‘Queen of Heaven, Rejoice, Alleluia!’

The ‘Regina Caeli’ focuses on the joy of the Mother of the Redeemer.

Diego Velázquez’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin,’ ca. 1635, reflects how the  ‘Regina Caeli’ honors the Queen of Heaven.
Diego Velázquez’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin,’ ca. 1635, reflects how the ‘Regina Caeli’ honors the Queen of Heaven. (photo: Public domain)

“Queen of Heaven, Rejoice, Alleluia!” begins the Regina Caeli, which the Church prays or sings in place of the Angelus during the Easter season. Mothers sing this prayer as a lullaby or teach it to their children. And families pray it together, too. 

As the story goes, this Marian prayer was taught by angels to a pope.

Best-selling author Father Edward Looney of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, sees a recovery or renewal of the Regina Caeli “especially during the pandemic,” he said, “because the story of the Regina Caeli comes out of a pandemic of long ago, when St. Gregory the Great was the Holy Father. The COVID-19 situation, beginning last year, was beneficial in rediscovering it. Gregory had a vision and heard the angels singing the Marian antiphon. In effect, it was divinely inspired.”

The Pope’s vision was on April 25, 590, when a plague was raging in Rome, causing countless deaths. 

A 1914 translation of the 13th-century book The Golden Legend by Jacobus De Voragine tells the story of Gregory leading a procession around Rome to ask for the Blessed Virgin Mary’s help to stop the plague. Gregory carried “an image of Our Lady, which, as is said, St. Luke the Evangelist made. … And anon the mortality ceased, and the air became pure and clear, and about the image was heard a voice of angels” singing the first three lines of “this anthem: ‘Regina Caeli laetare, etc.,’ and St. Gregory put thereto: ‘Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluia.’ At the same time St. Gregory saw an angel upon a castle which made clean a sword all bloody, and put it into the sheath; and thereby St. Gregory understood that the pestilence of this mortality was passed, and after that it was called the Castle Angel,” or as it is now known, Castel Sant’Angelo.

Father Looney, vice president of the Mariological Society of America, pointed out several other interesting aspects of the Regina Caeli. First, “You can sing it. It is actually a Marian antiphon sung during the Compline, or night prayer, of the Church.” For example, Dominican nuns, Benedictine monks and others sing it, “asking for Mary’s prayers and intercession.” During Eastertide, “it replaces the Salve Regina, and we use it to replace the Angelus.” 

The Holy See’s Directory of Popular Piety and Liturgy states, “By disposition of Benedict XIV (2 April 1742), the Angelus is replaced with the antiphon Regina Caeli during Paschaltide.” 

Second, Father Looney sees a “motherly” aspect in this prayer, too, since Mother’s Day falls within or close to the season in which the Church prays the Regina Caeli.

In the Detroit area, Jeremy and Teresa Chisholm and their three sons and one daughter, ages 2 to 13, enjoy singing and praying the four Marian antiphons that go with the liturgical year. “It’s something we incorporated with our family prayer at home,” Teresa said. Naturally, the Regina Caeli is their prayer antiphon during the whole Easter season through Pentecost.

Teresa explained, “It adds to the richness of following the liturgical calendar. It brings to mind the season that we’re in. We pray the Regina Caeli as a family either after the Rosary or after Compline, depending on what we’re doing. And we sing it at noon during the Easter season in place of the Angelus.” The Chisholms do the simple chant (there are scores of musical settings for the Regina Caeli written over the years). And the children sing in Latin with no problem. As Teresa said, “By the time the kids are 3 or 4, they have them all memorized, and we can sing them together as a family. It’s not something we really have to work hard at. The children pick it up by hearing it every day.” Teresa said that there are dozens of beautiful settings of the Regina Caeli composed throughout many centuries, including one by Mozart, her favorite, that the family uses as part of its playlist.

“Singing it adds to the joy of the season and the Resurrection,” Teresa added, “and [underscores our] knowing that Mary is Queen of Heaven and that we have the hope we will be with her together in heaven.”

In Louisiana, Catholic radio host, speaker and author Katie Prejean McGrady sings or hums the Regina Caeli and Salve Regina “to bring our daughters a sense of Mary’s presence in their lives.” When Rose, her firstborn, was a little colicky, Katie found herself sitting with her little one for hours on end, sometimes singing the Rosary, Salve Regina and Regina Caeli and sometimes humming them. Amid the Marian melodies, her baby would fall peacefully asleep. “These are prayers I know and I want my kids to know,” she said. 

“It almost becomes a little lullaby,” Father Looney observed of this bedtime routine. “That child is going to remember the mother singing it throughout life. Parents can learn the sung version of it and sing it to their children as they fall off to sleep.”

In the McGrady house, while 7-month-old daughter Clare is too little yet to sing or pray along, Rose at 3 1/2 “definitely knows the tune,” Katie told the Register. “She can hum some of the Salve Regina and Regina Caeli.” Recently at Mass, after one of these Marian hymns was sung in Latin, congregants near the McGrady family reacted with heartwarming joy when they overheard the 3-year-old McGrady offer commentary on the hymn. “Rose turned to me,” Katie related, “and said pretty loud, ‘Mom, that’s our bedtime song!’” In fact, Rose now prays the Hail Mary perfectly because the family has said it together many times. 

“It became second language to her. It reminded me as a parent that a) they absorb everything we say, and b) a lot of the time they pick up on what we say. That’s why conversations on Jesus and Mary should be part of our everyday vocabulary.”

Father Looney shared one more important observation about the Easter season Marian prayer. 

“A popular question people ask is, ‘Did Mary see the Risen Jesus? Did he appear to his mother?’ The Antiphon doesn’t answer that, but ‘Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia. For He whom you did merit to bear, alleluia. Has risen, as he said, alleluia’ … is kind of an announcement” of what she saw. 

With the Regina Caeli, we’re “turning to Mary and rejoicing with her over the Resurrection of her Son and sharing in her joy ... that comes from Christ’s resurrection. He conquered sin and death and allowed us to share in his divine life,” explained Edward Sri, vice president of formation for Fellowship of Catholic University Students, a theologian, best-selling author and well-known Catholic speaker who appears regularly on EWTN. The Regina Caeli “gives us hope,” he added.

“Mary is rejoicing, and we’re sharing in that joy with her and a beautiful hymn [about] trust and confidence in whatever darkness of trials and sufferings we bear in life.Think of Mary on Good Friday and the sufferings she went through. As we walk through this valley of tears, we remember Mary and the joy she experienced in her Son’s rising from the dead.”

In his own home, Sri and his wife, Elizabeth, and their eight children pray the Rosary in the evening; and during the Easter season, they “sing the Regina Caeli at the end. Mary is rejoicing, and we’re sharing in that joy with her.”