August 28, 2017

Honoring our Dead: Catholic Funeral Rites and the Consolation Ministry


By Larry Peterson

"Come to me, all you who are burdened, and I will give you rest"   Matt: 11:28

The Catholic Church has a rich history of respecting and honoring all human life. From conception until death the church considers each person as God's individual creation and therefore, sacred in His eyes. The funeral rites set in place by the church reflect the church's beliefs in these principles.

There are distinct affirmations in the funeral process. The steps taken from the death of a loved one until final committal are all tied together so that besides honoring the departed, we who remain behind, can acknowledge the sacredness and dignity of not only the deceased but of all human life.
The entire Catholic funeral rite is divided into several parts: the Vigil Service (known as the Viewing or Wake); the Funeral Mass; and the Rite of Committal. The Vigil Service is usually at a funeral home of the family’s choosing or in the parish church prior to the funeral Mass. During the Vigil, family and friends gather together to honor the deceased by praying (the Rosary, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, reading Scripture, etc) and remembering the deceased in quiet conversation among the mourners.

The Funeral Mass is the second part of the process. Church tradition has always involved the celebration of the Mass with the body present. This reflects the honor and respect for the deceased who, during their life, had become temples of the Holy Spirit upon being baptized.

The Funeral Mass begins with the body being received at the church entrance by the priest and ministers. The body is brought into the church and the Mass begins. Select readings and songs, usually chosen by family members, are used during the liturgy. Finally, the body is escorted from the church. (Funeral Masses can now be celebrated in the presence of cremated remains).

The Rite of Committal follows the Mass. The general practice has always been to escort the body to the place of burial at the cemetery. This might be a gravesite, a mausoleum or a columbarium,
which is a place cremated remains are laid to rest. (This is a smaller version of a mausoleum). The Rite of Committal is celebrated at all of these sites and we all follow along as the priest leads us in prayer letting us know that our loved has “gone before us marked with the sign of faith”. We acknowledge that the deceased is now awaiting their resurrection, just as all of us will be doing one day.

Finally, there is the Consolation Ministry. This ministry is not available in many parishes but if yours has one, you are blessed. This is the ministry that will provide immediate outreach to a family and/or spouse upon the death of their loved one. My parish (Sacred Heart; Pinellas Park, FL) does have a Consolation Ministry.

When my wife, Marty died, the parish Consolation Ministry immediately reached out to us. They  helped us pick out the readings and music for the funeral. They were at the church (maybe 25 people) an hour before the service and they prayed the Rosary and Chaplet of Divine Mercy for Marty. They greeted friends and family when they arrived at the church and some even traveled over to the cemetery with us. They organized a reception that was held after the funeral at a local hall. The spread was fantastic. They stayed in touch via phone calls and email. This Ministry provided an unexpected support system and it demonstrated the family presence that exists in a Catholic parish.

Interestingly, our parish Consolation Ministry was the result of one parishioner’s desire to start something that grew and blossomed into a beautiful thing. Rita Belcastro took it upon herself to ask our pastor if she could organize this ministry (there was none). He gave the go ahead and today, several years later, her actions have now grown into a ministry that has managed to affect the lives of countless, grieving people over the years bringing them a semblance of peace and love during very bleak times in their lives.  KUDOS Rita--well done.   

Rita’s initiative is a fine example how one person can change things for so many. You might consider talking to some friends about starting one and then ask your pastor if he will support you. There are pamphlets and booklets available to guide you. (Check with your Diocesan office) You may also become an active part of your Catholic parish family.

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