Talking (Tough) Truth at Funerals

I celebrate just over 50 funerals a year;  about one a week. (People are dying to come to church here). And most of these funerals feature  large numbers of fallen away Catholics and unchurched individuals. Most of these people I see ONLY at funerals and sometimes weddings. For this reason, in recent years, I have altered my approach at funerals and direct almost half of the sermon to the unchurched and call them to repent and return home. Surely in the first part I speak of the deceased, offer thanks to God for their life, entrust them to God and ask the congregation to pray for the repose of the deceased soul. I never fail to menton judgment and purgatory as reasons for this prayer. That is too often not mentioned at Catholic funerals, a terrible oversight if you ask me. But the bottom line is that I spend the first half of the sermon commending the deceased person to God’s benevolent mercy and care.

But given the terribly high loss in the practice of faith and the consequent grave condition of many of the souls at any given funeral I cannot allow (any longer) an omission to be made of summoning them to Christ. How can it be that God has led them to my parish and I would say nothing to them to dissuade them from their path away from God and his sacraments? So many souls today are not only unchurched and backslidden (fallen away), but they are often locked in serious, mortal sin. I cannot know this about any particular individual but it is clear that many are lost like sheep without a shepherd. While conscious of my own sin, I cannot remain silent (any longer) and fail to call the unchurched and fallen away back. And trust me, even at the funeral of strong Catholic families there are MANY who are fallen away. Add to that the fact that many funerals I celebrate are for people who themselves were not always fervent in the practice of the faith. Families of such as these have even more members in need of a sobering  wake up call.

In the video below is an excerpt from a funeral I preached some time ago for a man named Henry who practiced his own faith quite well but whose children and grandchildren largely did not. No more details about this funeral are necessary or appropriate. But with approval of a family member and since the passage of time is significant and the venue undisclosed I do not think any of you readers would have any idea who this individual is or his family. I will not even indicate the city in which this funeral took place. But in it is a good example of what I do at most every funeral in recent years in terms of the second half of the funeral wherein I turn my attention to the unchurched and fallen away.

I will admit that some of the things I say are tough. But remember, I only have them once and I have to come right to the point. No one will follow an uncertain trumpet. A very few have criticized my approach by insisting that funerals are sensitive times and we ought just to console the grieving family and say pleasant and encouraging things. Others, especially the older ones come to me and say, “Thanks Father, there are people in my family that needed to hear it!”  But in the end I cannot preach either to please or displease man. Rather, I have a conviction that this is what God would have me do. I cannot waste an opportunity to clearly warn, as Jesus often did, that judgment day is coming, and maybe sooner than you or I expect. We have to be ready for, at an hour that we do not expect the Son of Man will come (eg Mat 24:44). For those who do not have the time to listen to the video the fundamental points are these:

  1. I hope you will not forget to pray also for yourself today because you are going to die.
  2. What are you doing to get ready to meet God?
  3. There are too many people today who are not serious about their spiritual life. They are goofing off, playing around and laughing their way through life as if it were all some big joke. They do not pray, go to Church or read Scripture. They are committing serious sin and not repenting of it.
  4. If this is you, you are not going to be ready to meet God.
  5. I exhort you to get ready now, delay not your conversion. Be serious about your walk with God by praying every day; reading scripture every day, Church every Sunday.
  6. If you are in serious and unrepented sin, get on your knees today and beg God’s mercy and help. You may not even know how to stop, but tell God you’re sorry and need his help to stop. But do not go on calling good what God has called sinful.
  7. Be serious about it.
  8. Hold to God’s unchanging hand!

I think that without some exhortation of this sort the funeral service can be worse than a missed opportunity, it can be downright harmful. Why do I say this? Because our silence speaks volumes. To many who are locked in serious sin, or fallen away, never to hear a work of exhortation becomes a kind of affirmation, a tacit approval that every thing is fine when it is not. This is harmful silence. To those who say funerals are not good times to speak in strong language, then I say,  “When?”  When will I get a similar opportunity to speak to so many unchurched? When will they hear the “come to Jesus” talk if not then? When?

