Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The Catholic "Song of Death" - Then and Now

I just ran across this mind-blowing video tracing one of the holiest songs in Christendom from the Middle Ages through some modern composers to... the Lion King of all places. If you haven't seen it, it is worth a few moments of your time.

Aside from the interesting history of this most sampled of songs, what really struck me as I listened was how much the average American Catholic has really lost of his patrimony over these last few decades. This chant was an integral part of the Requiem Mass (the Mass for the dead) prior to the sweeping musical changes in the liturgy following the Second Vatican Council (and much against the Council's expressed wishes, I might add, see for example SC 116 - HERE). This powerful chant was known to all Catholics and was deeply associated with their understanding of, and indeed experience of, death. Hence, in the video, the Dies Irae is simply titled "the song of death."

Today, Catholics seldom here the Catholic "song of death" at a Catholic funeral. Instead, it is much more likely that they'll hear this:

The Church, of course, hasn't changed any of its teachings regarding the Last Things - death, judgement, Heaven, and Hell. The Church professes all she ever has, all she did when the Dies Irae heralded the death of a Catholic, instead of On Eagle's Wings. In fact, the Holy Spirit prevents the Church from ever professing or believing anything other than what she always had. The theologians knows this. Those of us who enjoy reading the Catechism of the Catholic Church know this.

But we also know lex orandi, lex credendi (how we pray determines what we believe). With this in mind, I ask you, dear reader:

1) Does the ordinary Catholic still believe the same thing about death as his mighty forebears? Is the same understanding still there?

2) Does On Eagles' Wings represent the same theology of death as the Dies Irae?

3) If it doesn't, why should we not immediately return the Dies Irae, a song that has hallowed our church's since the sixth century, to its proper place in parish life, banishing On Eagle's Wings to a non-liturgical role (perhaps used at wakes)?

Note: I have no personal animus against On Eagle's Wings. It is a nice song and certainly can have a place to play in the devotional life of Catholics. The question here is not one of "personal taste" (I like this song better than that), but of which song ought to fulfill a liturgical role in the Church's life. It is a question of propriety, not of preference. For more on the this distinction see:
Should Personal Taste Influence the Liturgy?  and
This isn't Football Music

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