Before I entered religious life, I wasn’t aware that the Church has assigned special hymns to Our Blessed Mother for each season in the liturgical year. It was a joy to be taught this and subsequently to be taught to sing, and eventually lead the singing, of these beautiful and ancient chants. For the Easter season, Holy Mother Church assigns the hymn Regína Coeli to replace the Angelus at the three traditional hours (morning, midday, evening) and as the final Antiphon to be sung at the close of Night Prayer. In this way, we unite with Mary’s joy at Jesus’ resurrection all throughout our day!
But I struggled as the close of Lent drew near and the Easter season was upon us, to imagine singing the triumphant Marian antiphon Regína Coeli. After all, we are in a time of crisis, and at that point I was, myself, in isolation with symptoms of the virus. Why not sing the more solemn Marian antiphon Sub Tuum, which is a plea for help in distress and has a much more haunting melody, rather than the jubilant Easter antiphon? I struggled, that is, until I read a short story that changed it all for me.
As the story goes, in the year 596, Rome was being ravaged by the dreaded Black Plague. The Pope at that time, St. Gregory the Great, a Benedictine, was processing barefoot from Santa Maria in Aracaeli with the Marian Icon “Salus Populi Romani” on Easter day. As he passed Hadrian’s mausoleum on his way to St. Peter’s Basilica, he heard the angels themselves sing the first three lines of the Regína Coeli:
Regína coeli, laetáre. Allelúia (Queen of Heaven, rejoice, Alleluia)
Quia quem meruísti portáre. Allelúia (For He whom you did merit to bear, Alleluia)
Resurréxit, sicut dixit, Allelúia (Has risen as He said, Alleluia)
The Pope paused and immediately cried out the last line: “Ora pro nobis, Deum. Allelúia” (Pray for us to God. Alleluia). At that moment an angel appeared and sheathed a sword that he was holding aloft, signifying the end of the Black Plague. In memory of this event the Regína Coeli was inscribed above the altar of Santa Maria in Aracaeli in Rome, and the mausoleum renamed Castel Sant’Angelo.
When I read this account, my heart leapt; this virus too shall pass. Let us then do our part, to sing joyfully with the angels a hymn of gratitude for the resurrection of Christ, and to stand in a spirit of prayer and penance as Pope St. Gregory the Great did so many years before us, as we pray, Queen of Heaven, pray for us to God. Alleluia!
Sr. Veronica, CFR