Friday, June 07, 2024

What will Catholic funerals look like in priestless parishes? (Contribution)

As a young man, the spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen was travelling around Ireland. 

In Donegal, he witnessed an ‘Irish’ burial, watching it over a stone wall. 

What particularly fascinated him was the filling of the grave after the prayers had been said. Relays of four men took it in turn to shovel clay over the coffin as the rosary announced the Hail Marys and Our Fathers. 

At the end, he noticed the care the men took to tidy the clay on the grave, and to shape its finish. 

In particular, he noticed the tap-tap-tap of the shovels dampening down the fresh clay. It was as if, he wrote, the tap-tap-tap was announcing to the gathering, that ‘this person is dead, really dead’.

In Irish funerals there is no doubting that message, no effort to camouflage the end of a life. 

Other cultures are fascinated with the Irish approach to funerals, particularly its clear and unwavering focus on death. Unlike in other cultures, there is an acceptance of what death represents for the person who is dead and for those who grieve.

By common consent, we do death well in Ireland. The rites and the rituals are embedded in our culture. They have a familiar feel to them. They are part of the very weather of our lives and even those who rarely come to church, seem to make it to funerals and, once they get a run at the once-familiar prayers, they can be carried along on a communal wave of respect and devotion.

We do funerals well in Ireland because there is an accepted communal responsibility as well as a communal commitment to providing a fitting liturgy for loved ones as they take their final leave. 

Regardless of the circumstances, death in Ireland is an event and almost invariably we give it the attention it deserves and the significance it represents and anything that would diminish its importance and its status in our culture is perceived as a loss beyond words.

At present we are very aware of the repercussions of the ongoing decline in priest numbers on all aspects of parish life, not least in the way we do death. In particular on how that decline might diminish our ability to provide a fitting funeral liturgy for our loved ones to mark their crossing the last great threshold of their lives.

That’s one reason why the Diocese of Killala is at present training lay funeral ministers to ensure that our funerals continue to enjoy the attention and command the resources that they have received up to now.

At present in the Newman Institute in Ballina, 65 laywomen and laymen are taking a two and a half year course in training for lay ministry, including funeral ministries. 

As part of their training, they are already actively co-leading with priests funeral services in six parishes of the diocese and this will in time be extended to every parish. This involves: leading prayers in the family home or funeral home; receiving ‘the remains’ in the church; participating at the funeral Mass; leading the final prayers of commendation, and blessing and incensing the coffin; and leading the prayers at the grave.

The plan and the hope is that this initiative will be extended to the other 22 parishes as it is essential that, with the inevitability of priestless parishes, we need to prepare for the future, now. 

And, as without that preparation the provision of fitting funeral services for our dead will be less than they might be, there is growing acceptance among people and priests that not to prepare for change can mean a dereliction of duty to our parishioners now and into future years. It is not a legacy any priest or parish community would like to leave after them.

That sense of responsibility is evident in the response of people and priests to this initiative in Killala diocese. 

Speaking on Faith Alive on Midwest Radio recently, Fr Aidan O’Boyle of Ballina remarked that in the 50 or so funerals in Ballina parish since last December, all have been co-led by a priest and lay funeral minister and the reaction of the families involved has been extremely positive. The response to the co-led funerals in the other five parishes where the training is also taking place has been similarly supportive and the word from the priests is that they are pleased with the additional help and support they are receiving. 

Unexpected benefits are that the lay funeral ministers are delighted to be involved in helping to provide such an important service to their own people and the bereaved families are happy to enjoy the support from people they know standing in solidarity alongside them and helping to provide follow-up support and care in the future.

As has been found with other ministries and other changes, priests are discovering that despite the reservations they may have about changing long-established rituals and practices, more often than not the experience is that lay Catholics are much more comfortable with change than the priests themselves – and are ready and willing to play their part.

This, of course, is what the Catholic Church ambitions to be, people and priests working together, pooling their gifts and resources – what Pope Francis calls the synodal way, the way of being Church in the future.

What we are gradually coming to accept is that change is not just necessary but inevitable, that every baptised person has gifts to bring to the table and that the more people and priests cooperate in exercising their responsibility for and their rights in the Church, the fuller and richer will be the witness to the faith, hope and love that is at the heart of the gospel message of Jesus.