It's been the worst of times for American Catholics, given the ongoing revelations of the priest sex scandals and the almost utterly indifferent -- if not criminal -- response to them by a considerable portion of the Church hierarchy. Catholics are looking for some overdue good news, and almost any gesture of good faith on the part of the Church will do. But someone forgot to tell the Archdiocese of Newark, which has demonstrated its commitment to healing the rift by cracking down on eulogies at funeral masses. One would think the Archdiocese might be occupied with more pressing matters.
Newark Archbishop John J. Myers recently sent a letter to his priests recommending that eulogies be delivered at the wake or after the mass. According to a spokesman for Myers, eulogies had begun to "creep into the funeral Mass itself and take away from the solemnity of the rite and tak[e] away from the focus of the Mass, which is faith and the promise of new life." Priests in other New Jersey dioceses like Metuchen and Paterson have already taken steps to limit the practice, asking family members to submit remarks to the pastor for approval before the mass.
"Something happened," says Monsignor William Benwell, vicar general of the Diocese of Metuchen, "and all of a sudden it seemed like every other funeral someone wanted to give a eulogy. It's almost to the point where people are doing it even if they feel uncomfortable. They felt it was something you have to do." The Monsignor seems very put out by these demands.
Priests have cited plentiful examples of eulogies that go on for half an hour, or multiple eulogists extending a mass as long as two hours. Another priest told a story about competing family members openly disagreeing with one another's eulogies at the funeral.
These stories are easy to believe. Most of us have been to funerals where a eulogy seems excessively long, or worse, inappropriate. There are eulogies given by people who genuinely think they can handle the situation emotionally, but then cannot contain themselves at the pulpit and make a scene. These scenarios have become part of the landscape of a funeral. In an age when any tradition demanding stoicism or spiritual discipline is under attack, there is something to be said for reining in emotional excesses and maintaining the dignity of the somber funeral ritual.
But even so, the action by the Archdiocese is yet another depressing example of an out of touch Church hierarchy. In the wake of sex scandals whose devastating effects upon the faithful will likely ripple for decades, the Newark Archbishop took it upon himself to rearrange the proverbial chairs on the Titanic. In doing so, he exhibited a gift for the unfortunate phrase, as when he explained that his decision was motivated by a desire to cut down on the "growing abuse" of eulogies by parishioners.
Abuse is not a word that Catholic priests should throw around these days, particularly in New Jersey, where Rev. John Banko was convicted in December of molesting an altar boy. To use the word in reference to parishioners still wishing to bury their dead in the Church is shoddy semantics and abysmal public relations. Catholics in the New Jersey dioceses must feel as if something else is being taken away from them, as if trust were not enough.
Beyond its awful timing, the anti-eulogy initiative also illustrates the continuing confusion in roles between priests and laity in the wake of Vatican II. Eulogies slowly came about as a result of Vatican II, and have become a staple of funerals since. But if some in the Church now want to limit or abolish laity eulogies, why are they are not equally interested in reforming the role of laity in giving communion? Isn't that a much more obvious priestly function?
Giving a eulogy, by contrast, seems to be an act uniquely suited to the faithful, especially in the frequent and unavoidable cases where the priest does not know anything about the deceased. One does not hear any outcry about priests giving generic eulogies for people they have never met. Nor do we hear anything about the disastrous eulogies priests sometimes give, such as the one I had the misfortune of hearing for an aunt some years back. In a supremely haughty, almost angry manner, the priest dismissed any notion that my aunt had actually died a few days earlier because she had "died with Christ 70 years ago." To the family's grief in her loss, he thundered, "I beg to differ." Nice theology, terrible eulogy. And this from a priest who knew her, in the church she had attended for most of her adult life. You never saw so many angry Irishmen exit a funeral.
With any luck, the example of the New Jersey dioceses will be ignored. Eulogies, whatever their imperfections, are so far down the list of Church problems it takes an impressive myopia to think of them at all. A Church that survived the Age of Aquarius and the strumming guitars of "folk" masses can surely survive the heartfelt desire of its faithful to memorialize their dead. The New Jersey archbishops should be more concerned about the broken trust between themselves and their parishioners. If the "abuse" foremost in their minds pertains to eulogies, then they have a long way to go to reclaim that trust.