The transition from sacred rites to secular remembrances

Father John A. Kiley

Chuckie probably never missed Mass in his entire life. As a child and even as a teenager he served Mass regularly at his parish Church. Then as a young adult he was only too happy to assist with the offertory collection at every Mass he attended. He took deliberate care to make sure the tamper-proof bags were sealed after every collection and vigilantly deposited in the sacristy safe. Chuckie really was not up to running for the parish council and he knew his limitations as a potential reader of the Word. But he keenly knew that he could fulfill the duties of an active Knight of Columbus perfectly and so he threw himself into that fraternal organization with dedication and vigor. Nothing made him happier than the plumes and capes and sashes of a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. If he could get a ride to a Confirmation ceremony and then proudly raise his sword as a member the honor guard accorded the celebrating prelate, then his day was certainly complete. Hence Chuckie was on a first name basis with every bishop of Providence for the past fifty years. Chuckie was fortunate that his father lived to a ripe old age and he was able to remain with him in his childhood home until his passing. However he did not survive his father by many years. The obituary for this exemplary Catholic read simply: “Visiting hours will be held on Monday from 4-7 p.m., with a prayer service at 6 p.m., in the funeral home. Burial will be private.”

At least Chuckie had a brief wake and a generic prayer service. More and more death notices in generically Catholic Rhode Island (even at 45 percent, Rhode Island is still the most Catholic state in the U.S.) indicate, first of all, no Mass of Christian Burial, then often no wake, no prayer service and no burial. There can be rare but legitimate circumstances for the curtailment of the traditional Rite of Christian Burial which consists of a wake service, a funeral Mass, and an internment in consecrated ground. Thanks to the modern blessing of longevity, some people outlive their peers and there is frankly no one left to attend a wake. And sadly some people do not have the prudence to make “pre-arrangements” so that the honors due them at their demise – like a Mass and a few prayers – may be insured. But, explanations aside, the local clergy, funeral directors and neighbors all realize that abbreviated funeral rites are a sad but obvious indication that succeeding generations simply do not have the eager Catholic faith of preceding generations.

Some descendants of a deceased pious Catholic might possibly be honest enough to recognize that their own generation has strayed from the practice of the faith and participating in these traditional rituals would be hypocritical. But, more often than not, hypocrisy would be too exalted a description of a neglectful descendant’s motivation in dispensing with the customary rites. Frankly, indifference, apathy, or unconcern would be a more apt explanation for the truncated rites accorded the dead. Let’s be honest. Some people just don’t want to be bothered. Praying for the dead has diminished because praying itself has diminished. The prospect of eternity does not weigh very heavily on the contemporary conscience. Suddenly becoming devout as a result of a family death is clearly too much to expect from the post-modern American Catholic. Today’s person might indeed grieve the loss of a loved one, and sincerely so, but dealing with that grief through traditional Roman Catholic rituals is not the comfort it once was. Grief is now addressed in a counselor’s office not from the pulpit of the parish church.

The transition from sacred rites to secular remembrances clearly heralded by the advent of the illicit but popular eulogy at Catholic funerals is another clear manifestation of the loss of faith in the sacramental activity of the Church. It has been pointed out in this column several times that eulogies steal the thunder of the Eucharist. No one leaves the modern Catholic funeral Mass consoled by the saving death and resurrection of Jesus Christ; rather they depart the church cheered by the recollection of ferry trips to Block Island, shore diners at Rocky Point and family day at McCoy Stadium. Modeled after the traditional Memorial Service found in American Protestant churches, the now popular eulogy insists on looking to the human past for consolation rather than looking to a Divine future that promises Resurrection, General Judgment and Everlasting Life. Such pious sentiments and eternal truths would fall on many deaf ears within today’s congregations.

The recent swift transition of the deceased from death bed to hallowed ground is both a human loss, in that it refuses to face death honestly and appropriately, and also a spiritual loss since it fails to acknowledge the deliverance, redemption, and salvation awaiting believers through Jesus Christ.