Here’s the sermon excerpt. I’ve included pictures related to funerals this is really just an audio recording of my sermon with a slide show attached. Remember it is only the second half of a sermon. The first half was largely a commending of Henry to God’s mercy and acknowledgment of his strong faith and love of God; a joyful acknowledgment of his being a gift to us from God. I also reminded the congregation to pray for him since he goes to judgment wherein God may need to purge him of any remaining sorrows, sins or pains brought from this world. And then comes this second half:

46 Replies to “Talking (Tough) Truth at Funerals”

  1. “They think I’m a saint… When I’m dead, they’ll come and touch holy pictures and rosaries to me, and all the while I’ll be getting broiled on a grill in purgatory. At least promise me you’ll pray a lot for the repose of my soul.”

    There are many great sins in the modern world, but two of the greatest are the sins of presumption and despair. All too often we see people presuming upon God’s mercy, assuming that He will automatically forgive us (as if forgiveness is our right) and, in the case of others, assuming that our deceased loved ones have automatically and immediately gone up to heaven. Even when we know that the deceased was a mean and miserable SOB, we see people declaring that they know, they just know, that they are in heaven with God and, hence, do not bother to pray for them. (Sadly, I’ve even seen priests do this, for example, even when the last thing that the person did while alive was to commit what is presumptively a mortal sin — throwing away the gift of life that God gave them and killing themselves — asserting that they know that the person is already in heaven, automatically presuming that the suicide was the result of mental illness (and thus not a mortal sin), as well as presuming on the mercy of God, either or both.)

    But if Bernadette Soubirous (quoted above) was so annoyed when people ascribed holiness to a saint like her and was very worried that people would not pray for her soul when she died, should not we sinners likewise want our loved ones to not presume upon God’s mercies when we have died, but instead to pray and pray and pray for us?

    Just like we do no one any favors when we do not speak the truth to them on moral matters during their lifetimes, we do not do them any favors by canonizing them immediately upon their deaths. We may think that we are honoring them by speaking and thinking only good things about them — after all, who are we to judge others? — but if it is improper to judge someone adversely (the way we normally think of “judgment”), it is likewise improper to think so well of them that you are effectively judging them so favorably as to declare them to be pure and without sin.

    Rather, the more loving (and truthful) thing to do is to pray for the deceased. Not to say that they did not sin, or that their sins were surely not all that great or serious and thus should be ignored, but that they were a sinner, which is to say, that they were a typical imperfect human being, but that the Lord be merciful to this sinner. (As for me — folks better pray for me when I’m gone, and pray hard, given all of my sins.)

    As for us still living, likewise, the more loving (and truthful) thing to do is to pray for ourselves, to acknowledge and return the love that God offers us, including, while we still have time, admitting our own imperfections and failings and asking His forgiveness. To presume forgiveness or to despair of it, thinking that you do not need the grace of the Holy Spirit or that such sin is beyond forgiveness is to commit the only unforgiveable sin. If we don’t bother to seek or accept the forgiveness that is offered us, we cannot receive it.

    And if we do not receive it, we are going to be facing a great deal of unpleasantness when we depart from this mortal coil. But if that happens, we will have only ourselves to thank for it.

  2. Msgr. Pope, this is such an important point you make. I have been at funerals that have totally distressed me in that no-body felt the deceased needed our prayers. Recently we had a death here in Ireland and the man was living a very sinful life – publicly! – no-one suggested that he might be in need of God’s love and mercy, all were quite sure he had gone straight to God! I have told my children that when I die, I want the funeral Mass to be about God’s love, His sacrifice for our sins and the great need of the Holy souls for our prayers, and not about the great and wonderful person I was!! That they would be doing me a great injustice by not asking every one to pray for my soul. I have told them that they can cry if they wish, but that their tears would do me little good only their prayers would be of help to me. Thank you again, I hope your “new” way of celebrating funerals catches on! A bit of common sense at last. – Blessings – Rene

  3. Father, you have the ‘power of the pulpit’ but what are we pew sitters to do when the fallen away are very close friends/family?? where does our responsibility begin (and end) when a family or friend hasnt been to a catholic church in YEARS and really have no intention to? When my uncle died it was the same situation you described. Should I have said something while he was alive? Fraternal Correction?… then we get the slap down… mind your own business….

