There’s nothing trivial about the way we Irish deal with death
Limerick diocese got it right. Eulogies and funeral arrangements are a matter for the individual priest and parish. Meath diocese got it exactly wrong: a ban on eulogies in churches, no secular songs, poems or texts. Perhaps the worst comment from the Bishop of Meath was a quotation out of context, it has to be said from Pope Benedict XVI about secular culture tending towards ‘the materialistic trivialisation of death’.
Whatever else we do about death in Ireland we certainly don¹t trivialise it. The rites and rituals of dealing with death are sewed into the DNA of our culture. We don¹t take death lightly. ‘Trivial’ in this context is a word that makes no sense. Taste is a different matter.
The main difficulty with the Meath solution is that it creates more problems than it solves. This is something that always happens when ‘up there’ decides for those ‘down here’. Rome decided that the new translation of the Missal made great sense. (No one asked those in parishes or even in dioceses.) The Irish bishops for some unknown reason decided to take a first step towards a full ‘collegial consecration of the nation of Ireland to the Immaculate Heart of Mary’. (No one can really explain what that means or where that decision came from). And bishops can sometimes lay down regulations for parishes that are inoperable and unmanageable. (Cue the Bishop of Meath).
What is it about the Catholic Church that impels us to get things so wrong? Why do we keep introducing rules and regulations that make little sense and have less effect? And serve only to illustrate how out of touch we are? The Meath regulations were a God-send to the media in the middle of the silly season. Joe Duffy opened the airwaves to a series of listeners, one trying to outdo the other with surreal examples of bizarre offertory processions and inappropriate language in eulogies. The blogosphere went into over-drive, with predictable responses across the board from the pious and the hostile.
Of course, not every ‘eulogy’ is everything everyone would want it to be. It would be lovely to say that every ‘eulogist’ was sensitive, measured, appropriate. Not all are. (Just as we’d like to think that every funeral sermon is sensitive, measured, appropriate not all are.) But most comments at the end of Mass get things said that bereaved families want said. And at the end of the day that¹s what matters; that the needs of the bereaved are respected. A funeral Mass is not just for the person who has died; It¹s also for the grieving family and for the wider community. It¹s about recognising that the person who has died had a body as well as a soul, a life-journey as well as a faith-journey. It¹s about accepting that there are needs and wishes beyond what the Church supplies.
So it is unconscionable that a funeral sermon would be just about the theology of the resurrection or that the person¹s name would not be mentioned or that a family would be prevented from remembering a loved one through a series of artefacts that represent their memory of that person. Or that a particular piece of music that has deep resonances for a family would be excluded because it isn’t ‘religious’.
Recently I had the privilege of saying a funeral Mass for a remarkable woman, a Zorba the Greek personality who was deeply attuned not just to her faith but to nature and the seasons. She lived a long life and reared a large family in difficult times. She was the kind of person about whom the words ‘indomitable spirit’ might be accurately used.
A few days before she died, while in intensive care in Castlebar Hospital, she sang Red is the Rose to the great delight of the doctors and nurses. I mentioned this in the sermon and at the end of the Mass as her body was carried out of Moygownagh Church a soloist sang a haunting version of Red is the Rose and the whole congregation as one voice seemed to join in the chorus. It was, I felt, exactly right in the circumstances. To think that a diocesan regulation, cited by a local priest, would prevent that elemental experience for a grieving family would be simply unforgiveable.
The other difficulty with regulations is that they are never implemented across the board. If Pope John Paul was eulogised by Pope Benedict or Cardinal Daly by Cardinal Brady; if Ronnie Drew had his signature tune Weela, Weela, Wallya sung at his funeral Mass in the presence of a bishop; if Jonathan Philbin Bowman, Gerry Ryan and Bob Geldof¹s father were ‘eulogised’ why beat a grieving family over the head at such a sensitive time with a diocesan regulation. Why indeed do we have to search for another foot to shoot ourselves in?
Not only do the Bishop of Meath¹s worries about secular culture tending towards ‘the materialistic trivialisation of death’ in this context not amount to a hill of beans but other excuses to preserve clerical control over funeral Masses make no sense. There¹s no theological imperative that rules out a ‘eulogy’, and it¹s dishonest to pretend that there is. There¹s no reason why a significant ‘secular’ song can¹t be sung at the end of Mass and it makes no sense to pretend that ‘it disrupts the flow of the liturgy’ as some ‘experts’ suggests.
And let’s be clear on why diocesan regulations are usually introduced:
either because a bishop is so out of touch with his people (and his priests) that he imagines that he¹s helping rather than confusing a pastoral situation that has to be managed on the ground; or because priests at local level are not able to deal with the nuances of a developing culture and would like to have the bishop to blame. Little wonder that the poet, John F. Deane, once wrote: ‘And everywhere I heard the answer of the Church and it was No! No! No!’
In fairness, though, bishops don’t always get it wrong. A man named Gorge Mario Bergoglio, who at one time was Archbishop of Buenos Aires once described the Catholic Church, in a telling metaphor, as ‘sick from spending too much time on its own interior sacramental spirituality when it ought to be reaching out to the world’. As Pope Francis, the same man has a bit of work to do.