We know that preaching, along with forgiving sin and celebrating the Eucharist, is one of the most significant acts we as priests do in ministry. During 50-plus years as a priest, 11 of which I was pastoral care director for a large Midwest retirement/nursing facility, I came to realize that the most important homily we preach is the funeral homily. Feasts like Easter and Christmas and Ash Wednesday are also significant occasions, and we all know that some non-churchgoers may show up.
Death Touches All Deeply
But there is something about the death of a loved one that opens up a person’s heart for explanations and understanding that no other occasion can cause. Death means that deep relationships are visibly severed, even though our faith reminds us that they are never ended by death. Inevitably, the heart raises questions and hopes. The mind and the emotions produce fears and regrets that are unique at death.
Death can cause the most superficial thinker to be bombarded with questions. I’ve never seen a person fall asleep at a funeral. What we have all seen is a congregation of mourners who listen with great attention. At almost every Mass of Christian Burial, we likely see a wide variety of people in our church from many different religious backgrounds.
A Mixed Congregation at Funerals
There are staunch believers, of course, but even they are sometimes seriously misinformed. Also there are folks who have drifted away and some who may have purposely walked away from their faith, whether out of anger, hurt or frustration with the Church. There are likely some friends, neighbors, co-workers and even family members who are Protestants.
They are very curious about what Catholic funerals are like and what we actually believe. On more than a few occasions, I have discovered that there were agnostics and non-believers present who were more than a little interested in hearing what we Catholics believe. In other words, the audience to whom we are preaching the “Word” is likely wide and varied in religious background and understanding.
With few exceptions, the congregation is listening with full attention. People may get bored with a Sunday homily, but they are seldom disinterested in what a priest says at such a critical moment as at a funeral. We know too that many are thinking about their own loved one’s death and perhaps hoping to understand more about that experience and find answers to questions and fears they still have.
Catholic Theology and Spirituality
We priests are fortunate and blessed to have a theology and spirituality that help us understand so much about death and eternal life. We have the Scriptures and what our Catholic Tradition tells us. Add to that, we have what our funeral liturgy provides for us. It may be that often we may spend too much time telling stories about the deceased which are better told by the family and friends at the funeral parlor and at the time when the “words of remembrance” are spoken.
But we have the opportunity to say things that no one else can say or probably even knows, but what they need and hunger to hear. And by that I don’t mean that we give a dry and boring theological lecture. Far from it. A homily is not a lecture or its purpose. Basically, the homily teaches by the inspiration and conviction we have and in what we ourselves as priests believe.
Why did people crowd around Jesus? It wasn’t because He was giving lectures. His teaching was inspiring and uplifting and challenging all at once. He offered them the truth they had never heard before. We too have the opportunity to explain to the mourners what our faith really tells us bout death and eternal life. If we talk about the deceased, what better way than to link that person’s life, where possible, to what we believe and know from the Gospel.
Significant Points for Homily
Some of these points I have found to be helpful in funeral homilies. First, remember the pall on the casket is a remembrance of the white garment the person was given at baptism. “With family and friends, may you bring that garment unstained to everlasting life” (Prayer at Baptism). In other words, what the funeral is about is the completion of the deceased’s life journey from baptism to death. In fact it is the fulfillment of what was hoped at the baptism. Many decades later, it is the family or friends who are placing the pall — the new wedding garment — on the casket.
Second, it is important to realize that just as in the Mass said around the world, there is never a time when the Church ceases to pray for both its living and deceased members. What is often forgotten is that we as Church also pray for all those dying at any moment anywhere in the world. Many family members are not able to be present when a loved one dies. And how many people appear to die all alone with no one near?
The prayers for the dying at any moment in time are being said somewhere in this world. “Go forth faithful Christian from the world in the name of God the Father almighty who created you….In the name of the Jesus Christ who suffered and died for you; go forth faithful Christian” (Prayers from Pastoral Care of the Sick).
Jesus’ Presence at Death
It is a great consolation for a family to realize that the Church was praying for their dying loved one even though a priest was not present.
Third, in John’s Gospel, there is the beautiful account of Jesus telling His disciples, “I will come back again to take you to myself, so that where I am you also may be” (Jn 14:3). Those words refer to two moments of Jesus’ coming: at the last judgment, but also at every individual’s death. What Jesus is describing is what happens at the very moment of death. What that means is that no one ever really dies alone or abandoned. “I will take you to myself.” And why would God NOT be present at that most significant moment is a person’s life?
Finally, at the end of Mass when we cense the body, many will look on and wonder what that ritual is all about. But we know the ritual of censing is a sign of deep respect and reverence for the deceased’s body. Why? In the case of a mother or father, life came from that body. But, even if there were no children, it is in our basic nature to care for and respect the remains of the deceased.
Our homily can also express the idea of the deceased person’s Christian faith. They may not have known much theology but they could answer the three most important questions anyone can ask on their life’s journey. “Who made me? What is my destiny? How can I gain that ultimate goal?” There are some in the pews who have never asked themselves or even heard about those three most basic questions.
All of the above ideas can be linked to the person of the deceased so that even the prayers become very personal. “May you live in peace this day, your home be with God in Zion, with Mary the Virgin Mother of God, with Joseph and all the saints.” When the prayer for the deceased says, “We commend you to almighty God,” it is the praying Church actually recommending that person to the Lord. When the prayer says, “We entrust you to your creator,” it is we, the Church, gratefully and gently handing that loved one over to the Lord. To die is not to fall off a cliff. Rather it is the loved ones giving back to God the beloved one whom they received from God.
The Potential to Change Lives
I know from experience that what we say at those moments can change people’s lives. They’ve told me. Sometimes a drifting Catholic comes to a new realization of what his or her faith really means. It can mean life and hope, and it can lift their lukewarm faith out of petty complaints and tired boredom. In other words, our Scriptures, our theology and our spirituality are filled with truth and real understanding that can wake people up and touch the deepest recesses of their hearts.
Our faith is not only informative and instructive. It is exciting and exhilarating because it helps us understand the deepest mysteries of life and, especially, death. Remember, a mystery is not that about which we know nothing. A mystery is just that about which we don’t know everything
The opportunity a funeral gives us priests is an occasion we dare not let slip by. What is best about what we say in the Scriptures and in the prayers of the Church for the dying is that it is God’s own truth.
FATHER VAN VURST, O.F.M., has been a Franciscan Friar of St. John the Baptist Province for over 50 years. After ordination, he received his graduate degree in psychology and taught in his Province’s Franciscan college seminary. He has done pastoral counseling, served as chaplain at a maternity home, as pastoral care director in a retirement and nursing center, and as an administrator in his own Franciscan Province. He currently is involved in retreats, recollection days and spiritual direction and is associate pastor of St. Clement Church in Cincinnati.