Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Funerals, Media, and God's People

My first inclination was to keep commentary on the Kennedy funeral to a minimum, mostly because it just seems tacky to Monday morning quarterback a Mass of Christian Burial. But I have spent the last few days surrounded by church types who all have an opinion, plus I am under strict orders to post tonight, so I’ll share my thoughts regardless. Between thoughts on the liturgy and reflections on the concepts of the liturgy as expressed by commentators and media, trying to even think about this has been so meta that I could be sick. Maybe writing will help sort it all out.

Obviously I was very interested in what was likely to be the most public display of Catholic ritual in recent memory. As I was running early Saturday morning (I had to squeeze in a long run before the coverage started), I thought to myself “Will people still think that Catholicism is supremely weird after this whole thing is over?”

Let’s start with what I know best: music. Both beautiful and disappointing. First, it was the one thing that the networks couldn’t seem to broadcast right. During the opening song I surfed all over the place trying to find a balance that didn’t include heaping portions of grating tenor. From what I could tell, words to the opening song were printed in the program, as it appeared people were singing along. I think it would have been powerful to hear the sound of the assembly. I also hope that choosing “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” will encourage some other folks to select that for their funeral, rather than schlock like One Bread One Body and Hail Mary: Gentle Woman (both of which I am singing for a funeral tomorrow).

I was horribly disappointed that the ordinary of the mass wasn’t sung. I’ll admit that there are two issues here. One is that modern American Catholicism does not have a suitably dignified mass setting. Observing the family and their familiarity with the liturgy, I know that they would have reflexively sung along with whatever mass parts the organist cued up. But do we really want Mass of Creation as the public face of Catholicism (nothing personal Marty)?

The second issue is the pervasive entertainment model of the liturgy. Assemblies become audiences, song leaders become soloists, and worship aids become programs. The very pieces of the liturgy that we all know inside and out, the words and melodies that pop out of our mouths without our even knowing it (like Mass of Creation – and even One Bread One Body) are the pieces that we are most willing to cut if we feel that things are going to run a little long. As if those four measures of intro on Haugen’s Sanctus are going to make or break a liturgy with three post-communion reflections and a twenty minute homily. The fact that the Song of Commendation wasn’t sung was the final blow to this lover of communal singing.

One idea that motivates me when ministering at funerals is that our liturgy gives us a glimpse of the eternal life that we hope and pray the departed is enjoying. There was beautiful, sublime music at the funeral on Saturday. Still, as hopeful as I am that Susan Graham and Placido Domingo will enter into the beatific vision when the time comes, their’s are not the voices I want next to me in the celestial choir. I want my mother switching octaves as the music demands. I want my brother jokingly singing JamBandforJesus music the way he does over the phone on Sunday nights. I want my father imitating my “howling”. And, for what it’s worth, I want a big honkin’ timpani roll each time we launch back into singing Holy Holy Holy. The funerals that give me the most hope are ones that are filled with the sound of the voices of God’s people.

A few comments on the media coverage, which I thought was respectful overall. It was perfect to keep the video cameras away from the communion procession; nothing has irked me more in the last few years than the politicization of the Eucharist. Brian Williams’ random editorializing during the Sign of Peace about its recent introduction into liturgical practice was somewhat amusing. Hearing Andrea Mitchell refer to the pall as the ‘fabric’ made my heart sink a little. If you insist on commentary on a religious event, it would be nice to have people who knew their stuff doing the commenting.

But in the end, this wasn’t just a religious event, and it was never going to be. A lot of newspapers sanitized the religious side of things, talking about the nice speakers and the beautiful “performances”. Still, there are some of us out there who are in on the secret, who know what the funeral Mass is about and know how noteworthy and admirable it is that a public person and his public family wanted this Catholic service. We are the ones who got a subversive rush when Cardinal Se├ín recited the Latin prayers before the censing of the casket. Religion is a piece of identity, and many of us who shared a religious identity with the Senator likely hoped to see even more of that identity shown off for all to see. I bet I’m not the only person who asked “Will people still think that Catholicism is supremely weird after this whole thing is over?” and then thought “I hope so”.

1 comment:

  1. As a liturgical minister of twenty years in Arizona, I loved your commentary. Thank you for you thoughts about the funeral mass and Catholic identity.

    Greg Hebert