Thursday, October 1st, 2020

In Manus Tuas: Seven Highlights of Catholic Exequies

(A talk originally delivered at a parish gathering.)  

What follows is something rather informal; this morning I do not have an argument to propose to you in order to establish a thesis of some kind. Better to think of what follows as a set of descriptive notes about our topic; a set of notes that are by no means exhaustive either. And this morning, as the title suggests, you will hear something about our Catholic funeral rites—rites which we ought to regard as one of the most precious treasures of the Catholic religion. It is a shame that we hear so little about them. But I would like to say something about them to you here and now, so that, quite simply, you may marvel at and give thanks for these prayers which shall be said for you and for me after we have departed this life.


We do well to remember that Catholic funeral rites are stational: that is, they take place in certain places and in certain stages.[1] Thus, the first station in our funeral rites is the place where the body is laid out before the funeral Mass. In this country and in our time, that is usually a funeral home. In the case of a priest or bishop, it is often a parish church or the cathedral. In other places in the world, this first station is the home of the deceased.[2]

But wherever the first station occurs, the prayer that is used is Psalm 129, the De Profundis. (Remember that psalms are named by the first few words.) It is a short and powerful psalm, short enough for me to read here . . .

Remember that anytime we encounter a psalm—either when it is sung at Mass, or when you are studying on your own—we always do well to ask who the speaker is. That might seem a strange question at first. Someone might be tempted to say: Well, God is the speaker: it’s the Bible after all. True enough. But God speaks through the voices of those contained in Sacred Scripture. What’s more, the liturgy itself can help us answer the question.

As you just heard, in the presence of the body of the deceased, the Church prays: ‘Out of the depths I cry to you, Oh Lord; Lord, hear my voice.’ Whose voice? Whose voice is the Lord supposed to hear? There are two answers.

The first answer is the soul of the deceased. The faith tells us that the Holy Souls cannot pray for themselves; that is, because they have entered into a state of being where they can no longer merit; that is, they can no longer make acts of cooperation with divine grace in the way that they could while living. This is why the Church prays this psalm on behalf of the deceased. It is the Church speaking up for the soul that can no longer speak for itself.

For the soul of a deceased man or woman is indeed in the depths. The soul is meant to be joined with the body; death is therefore a deeply unnatural state of affairs, even though death is now a natural part of the life of man. Thus, as the psalm says, the soul is waiting; keeping vigil for the day on which soul and body will be rejoined and, please God, safely in heaven. So, Ps 129 is a prayer of petition of mercy and confidence spoken by the Church on behalf of the departed soul.

The second answer is that Ps 129 is also a prayer of the mourner. Death means grief for those who have loved the one who has died. Therefore, Ps 129 expresses the prayer of one who is in the depth of sorrow. Because after all, in the face of death, what can be said? Only the Church has something real to say. And so God himself supplies the words, and entrusts them to be said by the priests of his Church on behalf of the grieving faithful.


Requiem æternam dona ei Domine. These words open the Catholic funeral Mass; and of course, this is precisely why we call it a Requiem. ‘Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord.’ It is a text that is repeated throughout the various stations of our funeral rites, and they are words that are (or should be) well known by all Catholics.

First words matter; important, therefore, for us to appreciate that the word rest is the word that opens our Mass for the Dead. Any number of other texts could have been chosen—especially from the Psalms—that would have been just as fitting: words of victory, perhaps, or mercy or reward or safety or what have you. And yet it is not so. Here, then, at the beginning of the funeral Mass, we are asking God to grant rest to the departed soul. This tells us something about the nature of the spiritual life. If the Church is asking that God grant rest to the dead, the implication is that, heretofore, the faithful had been working. And so it is: the spiritual life is a striving, not a coasting.

It is as God said to David about his son, Solomon:

The son, that shall be born to thee, shall be a most quiet man: for I will make him rest from all his enemies round about.[3]

Or, it is a fulfillment of Our Lord’s words in the Gospel:

Come to me all you that labor and are burdened, and I will refresh you.[4]

Thus, for the Catholic who dies in the state of grace, our funeral rites are a fulfillment of Christ’s promise of rest. We are meant to have that in mind as we approach the altar for Mass.