    1. To a certain extent we have to be willing to get slapped down, to get it with both barrels. Jesus surely did. An approach tat often works well is personal testimony of how the Lord is changining your life through the sacraments and liturgy. Thus our admonition is balance with positive testimony. But in the end a warning may still be necessary what ever the consequences. Timidity has gotten us here and only bravery will get us out. Oremus pro invicem!

  4. If the result fo such preaching is souls returning to the Church or new evangelization, then keep doing it. To not to would be a sin. If it doesn’t win a soul to Christ, bring someone back to the Church or result in RCIA candidates, baptisms, and new life, then something else needs to be done.

  5. The only people who I could see having a problem with this kind of sermon are those who want to keep pretending to themselves and feeding themselves lies because this is putting the truth right in their midst, giving them a view of reality. But even if they don’t want to hear it at the time, seeds are planted that will stay with them and grow in God’s own good time.

    Thank you for loving God and His children enough to speak the truth always and everywhere!

    1. Yes, seeds are planted. Sometimes that is what we must do. Harvests don’t always come at once. I remember some of the things my parents said to me made me amd. ut later they bore fruit. Thanks for your prayers.

  6. More daily prayers for all priests will result in more priests like Msgr. Pope. Our Holy Father has asked us to pray for priests every day. Even one Hail Mary each day, entrusting all priests to Mary’s care, will do wonders for this world.

  7. Thank you for this moving call to conversion, and for your excellent blog, Monsignor. They are great blessings to the faithful. May God continue to bless your ministry.

  8. Beautiful! Thank you for sharing this. God Bless you! So many of us have people that we love who have fallen so far away from God. I wish this could be repeated at every funeral I attend.

  9. Keep up the good fight Monsignor. Good bless you.

    I’ve already signed the papers to insure I have a requiem mass.

  10. It is proper and fitting to read scripture at the funeral. We are all sinners. At my brother’s funeral I read the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, (Matt.25:35). This is the test Judge Jesus will administer to us. Remember charity. Jesus said “when you did it to one of the least of these My brethern, you did it unto me.” God is love. Love is Eternal.

  11. I just lost my wife, a very devout woman of faith, about 12 years ago her prayers and witness were instrumental
    in me returning to God’s church. Your closing homily for all Catholics is so very much needed. Surely I am
    a sinner but now realize how vital living in God’s favor and mercy are. Eternal life comes without notice.
    I would like to have a copy of that homily if possible.

    Thank you Father

  12. God bless your ministry, Msgr. Pope!

    I liked your mention of the importance of daily bible reading. As Catholics, we often pay a lot of lip service to the Bible, but seldom pick it up and read.

  13. Several thoughts come to mind:

    1) The Order of Christian Funerals is clear in its guidelines for preaching at funeral rites but I’m hard pressed to support in the OCF for preaching that follows this homiletic path. (See OCF, nos. 22-29)

    2) Monsignor Pope’s homily reminds me of the catechesis I received as a child growing up in the 1950’s: be good lest God punish you – eternity is a long time! There’s truth in that statement and there was truth in the catechism from which I learned it. Few would argue that today’s catechesis is deficient and needs work but I question whether a return to this older approach is the way to go – or that a funeral is the venue for such a catechetical effort.

    3) There are other ways to convey what I believe is at the heart of Monsignor Pope’s message. I conclude nearly every funeral homily by noting that in addition to praying for the deceased, we need especially to pray for ourselves that we lead or return to lives worthy of the life promised us in baptism. I find that if a baptismal theme runs through ritual, prayer and preaching, this truth can be compelling for those in attendance, especially if the homilist can point to the faithful life of the one for whom we’ve gathered to pray.

