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The Vigil: Making Room for God  
H. Richard Rutherford  

In the nearly two decades since the promulgation of the Order of Christian Funerals (OCF), a diversity of pastoral practice typifies funeral liturgy today more than any other of the renewed rites. Among the revised funeral rites, the vigil appears to be the service least understood.

In some places, the vigil either was never introduced or has disappeared. By considering the vigil repetitive of the funeral, some communities have not understood its value. Similarly, many of our faithful are so accustomed to reciting the Rosary for the deceased before the funeral that they could not conceptualize another service. Consequently, the rites of the vigil are not part of the experience of a significant number of Catholics.

In other places, the vigil is so alive that "it is rare not to have one," in the words of one Midwest pastor. Since many people are more comfortable in church than at a mortuary, almost all vigil services in that parish are celebrated in the church. Mourners at that parish comment that the vigil's allowance for less formal liturgy and sharing of memories in a relaxed environment is "helpful, prayerful, and uplifting."

Still, 40 years after the first revised Ordo exsequiarum (1969) set out to restore the word of God as central to the vigil, the reading of scripture and singing of psalms and other scriptural hymns are met often with reluctance. Many think that such services are reserved for the clergy and religious.

Yet, when Catholics experience the vigil liturgy as a celebration of word, song, and gesture, with condolences and stories, they inevitably express the hope of a similar liturgy for themselves and their loved ones.

What is the Vigil?
First of all, the vigil is not merely a service. The OCF understands "vigil" as both a period of time and the name given the rites to be celebrated during that time frame. Unnecessarily ambiguous? Perhaps, but the Encarta College Dictionary defines "vigil" as "a period spent in doing something through the night, for example, watching, guarding, or praying."

For the funeral vigil, the period of time is "between the time of death and the funeral liturgy" (1989, 51; 1990, 82) and not limited to "through the night." Yet, often we still refer to this time frame and its activities also as a "wake" - simply an Anglo Saxon rendering of the same Latin word, vigilia.

Much happens during the vigil. The vigil rites are at the center as the hub of a wheel, and other rites and prayers, including the Rosary, surround them like spokes. Taken together, all these are the liturgical "markers" that provide the time between death and the funeral with Christian meaning. From the start, the Catholic funeral vigil should not be equated with "visitation" or "viewing" or "courtesy call," which are other activities of "doing something" during the time called vigil. This consideration frees us from some of the constraints of time and space that limit the celebration of the vigil liturgy. Everything does not have to happen within the liturgical vigil service.

For the hub of our liturgical "doing something," the OCF presents two forms of vigil rites. These two sets of rites already illustrate the pastoral richness and potential of the funeral vigil. "Vigil for the Deceased" provides the basic model to be adapted according to pastoral needs and circumstances. As the OCF expresses, "Adaptations of the vigil will often be suggested by the place in which the celebration occurs" (1989, 55; 1990, 83). Among such places, the document lists the home of the deceased (where the rites would be "simplified and shortened"), funeral home, parlor or chapel of rest, or in some other suitable place (nursing homes, assisted living residences, and the like come to mind). Because the parish church enjoys pride of place throughout the OCF, the second model is "Vigil for the Deceased with Reception at the Church." Finally, when no funeral liturgy (that is, funeral Mass or funeral outside Mass) takes place before the rite of committal, the OCF assigns an appropriate form of the vigil as the Church's liturgy.

In essence, the two forms of vigil rites follow the pattern of a Liturgy of the Word of God or the Liturgy of the Hours. A Liturgy of the Word is, of course, more familiar to the Catholics at the vigil and easily accessible to others by means of standard service sheets. This familiarity is part of what enables such a gathering of mourners and consolers to recognize the healing presence and power of God in their midst. When everything else around them is upset and uncertain, Catholics can find comfort in knowing what is going on and knowing what to say and do.

The familiar Introductory Rites of Greeting, Entrance Song, Invitation to Prayer, and Opening Prayer precede the celebration of the Word in reading, Responsorial Psalm, Gospel, and Homily. A Prayer of the Faithful follows with an Invitation to Prayer, an intercessory litany for the assembly, the family and the deceased, completed by the Lord's Prayer, a final collect and concluding rites of blessing and song. Familiar, yet none of this has to be experienced as the "same old, same old." Similarly, they are not ends in themselves, nor are they to be a burden. Recall that these are model rites to be adapted; flexibility and adaptation are essential pastoral virtues for the OCF. They serve to maintain the integrity of scripture and the liturgy as what God is doing in our midst, but as adapted, they acknowledge the human reality within which God is acting. People recognize God and themselves, their loved one, and their shared journeys in the choices of readings, psalms, hymns, and songs.

