Due to a shortage of priestly vocations in the Archdiocese of Liverpool, Archbishop Patrick Kelly has come up with a solution that’s likely to get a mixed response: lay people presiding over Catholic funerals when priests are not available.
He’s commissioned 22 lay ministers to celebrate funeral ceremonies, starting this autumn, in an effort to relieve pressure on priests who, in some parishes, are celebrating over 120 funerals a year.
While only ordained priests celebrate the sacraments of Baptism, Confession, Matrimony and the Eucharist, they are already assisted at Mass by lay Eucharistic ministers as well as altar servers, lesson readers, collection gatherers and so forth. Eucharistic minister, as pictured, help distribute the Host to congregations, particularly when numbers receiving are high. They also take the Host to the homes of sick people unable to get to church. Priests are also aided in pastoral care by relgious sisters and lay catechists, who instruct those preparing for Confirmation.
The lay funeral ministers, drawn from Eucharistic ministers, catechists and religious sisters, are now also to receive training in leading vigil prayers, funeral services and committals ‘with an appropriate liturgy of the word, readings and prayers.’
Priests already lead funeral services other than the Requiem Mass, omitting the Eucharist in acknowledgement of the fact that many guests are not Catholic. When the bereaved choose such a ceremony, the liturgy nonetheless offers the same message of Easter hope, and commends the deceased to God. Grace can be bestowed through prayer, not just through the sacraments.
However, the Liverpool initiative will not always succeed in its purpose of solving the demands on overstretched clergy. Just as there are Catholics who queue to receive the Host from a priest at Mass rather than a lay Eucharistic minister, there will be bereaved people who insist on a priest leading their funeral service (Mass or not), and will be prepared to wait for as long as is necessary to book a slot in a priest’s diary. There might also be an upsurge in demand for memorial masses at a later date.
Ever since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which was a pastoral council as opposed to a dogmatic council, a greater role of the laity in the Church has been encouraged. It can take decades before the fruits of councils are realised, and their guidance can be misinterpreted and misimplemented. There are traditionalists who resist all modernisation and liberals who want to dance around the sanctuary with guitars and tamborines. There are also faithful folk holding the middle ground. I see this as a pragmatic initiative which will be accepted by some, and many lay ministers will undoubtedly do a great job.
However, many will prefer a Requiem Mass celebrated by their priest.
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