CRANSTON — “That was my parent’s faith. I don’t believe in organized religion. I don’t want to have a Mass.”
With increasing frequency, many diocesan priests are hearing variations of these sentiments relative to funeral Masses from recently deceased, lifelong practicing Catholics.
One of the earliest known Catholic rites, the Mass of Christian burial is requested and celebrated with less frequency, said Father Anthony W. Verdelotti, pastor of St. Mark’s Church in Cranston and the diocesan Director of Catholic Cemeteries.
There are a few reasons for this decline, Father Verdelotti added. “One of them is cost. The price of a casket and burial can be thousands of dollars more than cremation with no Mass and no Christian burial.”
This has led many families to store the cremains of loved ones on mantles, bookshelves and in closets. “This goes against everything we as Christians know about the sacredness of our earthly remains,” the priest said.
Father Verdelotti also attributes the drop in the number of funeral Masses to an erosion of Catholic faith, prompting many adult children to reject Church liturgies — no matter what the wish of the deceased. “It’s awful. I’ve had many people tell me that they don’t care about the wishes of their deceased parents.”
In discussions with Directors of Cemeteries nationwide, Father Verdelotti believes the increasing frequency for the lower-cost option of cremation often arises out of a lack of understanding about both the Christian appreciation of the body’s worth and the resurrection at Christ’s second coming. He noted that 10 years ago the cremation rate in New England was about five percent for Catholics. Today it’s about 40 percent. In other regions of the country, such as California, about 60 percent of Catholics choose cremation.
At St. Mary Church, also in Cranston, Deacon Armand Ragosta has witnessed first-hand how inadequate religious education supports this trend. “The concepts of the Communion of Saints, Purgatory and prayer for the dead seem less and less appreciated or accepted.”
Father Richard A. Bucci, pastor of Sacred Heart Church, West Warwick, concurs.
“The intercessory nature of the Mass, the reality of Purgatory and the bond of charity that should unite the Church that is perfected in heaven, struggling on earth and purifying in Purgatory,” have not been taught enough suggests Father Bucci. He notes that funeral Masses are merely “some kind of testimonial or remembrance of the deceased”have contributed to this trend.
If this is one’s perception of what the Mass is supposed to be, then it makes perfect sense to cut out all the excess ceremonies” and merely have a service for similar purposes at the funeral home, he said.
Funeral Masses are rooted in both Church law and Church history. The Canon of the Catholic Church makes clear that “deceased members of the Christian faithful must be given ecclesiastical funerals according to the norm of law,” and that “ecclesiastical funerals, by which the Church seeks spiritual support for the deceased, honors their bodies, and at the same time brings the solace of hope to the living, must be celebrated according to the norm of the liturgical laws.”
These laws codify how early Christians memorialized their brothers and sisters in Christ who had “fallen asleep.” Such ancient rites, which routinely included celebrations of the Eucharist, were often performed at the risk of arrest and a death sentence by Roman authorities.
In many segments of Catholic life, such as in the Dominican order, this shared remembering of the dead continues. Dominican Father R. Gabriel Pivarnik of Providence College notes that his community regularly prays for deceased members of the order in the United States provinces on the anniversaries of their deaths. Such daily prayers and other Masses for the dead make for a “sobering experience when you hear the names of people you knew as a young Dominican.”
To encourage such sobering remembrances and funeral liturgies in his parish community Deacon Ragosta has retooled his catechetical programs for adults and confirmation students. He has expanded his discussions on the Communion of Saints to include the history, theology and teachings of the Church about our souls, Purgatory and the need to remember and pray for all those who have gone before us —whether known to us personally or not.
This education, while critical for parish religious education programs and as a subject of preaching, must also take place at home, Deacon Ragosta said. “I tell my kids all the time, when I die, pray for me. Have Masses said in my name. And I always tell them why.”