It’s Time to Bell the Cat – Revisiting Human Traditions

By Fr. Warner D’Souza –

My dear friend, the late Fr Larry Pereira always said that religion is like a river; at its source it is pure, and then as it comes down into the plains, people throw their rubbish in it.  I get it when people rightly express their frustrations at human religious traditions, especially those linked to sacramental celebrations; traditions not advocated in any form by the Catholic faith.

What ails the Christian community, or for that matter any other religious community, is not the faith as expressed in the scriptures, but the ‘rubbish of human traditions’ that are thrown in the name of God and faith. One such tradition is the distribution of ‘snack boxes’ distributed after funeral, month’s mind and anniversary masses.

Growing up, I was routinely hauled to ‘seventh day’, ‘month’s mind’ and ‘first death anniversary’ masses. Mercifully, the seventh day mass has been ‘laid to rest’. Let’s look at the evidence in the ‘General Introduction to the Roman Missal’ 336/37 which states, ‘The funeral Mass has first place among the Masses for the dead. On the occasions of news of a death, final burial, or the first anniversary, Mass for the dead may be celebrated.’ So how did the seventh day mass and month’s mind mass come about?

I have a hunch. Back in the day, and I really need you to stretch your mind to a period beyond even your birth, funerals were a race against time. Hot tropical climates, like India, cause the corpse to rapidly deteriorate. Funeral masses and burials were conducted within the day. In a world that lacked even the telephone, the tolling of the Church bell became the sole means of communication. Perched at the highest point of the village, the bell became to a village what satellite communication is to us. It was the ‘Whatsapp’ of the day.

Mourners from the village would stream in to pay their respects, and by the time the sun had set, the dead had been laid to rest. But then what about relatives in far flung villages? After all, even the tolling of the largest bell would have its limitations. This is where our traditions begin. Messengers would be sent out to deliver the news and by the time they had all poured in from every valley and hilltop, seven days had passed.

Like Christ who visited the grave of His friend Lazarus, the mourners’ desire to gather around the grave was perhaps linked to the desire to be gathered at the Eucharist where the faith in the resurrection was celebrated. Here is where necessity gets hijacked by tradition.

It would be only natural that the dusty feet of the mourners, find rest. To ease the pain of a loss of a loved one, generous neighbours cooked food and sent some for the family and the friends, a generous ritual that often stretched several days. Travel being what it was, the mourners pitched their tents and stayed on for a while. After all, no one wanted to make another tiring journey for what had most probably become another tradition – the month’s mind mass.

Today, modern communication and technology being what it is, funerals are not so cumbersome to organize. Often because the loved ones have migrated to distant countries, the need to postpone the funeral rites has become a necessity. Attached unfortunately, are the traditions attached to the funeral.

While in days gone by one could not skip over to a café across the road and satisfy one’s hunger, one was obliged to receive the hospitality of the relative; both board and lodge. Today the satisfaction of one’s hunger, if it so arises, is easily met though the many food outlets dotted all over the city.  Yet the tradition of serving snack boxes has thrived.

In days gone by, the family would gather after the mass for a cup of coffee and biscuits (let’s not talk of some men who felt the need to open a bottle of alcohol); today that has evolved into a more elaborate packet of snacks. Competition being what it is, you even get Chinese food or Biryani.

I understand the courtesy of providing ‘a snack’, but should that not come from the friends and relatives of deceased in favour of those who grieve a lost one?  Not only has one to deal with the loss of a loved one but even more, the burden of meaningless traditions now come to play – as an imposition upon the family in mourning.

And then there is the issue of another financial expenditure to the already complex demands of funeral accessories. The answer to my mind is to take away the shame imposed by society for nor providing for these so called ‘courtesies’. If the affluent stop these traditions, the poor will find the courage to break loose. The need of the hour is to focus on the sacraments that cause us to gather, and not human traditions that come to roost.

Many years ago I read ‘a parable’ written by Fr Anthony D’Mello. It spoke of a bride who arrived at her marital house to find a cat tied to a pole.  Evidently, the mother-in-law found a solution to deal with the family pet that just would not sit still as the guests arrived. Many years later, the young bride, herself now a grown up woman, was about to welcome her new daughter-in-law. Something was amiss she felt, and then remembered… a cat had to be tied to a pole before the new daughter in law arrived.

It’s time we untied the cat to CATholic traditions. It’s time to bell the cat!

Fr. Warner D’Souza is a Catholic priest of the Archdiocese of Bombay. He has served in the parishes of St Michael’s, Mahim, St Paul’s, Dadar East, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Bandra and at present is the priest in charge of St Jude Church, Malad East. He is a lecturer of Medieval and Local Church History at St. Pius X Seminary, Mumbai. He is also the Director of the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum and is the co-ordinator of the Committee for the Promotion and Preservation of the Artistic and Historic Patrimony of the Church.

Also, do read Fr. Warner’s immensely loveable blog: Pottypadre



  1. Our main failure is lack of love for one another. There is a famous song which says “We are Christians by our love.” Jesus came for two things love and justice. If we accept this then our whole community will change. In order that our presence must be felt by all around .love and unity should be deeply engrained in us
    We are there at funeral services , yes very much so. But after.that everything is forgotten. The Lord said the grief stricken should be comforted
    When I was in Mumbai many in the community spoke to me about this aspect and the family cell took it up
    These are my observations of our community where we need to make a change.not forgetting the frills and fancies that Fr Warner has mentioned

  2. I do agree that some of the newer traditions are rather senseless. “snack boxes”? When a family is mourning, either be of some help to them or just don’t bother but expecting food and what not for being there for the funeral is a big blunder and discourtesy I feel. I wonder when we will have the courage to dump it all and really show love and respect to the dead.

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