Have you noticed how liturgical autopilot is creeping in? I’m talking about making the sign of the cross at the beginning of everything Catholic, no matter what it is. We all do it as a kind of Pavlovian manoeuvre, and in so doing we may be running the risk of starting to take this important symbol of being Christian for granted.
Traditionally, Mass has begun with a sign of the cross, and so have the hours of the Office even though the words “In the name of the Father…” are not said there. Traditionally, however, sacramental rites outside Mass — baptism, confirmation, weddings, anointing, also funerals, etc — never did. Instead, it is the words of greeting which are important. This is true not only in our own tradition but also in the Anglican rites.
I detect a move in parish celebrations to automatically add signs of the cross at the beginning of these non-eucharistic rites. Presumably this has happened because these rites are far more frequently celebrated within Mass, which does begin with a sign of the cross, than outside Mass, which doesn’t, and people are desensitized to the difference.
Not only that, but other rites have suffered the same creeping autopilot at an official level. It was noted that in the Editio Tertia of the Roman Missal a sign of the cross had been added to the beginning of the processional rites on the feast of the Presentation of the Lord (February 2), the processional rites at the beginning of the Palm Sunday celebration, and the start of the Easter Vigil. This is contrary to our previous tradition, and presumably betrays ignorance of that tradition on the part of the revisers in the Congregation.
Especially egregious is the addition of a sign of the cross at the beginning of the Easter Vigil. This either shows that the revisers rejected the theology of the three Triduum celebrations forming one single liturgy spread over three days, widely accepted by liturgists and liturgical theologians (and the reason, incidentally, why the solemn Good Friday afternoon liturgy may not be presided over by a deacon), or that they simply didn’t think what they were doing. When the time comes to return to a Missal with a revised translation that actually feeds the prayer life of priests and people, it is to be hoped that these unwarranted additions will be removed.
The new trend that I have noticed has arisen in the celebration of funeral Masses. First of all, there is no sign of the cross before the opening greeting, but many presiders insert one, presumably on the basis that “this is how we always start everything off”, which, as stated above, is not true. Similarly, neither the reception of the body the previous evening nor the vigil for the deceased begins with a sign of the cross, but once again people unthinkingly insert one. Not only is this not in the rite, but in all these cases — Mass, Reception and Vigil — it takes the steam out of the words of greeting, which are meant to begin the process of consolation but which are often not listened to as attentively as they would be if they just came “out of the blue” instead of after a “switch-off” autopilot sign of the cross.
In the celebration of funerals, it is becoming increasingly customary for words of remembrance (a better term than “eulogy”) to take place near the beginning of the funeral liturgy rather than after Communion. This repositioning has a number of benefits: (1) The person(s) giving the words of remembrance are enabled to relax and enjoy the remainder of the service without worrying about what they have to do later on; (2) it assists the entire assembly to “get into” what may be an unfamiliar service for many of those present, by doing something rather human early on which settles people down and additionally informs them exactly why we are celebrating the life, death and new life of the deceased; (3) it also enables the presider to take action to repair any damage that might be done by the reminiscences, etc — something which is normally not possible if the tributes come at the end of the service before the Final Commendation, after the homily has receded into the past.
Another factor in the repositioning of the words of remembrance is that presiders seem to want to see these words as not part of the rite, so they will come out of the sacristy, greet the people, process the body to the front, and then call forward someone to give the words of remembrance. Only when all that has been done will they then insert a gratuitous sign of the cross, to be followed by the sprinkling of holy water and the placing of Christian symbols. That says very clearly that they think what has preceded, including presumably the greeting and procession, is not part of the rite (“Now we are starting for real…”), even if this is not exactly what they intend to convey by interpolating a quite unnecessary sign of the cross at this point. It can also come across as disrespectful of the family and those gathered to mourn.
In an alternative scenario, I have seen greeting, and sprinkling, procession, and placing of Christian symbols, all then followed by the words of remembrance, and then a sign of the cross before continuing. The same arguments follow: this is indicating that none of the preceding is part of the rite, when it patently is, and is similarly disrespectful of the mourners.
I believe that this has come about through a misinterpretation of paragraph 27 of the General Introduction to the Order of Christian Funerals, which says, in the section headed “Homily”:
A brief homily based on the readings is always given after the gospel reading in the funeral liturgy and may also be given after the readings of the vigil service, but there is never to be a eulogy.
Clergy have taken this to mean that there is never to be a eulogy at all anywhere in the service, whereas this paragraph is actually saying that there is never to be a eulogy in place of the homily — not the same thing at all.
Given this interpretation, and given the fact that many presiders seem to be confused about the sequence of events at the beginning of the service, especially if the words of remembrance take place then, we are in a situation where liturgical practices of dubious merit are starting to become established.
Let’s stop unthinkingly using the sign of the cross as a quasi-automatic starting signal for everything we do and restore it to a symbolic action of real value.