November 2, All Souls Day, is the one of last liturgical remnants of the doctrine of Purgatory and the need to pray for the souls therein. Since the Second Vatican Council’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, which called for funeral rites to “express more clearly the paschal character of Christian death,” the homilies and general aura of Catholic funerals have often ignored Purgatory and instead canonized the deceased among the heavenly blessed.
In reaction to this distortion some Catholics have longed for the funerals of old, whose black vestments and antiphons made clear that the deceased’s journey to God was at its beginning rather than its final end. At the center of this funeral Mass remains the Dies irae—the towering sequence before the gospel that foretells the second coming of Christ as the frightful “day of wrath and doom impending . . . when the Judge His seat attaineth, and each hidden deed arraigneth, nothing unavenged remaineth.” Cowering before the “King of majesty tremendous,” the Sequence pleads for salvation by the merits of Christ’s sufferings on the cross.
The great scholar Father Adrian Fortescue rightly labels the Dies irae as “the finest of all” liturgical sequences. He traces its composition to one of St. Francis’ original companions, who intended the poem for private devotion. By the fifteenth century much of Europe had incorporated it into funeral Masses, a move that required six concluding lines to be “added awkwardly to fit it for this purpose.” So it remained in every Catholic funeral until 1970. Today it survives liturgically in the same funeral Mass of the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite and as an optional hymn for the Liturgy of the Hours on All Souls Day, with an added refrain asking God to join us with his blessed.
Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger sees in the Dies irae “the tendency to such a false development” that leads Christians away from the joyful cry of “Our Lord, come” (Maran atha) toward a “terrifying ‘day of wrath’ (Dies irae), which makes man feel like dying of woe and terror, and to which he looks forward with fear and dread.” This fear pushes aside “a decisive aspect of Christianity, which is thus reduced for all practical purposes to moralism and robbed of that hope and joy which are the very breath of its life.”
For all its splendor and internal dignity, and even with its subsequent additions, the Dies irae does not fit the theological tenor of the Catholic funeral, which while mourning the dead and begging for pardon ultimately looks beyond human mortality to the immortality promised in Christ’s resurrection. The Preface for the Dead—used along side the Dies irae in the Extraordinary Form and also in the Ordinary Form—strikes the right balance between these two realities: “In Christ the hope of a blessed resurrection has beamed upon us: so that those who are saddened by the certainty of dying may be consoled by the promise of a future deathless life. For to Your faithful people, Lord, life is changed, not taken away; and when the home of this earthly sojourn is dissolved, an eternal dwelling is made ready in heaven.”
As the Dies irae solemnly warns, the dead will be judged and will have to render an account of their stewardship during their life on earth. Sins will be exposed and will have to be accounted, and their consequences may well lead to temporary purification or even eternal punishment. For good reason, then, does St. Paul caution to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But this fear is not the cowering fear of a slave before a cruel master, but the pious timor Domini that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, who strengths us to look to God with awe, reverence, and humility. We can approach our judgment with this same spirit, teaches Cardinal Ratzinger, precisely because he who is our judge is also our brother. “Thus over the judgment glows the dawn of hope; it is not only the day of wrath but also the second coming of our Lord.”
All Souls Day reminds us that some who have gone before us have been judged worthy of a place at the heavenly banquet, but they still must pay the price for the sins they committed. For them we pray, mourn, and sacrifice that their purification may be soon completed. Our prayers this day point to the necessary balance that our theology and funerals must maintain between salvation and hope, on the one hand, and judgment and punishment on the other. Hope detached from the realities of sin, accountability, and judgment leads to naïve assumptions of salvation for the wanton, and judgment without faith in Christ the judge causes anxiety contrary to the good promised to us.
The middle of the Dies irae begs Christ the judge to pardon our sins based on the suffering he endured for our salvation. This is precisely the function of funeral Masses and of All Souls Day. It is the paschal mystery re-presented in the sacrifice of the Mass, above all else, that is the ultimate reminder of the promise of salvation and the true nature of judgment and redemption that, at root, is not about wrath, but love.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is Adjunct Professor of Theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.
RESOURCES Dies irae
Fortescue, Adrian, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy
Ratzinger, Joseph, Introduction to Christianity
Vatican II, Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy
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