Some Funereal Thoughts on Liturgy

We have lost in the new liturgy our connection to our past. Many of us need the venerable liturgies, the timeless chants, the changeless gestures, to help us feel the eternal presence of Christ.

This is not an essay for liturgists or theologians. I have learned over the years never to discuss liturgy with certain people. And just for the record, I do not generally get involved any longer in battles over the liturgy. I don’t have to, since I now live in an area with easy access to the Traditional Latin Mass, the Byzantine Divine Liturgy, and yes, even to a very devout Novus Ordo that features a lot of Latin, a communion rail, chant, and a priest facing ad orientem

It was not always this way for me and my family, of course. Like most Catholics of the past two generations, we spent many years in the liturgical wasteland of one-parish towns, desperately trying to endure Sundays, with those saccharine songfests, heterodox homilies, and naves buzzing like agitated beehives. As it turns out, the Lord has blessed my entry into my senior years by giving me the calm, beauty, and transcendence that my shallow faith has always needed. Generally, I do not have to attend the typical Novus Ordo, so I don’t.

In fact, over the past fifteen years or so, there have been very few occasions when I have attended a Mass in English or witnessed any of the liturgical changes since 1970. Even when traveling, I am seldom at a Novus Ordo, unless I happen to be attending the funeral of a friend or family member. I have actually begun to forget the responses and knowing when I am supposed to kneel, hop up, turn around, acknowledge my neighbor, or repeat some prosaic refrain. This does not grieve me in the least. On the contrary, two recent funerals have brought home to me, once again, just how much we have lost with the new Mass.

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One funeral was that of a colleague. It was held in a parish church of the ordinary type of ugliness, not something deliberately hideous, but with only a few reminders that it is supposed to be a sacred space, and illuminated by the usual abstract windows with nothing much to say. Nevertheless, from beginning to end, this funeral was an absurd exercise in anesthetizing any Catholic thoughts about the Four Last Things.

It was not the ridiculous, unsingable hymns that most bothered me. I was fully expecting that. It was not the cartoonish vestments, the ugly church interior, the extremely crowded altar, nor the nearly invisible distinction between laymen and clergy. It was not the six-to-one ratio of deacons to priests, all earnestly trying to “actively participate.” (Footnote: I live in the diocese that must have the highest number of deacons on the planet. They are literally around every corner and behind every bush.) It was not even the lack of a coffin and the choice of cremation, for I could imagine all sorts of reasons that might incline a family to prefer this option, beginning with the exorbitant cost of funerals. 

The thing that most bothered me—no, the thing that I found absolutely appalling—was the very reason we were all there in the first place. What is a funeral Mass, a Requiem? Apparently, it is now a kind of impromptu beatification ceremony. In the course of this liturgy, two different Franciscans, on two occasions each, declared the recently deceased to be a new “saint,” our new “advocate in Heaven,” who was ready to intercede for all of us, and how lucky we are and how much we should all be rejoicing for this fact, instead of grieving, etc., etc.… 

How’s that? I thought a Requiem Mass was a prayer for the deceased, a chance for us, the Church Militant, to pray and sacrifice for the repose of the soul of the departed, who would surely need such prayers during that greatest trial, the ordeal of purgation. At least, that is what I hope takes place at my funeral because I am absolutely positive about one thing: I am no saint. On the contrary, I am a real bastard who will need a lot of help to get out of Purgatory within a million years, should I be fortunate enough to gain entry in the first place.

In the months since this funeral took place, I have asked a few colleagues—all knowledgeable Catholics, one a professor of theology—what they thought of the service: “Did you not think that funeral Mass was a bit…weird?” / “Oh? In what way? What are you talking about?” (Never mind.) Not one seems to have noticed that the Requiem Mass was not a Requiem Mass. 

The other funeral was that of my own dear mother, Sr. Jane-Frances Williams, who spent the last thirty years of her life as a cloistered nun in a Visitation monastery. Now, there is no liturgical tomfoolery in the Novus Ordo Masses at this monastery. I have visited the chapel for Mass on a few occasions. The Visitandines would not tolerate any gibberish about how they are all saints. They know better than that. The liturgy may not be beautiful, but it remains somewhat dignified, the priests celebrating Mass rather than themselves.

All the same, here in a monastery tucked away in small-town Georgia, the “liturgical renewal” wormed its way into my mother’s funeral, making people do and say things that would have at least discomfited their forebears. In lieu of a homily, we heard a long, amusing, and hagiographic eulogy by a family member. This inspired rounds of laughter and good cheer. A bishop stood up before a huge portrait of my mother and spoke to it haltingly, as if he were a nervous thespian auditioning for Hamlet. No chant, no Latin, the music was nearly as bad as what one hears at any Novus Ordo parish. The language of the Mass was as flat as unleavened bread, and much less nourishing. Mercifully, it was wrapped up in the mandatory fifty-five minutes. But at the end of it all, I was saddened and depressed…for all the wrong reasons. 

Then it was time for the graveside service, where only a portion of the mourners could be sheltered from the blazing Georgia sky under a black canopy that stretched over a deep hole in the red clay. The sisters sat or knelt closest to the coffin, the many family members forming large rings around them. Toward the back stood other mourners and friends of the convent. Finally, at some distance, were the gravediggers of the Protestant funeral home (this part of Georgia having no Catholic funeral establishment).

When everyone was assembled, there was a brief delay while the Mother Superior and the celebrating priest consulted quietly by the wayside. Then they turned to all and made an unusual request. (Did they feel something had been lacking up to this point in the funeral and wish to rectify it?) They announced their desire to chant the graveside service in a language no one else would know. It just so happens that this priest is from India, as is the current Mother Superior of the convent. They had a small box of worn missals from India and passed them around to a few puzzled mourners. Then they began to sing, and for the next fifteen minutes, they alternated verses and responses of the most exquisite depth and beauty. 

I do not know anything about the language or patrimony of the Syro-Malabar Rite. I do know this: it is not a liturgy designed by some ecumenical committee. It is clearly the language of the believer talking to Christ, imploring His mercy, expressing gratitude for His sacrifice and love. Even a Georgia Protestant knows this. As the chant proceeded, I saw the gravediggers kneel beside their tools and machines, in imitation of all the Catholic mourners. (The Mother Superior later told me she had never seen them do this before.)  

My sadness and depression lifted like an early-morning fog as I listened to this mysterious and mesmerizing chant in an inscrutable language, but a chant I could fully embrace. The strange text, read from right to left, was indecipherable. But after a few minutes, I did pick up the melodic formulas, and I began to sing them on vowels of my own devising. How wonderful, I thought, that my mother, raised a Protestant in Oklahoma, could go out as a Catholic in communion with an immense line of believers and martyrs, stretching all the way back to St. Thomas, calling on all those fellow converts for their prayers in her moment of crossing into eternity. 

What we have lost in the new liturgy is precisely this connection to our past. With the typical Novus Ordo, it seems to me, we are on a ship whose destination is uncertain, and whose port of departure is but a fleeting memory. For so many, this has not proven enough to keep them on board. Many of us—those weak in faith?—need the venerable liturgies, the timeless chants, the changeless gestures, to help us feel the eternal presence of Christ. The age-old Faith clothed in ancient ceremony. Old wine in old wineskins.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

  • Timothy J. Williams

    Timothy J. Williams writes on religion, politics, and literature from his home in rural Ohio. He graduated cum laude from the University of Kansas with a doctorate in French and holds Master’s degrees in French and Music Theory. In 2010, Dr. Williams retired from the Ohio National Guard with the rank of Major.

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