Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

“He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead …”

October 27, 2013

Oct. 10, 2013, was the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great Italian opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. The Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus presented on that date Riccardo Muti’s interpretation of Verdi’s Requiem Mass, his last major work. Muti, the music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, is the foremost Verdi interpreter of this generation. The performance on Oct. 10 bore proof of the genius of both Verdi and Muti and of the great musical expertise of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. For those of us privileged to attend the concert, it was an event to remember and treasure.

Whenever I listen to a requiem Mass by a great composer, I hear in the back of my mind the chanted requiem Masses that were the experience of all daily Mass goers before the Second Vatican Council. In grade school, we sang that Mass day after day as the priest, in black vestments, prayed for the faithful departed. Now we can remember the dead in celebrating Masses that follow the regular liturgical calendar of saints’ feast days and regular weekdays with their expanded readings from Holy Scripture. This enables us to live with the saints in greater intimacy and respect the rhythm of the church’s year of grace in the liturgical cycle. Still, the words and the music of the Latin requiem Mass remain in my memory. They remind me not just of grade school days long past but also of our destiny in eternal life still to come.

The most dramatic part of Verdi’s Requiem is his musical interpretation of the requiem Mass “sequence,” the long poem about the Last Judgment, sung just before the Gospel is proclaimed. Many composers have put this “Dies irae” to music, often quoting the still familiar introductory notes of the chant melody. The chant always flows evenly, allowing the dramatic power of the words to deliver their impact on the worshipper; Verdi’s music, by contrast, dramatically drives into one’s inner life verses that are alternately terrifying and consoling.

The first two verses present the day of judgment as a terrifying event:

Day of wrath, day of anger
when the world will dissolve in ashes,
as foretold by David and the Sibyl.

There will be great trembling
when the judge descends from heaven
to scrutinize all things.

Other verses console:

Remember, sweet Jesus,
that my salvation caused your suffering;
do not forsake me on that day.

Faint and weary you have sought me,
redeemed me, suffering on the cross;
may such great effort not be in vain.

The depiction of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo covers the back wall of the Sistine Chapel, and was always before the eyes of the cardinals who elected Pope Francis over six months ago, reminding us of the eternal consequences of our decision. Depicting the Last Judgment in music serves the same purpose. Bringing this conviction of our faith to the celebration of the Eucharist on Nov. 2, the Feast of All Souls, incorporates the Last Judgment into the sacrifice that brings forgiveness before judgment. In receiving the Eucharist, we encounter the judge who wants to forgive.

The purpose of the funeral Mass is not to “celebrate” the life of a person who recently died; it is to incorporate that person’s life, death and hope of resurrection into the life, death and resurrection of Christ, our redeemer. We don’t sing the “Dies irae” at Masses for the dead any longer; but we do remind ourselves of the Last Judgment each time we recite the Creed and in the Lord’s Prayer itself, when we say “Thy kingdom come.”

We pray for the dead at every Mass, so that they may enter eternal life finally cleansed, in purgatory, of the effects of their already forgiven sin. Death itself remains one such consequence or effect of sin, even though Christ has surely redeemed the world. It is therefore a great act of charity to pray for the dead, and we neglect our duty to our neighbor when we do not pray for them. On Nov. 2, the entire church prays for the dead in a liturgy that brings together sinfulness and redemption, judgment and eternal life. In that celebration, the living and the dead are joined in the life of grace here and of glory hereafter.

The “Dies irae” concludes, with great realism and anticipation:

My prayers are unworthy,
but, good Lord, have mercy,
and rescue me from eternal fire.

Give me a place with the sheep,
and separate me from the goats;
lead me to your right hand.


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