Not in MY name
I must admit to a choleric condition; no it does not mean I have cholera it just means I am super annoyed. I am embittered and exasperated at nonsensical social customs that masquerade as religious requirements in the Catholic Church, especially in my end of the woods of Mumbai.
There is an unending list of these customs which are inextricably linked to Catholic religious practices, none of which bring an ounce of faith to the life of the believer, and yet are practiced far more religiously than the mystery it is meant to celebrate.
Notice how most sacramental celebrations are linked to some social tradition. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy many of them which have now become part of our ‘catholic social tradition’ but when these become larger than life and overshadow the sacrament itself, then I take umbrage.
In the Catholic social circuit, sacraments call for a celebration; be it Baptism, Eucharist (Fist Holy Communion), Confirmation, Marriage or Holy Orders. Ironically, the one sacrament that should be truly celebrated, has no celebration at all. No one throws a party on being forgiven of all their sins and being made holy in God’s eyes, and if we truly need to celebrate anything, it should be this sacrament. I hope I have not inadvertently triggered off some party planner who sees this as unchartered territory with great financial opportunity.
So let me state my case with one such example and here I want to address the ‘social customs’ surrounding death in a Catholic household. I grew up with the tradition of attending mass not only on the day a friend or loved one was buried but also seven days later (called the seventh day mass) and the month’s mind mass.
Interestingly, the Missal has no provisions for such ‘special masses’. What the Roman Missal does provide for, is a mass to be celebrated on the anniversary of the death of a person; rightly, this is the anniversary of the day that the Lord called our brother or sister to Himself. The feast day of the saints too are celebrated on the day of their death not of their birth (John the Baptist and Mary being an exception). So how then did these seventh day (mercifully now discontinued) and month’s mind masses come about?
Go back a century when modern transportation as we have it, was virtually non-existent. Your best bet to get from point A to point B was on foot. These were the days that communication was limited to messengers who were sent on foot to deliver the sad news of the death of a loved one. The weather in India being what it is, the body of the deceased had to be quickly buried in the village cemetery. The tolling Church bells not only announced the death in a village it was also used to signal the start of the funeral service, often hours after the person was dead. While the Church bells were the tweets of that generation, its network was limited to a kilometer at most.
So, it was a while before relatives and friends in the surrounding villages or towns heard that their loved one had passed away. By the time grieving relatives and friends poured in, a good ‘seven days’ had passed. The grieving extended family, now gathered together, took comfort in prayer through the celebration of the Eucharist. This mass then came to be colloquially called the ‘seventh day mass’ (seven also being a Biblical number of perfection).
Grieving relatives would then stay back for a while, as the journey back home might take several days but now a whole horde had to be fed. Neighbours chipped in and sent cooked food, easing the burden of the grieving family. By the time tears had dried up and grieving hearts were comforted, a month would have passed by and relatives would once again gather to celebrate a ‘month’s mind’ mass before they departed home.
Cut to 2018 and we still have month’s mind masses. Now before you catch the bull by the tail, do not, I state again, do not lose the plot! The point being made is over indulgence of socio-religious traditions surrounding religious practices and not against the Eucharist being celebrated. So while there is no issue with gathering in prayer to remember our loved ones, what has ironically carried on is this business of giving snacks and now, often one is invited to take away breakfast or dinner boxes.
When my grandparents and uncle passed away several years ago, close relatives were invited home after these masses to be offered a cup of coffee and a snack while we chatted and remembered the deceased fondly. That is no longer the case, for the warmth of a home is now seen as an inconvenience, and a more impersonal ritual has replaced a loving one. The line for extending one’s sympathy is followed by the snack line and the menu is certainly getting elaborate. Think now of the poor who feel compelled to do the same or are expected to do the same. Such actions are now inextricably linked to the faith celebration, as if one must be followed by the other and is practiced more rigorously than the belief in the resurrection. It’s as if the dead will not rise if a snack in not given.
Seriously, this in an age when one can walk across any road and find a snack, can we not? But then the argument will be that these are simply courtesies to guests and if that be the case, then I have no issue. My problem begins when these social customs get bigger, more socially demanding especially on the poor and then even more linked to the religious celebration as though it was an essential extension of it making these socio-cultural activities more important than the Eucharist itself. Thank God mortuary cards have gradually disappeared!
It’s time we get back to the core of our faith, Jesus – and not the incidentals of social customs!
Fr Warner D’Souza
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