“Remember your death,” is a slogan you may have heard. In today’s world, it’s something that is often shoved to the side as something avoidable when we ignore it. But the Catholic Church, always desiring our greater good, brings death to our attention not as something to be dreaded, but as a natural part of life.
The tradition of the Requiem Mass for the dead is a beautiful tradition which the modern Church has lost. Yet, it contains a power beyond what one might imagine.
I recently had two experiences with the Requiem: I attended a Requiem Mass composed by Durufle, sung by the Franciscan University Schola, and also watched the film “The Defiant Requiem,” a moving documentary on the power of music amid the strife of a concentration camp.
In the film, Rafael Schachter is Jewish Czech opera-choral conductor and pianist who is taken to the concentration camp of Theresienstadt. To combat the darkness that threatens the prisoners with despair, Schachter uses the piano he finds in the basement to bring music to his fellow inmates and eventually brings about an incredible artistic movement within the camp, where plays, operas and many such feats take place.
He eventually finds 150 prisoners to learn Verdi’s Requiem, who perform it 16 times before nearly all of them are shipped to Auschwitz to die. The choir’s last performance was a forced show in June 1944 for the Red Cross visit, for which the Nazis created all kinds of deceptions to make it appear as if the camp was a refuge rather than a place of suffering for the Jews.
This film speaks of the incredible power which music had to rouse within the people a fighting spirit, singing words of justice to come with the Nazis’ future downfall. The Jews could do so freely since it was a famous work and the application was not necessarily implied. But the music brought hope and humanity back into a people who otherwise might have given up at the prospect of death.
Yet, the people were suffering. They saw fellow prisoners dying around them, and prisoners being shipped to die in other camps. To be joyful was not appropriate at such a time. And so, through the Requiem, the prisoners mourned their dead. They mourned their friends and family who were separated from them forever. But this acknowledgment of death brought about a greater awareness of the life within the Czechs and anyone else in the camp. Death would not have the final note of the Requiem.
Schachter gave the Jews of Theresienstadt a prospect of life amid the death all around them. The film itself does an excellent job conveying this message by means of the music, whether in the background or the forefront, and maintaining the tragedy of the history while presenting the idea of hope in ultimate victory despite current loss and death.
This Mass for the dead brought life to the broken world inside Theresienstadt. Just so, the Requiem Mass celebrated in Steubenville this past weekend spoke of death—but never without a reference to peace, eternal light, the resurrection of the dead or the promise of mercy.
The music in both Requiems is not music of defeat. It is not sad or dark, but rather points toward heaven and eternity. In Durufle’s Requiem, there is sorrow and heartbreakingly high and poignant notes, but they are always followed by the resolution of a full chord or the comfort of a major key.
The important message here is that we are never left without hope. Whether we face the darkness of a concentration camp or simply the darkness of sin in everyday life, we are meant to press on. Mourning is an important part of the process, however. We mourn our dead, or our sins, as the case may be. Then we get up, eager to overcome the darkness with the life and light of Christ. There is life in the Requiem.