Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
Throughout Eastertide—starting on Easter Sunday and ending on the Seventh Sunday after Easter, Pentecost Sunday—the Regina Caeli is the Marian antiphon for Night Prayer (Compline). As an Anglican, Blessed John Henry Newman translated the antiphon in his Tract 75 of the Tracts of the Times, analyzing the Hours of the Roman Breviary:
Rejoice, O queen of heaven,
For He, whom for thy obedience' sake thou didst bear,
Is risen, as he said,
Pray thou God for us.
(Regina cœli, lætare,
Quia quem meruisti portare,
Resurrexit, sicut dixit,
Ora pro nobis Deum.
This is one of the four Marian antiphons the Church uses throughout the liturgical year. The Alma Redemptoris Mater is chanted from the First Vespers of the First Sunday of Advent through the Feast of the Purification on February 2. The Church has been singing the Ave, Regina Caelorum/Hail, O Queen of Heaven since the Purification until the Wednesday of Holy Week. The Salve, Regina/Hail, Holy Queen is the antiphon during Ordinary Time, from Pentecost to the beginning of Advent.
Pope St. Gregory the Great’s Procession
The authorship of the Regina Caeli is unknown, but there is a story in The Golden Legend about Pope St. Gregory the Great (pope from 590 to 604 A.D.) who, while leading a procession with prayers to the Blessed Virgin Mary to end a plague in Rome, heard angelic voices singing the first three verses of the Regina Caeli and added the line, “Ora pro nobis Deum. Alleluia.” The prayers were successful and the plague ended.
Father Edward Caswall translated it for his Lyra Catholica: Containing All the Hymns of the Roman Breviary and Missal, with Others from Various Sources, first published in 1849:
Joy to thee, O Queen of Heaven! Alleluia.
He whom it was thine to bear; Alleluia.
As He promised, hath arisen; Alleluia.
Plead for us a pitying prayer; Alleluia.
When the antiphon is recited—from Easter Sunday to Pentecost the Regina Caeli with its repeated Alleluias replaces the Angelus—the response and prayer are added:
Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
R. For the Lord has truly risen, alleluia.
Let us pray. O God, who gave joy to the world through the resurrection of Thy Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, grant we beseech Thee, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may obtain the joys of everlasting life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Just last week, we had seen Mary at the foot of the Cross, her heart pierced by a sword of sorrow as Simeon had foretold at the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. In the Stations of the Cross, she met Him on the way to Calvary, and each Station, with verses from the Stabat Mater, reminded us of His suffering and hers, seeing Him suffer.
Now she rejoices: the Alleluia has returned!
Chant and Polyphony
Like the other Marian antiphons, the Regina Caeli has been part of the Church’s liturgical and musical repertory for centuries. There are settings in the Simple Tone and the Solemn Tone of Gregorian chant. When the great Tomas Luis de Victoria set this Marian Antiphon in a polyphonic version for eight voices, the joy of the Resurrection reverberates with the Alleluia, while the English composer William Byrd’s three voice setting is more reflective. The late 16th/early 17th century German Bavarian composer, Gregor Aichinger added an organ introduction and conclusion to his version of the antiphon.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart set the antiphon thrice, K. 108, K. 127, and K. 276, composed in 1771, 1772, and 1779 respectively for the Salzburg cathedral. The orchestral development, the use of soloists and choir make his compositions more complex and more like performance pieces—monks gathered in their chapels would not perform Mozart’s Regina Caeli at Compline!
The German Romantic composer Johannes Brahms set the Regina Caeli for soloists and female chorus.
The Regina Caeli is also featured in the verismo opera Cavalleria rusticana (Rustic Chivalry) by Pietro Mascagni: while the choir inside the church sings the Marian hymn on Easter Sunday, another choir outside joins in a procession and rejoices in the Resurrection. In the meantime, the sad drama of infidelity, repentance, and vengeance plays itself out. If you know the Intermezzo for that one act opera, you’ll recognize the melody for the Regina Caeli in that Easter Hymn scene.
Rejoicing with Mary
This reflection from the University of Dayton website on the four Marian antiphons sums up the Regina Caeli and how richly it signifies the joys of Easter:
It is an Easter title of honor and signifies that the Mother of Christ already participates in the Easter glory of her son. Instead of the usual address for Mary, Ave, the Laetare, rejoice, is used. This is an invitation to look to Mary as she lives now: the servant of the Lord on earth has become queen of heaven. In her exaltation, she has become a sign for all who are united with Christ through baptism. . . . The antiphon reminds Mary, the crowned mother of the redeemer, of the promise fulfilled by using the angel's words, "He has risen as he said!" (Matthew 28,6) . . .
She is a queen of joy and rejoicing because He is risen -- all of these aspects contribute to the whole hope of our faith. Lent is over; death is over; fasting and the somber season is over. It is time to sing with Mary, to grow quiet in her prayer, and to know that there is sure hope that our destiny may share this Resurrection.
Christus resurrexit! Resurrexit vere! Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed!