Q. I have just watched Mario Cuomo’s funeral on television and I noticed that his son Andrew, the current governor, gave a 40-minute eulogy. I was wondering what the Catholic guidelines are with regard to eulogies at funeral Masses. (Albany, New York)
A. Andrew Cuomo’s eulogy at his father’s funeral has prompted a number of questions from Catholics. It has also created a certain awkwardness for parish priests, who are called upon daily to minister to grieving families while remaining faithful to the liturgical guidelines of the church.
The general rule is clear: Eulogies at Catholic funerals are discouraged. The General Instruction of the Roman Missal (the rubrics that serve as a preface to the large red book that the priest reads from at the altar) says simply in No. 382: “At funeral Masses there should usually be a short homily, but to the exclusion of a funeral eulogy of any kind.”
The Order of Christian Funerals (published by the Vatican in 1989), however, gives an option that allows a balance between what is proper and what is pastoral. Section No. 141 of that document restates the prohibition of eulogies: “A brief homily based on the readings should always be given at the funeral liturgy, but never any kind of eulogy.”
But further on, the same document (No. 170) allows that: “A member or friend of the family may speak in remembrance of the deceased before the final commendation begins.”
The ritual’s guidelines envision that such family remarks be brief (coming at the end, when the priest is waiting to pray over the casket), and many dioceses publish specific instructions on length.
In Syracuse, New York, for example, guidelines say: “If permission is granted for a eulogy to be given at the Mass, only one person should speak on behalf of the family and the remembrance should be well-prepared, written and limited to no more than three minutes in length.”
The reason for limitations on eulogies has to do with the nature and purpose of a funeral Mass. The liturgy should be focused on the promise of eternal life and the eventual hope of reunion. It is not meant to be a canonization of the deceased.
Instead it is a tribute to the merciful love of Christ and to the victory over death won by Jesus, together with the prayerful plea that the merits of that victory be extended now to the person being prayed for.
Even the most liberal interpretation of the church’s guidelines would never permit a 40-minute eulogy. (In the view of more than a few observers, Andrew Cuomo’s speech came across as the centerpiece of the ceremony and overwhelmed everything else that the Mass stood for and sought to teach.)
Interestingly and somewhat prophetically, in a 2009 column posted on the New York Archdiocesan website, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan observed that at funerals “the eulogy should be brief, rarely if ever more than three or four minutes; at times the eulogies go so long they overshadow the Mass.”