The Office for the Dead in the Liturgy of the Hours is another means of giving God's Word a central place in the time of vigil. It introduces people to psalms, particularly the lament psalms. Using those psalms helps with an appreciation of Christian lament. Such a stance is not merely "being angry with God," but an opportunity to come face to face with the feeling of the unreasonableness of death. Lament psalms, the prayers of our Jewish forbearers in the faith ("Out of the depths I cry to you . . . ." Psalm 130) and the prayers of Jesus ("My God, my God, why have you forsaken me. . . ." Psalm 22), have a way of doing that. We can use that tradition to express and enrich our experience. Occasional homilies drawing on the lament psalms at Sunday Mass can introduce their role and value in vigil liturgies.

The OCF on the Liturgy of the Hours for the Dead (1989, 348-396; 1990, 556 - 603) is new to parochial practice. It reflects the desire to encourage the assembly to pray the Divine Office as a vigil for the deceased and a liturgy of remembrance after the funeral. Together with the Mass, the Liturgy of the Hours is public prayer that engages the whole Church living and deceased in communion, offering unending prayer and praise.

The Canadian edition of the OCF offers a further example of adapting the variety of material provided for vigils into 11 alternative vigil liturgies. Nine of these present a Liturgy of the Word and two are Evening Prayer as a supplement to the Liturgy of the Hours for the Dead. Throughout these services, the scripture readings have been arranged according to themes that extend the primary motif of the Paschal Mystery: "awaiting the Lord's coming," "God is faithful," "life is changed, not ended," "I am the Resurrection and the life," "our eternal home," "I am the Light of the World," "our hope of glory," "God welcomes faithful servants," "God is with us," "in praise of God's love," and "longing for God." Because vigil services in both editions of the OCF are models, using these rites from different national publications interchangeably is an acceptable form of adaptation that the liturgical document recognizes.

What is the Source of the Vigil?
Some form of "vigil" while preparing the body for its last honors and the procession (funus, the source of the word "funeral") to the place of its final earthly disposition were the funeral rites early Christians knew and observed. In many places, a common meal at the grave and on anniversaries completed the funeral. From very early times, as Eucharist replaced that meal, it became a Christian dimension to the cultural pattern of funeral. In their Mediterranean world, the vigil and the committal of the deceased became the bookends, so to speak, for celebrating Eucharist at funerals. In time, there emerged the threefold pattern that came to typify the Christian funeral in the West: a vigil of scripture and prayer while the body was prepared, procession to the church where the funeral Mass would be celebrated, and the burial rites. Diversity would have been experienced from region to region and between what we today think of as parish life and the medieval monasteries.

As with much of later liturgy, monastic practices influenced the model for the ideal Catholic funeral, thus establishing the threefold ritual pattern of vigil or wake with the body, procession to the church for the funeral Mass, and transfer to the place of burial with committal rites. Although this pattern was intended to be normative, particularly following the promulgation after the Council of Trent of the Roman Ritual of 1614, significant cultural diversity continued to express itself in the Catholic funeral. Reforms in the twentieth century took this diversity into account. For Roman Catholics in the West, the ritual reforms following the Second Vatican Council maintained the threefold plan as normative liturgical expression of the Church's faith and values at death, while allowing cultural norms to affect its application. Whatever the culture, prayerful respect for the deceased's body and the Eucharist as celebration of the Paschal Mystery are to characterize the Catholic funeral. This impacts the vigil in two ways.

First, the threefold plan of wake, funeral Mass, and committal was the ordinary practice and thus in accord with the new norm. The reintroduction of scripture into the wake service was one of the goals of the reform. Although essentially indifferent to the Rosary in theory, in practice the reform seemed to pit the new scriptural wake services against the Rosary, as virtually the only other wake service that was familiar. Yet, for the most part, pastoral liturgists consistently argued for a "both scripture and Rosary" rather than a "scripture vs. Rosary" stance. From this was born the familiar scriptural Rosary at vigil liturgies.

