Poor substitute for a funeral homily

The funeral of St Stephen by Filippo Lippi.

It is not easy for a priest to give a funeral homily today if the deceased was a public sinner, say a crime boss, a rapist, or a politician or journalist who campaigned to legalise the killing of unborn children.

The current fashion in funeral homilies has largely turned them into eulogies – as a result, the bereaved now expect to be consoled when their loved one is “celebrated” from the altar.

This, in fact, is part of a wider trend to secularise not only funerals but the Church itself, its services and sacraments.  So, Paddy’s cap, his football medals and a can of beer are brought up in the “offertory procession”. And his favourite pop song is played as his corpse is wheeled out of the church.

The secularising trend has now become so strong in the Church that priests, “sensitive to the bereaved”, go along with the travesty rather than standing up for the true blessings the Church offers.

In a Catholic funeral the centre of attention is not the corpse, nor is it the mourners, however distressed they may be. It is God. The service is an act of worship, a recognition of God, creator and saviour. And the priest or deacon has a serious duty, not least to the bereaved, to keep the focus on God and to stir up Christian faith and hope. While appropriate words may be said about the deceased, particularly about his or her strivings to follow Christ, the homily is primarily a time for proclaiming God’s word.

It may deal with the shortness of life, the certainty of death, the reality of divine judgment, eternal happiness or loss, Christ’s resurrection, victory over sin, the hope of heaven, the need for repentance, praying for the dead, and so on.

For Christians our consolation is not principally found in the past, in “the memories”; it is in the future, in the hope of God’s mercy for those who die in the state of grace, in knowing we will be reunited in heaven. Replacing a homily with a eulogy is treachery – it sells out the mission of Christ and the Church and it betrays the mourners.

But the faithful have to be educated to know what to expect at a Catholic funeral. And to demand it. Proper formation beforehand would avoid misunderstandings in times of grief.