Dear Brothers and Sisters,
A popular reading often chosen for funerals comes from the third chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes. “To everything there is a season…” Here we find sacred Scripture reminding us that the full breadth of (virtuous) human experiences has a proper time and place. There is a time to mourn, to laugh, to dance, to gather stones, to love. We often read this during the funeral Mass because it reminds us that we will not always be in mourning, but the fact that we are grieving now is, in itself, right and good. While the funeral Mass can make this truth very stark, the truth carries into other areas of our life of faith. There is a proper time and place for any number of things, and keeping something in its proper place and using it at its proper time does not take anything away from its essential value.
With this in mind, I will conclude this month’s thoughts on the Church’s prayer and liturgy surrounding death with these final points. First, it is a human need to grieve. Though it can be difficult to confront the death of loved one, we need time to mourn. The catharsis of tears has both psychological and spiritual benefits through which God wishes to bring us healing. Second, that there is a time and place for everything helps us understand the Church’s liturgical approach to death. The funeral Mass is the time and place for prayer for the deceased, for bringing our grief to God’s altar, and for giving thanks to God for the gift of life. Other expressions or activities memorializing the dead, while good in themselves, are meant for a different time and place. Third, and related to the proper time and place for everything, is the fact that there are certain elements that belong properly to the funeral Mass and certain things that do not. Readings from Scripture, sacred music, and particular liturgical symbols (the pall placed on the casket, the Paschal candle, the choice of black, violet, or white vestments) are all intended specifically for service to the Church’s liturgy, which in itself is intended to help us pray through our grief. The Church, inspired by the words of Scripture, uses these different elements in particular times and places because she recognizes the human need to mourn, to pray in times of grief, and to be reminded of our hope, which is life in Jesus Christ.
Perhaps just one final thought on the music used in the funeral (and, indeed, in every single Mass). Ecclesiastes tells us that there is a time for everything. Music during Mass serves to help us pray. Thus, the Church has always given particular musical expressions for use in the Mass. There are certain parts of the Mass that are intended to be sung whenever possible (such as the Holy and the Lamb of God). There are also certain texts set to music that are assigned to particular Masses (such as entrance, offertory, and communion antiphons – we frequently sing the proper Communion antiphon here at St. Pius). When hymns are substituted for these proper texts, the Church asks that they be hymns properly speaking, not simply songs we might hear anywhere else. Thus, we might read Ecclesiastes 3, “To everything there is a season,” but we won’t be singing “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds at Mass (n.b. Pete Seeger wrote the song, but the Byrds recorded the best version of it, and I will tolerate no debate on the superiority of their version to all others). My father, a professional folk musician who has written and recorded an entire album of Catholic music, has been asked many times if he plays music at Mass. His response is always the same: “My music is profane. It might be prayerful and meant to spread the Gospel, but it’s not meant for Mass.” My father, who introduced me to the Byrds, understands the truth behind their song which is simply a restating of the revealed truth contained in Scripture that “to everything there is a season.” Whatever the season of our life is today, may we be renewed in our knowledge that the Church’s liturgy meets us in that time, in that place, in that season, so that we might experience the graced accompaniment of Jesus Christ.