It pleases me that you do want a priest involved in your burial service -- but the Mass is the most powerful prayer that the Church has, so why deprive yourself of that benefit?
Q. Is a Catholic required to have a Catholic burial ceremony -- in a church with a Mass? I am thinking of having just a graveside service instead -- with a priest, of course, but just a private ceremony. (I mean no disrespect to the Church, but I think this might be easier for the family.) (Indianapolis)
A. Technically, a funeral Mass is not mandated by the Church when a Catholic dies. But it is certainly strongly encouraged. In fact, the Order of Christian Funerals says: "The Mass, the memorial of Christ's death and resurrection, is the principal celebration of the Christian funeral" (No. 5).
It pleases me that you do want a priest involved in your burial service -- but the Mass is the most powerful prayer that the Church has, so why deprive yourself of that benefit? The celebration of the Eucharist commends the deceased to the mercy and compassion of the Lord, and it reminds those in attendance that death has been overcome by the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.
So it is also educational and can thus serve to bring comfort and peace to those in attendance. It bothers me that sometimes, these days, certain funeral homes seem to discourage the family of the bereaved from celebrating a funeral Mass, citing the extra cost of transporting the body to a church. But for me, I would surely want the strongest help that the church can offer at the time of my passing -- and that is the Eucharist.
It needn't, though, be a public event. You can have as many -- or as few -- people at the Mass as you like; that all depends on whether you decide to publish in advance the details of the ceremony. At the very least, if you decide to mark your burial without a Eucharist, you would want to arrange a Mass at a later date.
Q. I read with sadness in today's news that a priest in New Jersey denied the sacrament of first Eucharist to an autistic boy because the priest believed that the boy was "unable to determine right from wrong due to his disability." Could you please clarify the Church's position on this?
I question whether a person's mental status is an unambiguous reflection of what might be occurring in that person's soul. I see individuals with Down syndrome who receive Communion regularly, so where does the Church draw the line? Would individuals with other mental challenges also be denied Communion -- say, persons with schizophrenia or early onset dementia? (Sedalia, Missouri)
A. I'm sure that by this time, you have seen the follow-up to the situation you mention. Soon after the story broke, the pastor issued an apology on the parish's website, saying that there had been "an unfortunate breakdown in communication that led to a misunderstanding."
"A delay in receiving the sacrament was discussed," he said, "until readiness could be assessed; there was never to be denial of Communion to this child." The boy, said the pastor, is "welcome in our program and will be able to receive first holy Communion this year."
The sacramental guidelines for persons with disabilities, issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2017, explain that the criterion for reception of Communion is simply that the person be able to distinguish the body of Christ from ordinary food -- "even if this recognition is evidenced through manner, gesture or reverential silence rather than verbally."
- Father Kenneth Doyle is a columnist for Catholic News Service