You are not signed in as a Premium user; you are viewing the free version of this program. Premium users have access to full-length programs with limited commercials and receive a 10% discount in the store! Sign up for only one day for the low cost of $1.99. Click the button below.
In the old form of the Roman rite, a funeral Mass or a Mass on All Souls' Day is called a Requiem Mass. That word, "Requiem," comes from the opening words of the Introit: Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine — "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord."
Prior to the recitation of the gospel, there is a long hymn known by its opening words, "Dies Irae." It's a type of hymn traditionally called a sequence. The hymn discusses the end of the world and the final judgment. It also expresses the soul's trepidation at its own particular judgment.
It is often attributed to Thomas of Celano, an early member of the Franciscan order known for his biographical works about St. Francis of Assisi.
November is the month in which we pray in a special way for the poor souls in Purgatory. It seems appropriate, then, to take a look at the "Dies Irae."
Dies Irae - Gregorian Chant (with lyrics and translation)
At this link you will find a document with two columns. The left column is the complete text in Latin, while the right column is my own translation.
Throughout the body of this article, I will discuss specific sections of the sequence that are difficult to understand or particularly interesting.
To begin, let's take a look at the opening stanza, which translates as follows:
Dies irae, dies illa
solvet saeclum in favilla,
teste David cum Sibylla.
The day of wrath — that day! —
Will consume the age in smoldering ashes,
By testimony of David along with the Sibyl.
I translated the word favilla as "smoldering ashes." It's a word in Latin that can mean anything from "glowing embers" to "spark." In other words, it doesn't have a direct parallel in English.
When the text speaks of the "testimony of David," this is a reference to King David and his Psalms. The poet who wrote this — whether it was Thomas of Celano or some anonymous friar or monk — probably had in mind certain passages in the Psalms that deal with judgment.
Thou hast caused judgment to be heard from heaven: the earth trembled and was still,
When God arose in judgment, to save all the meek of the earth. [verses 9–10]
That answers why King David is mentioned. But you might be wondering, "What's this about a sibyl? What even is a sibyl?"
The sibyls were ancient pagan prophetesses. They were stationed at temples and other sites throughout the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps the most famous was the Cumaean Sibyl, who makes an appearance in book six of the Aeneid.
Why are pagan prophetesses mentioned in the liturgy? Also, why are several of them portrayed in the Sistine Chapel and other Christian art? The answer probably lies in how prophecies attributed to the sibyls seem to foretell the coming of the Messiah and the end times.
Monsignor Paul Campbell notes about the sibyl reference in this sequence,
The Erythrean Sibyl and the Samian Sibyl are credited with prophecies concerning the last judgment and the end of the world. The reference to the pagan prophetess is likely prompted by the practice of Christian art, which since the 13th century has placed the sibyls at the side of, or rather opposite to, the prophets.
But back to the "Dies Irae."
The third stanza talks about a trumpet blast summoning everyone to the throne of judgment.
Tuba mirum spargens sonum
per sepulcra regionum
coget omnes ante thronum.
A trumpet hurling a marvelous sound
Through the tombs of the regions
Will gather all before the throne.
When this sequence is chanted, the melody lurches upward at the start of this stanza — producing an effect some say is reminiscent of a trumpet blast. This is the kind of thing that often shows up in Gregorian chant — the melody reinforces the words' meaning.
Another passage worth unpacking here is the 13th stanza, which touches on the issue of finding hope:
Qui Mariam absolvisti
et latronem exaudisti,
mihi quoque spem dedisti.
You who absolved Mary Magdalene,
And listened to the thief,
To me also you've given hope.
The Latin simply says "You who absolved Mary," but it's talking about Mary Magdalene and not the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Blessed Mother could not have been "absolved" because she never committed a sin. She was instead preserved from the stain of Original Sin in her mother's womb at the moment of conception.
The "thief" mentioned in the stanza's second line is the Good Thief, who petitioned Our Lord during the Crucifixion:
And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.
And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:42-43)
Most of the sequence is written in rhyming stanzas of three lines each, but there is a brief section at the end that breaks with that.
The last three-line stanza, before it shifts into a different pattern, is as follows:
Oro supplex et acclinis,
cor contritum quasi cinis,
gere curam mei finis.
I beg, a suppliant and bowed low.
My heart's contrite as embers:
Take care of my end.
The poet here compares the burning of his contrite heart to the burning of embers in a fire. This stanza, which concludes the main body of the "Dies Irae," ends on the word "end" — finis in Latin. There's a bit of wordplay there.
After that, the rhyme scheme breaks into groups of two lines instead of groups of three. As noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, some take this as evidence that the last six lines were not part of the original but tacked on at some later date. If true, that would mean the sequence originally ended with the word finis, whereas now the word just marks the end of a main section of the piece.
The final six lines offer a brief recap of the poem thus far, ending with a prayer for the souls of the faithful departed.
Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
iudicandus homo reus:
huic ergo parce, Deus.
Pie Jesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.
That lamentable day,
When man from the smoldering fire
Will rise again, guilty, to be judged.
Spare this one, therefore, O God.
Dear Lord Jesus,
Grant them rest. Amen.
Sometimes (as seen above), the final six lines are divided into a set of four lines that still have a meter and rhyme, followed by a brief prayer for the dead split into two lines.
Let it also be a reminder to consider the Four Last Things: death, judgment, Heaven and Hell.
See the original Latin alongside David Nussman's translation here.