About this blogger:
Richard J. Clark is the Director of Music of the Archdiocese of Boston and the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. He is also Chapel Organist (Saint Mary’s Chapel) at Boston College. His compositions have been performed worldwide.
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“Unfortunately, on the one hand a deadly error in judgment placed the official leadership of this committee into the hands of a man who—though generous and brave—was not very knowledgeable: Cardinal Lercaro. He was utterly incapable of resisting the maneuvers of the mealy-mouthed scoundrel that the Neapolitan Vincentian, Bugnini, a man as bereft of culture as he was of basic honesty, soon revealed himself to be.”
— Fr. Louis Bouyer, an important member of the Consilium

Ministry of Consolation • A Case for Congregational Singing at Funerals
published 21 August 2017 by Richard J. Clark

UNERALS ARE some of the trickiest and most sensitive parts of a church musician’s job. They warrant much pastoral attention and care. This can be a challenge for parishes with many funerals. For some parishes, it is not unusual to have over one hundred per year. As a result, funerals can become rather routine and ho-hum. But for the family and loved ones, it is anything but.

The importance of congregational singing is generally well understood as an important aspect of “full and active participation.” The Ministry of the Assembly, is emphasized in Sing to the Lord: Music in Divine Worship (SttL):

“Holy Mother Church clearly affirms the role within worship of the entire liturgical assembly…Within the gathered assembly, the role of the congregation is especially important. “The full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else, for it is the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit.” (SttL § 10-11)

This is all very well and good, but when it comes to funerals, asking for the congregation to sing is a tall, if impossible order. So why bother?

SttL goes on to elaborate about internal and external participation, even quoting Pope St. John Paul II with regard to interior participation:

Participation in the Sacred Liturgy must be “internal, in the sense that by it the faithful join their mind to what they pronounce or hear, and cooperate with heavenly grace.” Even when listening to the various prayers and readings of the Liturgy or to the singing of the choir, the assembly continues to participate actively as they “unite themselves interiorly to what the ministers or choir sing, so that by listening to them they may raise their minds to God.” (SttL §12)

But again, when loved ones are grieving, is it not obnoxious to “make them sing,” especially if many are not regular churchgoers? So, again, why bother?

If there ever was a liturgy in which the entire assembly is participating in some fashion—if only interiorly—it is a funeral. The intensity of the emotion, especially for very difficult cases, draws in all present in whatever way they are capable.

Four Real Reasons for Roman Catholic Funerals

Y SUGGESTION IS TO ALWAYS PROVIDE a means for participation, regardless of what one might think will or will not transpire. Enormously helpful is even a simple one-page worship aid with numbers listed for a hymnal. Better yet, sing very simple settings of the Acclamations, Responsorial, Gospel Acclamation, and dare I say—even a communion antiphon.

If you do so, will the assembly sing? The grieving families? Unlikely.

Unless, they are parishioners. I have found that when regular parishioners are in attendance, the opportunity for congregational singing is ripe! And even if only ten percent of the congregation sings, it brings extraordinary consolation to the bereaved.

And getting a congregation to sing is not an end in of itself.

Congregational singing at a funeral (no matter how feeble) sends a beautiful message: If you, the bereaved cannot give voice to your grief in this moment, we shall do it for you. To sing for another sends a message of love: We are with you. We pray with you, for you, and for the deceased whom we love.

The Order of Christian Funerals has much to say about the role of the community in the Ministry of Consolation.

“If one member suffers in the body of Christ which is the Church, all the members suffer with that member.” (1 Corinthians 12:26). For this reason, those who are baptized are responsible for one another.” (OCF #8)

As such, “[t]he responsibility of the Community for the ministry of consolation rests with the believing community…Each Christian shares in this ministry according to the various gifts and offices in the Church.” (OCF #9)

As such, if one has the capacity to assist the congregation with singing, one should make every effort. Likewise, the pastoral musicians must make that possible—even if congregational singing is unlikely. One must not judge beforehand!

“The Community’s principal involvement in the ministry of consolation is expressed in its active participation in the celebration of the funeral rites…” (OCF #11)

HAVE ALWAYS FOUND congregational singing at funerals to be an extraordinarily uplifting and consoling experience. I say this from the choir loft, and I say this from the pew. I have felt great consolation and love from strangers who came to pray (and sing those prayers) for a loved one. As the recipient of such generosity, my heart is full.

The more difficult the funeral (especially in cases of unexpected or tragic loss), the more important it is for the community to join together in support in its ministry of consolation. This ministry extends long after the funeral, sometimes for a lifetime.

This message of consolation is most profound and joyful! Our sacred music at a funeral must express “a spirit of hope in the Christian’s share in Christ’s victory over death.” (OCF #31)

Oremus pro invicem
Let us pray for each other.