In the wake of sex scandals whose devastating effects upon the faithful will likely ripple for decades, the Newark Archbishop took it upon himself to rearrange the proverbial chairs on the Titanic. In doing so, he exhibited a gift for the unfortunate phrase, as when he explained that his decision was motivated by a desire to cut down on the "growing abuse" of eulogies by parishioners.
Abuse is not a word that Catholic priests should throw around these days, particularly in New Jersey, where Rev. John Banko was convicted in December of molesting an altar boy. To use the word in reference to parishioners still wishing to bury their dead in the Church is shoddy semantics and abysmal public relations. Catholics in the New Jersey dioceses must feel as if something else is being taken away from them, as if trust were not enough.
Beyond its awful timing, the anti-eulogy initiative also illustrates the continuing confusion in roles between priests and laity in the wake of Vatican II. Eulogies slowly came about as a result of Vatican II, and have become a staple of funerals since. But if some in the Church now want to limit or abolish laity eulogies, why are they are not equally interested in reforming the role of laity in giving communion? Isn't that a much more obvious priestly function?
Giving a eulogy, by contrast, seems to be an act uniquely suited to the faithful, especially in the frequent and unavoidable cases where the priest does not know anything about the deceased. One does not hear any outcry about priests giving generic eulogies for people they have never met. Nor do we hear anything about the disastrous eulogies priests sometimes give, such as the one I had the misfortune of hearing for an aunt some years back. In a supremely haughty, almost angry manner, the priest dismissed any notion that my aunt had actually died a few days earlier because she had "died with Christ 70 years ago." To the family's grief in her loss, he thundered, "I beg to differ." Nice theology, terrible eulogy. And this from a priest who knew her, in the church she had attended for most of her adult life. You never saw so many angry Irishmen exit a funeral.