Refusing a Funeral Mass, Because of the Virus

Q: The Archbishop of New York City announced at the beginning of the virus crisis that funeral Masses will NOT be conducted during this time for the victims of COVID19 or for the recently deceased….  How is this possible?  I can understand if authorities do not want to release the bodies of those who have passed away due to fear of spreading the virus, but to not hold a Mass at all does not make any sense.

Does a body have to be present, in order to celebrate a funeral Mass?  Also, couldn’t this bishop have conducted a private Mass (literally behind closed doors) and livestreamed the Mass, so friends and family of the recently deceased could have virtually attended the Mass?

After giving this some thought I then wondered what happens in a mass-casualty situation?  Are funeral Masses not provided to the victims of mass casualties such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.?  Can you shed some light on this?  My friends and I are deeply troubled by these developments and we are at a loss for words for the restrictions that have been imposed upon the Church during a time when prayer and faith is needed the most.  This is a very difficult time for humanity and yet even more excruciatingly painful for Catholics as our bishops are literally abandoning the flock. –Josie

A: Josie sounds like she is pinching herself to make sure she isn’t dreaming, and there’s a good reason for that.  While the bishops of many dioceses around the world illegally forbade the celebration of Masses for the faithful “because of the virus” (as discussed in “Do Bishops Have the Authority to Cancel Masses Completely?” and “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?”), some, like Josie’s Archbishop, actually went a step further—and forbade the celebration of funeral Masses as well.  What does canon law say about a deceased Catholic’s right to a Catholic funeral?  What ordinarily happens when a Catholic dies, but his body is not recoverable—can’t he have a funeral Mass anyway, celebrated without the body present in the church?  Finally, can a bishop forbid everyone who dies in his diocese to have a funeral Mass?  And why would he even want to?

Before we take a look at the specific situation in Josie’s Archdiocese today, it is necessary to go back in history and see why the Church celebrates funeral Masses for deceased Catholics.  As is invariably the case, there are sound theological reasons why the Catholic Church does what it does.

From time immemorial, the Church has quoted the Old Testament Book of Machabees in support of its doctrine about praying for the repose of the faithful departed: “ It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins” (2 Mach. 12:46).  The Catechism of the Catholic Church cites the 13th-century Second Council of Lyons (original Latin text here, at #856) when it tells us,

From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God” (CCC 1032).

Since odds are high that spiritually, we are not perfectly pure at the moment of our death, we rely on the assistance of the prayers of the faithful, above all the Mass, to pay the debts still owed to God on account of our sins.  The funeral Mass contributes in a significant way to doing precisely that: as we saw in “Can Priests Cancel Public Masses, and Say a Private Mass Instead?” the Mass is the Church’s highest form of worship, and the “source and summit of the Christian life” (c. 897, which is based on Vatican II’s Lumen Gentium 11).  This is why for centuries, the Catholic Church has always, always done all it could to ensure that the faithful receive this vital succor as soon as possible after death, normally at the time of their burial.  If a Catholic has died and gone to Purgatory, because he hasn’t yet fully atoned for the sins of his life … the Church wants to help him get out and get to heaven, fast!  This will not only benefit the deceased person, but it will also give glory to God, because a new soul will have been added to the company of heaven, to worship Him for all eternity.

This insistence on the celebration of a funeral Mass for a deceased Catholic, grounded firmly in Catholic theology, is the driving force behind the Latin grammar of canon 1176.1.  In English this paragraph tells us, “Deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law.”

The Latin verb that is accurately translated here as “must be given” indicates that this is an absolute obligation.  This Latin grammatical construction cannot be translated into English as “should be given,” or “can be given,” or “may be given,” all of which are verb forms that would suggest to one degree or another that saying a Catholic funeral for a deceased Catholic is optional.  No, the Latin text—the only official text of the Code of Canon Law—makes it quite clear that the Church absolutely, positively has to do this, period.

This explains why, as we saw in “Can a Lapsed Catholic Have a Catholic Funeral?” even a non-practicing Catholic, who for whatever reason (or no reason at all) has fallen away from the faith, nonetheless has the right to a Catholic funeral Mass.  Being Catholic—no matter how imperfect!—and having a Catholic funeral, go hand in hand.  To quote the Catechism again,

The Christian funeral confers on the deceased neither a sacrament nor a sacramental since he has “passed” beyond the sacramental economy.  It is nonetheless a liturgical celebration of the Church.  The ministry of the Church aims at expressing efficacious communion with the deceased, at the participation in that communion of the community gathered for the funeral and at the proclamation of eternal life to the community.

