Tuesday, March 12, 2024

A Proper Hymn for St Gregory the Great

The revised breviary issued by St Pius V in 1568 derives from the tradition which the Papal curia followed in the high Middle Ages, formally codified at the beginning of the 13th century in a document known as the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III (1198-1216). As I have noted several times, this tradition was in many ways very conservative, much more so than most other Uses of the Roman Rite, and especially in regard to its repertoire of hymns. Thus we find that many real gems of medieval hymnody are missing from the Roman breviary, and even the feasts of very important Saints, such as those of the first four Latin Doctors of the Church, take their hymns from the commons. This even includes the Saint after whom the chant proper to the Roman Rite is named, and whose feast we keep today.

An inlaid stone panel in the chapel of Ss Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury in Westminster Cathedral, London, depicting the famous story of Gregory’s first encounter with English people in a slave market in Rome, as told by St Bede the Venerable in his Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, book 2, chapter 1.
The Benedictines have always held Saint Gregory the Great in particular honor, not only because he was a monk himself, and the first great promotor of monasticism among the Popes, but also as the biographer of their founder. His feast is therefore kept as a double of the second class, on a par with the Apostles, and has a mostly proper Office. (“Mostly”, because it has no proper antiphons for the Psalms of Matins, and borrows one responsory from the Common of Doctors.) It also includes this hymn composed by St Peter Damian (1007 ca. - 1072), which is split into two parts, one to be sung at both Vespers and Matins, and the other at Lauds. The translation below is by Kathleen Pluth, except for the stanzas given in italics on the English side (explanation below). The recording is by the monks of Downside Abbey in England, the main church of which is dedicated to St Gregory. (It is accompanied by several pictures of St Pius X, and two of Pope Benedict XVI; it was posted a few month after the Apostolic Visit of the latter to England in fall of 2010, so I presume as a tribute to the latter.)

At Vespers and Matins

Anglorum jam Apostolus,
nunc Angelorum socius,
ut tunc, Gregori, gentibus,
succurre iam credentibus.
Apostle to the English lands
Now with the angel hosts he stands.
Make haste, St. Gregory, relieve
And help the people who believe.
Tu largas opum copias

omnemque mundi gloriam
spernis, ut inops inopem
Jesum sequaris principem.
From riches and from wealth you
The glory of the world you spurned,
That you might follow, being poor,
Prince Jesus, who was poor before.
Videtur egens naufragus,
Dum stipem petit Angelus,
Tu munus jam post geminum
Praebes et vas argenteum.
An angel asks for alms, who seems a
poor, shipwrecked man; after giving
him a double gift, you present also a
silver vessel.
Te celsus Christus pontifex
(originally ex hoc te Christus
suæ præfert Ecclesiæ;

sic Petri gradum percipis,
cuius et normam sequeris.
This Christ, High Pontifex, decreed
(orig. from this time, Christ made
   thee head of His Church)
That you would take His Church’s
And learn St. Peter’s steps to tread:
The rule of all called in his stead.
O pontifex egregie,
lux et decus Ecclesiæ,
non sinas in periculis

quos tot mandatis instruis.
O Pontifex, our leader bright,
The Church’s honor and its light,
Through dangers let them all be
The ones you carefully have taught.
Sit Patri laus ingenito,
sit decus Unigenito,
sit utriusque parili
maiestas summa Flamini.
The unborn Father let us praise,
And to His Son like glory raise,
And to their Equal, majesty.
All glory to the Trinity. Amen.

At Lauds

Mella cor obdulcantia
Tua distillant labia,
Fragrantum vim arómatum
Tuum vincit eloquium.
Thy lips drip honey that sweeteneth
hearts, thy speech surpasseth the
power of fragrant spices.
Scriptúræ sacræ mýstica
Mire solvis ænígmata:
Theórica mysteria
Te docet ipsa Véritas.
You wondrously solved riddles deep:
The mystic secrets Scriptures keep,
For Truth Himself has taught you these:
The lofty sacred mysteries.
Tu nactus Apostólicam
Vicem simul et gloriam:
Nos solve culpæ néxibus,
Redde polórum sedibus.
Having obtained the apostolic office
and glory, release us from the bonds of
sin, and bring us back to heaven.
Repeat stanzas
O pontifex egregie and
Sit Patri laus from Matins.

The translation by Ms Pluth and the recording both follow the edited version of this hymn done for the Liturgy of the Hours by Dom Anselmo Lentini OSB, which omits three of St Peter Damian’s stanzas, the ones which are accompanied by my own less-than-inspired prose translations. Not all of Dom Lentini’s emendations or ideas for new hymns were bad, and some that were bad I have noted as such only in passing, but his changes here call for something sharper than my preferred description of his work, “cack-handed.”
The first omitted stanza, which begins with the words “Videtur egens naufragus”, refers to the story that when St Gregory was still a monk, one day an angel came to his monastery in the guise of a man who had been shipwrecked, begging for alms. Gregory gave him six silver coins, but the angel returned the next day, saying that he had lost them, at which the Saint gave him six more. The same thing happened on the third day, and the procurator of the monastery informed Gregory that there was nothing left in the house but the silver platter by which his mother, St Silvia, used to regularly send him vegetables to eat. Gregory immediately ordered that it be given to the beggar.
The central section of Paolo Veronese’s Supper of St Gregory (1572), which depicts the appearance of the thirteen man at his table, as explained below. In the refectory of the shrine of the Virgin Mary on Mt Berico outside Vicenza, about 43 miles west of Venice. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0)
As Pope, Gregory was wont to welcome twelve pilgrims or poor people to dine with him every day, but one day, he beheld a thirteenth in their midst, who was visible only to himself. After the supper, he approached the man and asked him who he was, to which the fellow replied, “Why do you ask about my name, which is wondrous? And yet, know that I am the shipwrecked man to whom you gave the silver dish... and from that day... the Lord destined you to become the head of his Church, and the successor of the Apostle Peter.” He then revealed himself to be not just an angel, but Gregory’s guardian, and told him that he would obtain all that he asked through himself.
The lesson here is not at all hard to grasp, namely, that Gregory was deemed worthy of the papacy above all else because of his charity. This is a lesson which St Peter Damian clearly chose to emphasize out of his great concerned with the reform of the Church, in an age when the Church was very much in need of reform, precisely because it suffered from so many thoroughly worldly prelates, and no few Popes among them.
Dom Lentini, however, decided that this reference had to be removed because it is “difficult for many who do not know the particulars of the Saint’s life”, as he writes in his account of the reforms of the hymns. This offers us a very neat summary of one of the worst problems with the entire project of the post-Conciliar reform: its operating assumption (a deeply clericalist one) that the faithful are not just completely untaught, but completely unteachable. It was therefore deemed impossible that the original text might offer a good opportunity to teach them something about St Gregory’s life, much less to explain what it was about this particular episode (among so many others that might have been chosen) that another Doctor of the Church thought it worth our attention. And of course, in an age of unbridled (and, as it turned out, totally unwarranted optimism) about the general condition of the Church, this lesson brings with it an implicit warning to worldly prelates who choose not to follow the example Saints like Gregory, one which we forget to our tremendous peril.

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