The Ave Maria at Funerals

And More on the New Missal

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ROME, NOV. 29, 2011 ( Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: A woman whom I know, who is Catholic, and very near death, has requested that the «Ave Maria» be sung at her funeral. However, when her daughter, my friend, went to the parish to make arrangements for her mother’s funeral mass, she was told by the funeral director that the «Ave Maria» was «outdated,» and furthermore, was not «liturgically sound» for a funeral. The funeral director flat out refused to honor the dying woman’s selection as part of parish policy. Do you have any thoughts on this? I have heard Schubert’s version of the «Ave Maria» sung at a Catholic funeral before. Was this an unsound liturgical practice that is also not current in Catholic liturgy? — T.W., Las Vegas, Nevada

A: Opinions vary widely regarding the use of classical versions of the Ave Maria within Catholic liturgy, especially for weddings and funerals. In some places it is discouraged and even forbidden, while in many others it is considered totally acceptable. There is practically nothing official on this subject either way.

I think some distinctions are pertinent. First of all, there is the text of the Ave Maria itself which has been used for centuries as an antiphon in the Liturgy of the Hours. It has not been used as an official liturgical text in the Mass but in many places has been used as a meditative hymn, either during the presentation of gifts, or after communion.

Another question regards the version to be used, and this raises the complex question of acceptable musical style. Some melodies were composed directly for the Ave Maria, while others, such as Shubert’s, were originally composed in a secular context although not devoid of religious sentiment.

In general the Church has a longstanding principle to avoid using profane music in the liturgy, while at the same time she does not make definitive judgments regarding musical sensibilities. Because of this it is possible that certain musical forms might be excluded at one time and admitted at another, and some originally secular works have now become inextricably associated with the religious version.

Musical style, however, is just one principle involved. There are others such as the ability of the music to be conducive to prayer. Even when making no moral judgment regarding a musical form, the Church can still exclude it from the liturgy if it is incapable of fulfilling a liturgical function. For example, St. Pius X banned those «Masses» which were composed directly for the liturgy in the late 19th century but which were inspired by the style of the opera house and which required an operatic mode of execution which drew attention to the singer and away from the mystery.

Regarding the Ave Maria, some classical versions such as that usually attributed to Schubert have lost almost all connection to the profane original, in this case a German version of Ellen’s prayer to Mary taken from Sir Walter Scott’s poem «The Lady of the Lake.» Because of this religious context I personally see no difficulty in using it at the appropriate moments at weddings and funerals.

Indeed, the Ave Maria was used in precisely this manner in a very public setting on occasion of the funeral of U.S. Senator Edward Kennedy in the presence of a cardinal and other prelates.

It might even be said that the Ave Maria, with its insistent appeal to Mary, Refuge of Sinners, is especially apt at funerals, serving as to counterbalance the tendency toward instant canonization of the deceased. Its use could thus act as a reminder of the reality of sin, the doctrine of purgatory, and the need to intercede for the souls of the dead.

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Follow-up: If Not Ready for the New Missal

In respect to the new missal (see Nov. 15), an English reader asked: «Regarding: the word ‘lectern.’ I have read the General Instruction for the new Roman Missal and also the front pages of the new Roman Missal and they use the word ‘ambo’ rather than lectern. I know they mean the same thing, but I think people should know an ambo is a lectern.»

Actually there is a slight, but important, difference to the two concepts. For the current missal the ambo is not a piece of furniture but is a liturgical space within the sanctuary reserved for proclaiming God’s Word. This is why the missal recommends that it be in a fixed position and made of the same style and material as the altar. It should also be large enough so that other ministers such as candle bearers and thurifer can stand on or near it during the proclamation of the Gospel.

While an ambo might sometimes be referred to as a lectern, this word can also refer to a portable stand that can be used for other purposes such as holding the missal, commentaries, announcements and the like. It is therefore more a liturgical furnishing than a liturgical space.

An Irish correspondent asked: «Is there, or will there be, a new General Instruction on the Roman Missal to accompany the new English translation? Does the new translation allow freedom to change particular words or phrases (as frequently happened with the current translation)? Can the sung texts (Gloria, Creed, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) be replaced with similar texts?»

The definitive version of the new General Instruction of the Roman Missal was published along with the Missal itself.

While there are still some moments in which the rubrics say that the celebrant may use «these or similar words,» these occasions have been reduced. For example, they are no longer found for the introduction to the penitential rite. National bishops’ conferences, however, can propose alternative introductions for use within their countries.

The sung texts may not be replaced with other texts. If this was done, then it was an abuse and not something permitted by the earlier edition of the missal.

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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. Father McNamara can only answer a small selection of the great number of questions that arrive.

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