Refusing a Funeral Mass to a Non-Parishioner

Q: At our parish the priest is very strict.  If you aren’t registered as a parishioner, he won’t say a funeral Mass for you.  However, he will let you have a funeral service with the deacon if you pay hundreds of dollars.

After reading your post “Stipends and Sacraments,” I now wonder if our priest is violating the law by insisting on the price for a funeral service.  Or does that law not apply here because a funeral is not a sacrament?  Or does the law not apply if the person isn’t a registered parishioner? –Carlos

A:  Carlos is right to suspect that something is wrong with this practice at his parish, but it’s actually worse than he seems to realize!  There are multiple, separate issues here, involving funerals, stipends, and the registration of parishioners.  Let’s look at each of these in turn.

We have seen so many, many times in this space that as per canon 843, Catholics cannot be denied the sacraments if they (a) seek them at appropriate times, (b) are properly disposed, and (c) are not prohibited by law from receiving them.  The clear implication is that there are situations where a priest can indeed deny sacraments to a Catholic who doesn’t meet these requirements.  We saw examples of this in “Refusing First Holy Communion to Children Who are Ill-Prepared,” “Can the Pastor Refuse to Baptize Our Child?” and “Can the Priest Refuse to Hear My Confession?” among many others.

That said, Carlos is spot-on when he notes that a funeral is not a sacrament!  Many Catholics may be surprised to learn that in actual fact, every Catholic, whether he practices his faith or not, has the right to a Catholic funeral (c. 1176.1).  The wording of this canon is very strong: the faithful must be given a church funeral according to the norms of law.  The grammar used in the official Latin text of this canon couldn’t be more forceful!  You don’t need to have been a practicing Catholic to be buried with full Catholic funeral rites.

There is no contradiction here, because there is actually a significant theological difference between permitting a non-practicing Catholic to receive the sacraments, and giving him a Catholic funeral.  Think about it: once a Catholic has passed away, he’s obviously no longer able to receive the sacraments.  The Church’s funeral rites serve a different purpose, as the Catechism explains:

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. (CCC 1684)

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.

Nonetheless, this right is not absolute: canon 1184 does enumerate three categories of persons to whom a Catholic funeral is to be denied, “unless they gave some signs of repentance before death.”  These include notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics (c. 1184 n. 1); those who chose the cremation of their bodies for reasons contrary to Christian faith (n. 2, and see “What Does the Church Really Say About Cremation?”); and other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without causing a public scandal (n. 3, addressed in “Can a Public Sinner Have a Catholic Funeral?” and “Catholic Funerals and Physician-Assisted Suicide”).  Note that as was discussed in the above-mentioned articles, a major reason for these exceptions is the avoidance of scandal among the faithful, who might wrongly conclude that the Church doesn’t consider these moral issues to be all that serious.

Speaking of moral issues, failing to “register” as a member of X parish isn’t one.  As was discussed at length in “Parish Registration” and “Parish Registration and Confirmation Sponsors,” the concept of “registering” at a parish seems to be an American invention, and has absolutely no effect in canon law on your membership (or not) in that parish.  The code gives us the norm: canon 518 tells us that as a rule, parishes are territorial, which means that your parish is determined by your street address—whether you’ve registered there or not.  It doesn’t matter whether you never attend Mass or receive the sacraments at that particular parish, or even if you have registered at a different parish: the fact remains that the parish in whose territory you live is your parish.

(Incidentally, this is why it is always incorrect for Catholics to claim, “I don’t have a parish/pastor,” as lapsed Catholics often do.  Every Catholic on earth has a parish, even those who have ceased practicing their faith altogether.)

Thus it should be no surprise that canon 1177.1 tells us that a funeral must generally be celebrated in the deceased person’s parish church.  That said, the word “generally” indicates that this requirement is not absolute, and the very next paragraph gives us an exception: a funeral Mass may be celebrated at a different church, with the consent of the pastor (or rector, or other cleric in charge of it, if it’s not a parish church) and the notification of the deceased person’s actual parish priest (c. 1177.2).

So if we put all these pieces together, what do we get?  By now the answer to Carlos’s question should be evident, but a couple of fictional-but-realistic scenarios should make the answer even clearer.  Firstly, let’s say that George’s mother Mathilda is a practicing Catholic, but she doesn’t attend the church that is actually her parish: she lives within the boundaries of St. Joseph’s, but she regularly goes to St. Anthony’s instead—because a friend gives her a ride to church each week, and that happens to be the church where the friend goes to Mass.  Mathilda is known to the pastor of St. Anthony’s, at least by sight.

There’s absolutely nothing canonically wrong with this situation at all.  But now let’s imagine that Mathilda dies, and her son George—who lives 500 miles away—calls the pastor of St. Joseph’s, which he knows is the parish church closest to his mother’s home.  Imagine that George doesn’t know that his mother has in actuality been attending a different church in recent years.  The pastor of St. Joseph’s may have absolutely no idea who Mathilda is/was, but this doesn’t matter!  He is legally required to celebrate a funeral Mass for Mathilda, if he is requested to do so—because she lived within the territory of his parish and was thus a member there.

Now let’s look at a variation on this story.  Let’s say that Mathilda dies, and her son George does indeed know that she has regularly been attending St. Anthony’s.  George phones St. Anthony’s and asks the pastor to celebrate a funeral Mass for Mathilda.  If the pastor is amenable, he is certainly able to do this, even though Mathilda isn’t really a member of his parish.  As per the abovementioned canon 1177.2, he is supposed to inform the pastor of St. Joseph’s of what is happening.  Note that this does not mean the pastor of St. Joseph’s has to give permission for the funeral to take place at St. Anthony’s; it just means that the pastor of St. Joseph’s should be made aware of it.

