Celebrating Life's Passages
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Back in 1968, I attended the marriage ceremony of one of my college classmates. It was a Catholic service, and I was astounded when the priest used the occasion to give a strongly worded sermon on the evils of divorce.
Perhaps this was the standard of the time for Catholic weddings, perhaps just a personal foible of the priest, or perhaps he was giving a pointed message to one of the attendees. Certainly, the message could not have been aimed at the couple; divorce was the furthest thing from their minds on their wedding day.
In my view, this unnecessary sermon detracted from the joyous occasion. For the priest, the occasion was not simply a celebration of marriage, the ceremony was not supposed to focus on the bride and groom; rather it was an additional opportunity for him to promote Rome's dogma.
More recently, the Catholic Bishop of Calgary (in whose diocese I happen to reside) sent out a pastoral letter to all his priest and parishioners advising them that eulogies are banned during funeral ceremonies. The purpose of this ban is to keep the focus on the Christian liturgy.
There is now no room in a Catholic funeral service to celebrate a life through anecdotes, to relate humourous incidents so mourners can laugh while they grieve. Just a dry old religious service conducted by the priest.
The Catholic Church is not alone in this. Bishops of many other Christian denominations are making the same decision. I find it wrong-headed.
A funeral should not just be a few prayers. It should offer opportunities for tears, for laughter, for the celebration of a life.
When we observe life's passages (naming, marriage, anniversaries, death, etc.) we are celebrating the individual(s) concerned, and that's where the focus belongs. Yes, we do use clergy to help us with the event, and expect them to bring their spirituality, along with blessings from whatever higher power they represent. But, they should also recognize that attendees usually have diverse religious backgrounds. Friendship is not, for most of us, bounded by religion. To overly promote the teachings of one religion removes everyone with differing views from full participation.
Several years ago, when I realized we needed some formal guidance for our clergy and developed our initial Clergy Resource Site, I wrote the following with respect to ceremonies:
In conducting ceremonies, it is important to remember the purpose is to celebrate the participants and to meet their needs, not to overtly promote the church. To this end, we suggest you work closely with those involved to develop the details of a particular ceremony. While you do not have to do anything you personally might find offensive [suggest they find another cleric] you should be prepared to be somewhat flexible, even to the extent of accepting some general elements of spirituality in the ceremony. However, the focus of any ceremony should be to obtain the blessing and support of those in attendance for the event [as differentiated from other religions where the blessing of a Supreme Being is sought.]
Perhaps the specific wording could be improved, but in my own humble opinion, a lot wiser than the Bishop of Calgary's views where only his church's needs are recognized.
This article was inspired by a couple of articles in the Globe and Mail of 23 April 2003. I also took the opportunity to write a letter to the editor which was published the next day:
Roy MacGregor writes of his expectations for the funeral of Jack Donahue: "...prayers, a few tears, a lot of laughs, and a collection of the ugliest neckties..." (This Country, April 22) It sounds like a wonderful way to commemorate the life of the man.
And in the same issue of the Globe and Mail, we find that Frederick Henry and other sundry bishops wish to ban this kind of ceremony (Out of Control Eulogies prompt ban).
Apparently, funeral services are not intended to mourn, memorialize and celebrate the deceased; they are just another opportunity to preach the same tired old message they promote every Sunday. Shame on them.
Medicine Hat, Alberta