The Dies Iræ is a remarkable piece of our sacred liturgy. It is a part of Mass that is sung just before the Gospel. It is a twenty verse hymn, written in late Mediaeval Latin, and filled with vivid imagery. We see ashes and trumpets and sepulchers and a throne, a judge, a book. We hear the prayers of a soul pleading for mercy before the judgment seat; we see Our Blessed Lord and St Mary Magdalen; we see the souls of the just and the souls of the damned. As the fourth verse puts it,

Death is struck, and nature quaking, / All creation is awaking, / To its Judge an answer making.

Mozart, Verdi, Stravinsky, and, in the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten, and others, have all composed choral versions of it. It has influenced any number of forms of art, from the Sistine Chapel to poetry to movie soundtracks. In any case, on account of its drama, we can see why.

The Dies Iræ is a cosmic picture of the drama of salvation. Interestingly, the original liturgical place for this text was at the Mass of the First Sunday of Advent, because the Gospel of that day describes the end of the world and the general judgement.[5] But this text (and the melody that accompanies it) is equally fitting where we now find it. It reminds us that the order of redemption contains great mysteries; and that these mysteries are at work behind the appearances of our Sacraments. While the body of the deceased lies still and quiet in church, the soul is caught up in the great panoramic of salvation history. Mother Church knows this, which is why her prayers are intense and varied.

But the Dies Iræ is not all fear and trembling. It ends thus:

Pie Iesu Domine, / Dona eis requiem. Amen. 

‘Oh kind,’ even ‘loving,’ ‘pious,’ or ‘benevolent Lord Jesus, grant them rest. Amen.’ Drama gives way to a simple, child-like petition.


We turn to the Preface, the part of the Mass that precedes the Sanctus and which introduces the Canon. As one liturgical scholar writes,

This ancient liturgical composition is a gem, and puts the funeral inscriptions sometimes seen in modern cemeteries to shame.[6]

And so it is. Perhaps the key phrase of the text is vita mutatur, non tollitur: ‘Life is changed, not taken away.’ It’s for this reason that the same liturgical scholar reminds us that the earliest Catholics did not use the word mortuus on their cemetery inscriptions. Instead, they used the language of sleep, burial, completion; but not death.

Today, oddly enough, we see the same trend—but for precisely the opposite reasons. Today, most people shy away from death as something macabre and terrifying. They don’t like the word death or dead. But this must be the attitude of one who has little or no faith. Rather, on account of the mystery of the resurrection of the body, there are festive notes to our funeral rites. And the Preface of the Mass teaches us the logic of this attitude in four words: vita mutatur, non tollitur. That is the Catholic definition of death: a change in life, not its elimination.


Here, I would pause and mention something, not so much about the funeral Mass, but about the current observance of 2 November. As you know, liturgical law grants the priest the faculty of celebrating three Masses on this liturgical day. This is a rare permission, and it has a history.

In 1915, Pope Benedict XV extended this privilege to the whole Church.[7] He seems to have done this for two related reasons. Of course, the Great War was being fought in Europe. Already by 1915 the First and Second Battles of Ypres were fought, with combined estimated casualties at around 350,000 in two month’s worth of fighting. The Germans used gas for the first time at Second Ypres. Hence, from the perspective of the immense loss of life, the Church needed to provide more suffrages for the dead.

There was another reason, too. Since the Middle Ages, faithful Catholics had the practice of setting up financial legacies with churches and religious houses in order to have a Masses consistently offered for themselves and their families after their deaths. Before the nineteenth century, it would probably be impossible to count the number of Masses that were offered for the Holy Souls each day in Catholic Europe. But the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in particular were not kind to religious life: thousands of religious houses simply ceased to exist, either on account of confiscations or warfare or legal persecution. And with this decimation of religious life, all those Mass legacies for the Holy Souls also disappeared. Benedict XV’s permission, then, for every priest of the Roman Rite to offer three Masses of the dead on November 2nd was a way to make up for the incalculable spiritual loss.