…In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify His child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom.  It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who “has fallen asleep in the Lord,” by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him. (CCC 1684, 1689)

These passages from the Catechism also happen to touch on another aspect of Catholic funerals that cannot be underestimated: the grieving family and friends of a Catholic who has died are naturally in need of spiritual comfort, and to a great extent a funeral Mass provides it.  The priest who celebrates the Mass invariably goes out of his way to try to console the relatives, emphasizing theological truths like the infinite mercy of God, and

funeral Mass

“Funeral of Saint Ursula,” Vittore Carpaccio, 1493

our hope that we will all be reunited again one day in heaven.  While we know that a funeral Mass (and every subsequent Mass celebrated for the repose of his soul) helps the deceased Catholic get to heaven all the sooner, that funeral Mass can be just as helpful, in the spiritual sense, for the Catholics whom he left behind.

In the past couple of months, government officials in many parts of the world refused to permit the bodies of people who had died of the virus, or for that matter of any other cause, to be brought to church for a proper funeral.  Liturgically, this certainly does not constitute an insurmountable problem: as Josie observes, it has often happened that Catholics have died and for some reason their bodies were never found, making it literally impossible to bring their remains to church for the funeral Mass.  Sometimes people are lost at sea, or they are missing and assumed to be dead after a military battle, or they disappeared and presumably died in a hurricane or avalanche or explosion.  In fact, plenty of Catholics died right there in the Archdiocese of New York City on September 11, 2001, and their bodies were never recovered—as they were blown to bits by the plane-crash, explosion, and subsequent collapse of the Twin Towers.

In such cases, the Church’s funeral Mass is somewhat modified, as the priest-celebrant naturally omits the rite of reception of the body in the church at the very beginning of the Mass, as well as the commendation of the deceased to the tomb at the very end of the Mass.  But the rest of the Mass is celebrated just as it would be if the body were present.  There is nothing complicated or difficult about this.

Josie asks about mass-casualty events, and there are countless examples of the Church’s praxis in such situations.  Here in Italy, after a devastating earthquake at Amatrice in 2016, a funeral Mass was said for a large number of victims at once.  Due to both the large size of the congregation, and the fact that significant aftershocks continued to occur, the funeral Mass took place outdoors, in a temporary structure that was quickly erected to protect everyone from the rain.  Why didn’t they wait until the aftershocks ended, and it was safe to celebrate Mass indoors again?  Answer: because as Catholics, we want to offer the sacrifice of the Mass for deceased Catholics, and commend their souls to God as soon as we can!

An even larger catastrophe occurred in the Italian city of L’Aquila in 2009, killing hundreds of local residents during the night of Palm Sunday.  Chaos ensued, and after an unduly disorganized search many bodies were finally recovered; but by the time they were identified, coffins were provided for them, and all was readied for a funeral … the Easter Triduum had arrived.  And this presented a problem.

That’s because, as we saw in “Can Catholics be Prohibited From Marrying in Lent or Advent?” the Church has strictly limited the sacraments and liturgical celebrations that can be celebrated during these particular days.  In 1988, the Congregation for Divine Worship (CDW) issued “Concerning the Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts,” a circular letter which laid out for the universal Church what exactly can and cannot be done during the Easter season.  With regard to a funeral Mass, the CDW letter observes that as to Good Friday, “On this day, in accordance with ancient tradition, the Church does not celebrate the Eucharist” (59).  And as for Holy Saturday, “On this day the Church abstains strictly from the celebration of the Sacrifice of the Mass” until the evening, when of course we celebrate the Mass of the Easter Vigil (75).  A funeral Mass, therefore, can never be celebrated on either of these days.

In L’Aquila, therefore, it would have been necessary for 205 coffins to sit where they were for at least another few days, until Easter Sunday rolled around and it became liturgically possible to celebrate a funeral Mass for them.  As heart-rending as it was, the Archbishop of L’Aquila couldn’t do a thing about this: as was discussed in “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” when the Supreme Authority in the Church (i.e., the Holy Father himself, or a Vatican Congregation or other office acting on his behalf) issues rules that apply to the entire Catholic Church, no lower authority can countermand them.  The people of L’Aquila wanted desperately to bury their loved ones after a Catholic funeral Mass … but church law forbade it.

At that point, Pope Benedict XVI personally intervened.  In an extraordinary move, he officially permitted the Archdiocese of L’Aquila to have a funeral Mass on Good Friday 2009, for these 205 victims of the earthquake.  Only Rome had the power to grant this exception to universal law.  And Pope Benedict apparently felt that the pastoral needs of the unhappy people of L’Aquila, coupled with the spiritual needs of the victims, were more important than following a norm that had been established not by God, but by man (see “Are There Any Limitations on the Power of the Pope?” for more on this important distinction).  He well understood that the Church needs to bend over backwards to provide a proper Catholic funeral for deceased members of the faithful.

