Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and sacramental theology and director of the Sacerdos Institute at the Pontifical Regina Apostolorum university.
Q: What is the difference between a funeral Mass and a requiem Mass, if any? I once heard that the term requiem Mass is used when the body of the deceased is not present in the church. — J.A., Warri Diocese, Nigeria
A: The term requiem has several meanings in current use.
In the ordinary form liturgy it is practically equivalent to a funeral Mass with the presence of the body; today it is often called “Masses of Christian Burial.”
However, it can also refer to other Masses celebrated for the deceased without the presence of the body. This could include Masses on the third, seventh, and 30th day after the death, on annual anniversaries, or simply Masses celebrated for the repose of the soul of the deceased on receiving news of death.
Requiem derives from the first word of the Latin introit: “Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine (Eternal rest grant unto them [him/her], O Lord).” The text may be inspired by a passage in an ancient work, 2 Esdras 2:34-35: “Therefore I say to you, O nations that hear and understand, ‘Await your shepherd; he will give you everlasting rest because he who will come at the end of the age is close at hand. Be ready for the rewards of the kingdom, because the eternal light will shine upon you for evermore.’”
This antiphon remains in the current missal as the first entrance antiphon of the Masses for the dead.
The idea of imploring rest for the dead was already present in the Old Testament (see Genesis 47:30; 1 Kings 2:10; 2 Maccabees 12:43-44). Christians believed with St. Paul that they slept in Christ (1 Corinthians 15:18). Therefore, from the first century, Christians offered prayers for the eternal rest of those who had died.
The exact date of the adoption of this introit into the liturgy is not clear, but the fact that the apocryphal book of Esdras was considered canonical until the time of Pope Gelasius (died 495) would indicate an inclusion earlier than the liturgical reforms of Pope St. Gregory the Great (died 604). Its use in funeral liturgies is also witnessed by its presence on numerous sixth-century Christian epitaphs such as those found in Ain-Zara near Tripoli.
As mentioned above, requiem is just one of several entrance antiphons for funeral Masses in the ordinary-form missal. This is just one change in the reform of funeral rites in general which lays less stress on sorrow and grief and more on entrusting the deceased to God’s love, through faith in the salvific value of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Also, the structure of the funeral Mass, except for the rites of commendation at the end, is similar to that of other Masses.
In the extraordinary form of the Roman rite the requiem Mass differs from the regular Mass in several ways. Some parts are omitted or varied as indicated in Title XIII of the rubrics. These include the psalm Iudica at the start of Mass, the prayer said by the priest before reading the Gospel (or the blessing of the deacon, if a deacon reads it), and the first of the two prayers of the priest for himself before receiving Communion.
Other omissions include the use of incense at the introit and the Gospel, the kiss of peace, lit candles held by acolytes when a deacon chants the Gospel, and blessings. There is no Gloria or Creed; the Alleluia chant before the Gospel is replaced by a Tract, as in Lent; followed by the sequence Dies Irae (“day of wrath”). The Agnus Dei is altered. Ite missa est is replaced with Requiescant in pace (May they rest in peace) and the “Deo Gratias” response is replaced with “Amen.”
Current norms allow for funeral Masses with the presence of the body to be celebrated on most days of the year. Although the extraordinary form would be close to this in practice, the rules involved are relatively more complex with respect to the formulas used.
Finally, the word requiem has other applications outside of the liturgy. Musical settings of the propers of the requiem Mass are also called requiems. Many of the world’s greatest composers, some of them not overly religious, have attempted to put these texts to music.
Recently the word can be found applied to any issue that seems to have ceased to exist or is in its ember years. Thus I have observed titles such as “Requiem for a Kingdom” or “No Requiem for the Space Age.”
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