This brief historical review highlights a second impact on the vigil. It helps us appreciate why the typical funeral observes simply a two-stage pattern: time spent with the mourners and committal, following the predominant Protestant culture. From the sixteenth century on, as the new Reformed Christians found the celebration of the Mass at funerals more and more problematic on theological grounds and removed it from their orders of service at death, a twofold plan came to typify the Protestant funeral: wake and committal. Some more radical Reformers held burial itself to be a purely secular matter; others eschewed all religious rites at death, leaving both wake and committal to the customs of the secular culture. Furthermore, sometimes these two are collapsed into one and held at the place of committal or cremation. Thus, removal of the Eucharist, the uniquely Catholic highpoint, from the funeral leaves the wake and committal as the ordinary ritual moments at death.

Recognizing that both these ritual moments are open to highly personalized forms of expression, we can also appreciate that the so-called designer funerals are commonplace in North America - mostly outside Catholic circles. Yet, English-speaking North American Catholics are both American or Canadian andCatholic. It is not surprising that in some parts of our nation, mostly in the West but also in pockets across the lands, Catholics are requesting both a more telescoped, simplified pattern and more personalized rites. As I observe this trend in Catholic communities, it is not the funeral Mass that falls victim to simplification, as in earlier Protestant history, but the vigil. For reasons of time, money, age, illness, demographics, cultural and religious differences in extended families, and the like, a time of wake or vigil with the body and mourners is becoming telescoped more and more into the time set for the funeral Mass or into the Mass itself. Clearly, this trend undermines the traditional values of the vigil and has an impact on the funeral Mass.

Suffice the citing of two of the most obvious examples. One involves squeezing a vigil service, even if simply the recitation of the Rosary, paying final respects to the deceased and consoling the mourners, into the time scheduled for the funeral Mass. On the other hand, such telescoping can shift the emphasis of the funeral Mass from a celebration in thanks and praise for what God has done through the Paschal Mystery of Jesus' death and Resurrection and continues to do in the life and death of this Christian and the Church into a framework for personal expressions of mourning in song, poetry, favorite memorabilia, eulogies, and the like. While all the latter and more have a place in the cultural North American funeral and can receive full accommodation in a time of Catholic wake or vigil, the funeral liturgy of the OCF, with rites of reception, funeral Mass, and final commendation, is already a pastoral liturgical challenge to celebrate effectively and prayerfully. It cannot carry, so to speak, all that the traditional vigil is to achieve. The funeral Mass alone, without wake or vigil (and increasingly often without committal of body or cremated remains), cannot do all that through the centuries has come to constitute the Catholic funeral: prayerful respect for the body of the deceased and the Eucharist as celebration of the Paschal Mystery giving unique meaning to the life and death of the deceased and the consolation of the faith to mourners. Hence, the OCF insists that when the vigil liturgy is celebrated in the church, it is to be scheduled "at a time well before the funeral liturgy, so that the funeral liturgy will not be lengthy and the liturgy of the word repetitious" (OCF, #56).

Why is the Vigil Important?
The funeral vigil is important, first of all, for the grieving. The celebration of the liturgy at the vigil may transform the time into an experience of "the consolation of the faith." This dynamic interaction of time and liturgy has the potential to be part of initiating the long process of healing the throes of grief. During the vigil, initial grieving happens within a world of meaning that acknowledges God as the one who heals and whose healing comes through the power of the death and Resurrection of Jesus, the Christ, to transform even death.

The earliest efforts to reform funeral rites according to the mandate of the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy took shape at the same time the death awareness movement asserted itself. In that context, pastoral counselors, pastors, and liturgical theologians emphasized the psychological and sociological values of time spent in funerary rituals, especially those directly involving the mortal remains of the deceased, such as the vigil. The early reforms already took into account, albeit sparingly, the recognition that the funeral is for the mourners as well as for the deceased. Although often criticized for not being sensitive enough, or for contributing to a denial of the mourners' grief by placing too much emphasis on the promise of resurrection and joyful hope, the OCF has made an effort to take the mourner and the reality of the loss seriously without losing its primary focus as an order of Christian worship. Such rites provide an opportunity for the mourners to begin to own the reality of the death and to express grief.

With sensitivity to the trauma of the mourners, the vigil can be the beginning of a new relationship with the loved one. During the vigil and the vigil liturgy, the focus is on the death and consolation. In a safe and supportive environment, ordinarily this helps the bereaved to begin to own the reality of the death, first intellectually and gradually emotionally. The vigil is precisely where personal preferences and popular funeral songs and music can find a place. Furthermore, expressions of grief are not only "allowed" by the public rites, but are "expected" in ways appropriate to the persons involved.

