As H. T. Henry states in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia, "The different syllabic lengths of the lines make the anthem difficult to translate with fidelity into English verse. The prayer form makes an addition at its conclusion which parallels the Angelus prayer. Two forms of the conclusion in the English recited prayer form are also included here:
Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, Alleluia.
Let us pray: O God, who by the resurrection of Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has been pleased to fill the world with joy, grant, we beseech You, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, His Mother, we may receive the joys of eternal life, through the same Christ our Lord. Amen
V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
Let us pray:
The Regina Coeli is the most recent of the four evening antiphons. In written form the Regina Coeli can be traced to the twelfth century. Most sources indicate that it was probably an adapted Christmas antiphon. The authorship is unknown. "Legend says that St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) heard the first three lines chanted by angels on a certain Easter morning in Rome while he walked barefoot in a great religious procession and that the saint thereupon added the fourth line: 'Ora pro nobis Deum. alleluia'." Marienlexikon attributes this source to the Golden Legend around the year 1265.
The authorship has also been attributed to Gregory V but with no foundational evidence. The Franciscan heritage indicates that it was used already in the first half of the thirteenth century. "Together with the other Marian anthems, it was incorporated in the Minorite-Roman Curia Office, which, by activity of the Franciscans, was soon popularized everywhere and which, by the order of Nicholas III (1277-80), replaced all the older Office-books in all the churches of Rome." Marienlexikon
Its use as a concluding evening antiphon during Eastertide dates from the mid-thirteenth century, although it first appeared in a manuscript dating from about 1200 of the Old Roman chant tradition, where it was used as the Magnificat antiphon for the octave of Easter. More specifically, the Marienlexikon states that the oldest musical score is retained in St. Peter's at the Vatican in a manuscript from 1171 (Vat. lat. 476); another, a Franciscan antiphonary dated 1235, is found in the archive of Munich's St. Anna Monastery. Thereafter it is found in many manuscripts of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
An interesting note found in a German source book indicates that a German translation, Frew dich, du himmel Kunigin is found in the Constance Songbook of 1600, in the 1659 Bregenz Praxis Catechistica and the Einsiedeln Songbook of 1773. The German hymn had seven stanzas and was considered a translation of the Marian antiphon Regina caeli Laetare.
In 1742, Benedict XIV decreed that the Regina Coeli was to be prayed in the Easter season during the ringing of the Angelus bell. "In the prescribed regulation, to pray the Regina Coeli always standing, is a continuation of the oldest form of Easter prayer." [Fischer, 1097-8]
Three sources were rich in supplying theological reflection for the Regina Coeli. The words Regina Coeli are best translated Queen in Heaven. 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. As the preface for the August fifteenth feast of the Assumption says, "the virgin Mother of God was taken up into heaven to be the beginning and the pattern of the Church in its perfection." All of the baptized can look forward to this promise. 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) The antiphon ends with a petition for intercession, "pray for us to God. Alleluia!"
Pallottine priest, Franz Courth, in his extensive article on Marian prayer forms ("Marienkunde," c. 1984), speaks of the originality of hymn prayer-hymn praise. He says, "Hymn prayer is not a speaking about, but is a personal address, it is a praising acclamation." (p. 388) To sing, especially to sing praise, expresses the fundamental attitude of admiration, gratitude and dependence, also the readiness to imitate. This he applies to Mary.
It is also noteworthy that Martin Luther makes reference to the Regina Coeli in his critique of Marian prayer. For Luther, it is simply too much to give to a creature what belongs to God alone. The reformers were accustomed to changing the text from Marian to Christ hymns, typical of the liberties taken with music everywhere, that is to change text, but retain melodies. Among many famous composers who put the Regina Coeli to music are W. A. Mozart as well as Leoncavallo in the Easter procession of his opera, in his Cavalleria Rusticana [Rustic Chivalry].
In Catholic thought, on the other hand, for Erasmus Sarcerius (1501-59), the Regina Coeli is the epitome of a correct understanding of Mary whereby the Mother of Jesus has deserved (meruisti) her election. Catholic thought will eventually incorporate the discussion of Mary's queen ship with that of her dignity as expression in the Immaculate Conception. The musical expression will develop from the flowing simplicity of the chant to the triumphal masterpieces of the Baroque period.
The Regina Coeli Today
The antiphon is sung in several variations today. The plainchant prayer form is used weekdays during the Easter season. For the Easter solemnity, the later musical forms of polyphonic and ornate styles are used. The chant gives a sense of joy and delight. After the long, heavy season of Lent, the joy of Resurrection must resound. There are few words. With Mary, we rejoice. The musical settings used for Sunday and the Easter Liturgy itself are majestic and powerful. There is no doubt about the power of life and its fulfillment in Christ's Resurrection. Mary is asked to pray for us that we become part of it one day.
The Regina Coeli, especially as we sing the various forms in our faith community during the season, is a simple plea as we turn to Our Lady as a queen who can pray for us. 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.
Cassettes, Books at the Marian Library for a list of contemporary recordings
of Regina Coeli.