What Are Some of the Customs and Traditions for a Priest at the End of His Life?

by Father Joshua M. Janko
February 19, 2010

Since I was ordained a priest on 3 June 2006, I have attended around 10-12 priest funerals. Honestly, since the death and burial of my own mother in 2001, I have not been very comfortable with funerals. But, early on in my priestly ministry, a brother priest explained to me how important it was for priests to attend the funerals of other priests. I had already known that the bishop encouraged his priests to attend these funerals. But, I am glad I listened to the advice because some of the most meaningful liturgies I have attended occurred at the funerals of priests. I now see them as opportunities for me to pray for the priest who has died as I am able to offer my Mass intention for them. Today, in fact, I did just that for Father Thomas Zimmer. I did not know Fr. Zimmer very well. But, the unity I experienced with him and the other priests who attended his Funeral Mass encouraged me a great deal. This was because all of the priests who attended, with all of our different backgrounds, cultures and experiences, came together around the Altar of the Lord to pray in the Mass for our brother priest who had died. I have been so humbled by these experiences. I was humbled once again today at the Funeral Mass of Father Zimmer. I know I will be humbled again tomorrow at the Funeral Mass of Father McCormack.

But, what are some of the traditional practices that accompany a priest when they die?

Well, I should first start out in sharing a traditional practice that was part of my own ordination. The traditional practice includes the newly ordained priest having his hands consecrated with the oil by the Bishop. Soon after, he would cleanse his consecrated hands with a white cloth called a maniturgium. The newly ordained would present the maniturgium to his mother at his Mass of Thanksgiving. These white cloths are traditionally given to the new priest's mother to symbolize the gift of her son to the service of the Church. Father Zimmer and Father McCormack most likely would have given these white clothes to their own mothers which would have been buried with them when they died before their sons.  The tradition goes that when the mother of a priest gets to the gates of Heaven, Saint Peter would ask her: "What did you give to God during your life?" The mother can respond: "I gave God one of my sons."

Another custom when a priest dies is for him to be buried in his clerics and then vested in a white chausible. At Father Zimmer's Funeral Mass, the priest shared in the homily that he had been vested by Father Zimmer on the day of his own ordination. Then, he had the experience of helping vest the body of Father Zimmer in preparation for his funeral. Additionally, the lid of the casket of a priest is removed during the hours of the visitation so the family, friends and all the faithful who the priest has ministered to over the years are able to pay their last respects and say a prayer. With Father McCormack, he was vested in the white vestments that were worn by Bishop Higi when the new Church of Saint Alphonsus Liguori was dedictated in 2004. And, some may have noticed during the hours of the visitation that Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus were stationed near the body of Father McCormack. Father was himself a Fourth Degree Knight and former chaplain of the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Council #12510.

There are also many traditions and practices that revolve around the chalice of a priest who has died. Oftentimes, when a priest is ordained, his family helps to support him in getting the chalice that he will use in his ministry, especially when he celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. There is a great deal of sentimental value attached to a priests chalice. There is in essence a legacy attached to the chalice of a priest. So, it has been a traditional custom for a deceased priest to will his chalice to another priest or a man studying to be a priest (a seminarian) so that the "legacy" of the deceased priest's ministry may live on. For instance, the chalice that my family helped me get prior to my ordination in 2006 has symbols and images which have helped me to focus even more when I am celebrating the Mass. When I was looking for a chalice, I ended up finding a beautiful old chalice that just needed to be refurbished and refinished so that I could then take it up and put it to good use. My chalice had actually been used for many years prior to myself by another priest. I do not know the name of that priest, but whoever he is, I remember him in my prayers at the Mass. His legacy in a sense lives on because his chalice is still being used by me today. The chalice, like some of the priest vestments, is very important in the life of a priest. After a priest dies, there is a hope that the chalice will continue to be used by other priests while celebrating the Sacred Liturgy.

Additionally, there is a program in place through the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus called the Memorial Chalice Program. Many who attended Father McCormack's visitation on 19 February 2010 saw in the reception room a gold chalice with the Fourth Degree Knights of Columbus insignia. Like I mentioned, Father Douglas himself was a Fourth Degree Knight of Columbus. The Memorial Chalice Program is designed to memorialize a Fourth Degree Sir Knight who has passed away by presenting a chalice, with his name engraved on the chalice, to the family of the deceased. Upon the family’s recommendations, the chalice is then presented to a priest, bishop, parish, or mission and the deceased Knight is remembered in every Mass in which the chalice is used. 

And, finally, I will mention one last custom that involves the position of a priest at his own funeral. Normally, the body is placed so that the feet face the altar. However, at a priest's funeral, the priest's casket is placed opposite with the head towards the altar. This is symbolic of the position that the priest was in when he celebrated the Mass, and so it is that he would be positioned in the same way at his very last Mass - his own funeral Mass. We hear from Psalm 110:4: "You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek."

I hope that you have gained some more insight into the traditions and customs that are present when a priest dies. Father Thomas Zimmer and Father Douglas McCormack served the Diocese of Lafayette-in-Indiana faithfully for many years. They blessed many people as priests at many parishes in our diocese. In a special way, Father Douglas McCormack touched the lives and hearts of many parishioners and families here at Saint Alphonsus Liguori Catholic Church in Zionsville, IN. He will be missed. Eternal Rest grant unto them O Lord and let perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the Mercy of God rest in peace.

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