The gathered community of the Church is an essential element of the vigil in the OCF. Of course, the temptation is great to devote all pastoral attention to the mourners closest to the deceased. Yet, that is only part of the picture. The vigil, as indeed the whole of the OCF, is "of the Church, by the Church, and for the Church," as I have explained in "The Funeral for the Church, by the Church, of the Church: A Further Step in the Tradition" (the National Bulletin on Liturgy 36, 202 - 208, 2003). Even the vigil's therapeutic value, so to speak, as an opportunity to begin grief 's journey in the supportive context of the faith community, is not limited to those close to the deceased.

The OCF articulates that all who belong to the People of God have a responsibility to the dead, determined by their role within the Christian community (#9 -13). The ecclesial community shares a concern for the funeral liturgy, with each member contributing to the celebration and offering consolation to the bereaved. This expectation is a challenge. Yet, think of what it means to all who because of this funeral, can say, "This will also happen for me!" and "When my turn comes to be in that casket, the Church will be there for my husband, or my wife, or my child!" This is what we do when death comes; it won't be an unexpected event in a vacuum. It will be "of the Church." The vigil - even more so than the funeral Mass - because of its flexibility and attentiveness to aspects of mourning in the context of our faith, is the stage in the funeral journey best able to embody the full range of ecclesial expression.

Most importantly, the vigil makes room for God when death strikes. Just as grieving people do not need vigil rites to grieve, neither does God need our rites to heal grieving hearts or transform death. Since people grieve the loss of their loved ones, and because we believe God offers to all the healing power of Jesus' Paschal Mystery, the Catholic vigil is a source of consolation and profession of faith at a time of shock and confusion. Our ancestors in faith transformed the preparation and watching over the bodies of their dead by surrounding that time and activity with scripture and prayer, setting a pattern for Christians to enter the journey of the living with the loss of their loved ones while trusting that, in Christ, death does not have the last word. In all the concerns surrounding a death and in the first agony of grief, the OCF makes room for God and surrounds the mourners with the embrace of their faith. Making room for God has to be the primary purpose of the vigil liturgy.

As a professor of pastoral liturgy in a master's program, I have guided students in an inquiry of pastoral workers about the funeral vigil. The results of that query and subsequent discussions informed much of this article. Standing out among the responses of the survey are ongoing catechesis about the value of the Church's prayer from death through committal and beyond and dialogue with funeral home personnel.

Where the funeral vigil is alive and well, regular reference in homilies, bulletin inserts, and adult education sessions, and especially good vigil celebrations have contributed to a successful implementation of the OCF vigil. Where the funeral vigil is rarely or never celebrated, the circumstances and causes are complex. Yet, talking up the vigil seems a first step to opening up its treasure. On one occasion, an invitation to mourners at the time of planning the funeral transformed the ordinary into an extraordinary vigil of support and prayer in the family home.

Secondly, whatever the status of the funeral vigil, dialogue with funeral directors and other providers of funeral services is imperative. Economics and time are considerations that need to be discussed. When vigils take place in church, for mortuaries, overhead to maintain a funeral chapel and concern about the body being kept overnight are issues. For pastoral workers, vigils in church can require more work and, when the body remains in the church, involve scheduling during or around morning Masses. Bereavement ministry groups can ease the workload of parish ministers, and a common understanding among all parties can allow the mortal remains to be locked in the church overnight, or arrange for mourners from family, organizations such as the Knights of Columbus or Rosary Society, to keep vigil by the deceased through the night.

Listening to pastoral voices across the United States and Canada affirms that in many places the vigil is alive and well. Reviewing pastoral practice in the time between notification of a death and the funeral Mass can help us maximize the strengths and opportunities of the funeral vigil as well as minimize its weaknesses and threats. Each parish or religious community will fill out the possibilities of such a vigil liturgy in its own way, but I encourage pastoral ministers to share vigil stories at annual clergy conventions and pastoral conferences. It is important that together we allow the vigil liturgy of the Church to open the treasure of God's healing and consoling word for the faithful who are the Church. Let the conversation continue!

H. Richard Rutherford, CSC,
is a professor of liturgical studies at the University of Portland and the author, with Tony Barr, of The Death of a Christian: The Order of Christian Funerals (Liturgical Press, 1990).
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