But let’s imagine that the pastor of St. Anthony’s objects to George’s request, saying “I’m sorry, but your mother isn’t a member of this parish; her address suggests that she belongs to St. Joseph’s, so her funeral really should be celebrated there.”  This is canonically accurate: a parish priest is under no obligation to say a funeral Mass for someone who isn’t from his parish!  George should then be able to call St. Joseph’s, as mentioned above, and have his mother’s funeral Mass celebrated there.

Here’s yet another variation of the same fictitious situation.  Let’s pretend that George has called both St. Joseph’s and St. Anthony’s, and in each case the pastor said no: the pastor of St. Anthony’s rightly said Mathilda wasn’t a member of his parish, and the pastor of St. Joseph’s said he didn’t know who she was and wrongly refused to do it.  As we’ve already seen, the pastor of St. Joseph’s is obliged to say Mathilda’s funeral Mass—but if he stubbornly (and illegally) refuses, and George calls St. Anthony’s again in desperation and explains the situation … surely it is clear that the pastor of St. Anthony’s should agree to do the funeral, even if only as a matter of charity.  And by the way, the pastor of St. Anthony’s should also inform the diocesan chancery that St. Joseph’s pastor is refusing to minister to the people of his territorial parish, in blatant violation of the law.  The pastor of St. Anthony’s likely has enough to do already, without regularly saying funeral Masses for people from other parishes!

Let’s now look at a different scenario: imagine that Richard was raised Catholic, but hasn’t attended Mass in decades.  Maybe he “just” fell away from the faith, or maybe he has been genuinely unable to get to church for health reasons—it doesn’t really matter.  He didn’t become a member of another faith (which is important, because if he did, he would fall under the “heretics, schismatics, and apostates” section of canon 1184, discussed above).  Now Richard has died, so his wife Diane calls Our Lady of Lourdes parish, which is just two blocks away.  As should be evident by now, the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes is required by law to celebrate a funeral Mass for Richard.  But imagine that he refuses, and poor Diane starts calling neighboring parishes, trying to find some priest who is willing to say Richard’s funeral Mass.  Once again, if she explains the problem, another pastor should surely agree to do it as a charity, even though he is under no canonical obligation to do so—and the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes is to be informed of that fact, in accord with canon 1177.2.  Speaking of which, the diocesan bishop should likewise be informed that the pastor of Our Lady of Lourdes is violating the rights of his parishioners!

If we return now to Carlos’s original question, there is one aspect which hasn’t been fully addressed yet.  Can a pastor “charge” a set fee for celebrating a funeral Mass?  Can a Catholic be denied a funeral because his family/friends are unable to come up with the required amount?

Although as we have already seen above, a funeral is not a sacrament, that doesn’t mean the faithful can’t be asked for a stipend.  First of all, in celebrating a funeral, the priest is also celebrating a Mass—and as we saw in “Mass Intentions and Stipends (Part I)” and “(Part II),” the Catholic Church has for centuries embraced the custom that those who request a priest to say a Mass for a particular intention ought to offer him a reasonable stipend for his trouble.  Traditionally, many priests lived on the money given to them as Mass stipends, and in some parts of the world they still do!  That’s why canon 946 states that by providing a stipend for a requested Mass, the faithful contribute to the support of the Church’s ministers.

On top of that, a funeral Mass is generally more elaborate than a regular Mass: depending on your region of the world, the parish might need to pay the organist an extra sum to play at the Mass, and perhaps turning on the heat and electric lights specifically for the funeral is expensive.  That’s why canon 1181 declares, “The prescripts of can. 1264 are to be observed, with the caution, however, that there is to be no favoritism toward persons in funerals and that the poor are not deprived of fitting funerals.”  And what, in turn, does canon 1264 say?  It tells us that bishops’ provinces are to set limits on the offerings provided for the administration of sacraments and sacramentals (c. 1264 n. 2)—which includes funerals.  Put it all together, and the code is stating that yes, your parish/pastor may indeed tell you the standard offering for a Catholic funeral; but if your family genuinely can’t afford it, you are not to be deprived of a funeral (which, after all, is your right).  Catholic funerals are for all Catholics, not just the ones whose families/friends can pay for them!

So now it should be evident that the pastor of Carlos’s parish is violating the law at least sometimes—but not always—with regard to funerals.  If Catholics are really living within the territorial boundaries of the parish, the pastor cannot refuse them a funeral Mass merely because they aren’t registered at the parish, or because they haven’t been practicing their faith (which of course is one big reason why they might not be registered at the parish).  There is no reason why the deacon should be providing them with a funeral “service” rather than a Mass, which is their right—no matter how overworked and tired the pastor might be!  Finally, we don’t know specifically if the pastor is refusing funerals to Catholics who are unable to pay “hundreds of dollars,” but if he is, this is blatantly illegal and must stop.

It’s not accurate to say that Carlos’s pastor is “strict.”  Carefully obeying the Church’s laws is one thing; violating the rights of the faithful is another!  This isn’t a question of strictness, it’s a matter of following the law, which is grounded in the Church’s theological understanding of the spiritual importance of a funeral Mass for every Catholic soul.

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