The Old Rite Requiem shows us the awe-inspiring nature of death

An Old Rite Requiem Mass in memory of King Louis XVI is celebrated in the crypt of Strasbourg Cathedral (Wikimedia)

Two old friends of mine have died recently. One had a Requiem Mass in the Ordinary (New) Rite; the other had a Requiem Mass in the Extraordinary (Old) Rite. I was very struck by the contrast in the liturgy between these two Masses. Put simply, the first – where the prayers were much briefer – emphasised the mercy of God; the second put the emphasis on his justice.

You could point out that the two rites thus complement each other; as Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has stated, there is only one Mass, but in different forms. Yet the difference in emphasis is significant. After all, we are people who have language and imagination; words and images make a deep impression and when they are curtailed or altered our response will subtly change.

I have been to many funeral Masses in the Ordinary Rite. Leaving aside the tendency to turn them into celebrations of the dead person’s life, with the attendant eulogies taking place in the church, it is almost impossible not to come away thinking optimistically that God’s mercy trumps everything; that the dead person led a good life; that we too are good people; and that all is well with us and them. Glancing at the words of the new Requiem, I note that the word “mercy” occurs several times, along with a reference to “our true homeland” and its “everlasting joys.”

In severe and solemn contrast, the Old Rite is unremittingly bracing, constantly calling the congregation to contemplate the awe-inspiring nature of death, its utter otherness and its fearful mystery. I recall once trying to explain to a critic of the Church that “holy fear” is not God deliberately trying to terrify us but simply the recognition of one important aspect of our relationship with him. She could not grasp the distinction, maintaining that it was psychologically unhealthy to “frighten” people into obedience.

More than mercy, the Old Rite is not afraid to bring up the subject of Hell several times: in the Collect we pray ( I quote in translation; the Mass is celebrated in Latin) that the dead person may not “be delivered into the hands of the enemy” and that they “may not undergo the pains of hell.” The Gradual and Tract mention the “evil hearing”, the “bond of sin” and the “judgment of punishment”.

The whole of the Dies Irae, the Sequence, as those who attend the Latin Mass know well, is one profoundly beautiful but also calculated to induce that fear of the Lord that my conversationalist could not or would not see. “Leave me not to reprobation”, “Guilty now I pour my moaning”, “when the wicked are confounded/doomed to flames of woe unbounded” are only some of the resonant phrases intoned. The Offertory prayer refers to the “pains of Hell and the bottomless pit” and the Absolution mentions “the weight of thy vengeance” and “dread and trembling” and the thought of “judgment and the wrath to come.”

Perhaps I will be accused of quoting out of context. I’m not. I am just aware that the Old Rite liturgy is a deliberate teaching instrument for the people attending a Requiem (in the case of my friend, who was a convert, they would have included non-Catholics and non-believers) as well as a solemn liturgical occasion. It points us towards God rather to our earthly fraternity, to life after death rather than before it, to eternity rather than human comfort.

Possibly in the past, there was too much of hellfire. Today there is surely too little of it. Being human, we never quite get the balance right.