Gatherings on funeral rites help parish ministers

Timely and helpful.

For Deacon Terry Ficenec of St. Thomas More Parish in Omaha, those words summed up a May 3 archdiocesan gathering of liturgists, musicians, bereavement ministers and priests on the church’s Rite of Christian Funerals.

"We are the Baby Boomer, steam-roller generation" caught up in the hurried pace of daily life, with a need to take more time to better understand and apply church teaching to the full rite – the Vigil for the Deceased, the Funeral Liturgy and the Rite of Committal, Deacon Ficenec said, commenting from the audience during a panel discussion that ended the four-hour meeting.

And in turn, people more deeply familiar with the rites must teach the next generation, said Deacon Ficenec, praising the content and intent of the meeting that drew about 130 people from Omaha-area parishes to St. Cecilia Cathedral’s cultural center.

The meeting was similar to an April 26 session that brought about 120 people from rural parishes to St. Mary Church in Norfolk – and both gatherings were part of a year-long effort the archdiocese began in October to bring more attention to church teaching on death and dying.

The campaign has included discussions at a retreat center in February with priests of the archdiocese and meetings in March with funeral directors in Norfolk, Columbus and Omaha. The initiative culminates this fall with handouts and homilies planned for the weekends of Oct. 24- 25 and Nov. 1-2 and a Nov. 2 memorial concert at the cathedral.

The most recent gathering in Omaha offered breakout sessions on bereavement, music and presiding at the Rite of Christian Funerals, and a panel discussion with Archbishop George J. Lucas; Marie Rubis Bauer, cathedral organist and director of music for the archdiocese; Jerry Broz, general manager of Catholic Cemeteries; Kay Buhrman, coordinator of bereavement ministry in the Family Life Office; and Brother William Woeger, director of the Office for Divine Worship.

It also featured a keynote speech by Brother Woeger titled "Rite of Christian Funerals in an Age of Denial," which centered on trends that detract from church teaching on death and dying, such as a cultural denial of death and an emphasis on youth. There also has been an increase in the use of cremation. While the church accepts this practice, it prefers that the body of the deceased be present, at least for the vigil and funeral Mass, in part because it helps mourners come to terms with the loss of a loved one, respects the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and best reflects the promise of the resurrection.

Rubis Bauer said people in the breakout session for musicians explored several topics, including options for the entrance procession of the funeral Mass – now often incorporating a hymn, but which has provisions for a practice common in the early church of singing psalms with gentle melodies and simple refrains.

Several musicians in the archdiocese along with Rubis Bauer have prepared three new pieces of music for such an approach, and the arrangements will be posted by June 1 as part of the archdiocese’s core repertoire of music at archomaha.org, she said.

Also by June 1, prayers and liturgies for the Rite of Christian Funerals and various other moments, such as gathering with the body shortly after the death of a loved one, will be posted on the archdiocese’s website, she said.

Brother Woeger said the sessions in Omaha and Norfolk went well, and they offered people an opportunity to explore a difficult issue that receives too little attention.

"We had a lot of engagement," he said. "When you give people permission to talk about this topic they have a lot to say, and they have a lot of questions."

Questions for the panel included best options for dealing with requests for non-liturgical music during the vigil, funeral rite or committal, and how best to approach people who are mourning the loss of a loved one but are not familiar with church practices for funerals.

Brother Woeger suggested that non-liturgical music could be played during the funeral luncheon or other time outside the formal rites, and Archbishop Lucas suggested a gentle, pastoral approach with people who might be unfamiliar with Catholic practices.

"We want to pray for the deceased and invite others into prayer," the archbishop said. "We want to be there for people."

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