Catholic News Service
Girl approaches casket after vigil at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Chicago.
Catholic News Service
Girl approaches casket after vigil at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Chicago.
Fifty years ago, almost every Catholic funeral was preceded by a rosary the night before.  

Following the Second Vatican Council, official norms emerged that expressed a preference for a scripture-based vigil instead. Change comes slowly, and though liturgists explained that the rosary is a private devotion, its use before funerals continued. But local priests report that tradition is starting to change noticeably.

"Are people having rosaries? Yes and no," says Msgr. Greg Moys, former chancellor of the Archdiocese of Portland and now pastor of St. Paul Parish in St. Paul.

When the revised Order of Christian Funerals called for a scripture vigil based on psalms or other readings, people tried it. But the versions that emerged from publishers were heavy enough on music that families felt they had to hire cantors and musicians; the complications and expense led some to return to the rosary, Msgr. Moys says.

But recently, it seems culture won't abide a vigil at all. More families want just a funeral. It could be to save money or it could be to accommodate overbooked schedules, Msgr. Moys speculates.   

He notes that some older parishioners still want a vigil with the rosary because of tradition and tell their children about it ahead of time.   

Father Joseph McMahon, a retired pastor who helped the archdiocese devise its funeral guidelines for priests, reports that few families in Oregon have vigils any more, perhaps because older people are reluctant to go out at night.

The idea of the vigil has lost some of its sense in a modern society where people do not take care of the bodies of their dead. Vigils were meant to accompany families during that task. But now we pay others to prepare bodies.

Especially on the West Coast, there are few wakes — the Anglo-Saxon rendering of the Latin vigilia. Wakes are more common on the East Coast and Midwest, according to Father McMahon's priest friends in those regions. Wakes usually include food and stories in addition to prayers.  

When there are Catholic funeral vigils in Oregon now, about half include a rosary, Father McMahon estimates.    

Some families have begin planning a rosary right before the funeral Mass, a plan most priests discourage. That packs too much close together and distracts from the funeral Mass, which is supposed to be the central moment, says Father John Kerns, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in Lake Oswego.  

"Most commonly, people do not have a vigil," says Father Kerns. "Some ask for a rosary only because they heard you are supposed to have one." In those cases — inexperienced people praying the rosary — Father Kerns always brings a "how to" sheet. A rosary makes a lot of sense if it is a prayer the family shared before, he says.

Father Kerns encourages families toward the scriptural vigils, but not many are going for it.  

Roger Sinnott, funeral director at Riverview Abbey in Southwest Portland, confirms that fewer people are having rosary vigils. In the past year, he has organized only a handful. There have been more rosaries just before Mass, but that too is fading.   

"It used to be every family had a viewing and a rosary," says Steve Moore of River View Cemetery Funeral Home. Moore reports that of late there are almost none the night before the funeral and only a few just prior to Mass. "The rosary tradition is not as strong. The focus is on the Mass, and it should be," says Moore, a member of St. Charles Parish in Northeast Portland.

The archdiocesan guidelines suggest that, when the rosary is prayed for the dead, it should include readings and prayers from the official vigil service. If the rosary occurs just before the funeral, the priest or deacon should not lead it, the guidelines say.  

Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, a University of Portland professor who studies Christian funerals, has written that the scriptural vigil is a meaningful option not well understood. Those who use it, Father Rutherford wrote in Pastoral Liturgy magazine, found it "helpful, prayerful, and uplifting." It is a flexible rite — including a litany of saints — that can be carried out at the home of the deceased, at a funeral home or in the parish church.

The two forms — a Liturgy of the Word or the Liturgy of the Hours — will be familiar to mourners. "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," Father Rutherford wrote.