In the recent terrific film The Queen, set in London during the immediate aftermath of the death of Princess Diana, England's royal family faces mounting public pressure to "comfort the nation" and engage in showy demonstrations of grief over the loss of the "People's Princess." Their intention was to pray for the deceased and treat the matter with dignity. "Restrained grief and sober, private mourning," Queen Elizabeth II says. Yet in the end, she capitulates, visiting an impromptu shrine in front of Buckingham Palace and reading a prepared statement that sounds the emotion-drenched notes demanded by the public.
Catholics in the United States aren't immune from this phenomenon. In recent decades Catholic funerals have come to resemble the London scenes depicted in the film. Friends and family members of the deceased often deliver lengthy, emotional, anecdote-filled remembrances of the departed at the funeral Mass. As would-be eulogists take turns sharing their memories from the lectern, the remembrances can last up to thirty minutes.
It would probably come as a surprise to most Catholics to learn that such eulogies at funeral Masses are prohibited by longstanding Church teachings. Last year, a priest in the Diocese of Covington, Kentucky, made local news by letting his parish know that he would start enforcing that prohibition.
The priest, Father Dan Vogelpohl, is pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in a Northern Kentucky suburb of Cincinnati. In discussing his intent to enforce the ban on eulogies at Masses, he issued a four-part catechesis on the purpose of a funeral Mass.
In part one of his catechesis, he distilled the Church's teaching on the ban: "In 1989 the Vatican published the revised Order of Christian Funerals (OCF) for the United States. The long-standing prohibition of eulogies at Catholic funerals was again upheld and restated. ‘A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.'"
Father Vogelpohl also cited the revised General Instruction of the Roman Missal promulgated by John Paul II in year 2000, in which the prohibition of eulogies was again restated: "At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind."
But just as importantly, he explained why the ban exists in the first place. "The firm belief of the Catholic Church is that the Christian funeral is not a celebration of the life of the person who has died, even though we honor and express gratitude for all God's gifts to that person."
He then borrowed words from Archbishop Pilarczyk of nearby Cincinnati: "The funeral liturgy is a celebration of salvation and mercy, of grace and eternal life. It is not meant to be a commemoration (much less a canonization) of the person who has died. Extended remembering of the deceased often results in forgetting the Lord."
Yet we've been taught by television and popular culture that the eulogy is the high point of a funeral. Many mourners, accordingly, seem to think that giving a eulogy is a right of the faithful. Father Vogelpohl recalled an example. "As I was about to begin the final commendation, a relative of the deceased came forward and politely told me to ‘sit down, because he had a few things to say.' He then went on for over twenty minutes with a detailed chronology of the deceased's life."
Priests and parish leaders have become accustomed to accommodating the wishes of grieving family members. Thus, even priests who know about the ban are loath to enforce it. As one priest told me, "It's a tough situation. Frankly, given the circumstances, I permit things that I probably shouldn't. But the handful of days between the death of a loved one and a funeral isn't an ideal time to catechize the faithful."
Is there a place for remembrances when Catholics say farewell to a loved one? Yes. Here is Father Vogelpohl: "The Church's Order of Christian Funerals provides for a Funeral Vigil. This is ordinarily celebrated at the time of what we commonly call the 'visitation,' 'wake,' or 'lay out' for the deceased." He explained that "the vigil consists of prayers and scripture readings. The end of the Vigil Service is a very good time for a family member or friend to speak in remembrance of the deceased."
In the case of my late father, his friends and family members were invited to share anecdotes and stories at a reception after his funeral Mass. It worked wonderfully. The relaxed setting of the reception took the pressure off the speakers, and people who might not be up to speaking to a church full of people, regardless of its licitness, felt comfortable enough to share a story or two.
So let's salute Father Vogelpohl for addressing a touchy subject with both charity and directness. It would be wise for everyone — priests, parish leaders, even grieving family members — to follow his example.