    4) I sympathize with Monsignor Pope’s recognition that the preacher has many of those present just that one time but I don’t believe that warrants overwhelming the rite and its intentions with other causes, no matter how worthy they might be. Would a homilist who preaches like this at a funeral preach something of the same at a wedding where, again, he has those estranged from the Church before him, just that one time?

    5) The Church is careful in instructing us on how to celebrate the sacraments and what our mission is in doing so – as is the case with the funeral rites. Fidelity to the rites of Christian burial may plant the seeds of faithfulness in those who have come to celebrate them.

    1. I will not argue with an older priest. But I will say I was sure that an older priest would be most likely to disagree with this sort of approach. I am not exactly young (48) but I do find distinct differences between older and younger clergy and I seem to stand between both groups. As you can see I would identify in more with the younger ones who, like me missed the subtle nature of what you are suggesting in linking all the different elements. Most of us growing up just wanted it said straight out. As for weddings, I would not appeal to the “you are going to die” method since the focus is different. At weddings I usually focus on the need to pray in order for life and marriage to stand a chance and that ultimately life is a total failure without prayer, scripture, eucharist and repentance leading to salvation. I usually summon the men especially to servant leadership and remind them that “a man (if he really is a man) leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife.Real men cling to their wives and care for them and stay faithful to them. That’s what real men do and so forth. I also have a lot of fun at wedding homilies. Lots of fun stuf to balance the sobering syllables.

      At any rate, I understand your approach Father, and it is common. It just never worked for me growing up in the 60s and 70s. Most of the younger guys tell me the same thing. OCF – pretty vague and open to interpretation if you ask me.

      But thank you Father, I am sure you speak for many priests.

  14. If I may respond to Fr. Fleming’s critique, the description of the funeral homily in the OCF should be understood in light of the more recent instruction of the third typical edition of the GIRM: “385. Pastors should moreover, take into special account those who are present at a liturgical celebration or who hear the Gospel on the occasion of the funeral and who may be non-Catholics or Catholics who never or rarely participate in the Eucharist or who seem even to have lost the faith.” I would argue that Msgr. Pope aptly applies this instruction in his homily.

  15. I think the message of what we need to be as Catholics in our daily life needs to be spoken not only at Funerals but in many sermons in plain language. Too much of Church writing is delivered in a way that it can be interpreted in whatever way the sheep like. It is if the leadership in the church wants to call out in a foreign language to the sheep or to talk out of both sides of their mouth so as to not offend. Living in the world means that we come to church and to thinking about our faith only a fraction of the time. In many ways we are like children who only receive education and correction about an hour a week and we know the result of children raised like this. We need to hear that loud voice and if needed a strong pat on the bottom or sent to our room until we learn what is required of us in life or in the case of the far more important faith to gain eternal life with God. An example is how the church teaches what we should do about supporting politicians who support abortion. The bishops do not seem to have any agreement on how important it is to be faithful to the pro life postion and send very mixed signals. Kennedy funeral is an example in contrast to what you preach here.

    1. Yes, I have come to appreciate that we have to do a lot better job of letting our faith speak loudly at funerals. Hope, Yes. But also need for prayer and meditation on the last things. Integrity means having all the pieces together.

  16. Matthew: thank you for your helpful reply and for a reference to another source which guides our ministry. It’s possible, however, that Monsignor Pope and I might still differ on how the GIRM reference you cite should be applied. Nevertheless: well said, Matthew, and refreshingly on point.

  17. It’s all very good and I’m grateful for your efforts, which are much needed today as so many of our family members are fallen away Catholics. Some have no interest in anything whatsoever while others have fallen into New Age beliefs.

    Still, it would have been good for you to give a strong push toward the confessional. As Catholics, merely falling to our knees isn’t enough without the benefit of the sacrament of reconciliation where one would receive absolution and the graces necessary to go out and work towards “sinning no more.”

    1. Yes, you are right. The sermon was surely far from perfect. I usually reference confession but in this case was not as clear as I should be. Thanks for your correction and encouragement.

      1. Just add that in and you can come preach at my funeral! Not that I’m planning to die anytime soon . . .

  18. “People are dying to come to church here” is a joke in very bad taste.

