The Catholic Church has a long history and experience of helping people to prepare spiritually for death and assisting families to deal with the sickness, death, burial and bereavement of a loved one.
Gathering the wisdom of the Church's long experience, I offer these words to our pastors and priests, funeral directors, grieving Catholic families, those involved in Catholic bereavement ministry and all Catholics in the Diocese of Wilmington.
There is a trend among some of our Catholic people to omit the traditional Catholic funeral rites when they experience the death of their loved ones in favor of a small prayer service at funeral home or private graveside service.
While our dedicated priests will minister to people in their time of need regardless of a family's decisions, I want to encourage Catholic priests, funeral directors, grieving Catholic families and those involved in Catholic bereavement ministry to promote together the use of the Catholic funeral ritual.1
Three separate and sequential rites are proposed as the most fitting way to celebrate this pilgrimage of the deceased Christian: The Vigil for the Deceased (often referred to as the Wake), the Funeral Liturgy (or mass of Christian Burial), and the Rite of Committal. The physical movement or procession from one place to another for the celebration of these rites can add to the sense of journey or pilgrimage and contribute to the experience of separation through which mourners must pass before they are able to re-center their lives after the death of a family member or friend.
No economic consideration, no time management concern should prevent us from working together to give our Catholic faithful the necessary spiritual and emotional support derived from a full and active participation in Catholic funeral ritual.
I appeal to Catholic family members making decisions about funeral arrangements for their relatives. Please consider the deepest hopes and desires of your loved ones in their best days and make the right choice to celebrate our Catholic funeral liturgies. The Eucharist helps to heal the sorrow that comes from the loss of a loved one. This may very well be a special moment of grace for you and your family.
The Church celebrates the funeral rites:
To offer worship, praise, and thanksgiving to God for the gift of a life which has now been returned to God (Order of Christian Funerals, #5)3
To affirm the Church's belief in the sacredness of the human body and the resurrection of the dead (RBCCF)
To commend the dead to God's merciful love and to plead for the forgiveness of their sins (OCF, #6)
To bring hope and consolation to the living (OCF, #7)
To renew our awareness of God's mercy and judgment and to meet the human need to turn always to God in times of crisis (OCF, #7)
To support the Church's emphasis on the indispensable role of the wider community in the dying and death of a Christian (RBCCF)
To affirm and express the union of the Church on earth with the church in heaven in the one great communion of saints (OCF, #6) The celebration of the Catholic funeral rites promotes a healthy grieving process that can lead to deep levels of personal conversion and spiritual growth. In contrast, the avoidance of these funeral rites may short-circuit grief and healing.
Our Catholic tradition urges the Church today to face death with honest rituals that preserve its Christian and human values. Since, in rising to new life, Christ won victory over death for His followers, faith impels the Church to celebrate that victory in its funeral liturgies.4
I also commend to you the use of our Catholic cemeteries which are a visible sign of our Catholic beliefs about death, eternal life and the communion of saints.
I thank you all in advance for your cooperation and zeal in promoting the consistent use of our Catholic funeral rites.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Most Reverend Michael A. Saltarelli
Bishop of Wilmington
1 Canon 1176 of the 1983 Code of Canon Law reads:
1. Christ's faithful who have died are to be given a Church funeral according to the norms of law.
2. Church funerals are to be celebrated according to the norms of the liturgical books. In these funeral rites the Church prays for the spiritual support of the dead, it honors their bodies, and at the same time it brings to the living the comfort of hope.
2 Cf. Reflections on the body, Cremation, and Catholic Funeral Rites by the Committee on the Liturgy, National Conference of Catholic Bishops (Washington, DC: Unites States Catholic Conference, 1997), 13. Subsequent references to this document are abbreviated as RBCCF.
3 Order of Christian funerals (New York, Catholic Book Publishing co., 1989). Subsequent references to this work are abbreviated as OCF.