Saturday, October 02, 2021

St Robert Bellarmine’s Hymn for the Guardian Angels

St Robert Bellarmine was born in 1542, and in his youth, received a classical education typical of his era, showing himself to be a particular bright pupil at a very early age. It was an essential part of education in those days that people were trained not only to read and comment intelligently upon the Latin classics, but also to write their own Latin in both prose and verse, and Robert was already skilled at this as a boy. In his early years in the Society of Jesus, which he entered at age 18, he taught the classics in the order’s school in Florence. When he was transferred to Mondovi in Piedmont, he discovered that he was supposed to teach Cicero and Demosthenes, although he knew hardly any Greek at all; he therefore taught himself in one night the grammar lesson he was supposed to deliver the next day. In the midst of his vast output of theological writings, for which he was named a Doctor of the Church in 1931, and his many other scholarly achievements, he also continued to write poetry in both Latin and Italian throughout his life.

St Robert Bellarmine (Public domain image from Wikipedia.) 
Formal liturgical devotion to the Guardian Angels is found sporadically in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, but really began to establish itself in the Counter-Reformation period, of which St Robert was such an important protagonist. Pope Paul V (1605-21), who kept him as one of his most valued counselors, was also the first post-Tridentine Pope to formally approve a feast of the Guardian Angels, which he granted to the Holy Roman Empire at the request of Ferdinand II of Austria. When the feast was extended to the universal church by Pope Clement X in 1670, it was given a proper Office, which includes two hymns composed by St Robert: Custodes hominum, which is sung at Matins and both Vespers, and Aeterne rector siderum for Lauds.

Ancient Greek and Latin poetry was not based on rhyme, which was considered a blemish on verse in antiquity, but on alternations of long and short syllables, according to various established patterns. The oldest Christian hymns, such as those of St Ambrose or Venantius Fortunatus, were similarly constructed, although often rather more loosely than in the classical period. In the Middle Ages, when Latin vowel quantities were mostly not heard or pronounced, rhyme established itself as the norm for new liturgical composition, and even extended itself beyond the various types of hymns into non-metrical forms like responsories. The Renaissance, however, which sought to imitate the classical world in all the arts, rejected rhyme and returned to metrical composition based on vowel quantity; this classicizing spirit in the use of Latin lasted much longer than the Renaissance itself did, and is found in new liturgical compositions of every period, up to and including the most recent texts of the post-Conciliar rite. In the same spirit, Pope Urban VIII (1623-44) had the whole corpus of hymns in the Roman Breviary revised and classicized, giving rise to the famous remark “Accessit Latinitas, recessit pietas - Latinity came in, piety went out.”

To judge by St Robert’s compositions for the Guardian Angels, it is a pity that he did not live to contribute to Pope Urban’s project, which might have been more successful with his input. His vocabulary is almost entirely within the established usage of Christian Latinity. The metrical form is one used by Horace in his odes, called the Third Asclepiadean, but he mostly avoids the contorted word order which the classical poets and their later imitators often employed. Here is a splendid recording by the Ensemble Venance Fortunat, in alternating chant and polyphony; a pure Gregorian version sung by the Gloriae Dei Cantores, alternating women’s and men’s voices, is given below. The English translation is that of Alan Gordon McDougall (1896-1965).

Custodes hominum, psallimus
Naturae fragili quos Pater addi-
Caelestis comites, insidianti-
Ne succumberet hostibus.
Angel guardians of men,
spirits and powers we sing,
Whom our Father hath sent,
aids to our weakly frame,
Heavenly friends and guides,
help from on high to bring,
Lest we fail through
the foeman’s wile.
Nam, quod corruerit proditor
Concessis merito pulsus hono-
Ardens invidia pellere nititur
Quos caelo Deus advocat.
He, the spoiler of souls,
angel-traitor of old,
Cast in merited wrath out
of his honoured place,
Burns with envy and hate,
seeking their souls to gain
Whom God’s mercy
invites to heaven.
Huc, custos, igitur pervigil ad-
Avertens patria de tibi credita
Tam morbis animi quam requi-
Quidquid non sinit incolas.
Therefore come to our help,
watchful ward of our lives:
Turn aside from the land,
God to thy care confides
Sickness and woe of soul,
yea, and what else of ill
Peace of heart
to its folk denies.
Sanctae sit Triadi laus pia jugi-
Cujus perpetuo numine machi-
Triplex haec regitur, cujus in
Regnat gloria saecula. Amen.
Now to the Holy Three
praise evermore resound:
Under whose hand divine
resteth the triple world
Governed in wondrous wise:
glory be theirs and might
While the ages unending run.

A different and somewhat looser English version, by Fr Edward Caswall. (Fr Caswall, born in 1814, was an Anglican clergyman who converted to Catholicism in 1847. After the sudden death of his wife in 1849, he entered the Birmingham Oratory in 1850; he was ordained priest two years later, and died in 1878. He was a talented poet, and many of his English translations of the traditional Latin hymns were incorporated by John Crighton-Stuart, the Third Marquess of Bute, into his monumental English version of the Roman Breviary, including this one.)

Praise we those ministers celestial
Whom the dread Father chose
To be defenders of our nature frail,
Against our scheming foes.

For, since that from his glory in the skies
Th’ Apostate Angel fell,
Burning with envy, evermore he tries
To drown our souls in Hell.

Then hither, watchful Spirit, bend thy wing,
Our country’s Guardian blest!
Avert her threatening ills; expel each thing
That hindereth her rest.

Praise to the trinal Majesty, whose strength
This mighty fabric sways;
Whose glory reigns beyond the utmost length
Of everlasting days. Amen.

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