Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: At funerals, some three or four people, maybe friends or relatives or members of some organizations to which the deceased belonged, might stand around the corpse as the celebration of the Mass is going on. Is this an acceptable norm in the liturgy? Do we allow it to go on? — M.L., Sierra Leone
A: The idea of an honor guard at funerals of deceased members of the military and other groups is not unknown, although it is more common in some countries than in others.
They generally do not pose problems to the conduct of the funeral Mass as they usually take part at the beginning and end of the celebration. Flags or insignia are removed during the Mass and, where customary, a pall is placed on the coffin. Any civic or military rituals usually follow the religious rites.
To give examples of these honor guards we can first examine those for members of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem (Latin: Ordo Equestris Sancti Sepulcri Hierosolymitani, OESSH), also called Order of the Holy Sepulchre, or Knights of the Holy Sepulchre. This is a Catholic order of knighthood under the protection of the Holy See. The pope is the sovereign of the order which has a cardinal as grandmaster.
In describing the procedures of the funeral honor guard of deceased knights, one of its web pages states:
“In death as in life, members of the Order of the Holy Sepulchre deserve the highest respect as recipients of one of the Catholic Church’s oldest and most important honors. To pay homage to any member who passes away, the Eastern Lieutenancy will provide an honor guard at their funeral.
“Upon notification of a member’s death, the Eastern Lieutenancy will ask the family if they would like an honor guard present during the funeral mass. All our members are then informed through email and also on the Order’s website that an honor guard has been requested.
“Below are the funeral procedures for Knights and Ladies.
“Vest at the rear of the church or where instructed by the celebrant, funeral director or in-charge person at least 15 minutes prior to the commencement of the funeral service.
“Stand guard on either side of the main aisle as the casket is brought into the church. After the initial blessing, follow the altar servers in procession as the casket is taken to the front of the church. Sit across from where the family will be seated or as directed by the celebrant or funeral director.
“Before the final commendation, exit the pews and line up on either side of the center aisle – ahead of the casket for the recessional.
“After the final blessing, process behind the cross and in front of the casket to the outside of the church.
“Form an honor guard on either side for the family to pass through as they exit the church.”
On the other end of Church protocol, we find the following directives for members of a parish solidality which also provides honor guards at funerals.
“The Funeral Honor Guard serves to ‘guard’ the deceased Sodalist as she leaves the parish church for the final time. Therefore, each Sodalist is to participate whenever possible in a Funeral Honor Guard, regardless of whether she knew the deceased Sodalist.… It is important to keep this tradition alive by participating.
“All Sodality members will be notified by email as far in advance as possible of the date and time of a funeral for a fellow Sodalist who has requested an Honor Guard.
“HONOR GUARD REMINDERS
“Wear a Miraculous Medal to the funeral.
“Arrive at least 15 minutes prior to mass.
“During the funeral, Sodalists will sit together on the St. Joseph side of the church, behind any pallbearers. Sodalists will flank the pews on both sides of the center aisle before Mass begins at the procession and again before the recessional. Sodalists start at the front and extend back as many rows as there are Sodalists. Please stand in position, looking straight ahead and with hands folded in a devout manner, without blocking the pews entrances and standing as close to the pew as possible to allow for space in the aisle. Purses, coats, and silenced cell phones may be left in the pew while participating. A viable Honor Guard needs a minimum of 10 Sodalists.
“Generally, Sodalists should line the pews when the priest and altar servers come out of the sacristy. We remain in position as the celebrant proceeds down the aisle to meet the coffin (start of the funeral). We return to our pews after the procession is settled. Then, we go back into the aisle at the commendation (end of the funeral) as the priest approaches the coffin. The recessional occurs and we remain in place until the music ends. Adjustments to this procedure may be made at the time of the funeral.”
Other groups, especially those of national and international nature, have similar traditions.
Therefore, although there are certainly differences between the two groups, one with splendid medieval regalia, and the other with a simple medal, the role of the act of the honor guard is basically the same and seeks to show respect toward a deceased member of the faithful who took an active role in a certain group.
It also involves prayer for the deceased, which is far more important than any honor guard.
However, our reader mentions those who desire to remain by the deceased throughout the funeral service. As seen above, this would not correspond to overall Church practice, and they should be invited to take their places in the pews during the celebration.
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Follow-up: Striking the Breast During the Confiteor
In the wake of our September 15 comments on striking the breast at the “I confess,” a reader from Portugal commented that in that countries translation of the prayer there are only two, rather than three, admissions of fault and hence, people from Portugal generally strike their breast twice.
I believe this basically confirms my observation that people will do these things naturally even if the rubrics indicate a different practice.
Another correspondent, from Buffalo, New York, asked:
“What about the faithful imitating the deacon or priest who crosses his forehead, mouth, and breast, before proclaiming the Gospel? The rubrics in the Roman Missal say nothing about the faithful at this point in the Mass. However, GIRM [the General Instruction of the Roman Missal] §134 says ‘everyone else does so as well.’
“It seems illogical for everyone else to imitate the gesture since only the reader of the Gospel uses his lips. It would be more appropriate for the faithful to cross their ears instead since their task is to listen to the Gospel attentively.
“I also find that performing the gesture distracts me from listening prayerfully to the beginning of the Gospel. Usually, the deacon or priest starts reading the Gospel before everyone else finishes making their crosses.”
While it is true that the rubrics say nothing about the people carrying out this gesture, this is perfectly logical since only the minister has immediate access to the altar missal.
The GIRM, which is also an integral part of the Roman Missal, contains all the general indications regarding the postures and gestures of the faithful. The people do not generally require a list of instructions as they learn what to do from practice. The full text of the GIRM number cited by our reader is:
“134. At the ambo, the Priest opens the book and, with hands joined, says, The Lord be with you, to which the people reply, And with your spirit. Then he says, A reading from the holy Gospel, making the Sign of the Cross with his thumb on the book and on his forehead, mouth, and breast, which everyone else does as well. The people acclaim, Glory to you, O Lord. The Priest incenses the book if incense is being used (cf. nos. 276-277). Then he proclaims the Gospel and at the end pronounces the acclamation The Gospel of the Lord, to which all reply, Praise to you, Lord Jesus Christ. The Priest kisses the book, saying quietly the formula Per evangelica dicta (Through the words of the Gospel).”
I think it is not quite correct to say that the people imitate the deacon’s gesture. Rather, it is a gesture of the entire assembly done simultaneously with the minister and not after him.
Although the rubrics must be respected as they are, our reader’s intuition that the sign of the cross on the mouth is less natural is somewhat confirmed by history. The crosses on the forehead and the breast are from at least the eighth century and perhaps earlier. The cross on the mouth was added several centuries later and seems to be first noted in 1286.
Even so, it has still been around for nearly 800 years and is unlikely to be removed or substituted by other gestures.
From the ritual point of view, it is obvious that the gesture is one of several means of underlining the importance of the Gospel with respect to the other readings and is a call to pay closer attention to the words of Christ. This is also emphasized by other elements such as the procession of the Book of Gospels, incense, and listening to it while standing.
I am hesitant to offer a theological explanation of the gesture. Such explanations tend to be purely speculative and added after the gestures are already part of the ritual. However, the first and third crosses would appear to be a kind of petition for the Lord to enlighten our minds and hearts to understand and embrace the teachings received. The later sign of the cross on the mouth could perhaps be interpreted as a desire to bear witness to the Gospel with our lips but could also be no more than the natural tendency to do things in groups of three and so was added gradually over centuries of practice.
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Readers may send questions to email@example.com. 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.