Papal Funeral, Continued

And More on Children’s Liturgy

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ROME, APRIL 19, 2005 ( ZENIT’s liturgical columnist, Father Edward McNamara, continued to receive questions regarding the funeral Mass of Pope John Paul II.

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We have continued to be deluged by questions regarding pontifical funerals and I will do my best to answer although some questions would probably merit a doctoral thesis to address them fully.

Several readers debated the origin of the use of red for papal funerals and asked about the general significance of liturgical colors.

A Greek Catholic correspondent wrote from Australia: «I have noted with some interest the comments concerning red as the liturgical color for papal mourning and papal funerals. I had a professor in my seminary days who used to say that the capacity for the human mind to invent liturgical symbol or to spiritualize otherwise practical liturgical requirements was almost infinite! I suspect that this is the case with some of the suggestions offered by certain of your correspondents.

«It is not necessary to explain the use of red in these circumstances by invoking the apostles, or apostolic martyrdom or Peter martyred. The more historical and pragmatic reason is surely that violet and black made a comparatively late appearance on the liturgical scene, and that, by then, red had already been customarily used at requiems. Conservative papal usage simply preserved this practice at least within papal Rome.

«It is interesting that among many of the Slavs, e.g. the Ukrainians, red (more a burgundy) is most often worn for funerals and memorials. It is also interesting to note that in many Slavic icons of the resurrection, Christ is often shown draped in a red garment — red being the color for shrouds in many Slavic communities.

«In the Melkite Greek-Catholic Eparchy of Australia and New Zealand to which I belong, red/burgundy is the preferred color for funerals.»

Our correspondent hits on some important points. He is quite correct that symbolic interpretations for liturgical practices often have little to do with their historical origins, and the field of liturgical colors is no exception.

His suggestion that the origin of the use of red for papal obsequies stems from Eastern funeral practice is highly probable and is sustained by several liturgical historians.

It is not correct, however, to say that black made a comparatively late entrance into the liturgy for it is more or less contemporary with the introduction of other colors. Dark or black vestments are attested as being used by the pope as early as the eighth century (for the feast of the Purification).

Even before this period there is evidence of vestments of various colors although white was prevalent.

It appears that at this stage the sumptuousness and splendor of the liturgical attire mattered more than the color or colors of which it was composed.

The tendency to attribute allegorical meanings to different colors is a product of the Middle Ages yet, given the different sensibilities of distinct regions, the attribution of their significance and liturgical use varied widely.

Thus, we find that in 12th-century Jerusalem, the Crusaders used black for advent, blue and gold for Epiphany and Ascension, red for Christmas (along with white and gold), St. Stephen, Sts. Peter and Paul, and Pentecost. By contrast, at Marseilles a few years later, red is used for St. Michael and for All Saints as well as Palm Sunday, Good Friday, while green was used for feasts of the Cross.

Red was also widely used in Europe for the feast of Corpus Christi during several centuries, a practice conserved in the Ambrosian rite of Milan.

As an aside, we note that while the use of red is varied, it is frequently associated with the themes of martyrdom, sacrifice and fire, probably because the color is naturally associated with blood and fire.

The standard five colors for use in Rome — white, red, green, black and violet (this last color usually considered as equivalent to black by the authors of the time) — were first regulated by Pope Innocent III (died 1216).

These were recognized as being the only legitimate colors for liturgical use in St. Pius V’s Missal after the Council of Trent, although later, the use of rose was admitted for the third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete) and fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare).

A Canadian reader, who described himself as a former seminarian at St. Peter’s Cathedral in London, Ontario, inquired why the celebrant did not bow toward the casket while incensing the altar.

He recalled his days at his cathedral: «Most often during funerals … the priest, the bishop or the cardinal would always bow to the casket as we passed and then continued incensing. … I’m now assuming this is an optional thing, or does it not particularly matter either way?» There is certainly no indication of this practice in the liturgical books.

Sometimes local customs such as these bows and inclinations develop naturally over time due to the particular disposition of the sanctuary or legitimate local customs. Not all in liturgy is meticulously described. And total uniformity down to minor details is probably impossible and, in all probability, not even desirable.