    M. G. Hysell, M.A., M.Th.

  19. +JMJ+

    Msgr. Pope:

    I’ve enjoyed reading this post, and I am hopeful that more priests will say what needs to be said [truthfully] at funeral masses.

    I don’t want to nit pick, but the 6th bit of advice:

    “If you are in serious and unrepented sin, get on your knees today and beg God’s mercy and help. You may not even know how to stop, but tell God you’re sorry and need his help to stop. But do not go on calling good what God has called sinful.”

    doesn’t mention going to Confession. While this recommendation may be a start, we are called to participate in the Sacrament of Confession to have our sins forgiven, correct?

    God Bless.

    1. You are correct and my ommision is unfortunate. I usually mention confession but sometimes live homilies go astray or get distracted. Hence, If I had this one to do over I could add that in. Thank you for your encouragment and correction.

  20. Oh dear, Matthew G.H.,M.A., M.Th., there would be some tension between us. I love humor and cracked up when I read, Msgr.’s “People are dying to come to church here” pun. In fact, I was going to offer a smidgeon of humor that Msgr. can add to his “real men” thoughts offered at weddings. Thanks to the movie,”My Big Fat Greek Wedding”, the sobering syllables can be balanced by reminding “real men” that they may be considered the head of the table but women are the neck and we can turn that head any way we want! Lighten up Matthew – this life is way too short. Besides, a good, hearty laugh works your abs and lungs!

    1. thanks for your support. I regret Matthew was offended but agree, some humor in life is OK, even about serious matters. I think you are right that Men like to think we run the show but, fact is, in any good home women have a great deal of practical authoirity and if a man is smart he will yield to his wife’s wisdom.

  21. Msgr Pope – great article. Several weeks ago, a priest who used to assist at my parish had passed away. A parish member sent me an email with details on the wake and funeral – except the Funeral Mass was called “Mass of Resurrection”. I think that dovetails with the prevailing attitude you talk about. Should you be interested, I blogged about it here. I’m going to link to this – and perhaps send it to a couple priest friends of mine.

    God bless you in this Advent season and The Year for Priests!

  22. Thank you, thank you, thankyou, Msgr Pope. What a blessing you are to your congregation. This topic has rankled me for decades.

    I have sung in funeral choirs over the last 25 years and have heard every conceivable version of a funeral homily – some wonderful, but far too many telling us the deceased is in heaven and all the assembled will one day join him or her. I heard one pastor tell the mourners that the Gospels were simply about mercy, the love of Jesus, and the working of the Holy Spirit – and that there was nothing, nothing at all, in those Gospels that could incite fear in us, much less terror. My immediate reaction when hearing this was to think of Matthew 25 – words that might instill a wee bit of fear. Intrigued by this statement of his, I examined the four gospels. where I found over 80 quotes of Jesus which suggest we need to find more than a bit of awe and healthy fear(and I only got through three gospels).

    I don’t know if blog addresses can be included in these commentaries, but last year I was so fussed I included a commentary on funeral homilies in my blog: The post is titled, The Gravity of the Situation.

    It must be hard for priests to remain strong in the face of too many parishioners who have embraced the world and who only wish to hear homilies that will, as the old saying goes, comfort the afflicted rather than afflict the comfortable Every day I try to remember to pray for all priests and bishops to be filled with faith, hope, love, holy boldness, courage, and love for the teachings of the Church.

  23. I think that what you are doing is wrong. A funeral is not the time to try to convert or “bring people home” it is a time to remember the person that has passed. My father passed away in October 2009 and he was not a religious man, he believed in a higher power but he did not follow the bible. The preacher at his service kept saying that if you do not belive in Jesus Christ that you will not go to heaven… he looked like such a fool… had he known my father, he would have known not to talk about that. My dad led an amazingly good life, full of love… he believed in doing good and helping others and he believed in Karma… the world will give you back 10 fold what you give out. Whether it be happiness, money, love, or kindness… God is just. If there is a heaven, my father wil be there. because… God is just.

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