Are Catholic funerals a dying rite?

Cultural trends that are turning the traditional Catholic funeral into a rare phenomenon in secular society prompt the question – is the Church’s liturgical rite no longer meaningful to the modern person?

International liturgical expert Fr Paul Turner hopes to address this problem in an upcoming public lecture hosted by the ACU Centre for Liturgy on July 18.

In Celebrating Catholic Funerals in the Face of Secularism, COVID and Other Challenges, Fr Turner will explore the challenges the changing world poses to traditional views of death and funerals.

Fr Turner said the purpose of funerals has slowly shifted from the traditional Catholic concepts of mourning and intercession to “a celebration of life”. This perception shift has led to significant changes in how funerals are celebrated.

“Some people abbreviate the three stages of the funeral liturgy (vigil, Mass, and interment), some choose cremation over burial, some delay the funeral for weeks until family members can be present,” he said.

“Still, some prefer to read lengthy remembrances to those who have gathered, while others do not have a public gathering at all.

“All this has happened even though the Catholic funeral liturgy has not significantly changed since the late 1980s.

“Our liturgical books are the same, but our celebration of funerals has changed.”

For Fr Turner, the shift in how funerals are celebrated poses many questions about societal perceptions of death, and a challenge to the Catholic Church’s teaching on death.

“Do these messages support one another, or do they conflict?” Fr Turner said.

ACU Centre for Liturgy director Professor Clare Johnson said Fr Paul Turner’s insights are sure to be helpful for Catholics who find themselves entering into difficult discussions about death, particular when facing the death of a loved one.

Professor Johnson said it was important that people receive good formation and knowledge about the beautiful Christian tradition of a Catholic funeral.

“Funerals are something all of us will have to deal with one way or another eventually,” Professor Johnson said.

“When faced with so many options, people often freeze and don't know what to choose, which is where clergy, funeral directors and others can have a powerful pastoral influence.

“The Catholic approach to funerals needs to be one people know about, trust, and can embrace, and we trust that the formation initiatives we're engaging in will help to spread the right information to those who need it.”

Fr Turner is pastor of Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri USA, and is director of the Office of Divine Worship for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St Joseph.

He serves as a facilitator for the International Commission on English in the Liturgy and has published several books including a 2017 treatise on preparing better Catholic funerals.

Fr Turner will give his lecture, Celebrating Catholic Funerals in the Face of Secularism, COVID and Other Challenges, online on July 18 at 10am AEST. For details on how to register including costs visit the ACU Centre for Liturgy Events page.

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