Letter 49
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We have had occasion to mention that the expression of the Mass as an unbloody re-presentation of the sacrifice of the Cross has become weaker (French-language Letter 413, 12 November 2013). In that context we also noted that in the ordinary form of the Roman rite, Baptism ended up being a more “chatty” and less theologically expressive ceremony than in the extraordinary form. This is especially the case because struggling with the demon and enlisting of the baptized person under the standard of Christ have largely been minimized.(1)

In the same manner one may say that the Order for Christian Funerals in the ordinary form, especially the way in which it is commonly implemented, notably weakens the preaching of the lex orandi regarding the last things. It’s as if, in the pastoral context of the deceased, one is hesitant to announce clearly the difficult truths of salvation, namely: particular judgment, purgatory, the danger of damnation. Here we shall examine the ritual itself, and in a forthcoming letter we shall deal with the widespread way funerals are celebrated today.


Under pretext of “adaptation to the modern world,” the post-conciliar pastors certainly missed a golden opportunity for evangelization: instead of pointing up the blinding contrast between the Christian liturgy and the secularized, hedonistic, and materialist society of a spent modernity, they diminished Christian worship both aesthetically and theologically, just as if the message of Christ as transmitted in the Church's traditional prayer were unacceptable to contemporary man because of its holy bluntness.

“The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death, and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions. This holds good also for the liturgical color to be used.” Thus the Council’s Constitution on the litury, #81. Indeed funerals are at the first moment of the ‘Paschal Mystery’: death. Yet today the preference goes to emphasizing only its term, the resurrection, to the point of getting rid of the appropriate fear of particular judgment or of the final judgment. Hence there is a tendency to give a “festive” character to the celebration of the funeral rite.

When attending a Christian funeral these days one generally walks away with the impression that what is being celebrated is the departed person’s entrance into heaven, that is, an ‘in-heaven-ment’ instead of an interment! In fact, there are churchmen who do not shrink from using that neologism to speak of religious funerals since—as the Lyons diocesan monthly proclaimed in November 2009—“we shall all rise again”! And yet traditionally the Church refrains from canonizing without judgment all those whose mortal remains are brought to the earth—though with one exception: that of baptized small children for whom the funeral Mass is replaced with a festive Mass such as the Mass of Angels.

Yet priests alone are not to be blamed for this aberration. In reality they are merely responding, or rather yielding, to the wishes or even to the demands of the bereaved families. “Above all, don’t mention death too much, will you?” or again “You’re not going to give an overly sad sermon, right?” are some of the requests the family makes, among both practicing Catholics and others. Granted, this attitude is not surprising given the strong tendency in contemporary society to banish any and all manifestations of mourning or suffering. Nevertheless, it is a shame that the liturgy and its interpretation should encourage it.


The excessively frequent lack of any solid Christian preaching about death and the last things is not the only reason for this confusion between a funeral and a last tribute to the deceased: indeed, a close examination of the ritual of Christian funeral indicates that it allows for this deficiency. It does so essentially through minimization and suppression.

So for example the admirable Dies irae sequence has been suppressed. In the traditional liturgy it occurs between the Gradual and the Tract, before the Gospel; it is a powerful poem on the Last Judgment which, apparently, contemporary ears are no longer able to bear:

That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall heaven and earth in ashes lay . . . 
What horror must invade the mind
When the approaching Judge shall find
And sift the deeds of all mankind! . . . .
Recall, dear Jesus, for my sake
you did our suffering nature take
then do not now my soul forsake!
In weariness You sought for me,
and suffering upon the tree!

Also suppressed is the magnificent response Libera me, sung before the body at the end of the funeral Mass:

Deliver me, O Lord, from death eternal on that fearful day,
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved,
When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.
I am made to tremble, and I fear, till the judgment be upon us, and the coming wrath,
When the heavens and the earth shall be moved.
That day, day of wrath, calamity and misery, day of great and exceeding bitterness,
When thou shalt come to judge the world by fire.
Rest eternal grant unto them, O Lord: and let light perpetual shine upon them.

There seems to be a sort of human respect in the new funeral liturgy in that it focusses too much on indulgence, rest, and hence the “dew” or “refreshment” to which the souls of Purgatory aspire amid their suffering. In the new texts it is a question only of these souls’ “distance” from God; in other words, only the punishment of damnation (the poena damni) is mentioned while the punishment of the senses (the poena sensus)—even if only in a spiritual sense—is papered over.

Most significant is the substantial transformation of those older prayers that have been maintained among the many optional prayers of the Missal.

In the traditional Mass, the Postcommunion used to say:

Grant, Almighty God, that the soul of Thy servant N,. who today has journeyed from this world, may be purified by this sacrifice and delivered from its sins and so obtain both forgiveness and eternal rest.

In the new liturgy this becomes:

Grant, we pray, almighty God, that your servant N., who (today) has journeyed from this world, may by this sacrifice be cleansed and freed from sin and so receive the everlasting joys of the resurrection. 

