28 February 2021

Talks on the Sacramentals, by Msgr Arthur Tonne - Funeral Service

"For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so with him God win bring those also who have fallen asleep through Jesus." I Thess. 4:14.

The Boxer Rebellion in China was a time of terror and dread. Many Christians lost all their property; many were killed. Among those who escaped few had a more thrilling experience than a missionary priest by the name Father Stephen Stette of Hing Shu station.

He attributes his escape to the reverence of the Chinese for the dead. When word came that his station was in danger, his Chinese friends hid him in a box that looked like a coffin. They shouldered the box and carried it over 300 miles to Lien Chen.

During the seven-day trip the Boxers permitted the carriers to go their way, thinking the box contained a corpse. At last they reached a port, where they had to pay the boatman $50 to take the "coffin" aboard. Later more money was demanded at the threat that the box would be thrown overboard. The Christians had to make known their trick. They paid another 300 pieces of silver before the sailors consented to take the priest to another port where he could embark for America. He arrived home August 31, 1900.

The inborn reverence of the Chinese for the body of a dead man helped save that priest. Every civilized people, and even many uncivilized, have a deep respect for the remains of the deceased. But the Catholic raises that reverence still higher, making it something spiritual and religious.

From birth to life Mother Church takes care of her children. And when the soul has departed she continues to show attention and respect to the lifeless clay, remembering that during life it was the temple of the Holy Spirit and the living tabernacle of Christ in Communion. She knows that this body is destined to rise again to be united to its spiritual companion, the soul.

Accordingly the Church directs that the body shall be decently prepared for burial, and that every respect be shown it. She wants candles burning beside the casket. She wants holy water handy to be used prayerfully for the departed. She permits flowers at the funeral home, as a reminder of the resurrection, but asks that there be none on the coffin in church, so that all attention may be directed to the prayers for the deceased. The ceremonies of a Catholic funeral service are simple yet sublime. As sacramentals they remind us of great truths, they spur us to pray for the deceased.

1. Strictly the burial service should begin at the home. In this country, however, the priest meets the coffin at the door of church, sprinkles it with holy water, and recites Psalm 129, which begins with the appropriate and appealing words:

"Out of the depths have I cried to thee, O Lord."

"Lord, hear my prayer."

2. After this prayer, the priest, preceded by servers with cross and candles, leads the corpse to the gates of the sanctuary, reciting Psalm 50, which begins:

"Have mercy upon me, O Lord, according to thy great mercy."

3. The corpse is placed with the feet toward the sanctuary. A priest or bishop is placed with head toward the altar, to show that they were shepherds facing the flock in their spiritual work. On each side of the casket are three lighted candles, emblems of the faith that tells us there is a resurrection.

4. Holy Mass is then offered for the deceased whose given name is repeated several times as the priest prays to Almighty God. The Mass is the most important part of the funeral service, doing the deceased more good than all the flowers, tears and other trappings of mourning. Christ dies again upon the altar for that soul, dies that our loved one may live.

5. Immediately after Mass the priest stands at the opened sanctuary entrance in black cope and offers a prayer with this beseeching beginning:

"Enter not into judgment with thy servant, O Lord."

6. Then the celebrant recites and the choir sings the Libera, soulful and solemn, yet uplifting, as its opening words indicate:

"Deliver me, O Lord, from everlasting death in that dread day, when heaven and earth shall quake; when thou shalt come to judge the world by fire."

7. The priest then sings: "Have mercy on us," and intones the Our Father, saying it silently as he sprinkles the corpse three times on each side with holy water and then incenses it in the same way. Several beautiful prayers follow.

8. As the body is carried out of church the choir sings:

"May the angels lead thee into paradise."

9. If the cemetery has not been blessed, the priest blesses the grave with incense and holy water.

10. After the body is laid in the grave he prays:

"I am the resurrection and the life," and intones the song of Zachary with the words:

"Blessed be the God of Israel; because he hath visited and wrought the redemption of his people."

11. Again the corpse is sprinkled with holy water and incensed, as brief petitions and a few longer, loving prayers are offered.

12. Often the priest adds several prayers in English, particularly the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Eternal Rest.

Mother Church has laid her child to rest. She has reverently and solemnly put the body to bed to sleep until the dawn of resurrection day. She respects that body. Her respect helps that departed soul by the prayers she offers. Like a true mother she continues to watch over her sleeping child. She continues to beg God's mercy and forgiveness. She continues to help the departed. Amen.

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