A Nigerian reader asked: «Kindly enlighten me more on the difference between ‘Requiem Mass’ and ‘Funeral Mass.'»

I made this distinction (see April 12) in order to answer the question regarding the incensing of an empty coffin even though in some cases there is no real difference.

By «Funeral Mass» I referred to the Mass in which the remains of the deceased are present and at which the rites of aspersion, incensing and final commendation may be celebrated.

Every funeral Mass is by definition also a requiem, a term which derives from the entrance antiphon «Requiem aeternam dona eis Domine» — Eternal rest grant to them, oh Lord.

Unlike a funeral, which is usually only celebrated once, a requiem Mass may be celebrated several times —
for example, according to local custom, on the ninth or 30th day after death, or on the first anniversary and other such recurrences.

On such occasions the Mass for the dead may be celebrated and the deceased’s name is mentioned in the prayers.

This is a different situation from the custom of offering up the Mass intention for a deceased person. In this case the liturgy of the day is celebrated and the deceased’s name is mentioned before Mass, during the prayers of the faithful, or at some other opportune moment.

A more delicate matter was posited by a priest who wrote:

«I noticed during the Requiem Mass for John Paul II that a number of the priests who assisted with the distribution of holy Communion had not arrived at their positions during the consecration of the bread or wine. They were carrying ciboria with breads for the consecration. Even though they were not present or within a respectable distance of the altar at the consecration, they proceeded to distribute the bread during Communion.

«Would the breads that they had carried in the ciboria been consecrated, even though they were some distance from the altar? Though I am certain it was the intention for the breads to be consecrated, how ‘close’ to the altar must the breads be to effect the sacramental change?»

I was among those present to distribute Communion that day and indeed was worried at what seemed to be the excruciatingly slow progress of the procession, although I understood that the logistics of the occasion were especially difficult.

Each priest received his ciborium before the Eucharistic Prayer began and was never more than a few feet away from his eventual fixed position even though this was not visible on television.

I presumed that the intention of the celebrant was to consecrate all of the hosts duly prepared fo
r distribution. It would have been unwise for an assisting priest to make a decision as to whether the hosts were consecrated or not, second-guessing the papal masters of ceremonies.

Regarding the question as to how close to the altar one must be; I would first observe that these large outdoor Masses are exceptions and should not be used as a guide for normal practice. The norm remains that all hosts consecrated for a Mass should be upon a corporal on the altar.

As far as I know, there is no fixed measure for these exceptional occasions. But the practice suggests that a clear relationship to the altar must be maintained and that there should be no other people between the ministers with the ciboria and the celebrants around the altar.

On those occasions, such as World Youth Day and some canonizations, where it was physically impossible to reach all of the participants with the hosts consecrated during Mass, pre-consecrated hosts were used and placed in special chapels at strategic points until the moment of Communion.

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Follow-up: Children’s Liturgy of the Word

Regarding the piece on «Children’s Liturgy of the Word» from April 5, a reader from Indiana asked: «My stepdaughter is mildly retarded and has made her first Communion. She attends the children’s liturgy and then receives Communion with the rest of the congregation. Is there a certain age at which a person should stop attending the children’s liturgy and remain with the adults?»

Normally the children’s liturgy is a catechetical tool to prepare for reception of first Communion and to learn how to live liturgy. Thus children should usually join with their families once they have received first Eucharist or shortly thereafter.

However, there is no sharp cut-off age and in some cases it may be pastorally wise to continue the children’s liturgy for a while.

This could be, for example, to ease the transition from one kind of practice to another; to conclude the catechetical cycle before summer vacations thereby creating a natural divide between the two stages; or for some other solid pastoral reason.

It could also, as in the case of your stepdaughter, be advantageous to continue attending the children’s liturgy due to special individual circumstances. The decision regarding when to switch, basically lies in the hands of parents in consultation with the pastor and the catechists.

In making the decision both the person with special needs, and the overall good of the group, must be given due weight.

There will probably come a time when the age difference between the children and your stepdaughter will counsel having her join the rest of the congregation while striving to resolve her particular difficulties in some other manner.

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Readers may send questions to Please put the word «Liturgy» in the subject field. The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country.

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