26Aug 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.

15 Responses

  1. Rosaline

    Amen, Brendan! I hope your article is published for a wider audience as this is the kind of understanding and empathy every bereaved person would dearly love to receive from all of our priests and bishops. Such a sad and sensitive occasion is not the time for silly rules which only emphasise a false dichotomy between religious celebration and human experience.

  2. Catherine Murphy

    What strikes me after reading this article- full of common sense and pastoral care- is the extent to which priests who work in parishes and who deal with people on a day to day basis understand, care for and respect the people they are called to serve.
    For me the big divide in the Irish clergy is between those who stay working with people in ordinary situations and are kept grounded by the experiences they meet and those who sit in offices and write rules about how things should be done.
    This whole episode with ‘Eulogies’ is a shining example of this.
    Thank you Brendan for your contribution to this debate.

  3. Elizabeth

    Well said Brendan. We need more of this from priests.

  4. Paddy Ferry


    Thank you, Brendan, for that excellent piece which, as Catherine rightly says, is full of common sense and pastoral care.

    I am pleased you also mentioned “the Consecration of the nation of Ireland to the Immaculate Heart of Mary.” I came across this for the first time in the Scottish Catholic Observer last Sunday which announced in a big bold print headline ” Ireland is consecrated to Our Lady.” I could hardly believe my eyes. Was the nation of Ireland consulted, I wondered, about this new development. I am still, I think, part of that nation and, certainly, nobody spoke to me about it. However, I think it is a done deal. The paper also informed us that Cardinal Sean Brady “led the Consecration ………during the annual novena to Our Lady”. There is also a new prayer drawn up by the National Centre for Liturgy to be used in the consecration which includes the words ” O Mary, Spouse of the Holy Spirit…”. That is also a new one on me, though perhaps some one more theologically informed than I am could explain it to me.

  5. Eddie Finnegan

    Paddy, this is the problem with not having a proper Honours System. Couldn’t they have just given Mary an Honorary Degree in Advocacy from Coláiste Mhuire gan Smál, Ollscoil Luimnigh? After all she owns the place.

  6. Soline Humbert

    Brendan and
    Paddy @4, about the Consecration of the nation of Ireland to the Immaculate Heart of Mary,this is a partial answer to your question “where this decision came from ?”

  7. Soline Humbert

    @4 Paddy, further to my previous post,and in case nobody has told you…
    just to let you know in advance….. Pope Francis will consecrate the entire world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart on 13 October this year as part of the Marian Day celebration in the Year of Faith. . Furthermore there is a report that there will be an Irish connection to this mass,as the statue of Our Lady which is currently in the shrine in Knock will make the trip to the Vatican to be consecrated.But I cannot vouch for this particular detail as I have not seen it confirmed.

  8. Pól Ó Duibhir

    @Paddy Ferry #4
    Never realised Mary was a bigamist. Thanks for pointing it out. That’s far worse than Bono’s parents marrying each other twice over.
    And what will we do, pray, if the Holy Ghost goes for a gender reassignment.
    There is clearly a crying need for a serious theological mechanic/fitter here to sort all this out before scandal is given to the faithful.

  9. Paddy Ferry

    Thank you Eddie, Soline and Pól for trying to help me out here. Shortly after I first came to live in Scotland, I made a decision to deliberately not see the funny side of the so-called Irish joke when somebody would attempt to share such “humour” with me. So, when we decide, of our own volition, to make ejeits of ourselves, it does upset me.

  10. John Collins

    Thank you, Brendan for making sense in this sorry contribution from the Bishop of Meath. As any Priest will tell you at the death of a parishioner that it is one of the most sacred times in the life of a family. The one thing we do well in the Irish Church is death it has to be said. If you put the smallest amount of time and effort into the funeral Mass, the family really appreciates it, in my experience. Unless one knows the family well it makes more sense for a family member to contribute to the funeral liturgy in some small way. So if that means saying a few words from the heart then who are we to deny. I have not attended many Bishops funerals but the ones I have attended usually has had words about the episcopal life. Whats good for the goose is good for the gander as my grandfather used to say. !!

