual consolation to the bereaved family.

This is one reason why the Holy See approved the exemption, proposed by the U.S. bishops, to the general rule that the priest not leave the sanctuary during the sign of peace. Thus the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, No. 154, says:

"The priest may give the sign of peace to the ministers but always remains within the sanctuary, so as not to disturb the celebration. In the dioceses of the United States of America, for a good reason, on special occasions (for example, in the case of a funeral, a wedding, or when civic leaders are present) the priest may offer the sign of peace to a few of the faithful near the sanctuary. At the same time, in accord with the decisions of the Conference of Bishops, all offer one another a sign that expresses peace, communion, and charity. While the sign of peace is being given, one may say, Pax Domini sit semper vobiscum (The peace of the Lord be with you always), to which the response is Amen."

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