There is one other time during the liturgical year in which the priests of the Roman Church may offer three Masses in a single day, and this by ancient custom: Christmas. Thus, Christmas and All Souls have this interesting connection. In point of fact, then, because of these extra Masses offered on November 2nd, it becomes Christmas Day for the Holy Souls.


But back to our funeral rites properly speaking. At the end of the Requiem Mass, the body is borne to the cemetery. During this procession to the place of burial, antiphon In Paradisum in sung. The text, very brief, is as follows . . .

Right away we can see how fitting this prayer is for a procession. In a certain sense, all the funeral rites taken together are a kind of procession: it is the Church accompanying the soul of the deceased on his or her way to God. This little text combines two scriptural images of heaven: paradise and Jerusalem. In this way, we have allusions to the first book of the Bible and the last. In ch 3 of the book of Genesis we heard of the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise. And in ch 21 of the Apocalypse, St John sees the new Jerusalem, the holy city of the angels and saints and the Church Triumphant.

The prayer also mentions Lazarus and the martyrs: that is, those saints who suffered the most for the name of Christ. They will be present to the souls of the faithful departed who have likewise suffered but remained faithful. And of course, there are the angels. We have only to think of tomorrow’s feast of the Holy Guardian Angels to understand why they would have a place in our prayers for the dead. You and I may not accompany our beloved dead from this life into the next; we must remain behind to fight and suffer on. But the angels have the unique vocation of being able to accompany the soul both in life and in death.

And lastly, we do well to note that this chant ends where the funeral Mass began: with the word requiem. Once again, it is a holy rest that we pray the Holy Souls find at last once they have departed this life. It is what the Church continues to ask for, even as the body is approaches the interment and rest of the grave.


In English speaking countries, it is traditional to end the burial rite with prayers in the vernacular for those standing by the grave. Once such prayer reads . . .

Hopefully, anytime we participate in the funeral rites of Holy Mother Church, our minds are moved to contemplate the reality of death in general, and our own death in particular. Naturally we do not know the hour of our death; but it is certain that there is one.

Our death is the most important moment of our life. And a happy death, indeed, is one that we can salute as it approaches, having been fortified by the Sacraments.


We have left out a great deal; I would end on a note of encouragement, however. I can say that, the more we familiarize ourselves with the funeral rites of the Church, the better off our spiritual life can become. Our observances for the dead are not simply a liturgical sideshow, used only at certain times but otherwise to be not thought of. The monks of Cluny would pray the Office of the Dead daily. I’m told that in Ireland, priests had the custom of saying Psalm 129 for the Holy Souls in their private thanksgiving after Mass.

When it comes to ourselves, at very least we make reference to our last hour any number of times each day: and we do this whenever we pray the Hail Mary.—’Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.’ Everyone here, I am sure, is convinced of Our Lady’s great love for us; please God we may be equally convinced that she will continue to care for us in death. We have been talking about the various ways in which the Church prays for her dead; foolish of us to think that Our Lady is somehow uninvolved.

The German Benedictines have an antiphon they sing at the funerals of their monks. It is brief, but says much:

Ultima in mortis hora / Filium pro nobis ora. / Bonam mortem impetra, / Virgo Mater Domina.

‘In that last hour of death, pray your Son for us. Secure us a good death, O Virgin Mother, Our Lady.’ We ought to entrust the details of our death into her keeping. And if we consider the mystery of death in the company of the Immaculate One, I doubt whether there can be anything macabre or fearful about it.


[1] Not all of the stations are being discussed in this talk. For instance, there are chants and texts that accompany the processions from place to place; this talk omits these.

[2] It ought to be noted, however, that this is not the first time the Church prayers for the deceased. There are prayers said immediately upon the death of the faithful, at the conclusion of the Commendation of a Soul.

[3] 1 Chronicles [Paralipomenon] 22, 9.

[4] Matthew 11, 28.

[5] Cf Schuster, vol V, during his discussion of 2 November. ‘[T]he Dies Iræ is sad and fearful because the generation which dictated it knew the pangs of a guilty conscience.’

[6] Ibid.

[7] Beforehand, it had been granted to Spain and her dominions under Benedict XIV (reg 1740-1758).