The express request for “forgiveness”, though not altogether absent from the prayer as a whole, has been removed. Likewise, the direct reference to the soul of the deceased has disappeared.

Among the optional collects, the traditional one that has been maintained in the new liturgy used to say:

O God, who is wont always to forgive and to show mercy, today we humbly implore Thee for the soul of Thy servant N., whom Thou hast called this day to journey from this world, that Thou wouldst not hand it over to the hands of the enemy, nor forget it unto the end, but that Thou wouldst command it to be taken up by the holy angels, and to be led to the heavenly homeland, so that, since it placed its hope in Thee and believed, it should not undergo he pains of hell, but possess everlasting joys.

This prayer has become:

O God, whose nature is always to forgive and to show mercy, we humbly implore you for your servant N., whom you have called (this day) to journey to you, and, since he (she) hoped and believed in you, grant that he (she) may be led to our true homeland to delight in its everlasting joys. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

Such retroactive prayer is possible because all time is present to God. It is filled with the due fear of God and asks for grace not to have abandoned the soul as it left this world. It has not been kept—doubtless it was deemed too complex, theologically speaking. . . .

Requiem Mass at Saint-Eugène,
a parish in Paris where both forms of the Roman rite are celebrated.
© Gonzague Bridault


Minimizations and suppressions are not the only things: there also are liturgical additions. They might be deemed unfortunate.

Although cremation is tolerable per se, did specific liturgical texts have to be provided for use at the crematorium “before the body descends into the furnace, or when it does so, or even afterwards” (Ritual of Funerals, # 294)?

Was there any need, really, for a very imprudent Mass “for an unbaptized child”?

Speaking of unbaptized children: there is an idea abroad that the doctrine of limbo for children who have died without baptism has been shelved. In reality, the doctrine of limbo is a great consolation; St. Thomas taught it and sought to discern the state (that of natural happiness) of the souls of children who die without baptism. This doctrine is open to discussion; the Church, however, although she has never given any precise teaching on their “state” or “location”, does clearly teach their exclusion from the beatific vision. She is just as clear in teaching the need for sacramental baptism, or of baptism of desire, to reach this beatific vision (see Innocent I, Clement IV, Benedict XII, Pius XII: “In the present economy there is no other way [except baptism] to communicate that life to the child who has not attained the use of reason. Above all, the state of grace is absolutely necessary at the moment of death; without it salvation and supernatural happiness—the beatific vision of God—are impossible,” Discourse to Midwives, 29 October 1951). The recent document that takes a different tack is not papal teaching, but only a study proposed as an opinion by the International Theological Commission (“The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised,” 19 April 2007).

In any event, the Mass found in the new Missal, as intended as it is to console parents, is rash in leaving it to be understood that Masses and prayers might influence these children’s eternal destiny: “Let them [i.e. the parents] find a way to entrust him/her to Your love.” In fact, in no traditional Catholic liturgy has there ever been mention of a Christian burial for children who die without baptism, not because they are considered to be damned, but because they cannot be counted as Christians. Neither the Missal nor the Ritual for funerals before Vatican II made any provision for the unbaptized, whether adults or children. On the other hand, those baptized children who died before the age of reason were buried with ceremonies that express the assurance of the heavenly joy their souls are enjoying (e.g., as mentioned above, in the celebration of the Mass in honor of the angels: see Rituale Romanum, tit. 2, cc. 6-7). These children’s remains used to be placed in a special area of the cemetery where one could go not to pray for them but to invoke their intercession, like little angels.

The new liturgy’s best known addition in the ritual of funerals is that of the Alleluia in Masses celebrated for persons who die during the Easter season, and even at other times, for example through the use of this passage from Psalm 26 or Psalm 41: “The Lord is my light and my salvation, Alleluia.” At that rate, it would be even more fitting to sing alleluias on Good Friday, and Jesus, instead of weeping at the tomb of Lazarus, could have . . . .

Be merciful, O Lord, to your deceased servant. Let him not have to undergo the chastisement his acts deserve, since he wished to follow your will, says the traditional liturgy. Death is itself a great sermon. It happens that a church funeral remains for many of our contemporaries one of the last occasions to attend a Catholic ceremony and to hear the Church’s preaching. Specifically, the teaching they could be given on such occasions ought to bear on human life and its end, on the “the called and the chosen,” on the judgment of God, on the mercy that flows from Christ’s sacrifice, on the eternal destiny of souls as they leave this world: Come, ye blessed of my Father; go . . . . This is therefore an exceptional and so to speak ultimate opportunity remaining today for preaching and evangelizing.

Yet we don’t think we’re exaggerating when we say that in actuality the dominant tone at funerals today is: “Heaven for all, and now!” It’s a great shame for souls and a good explanation for the desire of many of the faithful to return to the extraordinary liturgy of the deceased for themselves, for their families, and for their friends.

(1) In baptism according to the ordinary form, the exorcisms and the rites that are tantamount to exorcism have nearly completely disappeared, as well as the very beautiful and very ancient gesture of the priest placing his stole on the child to bring him across the threshold of the church.