Trevor Laffan: Is the Catholic Church right to ban eulogies at funeral mass?

It's a pity eulogies have to be said at the graveside, rather than in church, so says Trevor Laffan in his weekly column
Trevor Laffan: Is the Catholic Church right to ban eulogies at funeral mass?

TIME TO SAY GOODBYE: But the Catholic Church’s official stance appears to be that eulogies should not be said inside church.

MY grandmother died when I was a youngster, and she was laid to rest in the local cemetery.

She was in her eighties when she died and had worked all her life, only retiring when she hit her mid- seventies.

She was a midwife and spent her early years living on Spike Island, which meant she had to get a launch to Cobh whenever she was needed, often in bad weather, at all hours of the day and night. She delivered more than 2,000 babies in her time, so she was well known.

On the day of her funeral, there was, as you might expect, a large crowd of mourners at the graveside. When the coffin was lowered into the grave, an elderly man stepped forward and started speaking.

I can’t remember exactly what he said, only that he was talking about my grandmother and about some of the things she had done during her lifetime. It was the first time I had heard a eulogy.

I’m not sure if it was pre-arranged or if anybody had been expecting it but it came as a complete surprise to me and at the end of it there was a round of applause. As far as I can remember, he was a retired soldier and friend of the family. It was a very nice touch.

Since then, every eulogy I have heard has been delivered inside the church, at the end of the funeral service. This has been going on for years and I have heard dozens of them during my lifetime, so I expected the same to happen when my mother-in-law died recently.

Her son was going to deliver it, but I was taken aback when I learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to deliver it in the church. He was advised he would have to do it elsewhere.

The Catholic Church does not want eulogies delivered in the church any more, and while this was news to me, it’s a decision that was taken a long time ago.

The Vatican made it clear as far back as 1989 when it stated that “a brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.”

Pope John Paul II repeated that in 2000 and stated: “At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind.”

The reason the Catholic Church doesn’t permit eulogies is because the focus of the Catholic Funeral Mass is not supposed to be about the life of the deceased, but about the saving mercy of God that brings the deceased into eternal life.

That seems to be clear enough and when you join any club, you must play by their rules. But as far as I can see, eulogies are still delivered in some places, so while they are officially ‘discouraged’, if the family insist on a eulogy, they might not be stopped.

I did some research and I came across a piece written by a Monsignor Mannion, who holds a Ph.D in sacramental theology from The Catholic University of America.

He was founding president of The Society for Catholic Liturgy in 1995 and the founding editor of the Society’s journal, Antiphon, and founded the Mundelein Liturgical Institute in 2000.

I think it’s safe to assume that this man knows the rules of the Church and, according to him, eulogies at Catholic funerals are officially discouraged unless delivered at the graveside or at the luncheon that generally follows the funeral.

His difficulty with the eulogy is that it usually comes at the end of the Mass, when people are psychologically and spiritually prepared to bring matters to a conclusion.

Most people find the prayers and rituals of the funeral Mass very comforting and healing. Prolonged and emotional words spoken at the end of the Mass tend to undo all the healing that has occurred during the Mass.

I think that’s debatable, but while not being able to give a eulogy at the Funeral Mass might not sit well with many people, there are other practical reasons why eulogies are discouraged.

Funeral directors and priests often operate to a tight schedule and must coordinate events because of other activities taking place in the churches and the graveyards, and while they don’t want to be rushing anyone, they do need to avoid unnecessary delays too.

In Monsignor Mannion’s experience, there are a number of factors that can cause problems for the schedule and he was often faced with two or more people wanting to speak at the end of the Mass — sometimes he had up to five people delivering a eulogy and speakers often went on for 15 to 30 minutes.

Many times, eulogies were delivered by people who became very emotional and had great difficulty in delivering their words, which became very uncomfortable for the assembly and often resulted in more grief for the bereaved.

On one occasion, Monsignor Mannion had to sit through a eulogy while a child of the deceased openly proclaimed that he knew that all this “Church stuff” was important to his father, but that he didn’t believe in any of it — especially life after death!

I understand the need for a sense of decorum, and nobody wants to listen to a eulogy that is likely to upset the family or disrespect the priest, but maybe that could be avoided if a script was given to the priest in advance of the funeral Mass.

My mother-in-law was 100 years and six months old when she died. She was a religious woman and a dedicated Mass-goer all her life.

Her son delivered her eulogy in the graveyard and I think it’s a pity it had to be done there.

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