Observers of the Irish media will have noted in recent weeks, the newspaper coverage of comments made by a parish priest in Cork, Ireland. Reports indicate that the pastor was more than vexed by the increasing practice, during requiem Mass, of presenting trinkets to the altar; items of sporting allegiance, cans of beer and other 'momentoes' said to represent the deceased's interests and primary past-times. Some observers will suggest that this is an extension of the incessant request for popular music; with "My Way" being a particular favourite. Errors of judgment can, of course, arise on the part of both clergy and the lay faithful. Witness, the incident of a young enthusiastic curate, determined to have at least one hymn at the crematorium, hastily selecting 'Colours of Day'. Only when it reached the refrain "So light up the fire, let the flames burn..." was the true scale of the error made all too clear. Evidently, the pastoral encounter in the scheduling and content of funeral services will continue to require both prudence and caution in equal measure. However, this is not a view which enjoys universal consensus.
Continuing the Irish Journalistic sport known as "play one priest off against another" (known in the UK as forum shopping) another Cork priest was invited to comment on this same issue. Untroubled by self doubt, the priest concerned presented the views of the "Association of Catholic Priests"(ACP). He did so in forthright terms. Bemoaning too much 'black and white' "too many rules", he suggested that the presentation of items such as beer, cigarettes, sporting kit and so on were mere attempts on the part of the families to make a connection with the deceased. The tenor of this response might be such as to indicate that his fellow priest in Cork was somewhat of a 'crank' who, by his conduct and comments, was likely to convey a negative impression of God and 'the faith'.
Whilst many readers will receive reports of this kind as a 'little local difficulty', not entirely devoid of humour, both the actions of the laity and the disparity of clergy response to it betokens a mindset which ought to be cause for considerable concern.
Contrary to the views expressed on behalf of the ACP, the requiem Mass is not a substitute for the wake; nor is it an extension of it. Rather, it marks an occasion when all present must necessarily engage, not simply with the passing of the deceased, but with their own mortality. It might be thought that an unqualified acceptance of such practices, contrary to the views expressed on behalf of the ACP, has the contrary effect of that claimed (i.e. bringing the bereaved closer to God). In this respect, it is not difficult to see how these practices have the effect of secularisation the liturgy, thereby sparing those present of both the need and the obligation to reflect. That is, to reflect in a manner which is consistent with the faith which the Church proclaims and to do so for their own spiritual welfare.
More fundamentally, the suggestion that these practices enable the bereaved to locate a connection with the deceased, is somewhat surprising. It implies that the connection shared by the conferral of the sacrament of baptism is not enough. It perhaps unintentionally overlooks the fact that in the liturgy of the requiem Mass, there is intended to be a shared reception of the Word of God, the common declaration of faith, and the shared participation in the Eucharist. The sacrament of unity which is the source and summit of all that we are as the people of God.
Some readers will immediately baulk at these observations and declare that these are sentiments which are unknown to (or no longer accepted by) the majority of those who will be in attendance. Is it too naive to contend that this is all the more reason for the dignity of the sacramental encounter to be re-affirmed? Is this not the obligation of the priest as pastor? If so, might it not be suggested that the unqualified acquiescence in practices of this kind, relegate this obligation to an issue of popularity?
Could it be said that the vocation of the priest, like that of the parent, is to provide instruction and guidance for life; not to endorse the erroneous practices and decisions for fear of being disliked or having to participate in difficult conversations.
Momento mori, was the medieval practice which communicated the need to reflect on mortality and the vanities of the world. For many in Western Europe, faith (and the practice of it) has become an anachronism or irrelevance. The Church -and pastors in particular- are under a duty to read the signs of the times. The signs of the times should inform our efforts to preserve the Truth of the faith and ensure its authentic transmission. After all, the liturgy of the requiem Mass, is predicated upon honest communication; with ourselves and our creator. With this in mind, it could be said that the Church should avoid all and any practices which would deprive the liturgy of this honesty and seek to reduce it to the level of pretence.
Holding on to these realities, not only does the priest discharge the solemn obligations which he owes to those entrusted to him, but we have some foundation upon which to hope that 'earth's vain shadows' will flee and faith be re-awakened.
Our Lady, Seat of Wisdom - pray for us.