Sunday, November 02, 2008

Three Common Errors Found In Funeral Homilies

(All Souls Day 2008: This homily was given on November 2, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: All Souls 2008]

On this All Souls Day, the title of my homily is: “Three Common Errors Found In Funeral Homilies.”

Now you might say, “Fr. Ray, why are you sharing this with us? We’re lay people; we don’t write funeral homilies. You should be giving this talk to members of the clergy!”

That’s a good point. But the fact is—for better or for worse—you have to LISTEN to funeral homilies from those of us who do write them. And when you listen, you have the right as Catholic lay people to hear the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth—which, unfortunately, is not what you always hear at funerals! Most priests and deacons are well-intentioned when they preach, to be sure, but unfortunately what they say at funeral Masses is not always in accord with official Church teaching.

And, believe it or not, this can have devastating consequences for you—and for your deceased loved ones (as I hope to make clear in a few moments).

Incidentally, this is not a complete list of errors. Today I’m simply focusing on what I would call “The Big 3”: the 3 most common and most serious errors that have been made at funeral Liturgies where I’ve been in attendance. Remember, I not only preach a lot of funeral homilies, I also hear a lot of them: homilies which are given by other priests and sometimes by deacons. That normally happens when I’m asked to concelebrate a funeral Mass at another church.

So here they are—“The Big 3” . . .

Serious error #1: Canonizing the deceased. Have you ever heard a priest say something like this during a funeral Mass: “We know that John is in heaven right now rejoicing with Jesus”; “We know that Nancy is with the Lord and with all her relatives and friends who died before her”?

Things like that are said at funerals all the time—and they’re wrong! The truth is that we do not KNOW that John or Nancy or anyone else is in heaven at this precise moment—unless they’ve been canonized by the Church!

We can HOPE that they’re in heaven—yes! And we should! But hope and knowledge are two different things!

My mother was one of the holiest people I’ve ever encountered in my life. But during her funeral Liturgy I did not say, “I know my mom’s in heaven”—because I didn’t know that! I spoke of the very confident hope I had that she was in the kingdom already or that she would be there very soon, but I did not canonize her!

Which brings us to the second serious and very common error that you encounter in funeral homilies: A failure to mention purgatory! Usually this follows directly from error #1 (which should be obvious, because if a person is already in heaven, purgatory becomes totally irrelevant!).

Now here’s the question I have for priests who ignore purgatory and canonize their deceased parishioners at funerals: “Why do you celebrate funeral Masses? We don’t celebrate Masses FOR people who are already in heaven; we celebrate Masses and offer prayers for those who are in purgatory or who might be in purgatory on their way to heaven!”

And here’s where the negative consequences can come, both for us and for our deceased loved ones.

If we are told at the funeral that our relative or friend is already in the kingdom—and if we believe it—that can disrupt the natural grieving process within us: a process which is both healthy and necessary. We can end up feeling guilty for being sad—which is not good! In the face of death, we all need to grieve. Even Jesus wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus.

And even worse, we might actually cheat our loved one out of the prayers that they need in order to have a speedy passage through purgatory.

In other words, we might inadvertently cause our loved one more suffering, since we will neglect to pray for them and have Masses offered for the repose of their soul—both of which would bring them through purgatory and into heaven much more quickly!

Which brings us to the third serious error that you find in funeral homilies: a true homily is not given! Rather, a eulogy is given by the priest in its place. You know what I mean: the priest gives a talk about how great the deceased person was, and this becomes the focus of all that’s said. If Jesus is mentioned at all, it’s usually to say that Jesus also thought the deceased person was a great individual, and on that basis took he took him right to heaven at the moment of his death.

This, among other things, is very bad theology—as any first year theology student could tell you. We do not earn heaven by doing good works and by being nice (although we should do good works and we should try to be nice!).

The only reason heaven is possible for any of us is because of what Jesus Christ did through his passion, death and resurrection. That idea—that foundational gospel truth—needs to be at the center of every funeral homily, since it’s the necessary precondition for our hope in eternal life!

Of course, it’s also true that heaven is not automatic. A person must be united to Jesus through baptism, faith and charity in order to receive the eternal blessings Jesus won for them on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

So obviously the details of the deceased person’s life do matter—specifically the faith they exhibited and the acts of charity they performed—since these give us a more confident hope that they died in the state of grace.

Therefore it’s certainly fitting that some of these details be mentioned in the homily—I speak of the deceased person’s life in funeral homilies all the time—but the ultimate focus should be on Jesus Christ and his saving work, since without his sacrifice all the charitable acts in the world wouldn’t be enough to get a person through the “pearly gates”.

So there you have them, the Big 3 Errors found in funeral homilies: canonizing the deceased, failing to mention purgatory, and giving a eulogy instead of a homily.

If you encounter one (or more) of these errors at a funeral in the future—and, unfortunately, you probably will!—my suggestion is for you to write a nice, respectful letter to the priest or deacon who delivered the message. Depending on what he actually said, tell him that you’d appreciate it if he:

1. Didn’t canonize people (that’s the role of the Church);
2. Spoke a bit about purgatory, and encouraged the congregation to pray for their deceased loved one; and
3. Gave a homily and not a eulogy: a homily built around the truth that Jesus Christ suffered, died and rose again to conquer sin and make heaven possible for everyone.

He might not appreciate your criticism—that’s true—but on the other hand you might just motivate him to think about taking a different approach when he preaches at funerals in the future.

And that will help both the dead and the living! The dead will receive the benefit of more prayers and Masses, and the living will receive the benefit of hearing much better homilies from this particular priest or deacon.