The Latin Requiem Mass

Earlier this month, my husband and I had the privilege of attending the annual Extraordinary Form (also known as Traditional Latin) Solemn Requiem Mass at our parish.  Of all the beautiful liturgies the Church gives us, I am particularly enthralled by this one.  This is the form of the liturgy I want for my own funeral.  Especially amazingly, my parish’s tradition is to use either Faure’s or Mozart’s Requiem Mass at this annual event.  This year it was Faure.

Of course, the All Souls’ Day liturgy and the Mass of Christian Burial used in the Ordinary Form (Novus Ordo Mass) are equally valid as Masses, and equally efficacious for the good of the deceased, as is the Traditional Requiem Mass.  At least in my opinion, however, the particular prayers and rituals of the old Requiem Mass are utterly fascinating, completely unlike anything else in the Church’s liturgical repertoire.  This liturgy, which is often very hard to find now, truly encapsulates the full Christian understanding of death, replete with reminders of the reality of hell, pleading for God’s mercy on the departed, and ultimately expressing hope of eternal life in heaven.  Good musical settings of this ancient liturgy are meant to complement the powerful texts in order to lift the soul to God and awaken the proper sentiments in the worshipper.

Faure’s Requiem (which can be listened to here or purchased here) invokes a feeling of passion, a transcendence that is appropriate to the theme of death.  There is no hint of fear, only peace and trust in God’s mercy, a ready willingness to undertake a difficult undertaking.  What could be more appropriate to a Christian understanding of death, redeemed by Christ and now our gateway to eternal life?  Meanwhile, Mozart’s Requiem liturgy (available here or here) invokes a very different sense of primarily agitation and fear.  This is also quite natural and appropriate in another sense, a reminder that judgment after death is also a very real and serious matter.  One wonders whether this unfinished piece was intended to end with a final peaceful movement for the ‘In Paradisum.’  Or perhaps it is even more significant that this agitated masterpiece is in fact unfinished.  After all, only after death will any of us experience resolution to that agitation and know if we been saved.

Of course, the ultimate reason for celebrating a Requiem liturgy (which also has a beautiful Gregorian chant setting available here or here) is to offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass to God for the repose of a soul, or by extension it can be offered for all the deceased.  There are even a couple of significant changes made to the Ordinary of the Mass that reflect the specificity of this intention.  One is that the usual invocations in the Agnus Dei (miserere nobis and dona nobis pacem) are replaced with ‘dona eis requiem’ (grant them rest) and ‘dona eis requiem sempiternam’ (grant them eternal rest) on the third stanza.  Another is that the dismissal, which normally consists of the priest saying ‘Ite, Missa est’ and the people responding ‘Deo Gratias,’ is replaced in the Requiem Mass with the priest saying ‘Requiescant in pace,’ (May they rest in peace) and the people responding ‘Amen.’

The Propers for this Mass are also particularly appropriate to this intention, which has two components.  Firstly, we are praying that in each person’s Particular Judgment at the moment of death, God may have mercy on the person, forgive his sins, and allow Him to receive the benefit of Christ’s Redemptive Sacrifice.  We can pray thus, even after the person’s death, because God is not bound by time.  This is why the Offertory prayer of the Requiem Mass begins, in translation:

Lord Jesus Christ, King of Glory, free the souls of all the faithful departed from from the punishments of hell and from the deep pit.  Free them from the mouth of the lion, lest the underworld absorb them, lest they fall into darkness.  But let Saint Michael the standard-bearer guide them into the holy light which Thou didst once promise to Abraham and his seed.

This is also the reason why the sequence Dies Irae is said.  Although written in the first person and literally speaking of the General Judgment at the end of time, here it is being applied to the Particular Judgment of the deceased and is a plea for mercy for him.

The second component of this Mass’s intention is to be mindful that, if the person is granted mercy, admittance to heaven may not, indeed likely will not, occur immediately.  As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains (paragraphs 1030-31a):

“All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect.” 

We are told that those in purgatory are suffering immensely, and that it is important to pray for them in order that they be may be fully purified and brought into heaven.  Although any Mass can be offered for that intention, the Requiem Mass is particularly designed to focus on this.  This is why the Introit and many other Propers throughout the Mass repeat the same theme: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat eis.”  Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them. This is the Church’s standard prayer for the deliverance of the souls in purgatory from their sufferings. 

There are different options for the readings in the Requiem Mass, but the common theme of them all is the hope of the Resurrection and eternal life, which is what Christ has won for us and what we are hoping to obtain for the dead by praying for them.  Finally, the Requiem Mass usually concludes with the beautiful chant ‘In Paradisum,’ which is translated:

“May the angels lead you into paradise, may the martyrs receive you at your coming and lead you through into the holy city Jerusalem.  May the chorus of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have eternal rest.”

Thus, the references to hell and judgment that are in the liturgy are not there for the sake of doom and gloom or to cause unhealthy fear.  Rather, they are necessary in order to stand in contrast with the message of the Resurrection in Christ.  This Mass does an amazing job combining all themes into a truly integrated liturgy that reminds us of the horror of sin and hell, the Redemption won by Christ, and the eternal life and happiness that we hope for through His mercy, both for those who have gone before us and eventually for ourselves.  It is truly a great ancient liturgy of the Church! 

Above all, let us ever remember, especially during the remainder of the month of November, to pray for the Poor Souls.

Disclosure: Links to Amazon in this post are affiliate links.

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