The first funeral Mass I attended as a Catholic was for a young woman named Laura who died after a long illness. She was a kind person but was lapsed from her Catholic faith. She didn't hate the Church; she was simply indifferent. Most of those who knew her and prayed for her were confident that had she lived a while longer she would have come back to the Church.
Laura's funeral Mass was beautiful—that is, up until the homily. It was then that things took a turn for the weird. After speaking a few words about God's love, the priest slowly stepped away from the lectern, spread his arms wide, and said, "We are gathered here to celebrate the life of Laura." As a former Evangelical Christian, I was used to hearing the "let's celebrate the life of so-and-so" openings at funerals. It was what happened next that immediately snapped me to attention. Instead of remaining near the lectern, Father stepped down into the aisle, walked over to the front pew, leaned into the bereaving parents, and (with his microphone on) began to tell them in soft tones that this is not a time to be sad, but instead to rejoice that Laura is now free from suffering and is enjoying her new life in heaven. He then rose from his half-bent position and spoke directly to the assembly using a Pentecostal-preacher-style voice, saying, "Yes, she is in heaven looking down on all of us gathered here."
My eyes widened to the size of saucers. I think I visibly cringed. What? She's in heaven looking down on all of us? I couldn't believe my ears. While I hadn't been Catholic that long, I knew what he just said amounted to the canonization of Laura. From the body language of the people around me, no one appeared bothered by his statement. I was the only one shifting uncomfortably around in my seat, mouth open, with a few eye rolls here and there. My immediate thought was, had this suburban Catholic parish been invaded by Calvary Chapel?
As the Mass continued, I was thinking how crazy this was. Even I, the newbie Catholic, knew that the heart of the funeral is to offer the holy sacrifice of the Mass for the repose of the soul of the departed. The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes this truth here:
When the celebration takes place in church the Eucharist is the heart of the Paschal reality of Christian death. In the Eucharist, the Church expresses her efficacious communion with the departed: offering to the Father in the Holy Spirit the sacrifice of the death and resurrection of Christ, she asks to purify his child of his sins and their consequences, and to admit him to the Paschal fullness of the table of the Kingdom. It is by the Eucharist thus celebrated that the community of the faithful, especially the family of the deceased, learn to live in communion with the one who "has fallen asleep in the Lord," by communicating in the Body of Christ of which he is a living member and, then, by praying for him and with him (CCC 1689).
Some people might say, "Don't be so hard on the priest. When he talks about a loved one being in heaven he is just trying to comfort and console the grieving. He's being pastoral. He just wants to make the family feel good." I'm sure the priest at Laura's funeral had good intentions. He probably thought by elevating Laura to the high altar of sainthood he was showing great love and compassion to the grieving assembly. But, in reality, what he did was really quite cruel.
We forget that the duty of a priest (or bishop, or deacon) at a funeral Mass is not to make people "feel good" by telling them that Aunt Flo or Uncle Bob is now "in heaven with the Father"; instead he is to offer worship to God for Christ's victory over death, to comfort the mourning with prayers and the Eucharist, and to pray for the soul of the deceased—commending him or her to God's merciful love. Period. Only the Church has the authority to canonize an individual. To presume the deceased is in heaven is to presume we know the mind of God. Of course we can go straight to heaven. But let's face it, most of us won't.
Remember that when a priest stands up in front of the assembly and announces that so-and-so is in heaven, it sends a message that says, "Why pray for his soul? He's in heaven." And if the deceased, like my friend Laura, was lapsed from the faith, canonizing the person communicates the message that doing your own thing—short of murdering someone—will give you a fast-track ticket to heaven. It also implies that everyone goes to heaven! That's a dangerous thought. But, this is just where the devil wants us. He loves complacent Christians. He wants us to believe that getting to heaven is easy. He also wants us to believe that the souls in purgatory don't need our prayers. He's cunning and sly, subtle and manipulative. He hates God, he hates us, he hates the Church. He uses his time wisely and sets his snare with great care. So why are we giving him so much room to maneuver?
Another problem with insta-canonizations is that it undermines Catholic teaching on purgatory. Interceding on behalf of the deceased at a funeral Mass is tied to our belief in purgatory. Whether Catholic or non-Catholic, "all who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven" (CCC 1030). This is a doctrinal teaching of the Church. That's why the Church urges us to pray for all who die in God's grace and friendship, to offer prayers, "above all the eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God" (CCC 1032). There are also spiritual benefits at funeral Masses for both the souls in purgatory and those on earth. St. Leonard of Port Maurice says the spiritual benefits of having a Mass said for the souls in purgatory "not only shortens their pains" but "the charity you exercise toward poor souls under purification will all rebound to your own good."
Our pope emeritus, Benedict XVI, also speaks to the spiritual benefits gained by praying for the souls of the departed:
The souls of the departed can, however, receive "solace and refreshment" through the Eucharist, prayer and almsgiving. The belief that love can reach into the afterlife, that reciprocal giving and receiving is possible, in which our affection for one another continues beyond the limits of death—this has been a fundamental conviction of Christianity throughout the ages and it remains a source of comfort today (Spe Salvi 48).
What should be comforting and consoling to a grieving family at a funeral Mass is not being told that their loved one is in heaven, but to know that their consolation and strength comes from the saving word of God and the sacrament of the Eucharist, from which even the souls of the departed can benefit. This isn't to suggest that a priest can't say anything optimistic to the family in his homily. Perhaps a brief personal remembrance could be mentioned, such as, "She had such a warm heart and loved to serve others." But let's skip, shall we, the "Joe is in heaven now, jamming with Jimi Hendrix."
Put this body anywhere! Don't trouble yourselves about it! I simply ask you to remember me at the Lord's altar, wherever you are (St. Monica, shortly before her death).