Before the evening Mass this Sunday at my parish in Wichita, Kansas, the schola was practicing William Byrd’s setting of the “Ave verum corpus” (Ave Verum):
Ave verum corpus, natum
de Maria Virgine,
vere passum, immolatum
in cruce pro homine
cuius latus perforatum
fluxit aqua et sanguine:
esto nobis praegustatum
in mortis examine.
O Iesu dulcis, O Iesu pie, (Or: O clemens, O pie)
O Iesu, fili Mariae.
Miserere mei. Amen.
Kneeling in my pew, praying the Glorious Mysteries, I could not help, sotto voce, singing along with the “Miserere mei”. Because I listen to Byrd’s music often, I recognized his composition; because I listen to liturgical music often, I recognized the prayer:
Hail, true Body, born
of the Virgin Mary,
having truly suffered, sacrificed
on the cross for mankind,
from whose pierced side
water and blood flowed:
Be for us a foretaste [of the Heavenly banquet]
in the trial of death!
O sweet Jesus, O holy Jesus,
O Jesus, son of Mary,
have mercy on me. Amen.
The schola went over a couple of tricky passages and at first sang the motet with piano accompaniment. During Mass, they sang it at the Offertory.
As I heard it, I joined in the prayer of adoration of Jesus, present in the Blessed Sacrament, and of His Paschal Sacrifice about to be re-presented on the Altar. This Eucharistic hymn also reminds me of my mortality and hopes for a happy and holy death.
Knowing that William Byrd had composed it during a time when the Mass was illegal in England, his setting of this hymn made me grateful not only for freedom of religion in our country, but for the bounty our diocese has received from God recently. Our bishop ordained ten priests and ten deacons this May; our parish, Blessed Sacrament, received two of the newly ordained priests as Parochial Vicars, and one of the deacons has been serving us this summer. Next May, God willing, Bishop Carl Kemme will ordain ten more priests!
How many others in the pew knew the significance of those words—knew what those words were—and the significance of the composition of the work? In the context of the celebration of the Holy Mass, does it matter whether or not they do? Is it “okay” if they just hear the beautiful intertwining of voices in melodious polyphony?
It seems to me that these questions are emblematic of the debates within the Catholic Church about the celebration of our liturgy, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Those who want to restore the riches of a millennium of great music and devotional practice must contend with the past 50 or so years of forgetting those riches. The actual participation of everyone in the pew in the Paschal Mystery celebrated on the Altar may not depend on this restoration, but those of us who recognize the bounty of the riches wish to share them.
Ave Verum Corpus
In the case of this Eucharistic hymn, which different sources date to either the 13th or 14th centuries and sometimes attribute to one of the Avignon popes, Innocent VI, some readers might be familiar with it from Mozart’s setting. Josquin des Prez, Sir Edward Elgar, Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saens, Franz Lizst, and others have also set this text to music. Some of them do not include all the words, unlike Byrd, but obviously this hymn holds an important place in choral music repertoire.
According to Father Joseph Connolly in his 1955 collection of the Hymns of the Roman Liturgy, the Ave Verum was sung immediately after the Consecration in the medieval era. It is also used during the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament for Adoration and Benediction, as at Saint Eugene-Sainte Cecile in Paris—in fact, it was sung just last Sunday, July 30, according to the Schola Cecile website. (This parish has offered both the Novus Ordo and the Extraordinary Form of the Latin Rite Masses during the week and on Sunday since 1984. The choir sings glorious music throughout the Extraordinary Form Masses each Sunday—my husband and I have attended there twice.)
At either the Consecration during Mass or Exposition during Benediction, this hymn reminds the faithful of the Real Presence of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, alerting us to see Him present in the Sacred Host and adore Him. But the Ave Verum also directs our meditation to His incarnation both in the manger and on the cross: that True Body, born of the Virgin Mary, endured suffering and death for us. Blood and water, the Precious Blood and the waters of Baptism, poured from His wounded side. As we prepare to receive Him in Holy Communion, we prepare for eternity with Him in Heaven. Thus, we are left repeating his Holy Name and our prayer for His mercy. And at the end of the prayer, we remember that Jesus, Son of God, is also Son of Mary, who is also our Mother. These are riches indeed.