Before I was ordained, pastoral priests gave us retreats. They helped alert us to future pastoral dilemmas, or potential ones. One retreat giver asked that on ordination day, each of us should decide whether we wanted to be a priest or a bishop. (Who in their right mind would want to be a bishop?)
One question these pastoral men never put before us is a very significant one in parish life: would we attend funerals or not? It’s a question each priest in a parish has to answer for himself.
Priests in parishes don’t have an option regarding the funerals of their own parishioners: it’s an integral part of our ministry in the parish. In my neck of the woods, a priest is expected to ‘follow his corpse’, as the clerical shorthand puts it: we are expected to officiate at the funerals of our parishioners whether these occur in our own parish or elsewhere.
The key question is whether priests should attend funerals of parishioners’ relatives in other parts. If my parishioner Mary Murphy’s mother dies down in Dingle, should I travel to the funeral — or Mary Murphy’s brother in Cashel, or her sister in Dunmore East?
The advantages of attending parishioners’ relatives funerals are obvious. One is ministering to parishioners in grief, as a good shepherd would do. One is accompanying other parishioners who are probably travelling in their droves to offer sympathy.
And there are ‘brownie points’ for the priest: popularity is enhanced, which does the self-esteem no end of good.
There are disadvantages too, however: if one is to attend such funerals, one must attend them all, without exception. No priest can afford to be partial, or have favourites among his parishioners. A second disadvantage is the impact on the life of the parish where the priest is supposed to be ministering. Travelling to funerals leaves one unable to attend to sick or dying parishioners at home. Planned meetings have to be postponed: in ‘management-speak’, the urgent takes the place of the important.
A third disadvantage concerns funeral ministry; priests, when they officiate on the altar with the celebrant, often obscure or replace lay ministers. In the parish where I minister, a parish team for funerals operates. These commissioned lay people assist in the prayers at services before the funeral Mass.
On more than one occasion, when outside priests attended, lay parishioners instructed me that I did not need the funeral team that day, as there were enough priests in attendance. (My occasional deafness means the funeral team retain their ministry, no matter how many priests attend!)
Every priest has to make his own decision regarding funerals away from home – mine is not to go. Instead, I pray for the bereaved on the day of the funeral, attend their home to offer sympathy and organise a sympathy notice in the local bulletin.
Not everyone is happy with this, of course, but making everyone happy is not the heart of the priest’s work… (it’s not really possible either).
A FUNERAL TEAM?
What is the parish team for funerals, you may ask? Lay people are trained for this ministry here in Cork & Ross; like Ministers of the Eucharist, they are commissioned at Sunday Mass. They help bereaved people prepare the funeral Mass, giving practical help with the eulogy, mementos, readings, bidding prayers and songs. Members can also lead prayers alongside the priest, at the Rosary, Vigil and Removal. If the priest cannot attend, two members of the team co-preside. It’s preparing for the future, of course, but it’s also about lay people exercising their baptismal ministry now.
If with pleasure you are viewing,
any work that I am doing,
if you like me or you love me, tell me now.
Don’t withhold your approbation,
till the Father makes oration,
and I lie with snowy lilies oe’r my brow.
For no matter how you shout it,
I won’t care too much about it,
I won’t see how many tear drops you have shed,
if you think some praise is due me,
now’s the time to slip it to me,
for I cannot read my tombstone when I’m dead.