Celebrating Liturgy Well

The rituals by which the Church recently laid to rest Archbishop Francis Rush demonstrated the genius of Roman Catholic liturgy.
It was a liturgy in three parts – the Reception of the Body into St Stephen’s Chapel on the Monday afternoon, the vigil service on the Thursday evening and the Funeral Mass the following day. Each had its own unique role in the process of grieving and ritualising Christian faith in the resurrection. Each was right for its particular time and place. Together they formed a sequence with a natural rhythm and flow.
To gather in the presence of the body just two days after the Archbishop’s death was a very moving experience. It enabled family and friends to come together, to show sympathy and express grief. The service included the sprinkling of the coffin, reading from scripture, singing hymns, and prayers for the dead. It was simple, dignified and personal. It met the need of the community to share emotion that was raw, to pray for the deceased and to hear words of reassurance, without waiting for the more formal liturgies which were several days away.
It’s a pity that we don’t celebrate vigils more often! They offer possibilities that just aren’t appropriate at the more formal, public, official funeral liturgy. The vigil is the time for extended story telling. It was wonderful to hear personal reminiscences and tributes from members of Archbishop Rush’s family, a close friend, a fellow priest and an ecumenical colleague. Because eucharist is not included, non-Catholic friends and relatives may feel more comfortable at a vigil than at a funeral Mass.
The funeral Mass was, as so many people commented afterward, very powerful. Yet nothing in the ceremony deviated from the official rites of the Church set out in the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF). There was nothing innovative, no added extras. Why then was it so powerful, and why were so many people deeply touched by the liturgy?
The answer is simply that the basics were done well:
· Good clear proclamation of the word which engaged people (no texts printed in the worship book to distract them!)
· Music which expressed joy and sorrow, which accompanied the gestures and processions, which heightened the meaning of the texts, which allowed people to participate actively in the liturgy.
· Robust use of symbols, in particular the symbols of baptism: sprinkling with holy water, placing of the white pall and the Easter candle.
By using the rich baptismal symbols in the funeral rites the community ritualises its imitation of Christ’s death as well as his resurrection in a dramatic way. [“We who were baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death” (Rom 6:3)]. The paschal candle placed near the coffin “reminds the faithful of Christ’s undying presence among them, of his victory over sin and death, and of their share in that victory by virtue of their initiation”. (OCF 35).
Because the basic elements of ritual were done well, the liturgy accomplished its purpose:to give praise and thanks to God for Christ’s victory over sin and death, to commend the deceased to God’s tender mercy and compassion, and to strengthen those who mourn through the proclamation of the paschal mystery.


Elizabeth Harrington