Bearing all of this in mind, let’s now look at the specific situation in Josie’s Archdiocese.  First of all, it’s worth noting for the record that government authorities in Josie’s part of the world did not unconstitutionally ban Catholics from having funeral Masses “because of the virus”; instead there was, at the time Josie asked her question, a limit of ten people who could be present at the funeral.  This means that the Archbishop voluntarily chose to forbid funeral Masses on his own, without pressure from civil officials to do so.  One source reported that the Archdiocese had indicated that “limiting the funerals to ten people has proven not to be feasible and caused problems for many priests.”  These “problems” and the reasons why funerals were not “feasible” were not identified, but they likely involved complaints and objections from relatives and friends of the deceased person, who were being told before the funeral that they could not attend.

Right away we can see a serious theological issue at play here.  The Archbishop was publicly telling the faithful of his Archdiocese that the fact that its clergy were having “problems” completely outweighed the right to and the spiritual need of deceased members of the Catholic faithful of the Archdiocese for a funeral Mass after their deaths.  In other words, it is instantly clear from this statement that the Archbishop believes that offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of a soul entrusted to his spiritual care is less important than the preference of the archdiocesan clergy not to have “problems.”  Think about that for a moment.

Josie wants to know whether “this bishop [could] have conducted a private Mass (literally behind closed doors) and livestreamed the Mass, so friends and family of the recently deceased could have virtually attended the Mass?” and the answer is an unqualified yes!  In fact, in other parts of the world where draconian civil officials had illegally imposed even stricter limitations on funerals, this is exactly what happened.  As far as the deceased Catholic is concerned, he had the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass offered for his intention, even though his physical remains could unfortunately not be physically present there in the church at the time.  And it goes without saying that the surviving family and friends would have much preferred to attend the funeral Mass in person, and bid farewell to the deceased relative/friend together; but at least being able to watch the Mass via streaming, to hear the priest’s homily, and to know that the Church was doing all it could during this bewildering time, would provide some comfort.  It would also provide closure: most Catholics know intuitively that when a Catholic dies, there is an established series of events that normally culminates in a church funeral and burial in a Catholic cemetery, with the direct involvement of a priest.  The closure that this series of events provides is mentally and emotionally necessary, as most of us probably know from first-hand experience.

But “because of the virus,” in Josie’s Archdiocese there is no such closure, and no consolation for the friends and family of the deceased, because not only is a parish priest forbidden to livestream a funeral Mass, he is forbidden even from offering it!  No medical training should be necessary for any sane person to appreciate full well that if a priest celebrates a funeral Mass in a locked church, all by himself, this does not magically create a heightened risk of people catching the virus.

And yet at the same time, the same Archbishop permits the parish priest to accompany the body of the deceased person (even one who died of the virus) to the outdoor grave-site, and family and friends are for some reason allowed to be there too, at a distance.  Somehow this does not pose a risk of catching the virus to anybody present—but the priest celebrating a funeral Mass by himself does.  How does this make any sense to anyone?

So let’s sum up: when a Catholic dies of any cause in Josie’s Archdiocese, the Church refuses to offer a funeral Mass for the repose of his soul, as is his right; it withholds this consolation from family and friends, many of whom are presumably Catholics of the Archdiocese too; and it leaves these loved ones hanging indefinitely, since the Archdiocese does not indicate that it will even celebrate a funeral Mass for the person at a later date!  In some unexplained way, doing any and all of this could transmit the virus—even though the civil government thought differently, since (as noted above) it permitted funerals that were small in size—and in the eyes of the Archbishop that’s more important than the spiritual wellbeing of any of the persons involved.  True, it’s certainly nice to have the priest available to pray some final prayers outside in the cemetery, over the remains of a loved one; but without having celebrated a funeral Mass, this might as well be the funeral of any protestant Christian.

To top it all off, the Archbishop grandly declared that he would be praying for the faithful departed whose right to a funeral he was violating—but he didn’t say he would actually be offering a funeral Mass for them.  This means that in Josie’s Archdiocese, no Catholic who has died in this period can ever have a funeral Mass celebrated by any cleric … because that might cause someone to catch the virus.

Is your head spinning yet?  Josie and her friends are spot-on, since (in her words) they “are at a loss for words for the restrictions that have been imposed upon the Church during a time when prayer and faith is needed the most.  This is a very difficult time for humanity and yet even more excruciatingly painful for Catholics as our bishops are literally abandoning the flock.”

It’s time to stop pretending that this is all “because of the virus,” because even a child can see that the virus has nothing to do with this.  For unclear reasons a significant number of bishops around the world have, like Josie’s, arbitrarily (and illegally) arrogated to themselves powers which are reserved in some cases to the Pope alone, and in other cases to God Himself, all in the name of supposedly combatting the virus.  As was discussed at length in the abovementioned “Can We Be Required to Receive Communion in the Hand, Because of the Virus?” the Church has taught from time immemorial that an unjust law is not a law, and should not be followed.  Our parish clergy are there for our spiritual assistance—and a funeral is exactly that, for both the deceased Catholic and his family and friends.

funeral Mass

“Funeral of Saint Jerome,” Lazzaro Bastiani, 1470-1472

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