ON THE SACRED LITURGY
SOLEMNLY PROMULGATED BY
POPE PAUL VI
ON DECEMBER 4, 1963
81. The rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death and should correspond more closely to the circumstances and traditions found in various regions. This holds good also for the liturgical color to be used.
Many of the paragraphs in Sacrosanctum Concilium call for revisions of the rites of official guidebooks for all the sacraments and public prayer functions of the Church. To be clear, the Vatican II Council Fathers were not engaged in simply rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic or driven to try new things out of boredom. Focusing on para. 81 on Christian funerals, the fathers wished to incorporate the best current theological and liturgical thinking into the post-Council ceremonies surrounding the death of a human being, Curiously, para. 81 does not go out of its way to restrict these reformed rites to Catholics or Christians only.
To do their work properly, the bishops [or their periti or experts at the Council] reviewed the “economy of salvation,” the theological construct which incorporates how God delivers us from our sins and leads us to eternal life. The idea that God has a saving will is the backbone of Christian life; the details over such matters as “temporal punishment for sins” or preparation for meeting God, developed through history into a state called Purgatory. [I will return to present day theological discussion of hell in a later post, as the existence of hell does raise questions about God’s saving intent in the minds of some.]
The economy of salvation that probably all of us absorbed in our Catholic upbringing looks something like this. All humans were born into this world having inherited the first sin of Adam and Eve. One can, I believe, interpret this teaching to mean that in an imperfect world, sin is an inevitability. While Baptism washed away or absolved original sin, it did not remove our tendency to sin, and thus, all of us [save the Virgin Mary, through divine intervention] have fallen into post-Baptism sin. In terms of God’s formal forgiveness exercised through the Church, the Sacrament of Penance absolves us of the sins that would destroy our relationship with God, thus sparing us post-death eternal condemnation. Since the earliest days of the Church, whatever form the Sacrament of Penance has taken, there would always be included the imposition of satisfaction to remit the temporal punishment of one’s sins. Those in 12 Step programs such as AA are already familiar with the process of “making amends” to those hurt by one’s conduct while under the influence. Hence the twentieth century move to refer to confession as the “Sacrament of Reconciliation.:
While God’s mercy exceeds all human reasoning, there is no such thing as “cheap grace” or easy forgiveness. A true sin is a painful and scandalous breech of human fraternity, and in the confines of the Christian faith, a serious rending of the Body of Christ. We know the “term of restitution” in confession as receiving a “penance” after absolution, and I think we know in our hearts that the assignation of three “Hail Mary’s” is, at best, a rather paltry substitute for the serious things we have done or failed to do. There are two locations one may make serious reparation after penitential forgiveness: during one’s lifetime, or after death, per Church teaching. The postmortem reparation occurs in a state called Purgatory.
The Catholic funeral, then, must acknowledge the true state of the deceased as one “on the way.” It is no accident that deathbed communion is called viaticum or “food for the road.” It is impossible to know the details of Purgatory, but the Church teaching has always made sense to me throughout my life. If heaven is beholding the perfect God, I am in no way prepared for that. How I am readied for that, how I disengage from a mediocre [or worse] following of Christ to behold him face to face, I have some ideas but no roadmap; perhaps that remains mystery until the time of death.
But the tradition of praying for the newly deceased at this time and state of transition reaches back to pre-Christian times, the Hebrew Scriptures 2 Maccabees, to be precise. Catholicism has always prayed for its dead, but it did not define Purgatory until the Middle Ages. For interested readers on the subject, see The Birth of Purgatory  by Jacques Goff. While the reality of a post-mortem state of being was established centuries ago, no official teaching exists describing what Purgatory is like. The Catechism of the Catholic Church takes a safe approach in defining Purgatory:  “All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
But the classic enduring pictures of Purgatory have come down to us from the late medieval poet Dante Alighieri [1265-1321], whose epic poem The Divine Comedy is considered one of the greatest works of Italian literature. [Wikipedia summarizes his treatment of Purgatory quite well.] It is also a remarkably insightful analysis of the human mind; Dante’s observations on intent and virtue prefigure the twentieth century theological theory of “fundamental option” toward sin or toward virtue. Dante depicts Purgatory as a mountain, and he is escorted up the mountain by the Latin poet Virgil. The Purgatorial mountain is populated by those in afterlife, beginning at the bottom with repentant excommunicates and progressing upward toward the brightly lit summit of God’s grace.
In Dante’s narrative, Purgatory is a physically grueling endurance, a prolonged exercise in mountain climbing, if you will. Other preachers and writers have described Purgatory as a slightly milder version of hell fire. I was told by one teacher that Purgatory is just like hell, except that you know you’re getting out. But Dante mixes the physical with the psychological pain, and here we get closer to an explanation that resonates with twenty-first century experience. My sense is that personal judgment, whenever and however this event takes place, is a vision of how God sees us. Judgment is the moment when we see what we might have been [lost virtue] and how we really are [sinners of omission and commission.] Purgatory may be that moment of excruciating reality and the process of coming to grips with having neglected a savior who died for us. Perhaps Purgatory is our introduction to Jesus Christ, whom we have busily neglected in our earthly sojourn.
One does not hear this kind of language during funeral liturgies today, for the same reasons so few people go to confession. The loss of a sense of sin has altered our vision of Jesus from necessary eternal savior to Rotary Club lunch buddy. My experience over the years—and I performed more funerals than I can reckon—is that, in the minds of the congregants, alongside a natural grief, the funeral is a celebration of the deceased’s already being with Jesus. [“Uncle Harvey’s up there now tearing up the golf courses in heaven.”] In one sense of course, this is true, so long as we remember that the deceased is in via or on the way to full union with Christ and needs our prayers, particularly the celebration of the funeral Mass, more than the standard eulogies, which are better suited in a non-liturgical setting like a post-funeral luncheon.]
Vatican II attempted to marry the seriousness of death with the joyful assurance that the Resurrection of Jesus has opened the gates to all. But when, after the Council, these rites were put to paper, there was ambivalence about striking the balance between penance and glory. The British Catholic guidelines for funerals reflect this ambivalence in recommending the vestment colors for funeral Masses: “The liturgical colour chosen for funerals should express Christian hope in the light of the paschal mystery, but without being offensive to human grief. White expresses the hope of Easter, the fulﬁlment of baptism, and the wedding garment necessary for the kingdom. Violet recalls the eschatological expectation of Advent and the Lenten preparation for the paschal mystery. Black is used as a token of mourning, but, in our society, increasingly without the associations of Christian hope. The choice should be made in the light of local custom and perceptions, and in consultation with the family and community.”