No doubt you may have already heard that our Bishop here in Meath has been under attack for the last few days due to a recent issuing of directives with regard to Catholic funerals in our diocese. First of all, some of these attacks have been purely personal against Bishop Smith, and that is unacceptable although predictable. It seems now in our "tolerant" age when people of faith defend the orthodox teaching and practice of the faith they often come under personal attack. But, as those involved in respectful debate understand, if you need to attack the person rather than the argument, then you seem to have no defence for your position.
With regard to the directives (here is a link to the Bishop's letter on the Diocesan website), they are not new nor the personal initiative of Bishop Smith, they are simply the normal practice expected of priests and Catholic faithful during a Catholic funeral liturgy, practices which were the norm and accepted by most up until about ten or fifteen years ago. That these practices have now become unacceptable is very revealing with regard to the level of faith and fidelity among many today. Indeed one commenter on a blog wrote that the eulogy was the best part of a funeral, all the rest was boring. So the Holy Scriptures, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the intercessions for the salvation of the deceased are all boring, and I presume, unnecessary in a funeral liturgy? This is certainly a revelation.
Of course this represents a major shift in the understanding of what a Catholic funeral actually is. Today many think a Catholic funeral is in fact a Protestant one, wherein the life of the deceased is celebrated and there is no need to pray for the person's soul since they are already in eternal glory in heaven, regardless of how they lived their lives. But that is not the theology of the Catholic faith - it never has been. A Catholic funeral is primarily a ritual in which the Church official joins the bereaved in offering prayer and intercession for the salvation of a person's soul, not presuming that they have gone straight to heaven, but offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that they may be delivered from Purgatory and come to share in the resurrection of the Lord. Agree or disagree with this, that is what the Church understands and has always understood the Requiem Mass to be. All texts are to be from Scripture or the official prayers of the Church, ie the liturgy. In this context the mortal remains are buried in the hope of the resurrection.
That is a Catholic funeral and the integrity of that has been lost over the years. While that is the official liturgy, it does exclude personal expressions of grief and remembrance, but these take place, traditionally, outside the liturgy in other places. In Ireland the tradition has been to eulogise either at the wake in the person's home, or at the graveside - the Oration. Some have been implying that the eulogy is traditionally delivered in the church - there is no such tradition, that has only emerged in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years in Ireland.
With regard to this recent controversy, it might need to be pointed out that eulogies and funeral liturgies have been a bone of contention for a number of years, and every so often, usually during periods when news is scarce, the media whip up a storm over the issue and the Church is attacked yet again. This time they are responding to Bishop Smith's directives, but in fact this is not the first time he has issued them - this is a reminder - the Church in Meath has been adhering to liturgical norms for many years and we priests have been trying to explain them to the faithful.
This debate is now generating more heat than light, and while people are offering opinions, few if any are prepared, it seems to me, to try and understand what a Catholic funeral actually is. It seems in this radically secular age even sacred liturgy must now incorporate the secular even when the values of secularism radically contradict the faith of the Church, and it seems the ministers of the Church who are to be guardians of the Church's liturgy are not permitted to prevent this intrusion. This is not only a sad development, but a dangerous one: it means that secularism must dominate even faith and the sacred. Ultimately this is what this controversy is all about: the re-forming of the sacred according to the ideals of the secular.