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Mors Stupebit (Death will be stunned)

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Everything that you need to know about the Requiem Mass according to the Usus Antuquior

As we begin the month of November with All Saints and Commemoration of All Souls, we are reminded to pray to pray for the souls of the faithful departed, especially those in purgatory. The reminder is not only for us to keep in mind those that have passed, but also for ourselves to bear in mind that our journey on Earth is not our most important one and the ultimate goal is to enter in to the Kingdom of Heaven to enjoy eternal life with God Our Father. 

The requiem (funeral) Mass is often mistaken as an opportunity for us that remain to celebrate the life lived of a person and give thanks to God. This is not really the case in the Usus Antiquior. The primary focus at a requiem Mass or a votive Mass for the dead is to pray for the soul to have a happy repose. It is a Spiritual Work of Mercy for us  to pray for a person’s soul. This is simply because we do not presume to know a person’s soul or even if they are going to heaven. These prayers offered at all Masses, but in particular at the Requiem and votive Masses emphasise the efficacy that our prayers have. This obligation that we have is encouraged by scripture and tradition. Every part of the liturgy points toward the solemnity, the humility of us as Christians pleading for the soul to receive a merciful judgement, as well as importance for us that remain to be mindful of the seriousness that needs to be adhered to regarding our own soul, because we cannot be sure when our time on Earth may come to an end. 

 The most most immediate change that most people notice when attending the Usus Antuquior during a requiem, or Commemoration of All Souls, or perhaps a votive Mass for the dead is the almost exclusive use of black vestments by the celebrant or any others that may be assisting, This is different from the Ordinary form that permits violet or white. It is a symbol of death and is a way to show mourning. It is not all however doom and gloom, these vestments are never plain black in their design. Even on the most simply designed chasubles, there is usually a trim of either gold or silver. The reason for this balance between black which is a natural association with the death of someone, often a close friend or family member which is a difficult and trying time, and the gold or silver trim that reminds us that Our Lord, Who has also tasted the darkness of death, sin and death is conquered for ever: “Death, where is thy sting? Grave, thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:55).  That despite the fall of Man as a result of the sin of Adam it talem ac tantum meruit habere Redemptorem (“was right to have so Great a Redeemer”), as the Exsultet from the Paschal Vigil reminds us.

While it is not explicitly believed that the black vestments used in a requiem mass are connected to the black cassock of a priest, there are some who believe that the cassocks colour is not only about the simplicity of the priest, but also that he must  die unto himself. In the world, this type of self-offering may be mourned, like the death of someone. But, the priest, like Saint Paul, is pleased to die to self: “For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain!” (Phil. 1:21). The priest who puts on Christ (cf. Rom. 13:14) uniquely in his Sacred Ordination, promises “not to gratify the desires of the flesh” (ibid.). 

It should be noted that, even in the usus antiquior, the tabernacle is never veiled in black: Our Lord, present in the Blessed Sacrament, is alive and active in His Church, even when we mourn the loss of our faithful. Jesus, Who weeps over the death of His friend Lazarus, weeps with us in our sadness, but never gives in to the weakness of despair. 

An interesting norm is the use of red vestments in the funeral of cardinals and of the Roman Pontiff. The colour red, proper to a cardinal in his usual dress, is a sign of his willingness to offer his life for Christ, as a martyr of the Church of which he is called to be a Prince. The Pope, then, most typically a man who was first a cardinal, is buried in red vestments.

Other differences that one may experience in this liturgy, are the omission of certain prayers, and also amendment of certain conclusion to prayers this is to point to the simpler nature of the liturgy. The first is at the prayers at the foot of the altar, the Psalm 42 is omitted. Other omissions include the Gloria & Credo. The prayer Munda cor meum before the Gospel and the preparatory prayers for the Gospel, the blessing of the water at the Offertory, and the Gloria Patri at Lavabo. The Agnus Dei is altered to end saying “dona eis requiem”, and even the Dismissal is Requiescant in pace, rather than Ite Misse Est.

While it is custom to have a coffin of the soul for whom the requiem Mass is being offered to be present at the foot of the sanctuary, outside of the sanctuary gates, What may seem to some as a strange site at the Commemoration of All Souls or a votive Mass for the dead is a coffin when there is no one in particular that it is being offered for. This is known as a catafalque and is empty and traditionally covered with a funeral pall, surrounded by six unbleached candles.  It is a symbolic representation of the deceased. When it is present the priest will pray the absolution for the deceased as if the deceased were present. This is a common custom for Commemoration of All Souls. 

Many modern innovations have attached themselves to the exequial rites of the human persons. Passing phrases like “celebrating the life of” or “in memory of” don’t quite express the importance and dignity of the funeral rites, which are designated for solemn prayer for the repose of a soul. In part, this must be an effect of the corrupted view of death and the value of the Mass, prevalent since the fifteenth century. If one absents oneself from the duty of prayers for the dead, all one has left is their memory, and the commission to celebrate their lives. But what about the real state of a soul, in venial sin, who needs our prayers? To this, the Church applies the merits of the Holy Mass, and prayers for the dead: no soul, dying within the care of the Church, should be deprived these final consolations, promised to the faithful. While the Sacred Mysteries are offered to the glory of God as a primary end, they are also offered for the needs of the living and the dead: at the Requiem Mass, the intention of those praying is for the speedy release from purgatory, and the eternal redemption of the dead. This is, of course, subsequent to the honour offered to God in every offering of the Mass: in His mercy, the Lord Who is made present on the altar, presents the souls of those we love to the Father’s mercy, experienced supernaturally in purgatory. It’s important to remember the legacy of the dead: wakes in their honour, with stories shared and refreshments offered, are valuable at a communitarian level. But these do not begin to consider the importance of the graces won for souls in the solemn, reverent offering of the Saving Sacrifice. 

Finally there are a couple of pieces of music that may seem foreign in comparison to a Sunday Mass.  The most incredible (at least in my personal opinion) is the sequence that is  sung before the Gospel, after the Tract. It is known as the Dies Irae (Day of Wrath). Yes, you have heard it before even if you haven’t been to a requiem Mass. In this link, it shows how often it is used in secular movies . This brilliant piece is attributed to Thomas of Celano (a Franciscan) and details the final days and the judgement that is attached. It is truly beautiful and paints a picture of what Revelations is talking about in the last judgement (Revelation 20:11-15). I urge you to listen to this version, (also below) whilst having the translation open, found at this link. 

Remember to pray for the Souls of the Faithful departed in purgatory. Ensure that you attend the sacrament of penance and the Mass regularly. Pray your Rosary every day. 

V. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.
R. Et lux perpetua luceat eis.

Fidelium animae, per misericordiam Dei, requiescant in pace. Amen.

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