Understanding Roman Catholicism

When the Roman Catholic and the Protestant Christian traditions are added together, Christianity is the world’s largest religion with nearly 2.4 billion followers around the world. Roman Catholicism is the largest church in Christianity with more than 1.2 billion followers. It claims to be the oldest tradition within Christianity, tracing its roots all the way to the times of the New Testament.

The Origins of Christianity

Christianity traces its roots to the beliefs and traditions of the people of Judaism. It looks to the relationship between God and the Israelites as revealed through creation, Abraham, Moses and the Prophets as foundational for the relationship between Christ and His followers. Judaism and Christianity are monotheistic, worshipping one God, and sees their followers as a people in a covenant relationship with their God.

Christianity developed its practices around the life, teaching, miracles, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The name “Christ” is a title, rather than a family name, and is from the Greek word meaning “Messiah.” Jesus was born in 4 BCE in Bethlehem to descendants of David. Most place his crucifixion and death at 30 CE.

Christianity began in Jerusalem and soon spread through the regions of Judea, Samaria and neighboring countries. Persecution from the Roman Empire drove away many believers. Centers of Christianity formed around the cities of Alexandria, Egypt, which became the roots for the Eastern Orthodox Church and Rome, which produced the Roman Catholic Church.

The Roman Catholic Church

The Catholic Church organizational hierarchy is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the Pope. The church maintains that its bishops are the successors of Christ’s apostles and that the Pope holds a passed on authority as successor to the role of Peter, who was given a primary leadership position among the apostles.

Over the centuries the Catholic Church has tried to maintain a balance between providing the theological and spiritual leadership for its believers and influencing the non-believing world around it. The Catholic Church is the largest non-political provider of educational and medical services around the world. The church’s teachings attempt to mold and shape the moral and ethical beliefs of people and thus influence the laws and regulations that governments pass to enforce those beliefs.

Beliefs and Traditions

Among the unique features of the teaching and doctrines of Roman Catholicism is the belief in the supremacy of the Papacy and the celebration of the seven sacraments. The church develops the doctrine that on matters of faith and practice the official teachings of the Pope are infallible. The Catholic Church teaches that it is the one true church founded by Jesus.

The sacraments are a foundational part of Catholic belief and practice. They make up portions of the worship service. They are meant to assist the believer in overcoming temptations to sin and wanderings from the teachings of the church. The sacraments not only mark important occasions in the life cycle, like birth and marriage and death, but also point to devoted daily Christian living.

Death and Mourning

Roman Catholics believe that death is the separation of the spirit which is eternal from the physical body. The Catholic funeral service focuses on the entry of the deceased into the afterlife and the compassion of God to provide comfort for the grieving. This strong belief in reward in the afterlife provides optimism and assurance that the deceased will reside in a better place.

Roman Catholicism offers a structured tradition for responding to loss and grief. The traditions are meant to provide security and comfort while guiding the bereaved along an appropriate path of grief recovery. The specific rituals and times of mourning have changed and evolved over the years.

Today, the Catholic Church officially distinguishes three types of mourning: heavy or deep mourning, half mourning, and light or second mourning. The amount of time spent in each mourning period would be determined by the relationship shared with the deceased and the individual’s commitment to the Catholic traditions.

After Life

The Roman Catholic tradition, like most strands of Christianity, affirm a belief in life after death for everyone. In the Catholic faith, those who have made peace with God through acceptance and adherence to the teachings of Jesus and participation in the sacraments of the church will live forever in heaven. Those who have failed to make such a commitment to God will spend eternity in a place of punishment.

The Catholic faith, like many religious traditions, place a strong emphasis upon the good works that a believer should accomplish during their life on earth. According to Catholic Church doctrine, purgatory is an intermediate state after death in which those who are destined for heaven go to purify any uncovered sins. No one stays in purgatory forever, only until they have reached a level of holiness and are allowed entry into heaven.

Traditions, Customs & Rituals

The Roman Catholic Church has rituals and traditions regarding the funeral service. The church recognizes three specific funeral rites.

The Vigil Service, sometimes called the Wake, is usually conducted in the funeral home or church on the evening before the Funeral Mass. Friends and family will gather to provide comfort and strength to the grieving family. The Vigil Service often includes reading of Scriptures and prayers, often directed to provide comfort for the bereaved. Stories of the life of the deceased and eulogies are to be given during this service. This time is often the first opportunity for friends to meet with the grieving family. Some who will not be able to attend the Funeral Mass because of other obligations will attend this service as an expression of condolence.

The Funeral Mass is held in the church building. If at all possible, the body is present in the burial casket for this service. The Funeral Mass includes the Reception of the Body, the Liturgy of the Word, the Liturgy of the Eucharist, and the Final Commendation and Farewell. The church provides a list of recommended Scriptures and songs that may be used in the Funeral Mass. The local priest plays the most significant role in leading the mourners through the service.

The final rite is the Rite of Committal. This service is usually brief and is performed at the cemetery, either in a chapel or at the grave site. The priest will offer the reading of a meaningful Scripture and will make concluding remarks of comfort for the bereaved. The service concludes with a statement of the committal of the body back to the earth and a prayer.

Many followers of Catholic tradition will have a meal, often served in one of the larger gathering rooms of the church, following the Rite of Committal service. This time together allows for informal encouragement and comfort to the immediate family. It also provides for meeting the needs of those who have traveled distances to attend the funeral. Friends and members of the church often provide the meal.

Grief & Mourning

Christianity in general teaches that death is a natural part of the cycle of life and that it is appropriate to grieve the loss of family members and friends. Grieving is a very personal thing, for no two deaths are alike and no two people cope with loss in exactly the same way. Catholics are encouraged to express their grief and to encourage and comfort each other during their time of loss.

Catholics find comfort and strength in the traditions and rituals of the church. The structure of ritual during times of celebration and times of loss provide a path for navigating the changes that life can bring.

While it is not always easy to see a meaning for events during times of stress and loss, Catholics try to view all of the events of life, including suffering and death, as having a purpose ordained by God. Death then is not seen as a total tragedy, but rather as a part of the cycle of life that can be used by God. The period of mourning for Catholics does not have a set amount of time or a dictated demonstration of grief. Each individual is encouraged to show respect for the deceased and to prepare for the days that will follow all within the structure of tradition within the church.