Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1819. Wikimedia Commons

Fr. Raymond J. De Souza: Ave Verum stirs the soul and memories of Rome

  • May 11, 2018

A former student sent me a notice that caught my attention, for both artistic and pious reasons. The Cantata Singers of Ottawa will be at St. Joseph’s Church later this month where the entire program will consist of settings of the brief Eucharistic and Marian hymn, Ave Verum, including those of Lassus, Byrd, Mozart, Elgar, Liszt, Saint-Saëns and Poulenc. 

Coming just a week before Corpus Christi, it will be good artistic and spiritual preparation for that feast. No doubt the Ave Verum will be sung at more than a few Corpus Christi processions. Usually the Mozart setting is heard on such occasions, perhaps because it is quite meditative and simpler to sing.

The Ave Verum consists of only a few lines, summarizing that in the Eucharist we have the same Jesus, incarnate Son of God and son of Mary, crucified for our salvation, and viaticum for us at the moment of death. 

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, O Iesu, fili Mariae. Amen.

An English translation:

Hail, true body, born of the Virgin Mary/ Truly suffered, died on the cross for mankind,/ From whose pierced side
flowed water and blood!/ Be for us a foretaste in the agony of death./ O gentle Jesus, O holy Jesus, O Jesus, Son of Mary. Amen.

The Ave Verum is a masterpiece of compactly expressed doctrine and piety. And in the hands of the master composers it becomes a thing not only of truth, but beauty.

But it is not for those reasons that I have a great devotion to the Ave Verum. As is often the case with music, it is for reasons of memory.

I remember the day, now more than 20 years ago, vividly: 26th July 1995. I was in Rome for a reunion of the seminar on Catholic social doctrine led by Michael Novak, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and George Weigel. I was a student on the seminar in Kraków in 1994. A year later, we were in Rome and our group was invited to Castel Gandolfo for the morning Mass of Pope John Paul II. It was the first time I had ever been in the great saint’s presence. 

The Gospel for the feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne has Jesus saying to His disciples, “But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. Truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous men longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Matthew 13:16-17)

 It was not hard to apply the words of Christ about Himself to the extraordinary blessing of being at Holy Mass with His Vicar on Earth.

There was an extended period of silent prayer after Holy Communion. Then St. John Paul raised his head and looked at his priest secretary. Msgr. Stanisław Dziwisz shook his head “no.” The Holy Father was asking whether our group had prepared a hymn. We hadn’t.

So John Paul began to sing. By himself. It was the Ave Verum. Most of us did not know it. Even if we did, who would have had the courage to join John Paul in singing it? After all, the Pope’s secretary and the household nuns had not joined in. But Michael Novak did. He was on my right, the Pope just ahead on my left. He began to sing with the Pope, the Pole and the Slovak singing in honour of the Mother of God in gratitude for the gift of her Son. It was immensely moving; Novak’s eyes were tearing up, I was crying. (St. John Paul seemed fine.)  To this day I can’t hear the Ave Verum without the memories of the chapel at Castel Gandolfo coming back, a young man in the company of two men who would shape my life. 

It was clear at the encounter that the Ave Verum was part of the Holy Father’s piety.  Some years later, in his final encyclical, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, St. John Paul II shared that piety with the entire Church.

“Ave, verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine!” wrote John Paul (#59). “Several years ago I celebrated the 50th anniversary of my priesthood. Today I have the grace of offering the Church this encyclical on the Eucharist on the Holy Thursday which falls during the 25th year of my Petrine ministry. As I do so, my heart is filled with gratitude. … Allow me, dear brothers and sisters, to share with deep emotion, as a means of accompanying and strengthening your faith, my own testimony of faith in the Most Holy Eucharist. Ave verum corpus natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum, immolatum, in cruce pro homine! Here is the Church’s treasure, the heart of the world, the pledge of the fulfilment for which each man and woman, even unconsciously, yearns. A great and transcendent mystery, indeed, and one that taxes our mind’s ability to pass beyond appearances.” 

At the Cantata concert, the beauty will be evident. Let’s pray that the truth of the Eucharist is heard too.

(Fr. de Souza is the editor-in-chief of Convivum.ca and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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