Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory delivers the homily at the funeral Mass for journalist Cokie Roberts at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., Sept. 21. Homilies, not eulogies, are given at Catholic funeral Masses. “The homilist should dwell on God’s compassion, making that distinction there between the paschal mystery and a speech in praise of a deceased person,” says Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Divine Worship Office for the Archdiocese of Portland. (CNS photo/Heidi Gutman, courtesy ABC)
Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory delivers the homily at the funeral Mass for journalist Cokie Roberts at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, D.C., Sept. 21. Homilies, not eulogies, are given at Catholic funeral Masses. “The homilist should dwell on God’s compassion, making that distinction there between the paschal mystery and a speech in praise of a deceased person,” says Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Divine Worship Office for the Archdiocese of Portland. (CNS photo/Heidi Gutman, courtesy ABC)

So often when a funeral is portrayed in the media, the eulogy is the focus of the entire ceremony. That’s not the case with Catholics.

Classically, a eulogy is a speech in praise of the deceased person, said Msgr. Gerard O’Connor, director of the Divine Worship Office for the Archdiocese of Portland. Eulogies have been used by Christians and non-Christians alike.

But the Catholic funeral Mass is not the time for a eulogy, said the monsignor.

The funeral Mass isn’t honoring the person, as such, he explained.

“The focus of the Mass is the religious part of our funeral rites, which is offering the sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the soul and praying for the soul of the deceased.”

Msgr. O’Connor stressed that a distinction must be made between the worldly, social side of the funeral and the supernatural, divine side of the funeral.

“The church wants to make that distinction, so eulogies are not allowed,” he said.

It’s not that Catholics can’t have a eulogy at all, however.

“They really can be done at anytime and anywhere, but the Catholic funeral is not the time,” said Msgr. O’Connor.

There is a point in the Mass, usually just before the final blessing, for a close friend or family member to speak on the deceased’s spiritual life, but the monsignor pointed out the speech should be limited to the spiritual.

“We’re there to talk about their journey with God and why we pray for them,” said O’Connor.

 “The priest has always got to give a homily about the readings and about eternal life and about the paschal mystery,” said O’Connor. “The homilist should dwell on God’s compassion, making that distinction there between the paschal mystery and a speech in praise of a deceased person.”

There’s no rule against eulogies during other parts of the funeral rite. The vigil, for instance, is a good place, said O’Connor, as is the reception following the Mass.

“The vigil is probably the best and most appropriate place to have the eulogy,” said Daniel Serres, manager at Gethsemani Funeral Home in Happy Valley. If a family chooses not to have a vigil, Serres says the reception is the second best time to share those memories of the deceased.

A vigil service, a part of the funeral liturgy, is generally held at the funeral home in conjunction with the viewing of the body. When Serres meets with a family, he talks about the importance of the funeral liturgies and how each of the three parts — the vigil, Mass and the commital — help loved ones move through the grief process. The Mass, for instance, is a time to be thankful and acknowledge the promises of the resurrection, said Serres. So it’s really not the appropriate time for the eulogy. The vigil is a time to acknowledge and accept the death. It’s a time for remembrance, sharing, getting support from family and friends and moving through the grief process, added Serres.

It’s natural for people to want to talk about the dead, to share stories, to cry, said O’Connor.

“Emotions need to come out of these things but the church is not the place,” he concluded.

The archdiocese has established guidelines for funerals that come from the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, which is published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“At Funeral Masses there should usually be a short Homily, but to the exclusion of a funeral eulogy of any kind,” states the missal.

“The homilist should also help the members of the assembly to understand that the mystery of God’s love and the mystery of Jesus’ victorious death and resurrection were present in the life and death of the deceased,” reads the general introduction of the Order of Christian Funerals.

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org