Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Vesper Hymn of St John Cantius

Today is the feast of St John Cantius (1390-1473), a priest of the diocese of Krakow, Poland, who spent most of his life as a professor at the Krakow Academy, which is now known as the Jagiellonian University, and counts the astronomer Copernicus and Pope St John Paul II among its other illustrious alumni. The revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints recounts two beautiful traditions of the university long observed in the Saint’s honor. (vol. 4, p. 154) He was well known for his generous charities to the poor, and the story is told that once, on seeing a famished beggar pass by the dining hall, he brought the man all of his food; on returning to his seat, he found his plate miraculously filled up again. This was long commemorated by the custom of setting aside a meal for a poor man every day; at the beginning of dinner, the vice-president of the university would cry out in Latin, “A poor man is coming!”, to which the president would reply, “Jesus Christ is coming!”, and the man was then served. The other is that in the ceremonies at which degrees were conferred, the candidates were vested with the Saint’s doctoral gown.

The tomb of St John in the right transept of the church of St Anne in Krakow, the collegiate church of the Jagiellonian University. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons by Gryffindor.)
When St John was canonized in 1767, and his feast added to the general calendar, his Office was given three proper hymns: one which is said at both Vespers, another at Matins, and another at Lauds. Butler’s Lives states that he is the only simple Confessor whose Office has its own hymns in the Roman Breviary; this is both inexact and irrelevant. It is certainly true that the Roman Rite as observed in Rome itself was always very conservative in its use of hymns, and very few Saints of any class have their own proper hymns. But the feast of the Seven Founders of the Servite Order, who were all simple Confessors, have proper hymns for their collective feast on February 12th, and plenty of Confessors, both bishops and non-bishops, have proper hymns which are used in specific places or by certain religious orders. (See these articles on the hymns of St Augustine, Anthony the Abbot, and Bernard of Clairvaux.) The author of these hymns is unknown, but they were composed around the time of the canonization.

Here is a beautiful recording of the Vesper hymn by the choir of St John Cantius church in Chicago, made at the church of St Anne in Krakow where St John is buried. The English translation given below is by Mons. Hugh Henry, taken from the book The Hymns of the Breviary and Missal, by Dom Matthew Britt OSB. (Benzinger, 1922)
Gentis Polónae gloria,
Cleríque splendor nóbilis,
Decus Lycáei, et patriae
Pater, Joannes ínclite.
O glory of the Polish race,
O splendour of the priestly band,
Whose lore did thy lyceum grace,
John, father of the fatherland.
Legem superni Núminis
Doces magester, et facis.
Nil scire prodest: sédulo
Legem nitámur éxsequi.
The law of the supernal will
Thou teachest both in word and deed;
Knowledge is naught—we must fulfill
In works, not barren words, our creed!
Apostolórum límina
Pedes viátor vísitas;
Ad patriam, ad quam téndimus,
Gressus viamque dírige.
On foot to apostolic Rome
Thy pilgrim spirit joyful hied;
Oh, to our everlasting home
The path declare, the footstep guide!
Urbem petis Jerúsalem:
Signáta sacra Sánguine
Christi colis vestigia
Rigasque fusis flétibus.
Again, in Sion’s holy street,
Anew thou wet’st with tearful flood
The pathway of the Saviour’s feet
Erst wet with His redeeming blood.
Acerba Christi vúlnera,
Haeréte nostris córdibus,
Ut cogitémus cónsequi
Redemptiónis pretium.
O sweet and bitter wounds of Christ,
Deep in our hearts imprinted stay,
That the blest fruit the sacrificed
Redeemer gained, be ours for aye!
Te prona mundi máchina,
Clemens, adoret, Trínitas,
Et nos novi per gratiam
Novum canámus cánticum.
Then let the world obeisance due
Perform, O God, to Thy high Will;
And let our souls, by grace made new,
Sing to Thee a new canticle!

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