Masses for the Dead
Date: November 5, 2023
Author: Fr. Edward McNamara, LC
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum University.
Question: “Among the Masses for the Dead, the Funeral Mass holds first place,” the General Instruction of the Roman Missal says in No. 380.What are the other forms of Masses for the dead? What is the liturgical color for all these Masses? More and more, in many places, priests and bishops are using the white color, stating that the Mass for the dead is also "the Mass of the Resurrection.” I can’t find any reference saying that the Mass for the Dead is the Mass of the Resurrection, which for me is only the Easter celebration. In the "Commentary on the General Instruction of the Roman Missal,” edited by Edward Foley, Nathan D. Mitchell and Joanne M. Pierce, on Page 402, it reads, “e. Besides violet, white or black vestments may be worn at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the dioceses of the United States of America.” Nothing refers to the Mass of the Resurrection for the use of these other colors; and if it is allowed for the dioceses of U.S., is it automatically applied to other dioceses in the world? – F.K., Diocese of Ndola, Zambia
Answer: We must first distinguish between offering a Mass for a deceased person, that is, celebrating the Mass of the day with the intention of offering it for the repose of the soul of a particular person, and offering one of the Mass formulas for the dead provided in the missal.
While a Mass may be offered in suffrage for the deceased on almost any day, this is not true with respect to using the proper formulas for Masses for the Dead.
With respect to Masses for the Dead the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) says:
"380. Among the Masses for the Dead, the Funeral Mass holds first place. It may be celebrated on any day except for Solemnities that are holy days of obligation, Holy Thursday, the Easter Triduum, and the Sundays of Advent, Lent, and Easter, with due regard also for all the other requirements of the norm of the law.
"381. A Mass for the Dead may be celebrated on receiving the news of a death, for the final burial, or the first anniversary, even on days within the Octave of Christmas, on obligatory Memorials, and on weekdays, except for Ash Wednesday or weekdays during Holy Week.
"Other Masses for the Dead, that is, 'daily' Masses, may be celebrated on weekdays in Ordinary Time on which optional memorials occur or when the Office is of the weekday, provided such Masses are actually applied for the dead."
Therefore, the Church distinguishes three classes of Masses for the dead: funeral Masses; Masses for the specific reasons mentioned in 381, paragraph 1; and all other Masses for the deceased such as anniversaries other than the first and other commemorations for one or more deceased persons. These may be celebrated or not according to the rules outlined above.
With respect to the color used, the GIRM states:
"346. As regards the color of sacred vestments, traditional usage should be observed, namely …:
"d) The color violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.
"e) Besides the color violet, the colors white or black may be used at funeral services and at other Offices and Masses for the Dead in the Dioceses of the United States of America.”
The GIRM for England and Wales has a slight variation to this number:
“d). Violet or purple is used in Advent and Lent. It may also be worn in Offices and Masses for the Dead.
“e). Black may be used, where it is the practice, in Masses for the Dead.”
However, the English GIRM, following the Latin, concludes No. 346 with the following statement:
“Regarding liturgical colours, moreover, the Conference of Bishops may determine and propose to the Apostolic See adaptations suited to the needs and culture of peoples.”
This difference arises from the pace of the translation of the GIRM in the U.S. and England and Wales. The U.S. quickly translated the first edition of the GIRM and submitted a series of adaptations (including the use of white at funerals) which the Holy See approved. The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales approved the use of white for funerals but only after the GIRM was printed.
A partial exception is the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, which allows white only for the funerals of baptized children who have not reached the age of reason.
Therefore, we can answer that white may be used in any country where the bishops’ conference has approved its use. If the bishops’ conference has not acted, then funerals should generally be celebrated in violet or black.
But the question remains: Why white at funerals? This practice might have been remotely inspired by the Second Vatican Council when it determined in Sacrosanctum Concilium, No. 81, that “the rite for the burial of the dead should express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death.”
Indeed, the reformed rites and texts for Christian burial do fulfill this mandate to a great deal even if they do not ordain white vestments. In this they hearken back to the early Church, which emphasized this aspect more than the texts present in the pre-conciliar rite, most of which were composed in the Middle Ages.
Moreover, white is a color of mourning in many countries, and this might have influenced the actions of the bishops in a multicultural environment such as the U.S.
That said, all this does not make the funeral Mass a Mass of the Resurrection, at least not in the same way as we celebrate Easter. However, it might transmit hope and faith in the resurrection as well as celebrate Christian baptism. Therefore, where the bishops have approved its use, it may constitute a valid pastoral option.
We conclude with the words of an American bishop who thus addressed his flock on this subject:
“The use of white has its proper significance too, and I’m sure that’s why the American Bishops adapted its use in the 1970s. White speaks of the new life and hope that comes from our belief in the Resurrection of Christ. It reminds us that death is not the ultimate reality, but that eternal life is. That’s an important belief for us to celebrate and proclaim to others, isn’t it? And, remember too, it’s our rejoicing in the promise of the resurrection and life eternal life that allows us to sing ‘alleluia’ during the Funeral Mass, even in the face of death!”
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