  11. Joe Walsh

    A great piece of sensitive common sense from Brendan Hoban. I live in California and have been pained many times during 50 years of priesting by bishops who were/are unable to see the forest because the trees got in the way. I hope Francis will appoint leaders who have a broad and healthy perspective, and whose priority will be the good of the people and not their need to issue directives that impoverish both liturgy and people…

  12. ger gleeson

    Catherine Murphy @2 above has hit the nail on the head. Those who sit in offices, particularly in Rome, writing rules that we are all expected to adhere to, have little or no experience of living in the real world. Those priests, who are members of the ACP, who are silenced/censored, who preach, write on national newspapers and religious magazines, show by their tone and content, that they are very close to the daily lives of their people. The institutional church is very afraid of the so called “Radicals” within our church, who call for a new model of church based on both the human and spiritual needs of our people. There is light at the end of the tunnel in the person of Pope Frances. It is reported that when he was an Archbishop in Argentina, he demanded that some of his priests, who refused to baptise babies of unwed mothers, enter into the poorest of areas, and do what they were ordained to do. I wonder what rule book those priests were reading?
    Today on radio I heard the final few minutes of the requiem mass for that great Irishman Seamus Heaney. At the end his son addressed the congregation which included the final few words which Seamus sent to his wife. “Be not afraid”. Brahms lullaby was then played as requested by Seamus. Is it really possible Bishop Smith that if this great man was in your diocese, his sons few words and the requested piece of music, could not have been accommodated? Be not afraid Bishop Smith, for the sake of the Human as well as the Spiritual needs of your people; change your mind on this issue. There are too many manmade rules within our church which divide rather than unite our people.

  13. Willie Herlihy

    Thank you Brendan, for your sound common sense regarding the subject of eulogies.
    To quote Brendan: Rome decided that the new translation of the Missal made great sense. (No one asked those in parishes or even in dioceses.)
    On the other hand, passages from the Old Testament are read at Mass, as far as the average person is concerned, they might as well be listening to fairy stories, because most of us have never read the bible. (Certainly people of my generation, were encouraged not to read it, as all we needed to know was contained in the catechism and the precepts of the church). In variably the only person with a working knowledge of Bible is the priest. I am an old man and I have only heard one priest in my life time, explain the readings of the day, IN THE LANGUAGE OF TO DAY, by the way he has now been transferred and promoted to parish priest, he will certainly enrich his new parish. He is also a member of the ACP.
    If logic has any thing to do with the Catholic Church, I would have thought explaining the Old Testament readings to the congregation, in language they can understand would be mandatory.
    Soline Humbert @7 Pope Francis will consecrate the entire world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart on 13 October this year as part of the Marian Day celebration in the Year of Faith..
    One thing that has always intrigued me about my church, is the almost worship of our blessed lady, on the one hand and the disdain with which her sex is held on the other hand.

  14. Nuala O"Driscoll

    Paddy Ferry @4
    Mary’s new title ‘O Mary Spouse of the Holy Spirit’ is a further whitewash to project Mary as a sexless ephemeral being and to seperate her from her womanliness and sexuality. Mary was married to Joseph and had children by him. Mary and Joseph were Jewish and like all Jewish married couples lived by God’s command, ‘Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth..’ (Gen 1:28. Your answer may lie in the question “why so much unconscious fear of women and the feminine in the Church?’.

  15. Joe O'Leary

    Msgr Devlin showed no qualms about eulogy in his sermon at Seamus Heaney’s funeral, nor did Enda McDonagh in his moving sermon at Sean Freyne’s. Indeed eulogy is necessary to convey a gospel message on these occasions.

    In reply to Willie Herlihy, we have Sunday pamphlets in Japan with helpful footnotes on the texts of the readings. Why can’t the Irish church manage that?