Corpus Christi: Our Debt to St. Thomas Aquinas

St. Thomas Aquinas, saint and doctor of the Catholic Church, is perhaps best known for his scholarship and as patron saint of students and universities. His great works, the two Summas (Summa Theologica and Summa Contra Gentiles) are mainstays of classic Catholic theology, and popes from St. Pius V to Benedict XVI have praised his work. Beyond those works, however, and the foundation they provide for Catholic theology, St. Thomas Aquinas’ hymns for the great Solemnity of The Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ are also influential works, as they have given us the language of worship and devotion to the Holy Eucharist.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote the liturgy for Corpus Christi when Pope Urban IV added the Solemnity to the universal Church’s liturgical calendar in 1264. He provided a great sequence, one of the great poems chanted or recited before the proclamation of the Gospel. At one time the Church had many sequences for different feasts and Masses (including the Dies Irae in the Requiem Mass), but now we have only three: Victimae Paschali Laudes (Christians, To the Paschal Victim) for Easter Sunday; Veni Sancte Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit) for Pentecost, and Lauda Sion Salvatorem (Sion, Lift Up thy Voice and Sing), for Corpus Christi:

Sion, lift thy voice and sing:
Praise thy Savior and thy King;
Praise with hymns thy Shepherd true:
Dare thy most to praise Him well;
For He doth all praise excel;
None can ever reach His due.

Special theme of praise is Thine,
That true living Bread divine,
That life-giving flesh adored,
Which the brethren twelve received,
As most faithfully believed,
At the Supper of the Lord.

Let the chant be loud and high;
Sweet and tranquil be the joy
Felt to-day in every breast;
On this festival divine
Which recounts the origin
Of the glorious Eucharist.

This sequence urges us not only to praise God, but to do it well, with hymns and chants expressing joy and festivity.

St. Thomas also wrote a hymn for Vespers: Pange Lingua (Sing, tongue, the mystery of the glorious Body), from which we have the Tantum Ergo (Down in Adoration Falling) verses sung at Benediction. The English Catholic convert Father Edward Caswell translated those verses:

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! o’er ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the everlasting Father
And the Son Who reigns on high,
With the Holy Ghost proceeding
Forth from Each eternally,
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might, and endless majesty.

His hymn for Matins, Sacris Solemniis (Sacred Solemnity), includes the great Panis Angelicus (Bread of Angels) meditation best known in the setting by Cesar Franck:

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum;
Dat panis caelicus figuris terminum;
O res mirabilis: manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus et humilis.

Te, trina Deitas unaque, poscimus:
Sic nos tu visita, sicut te colimus;
Per tuas semitas duc nos quo tendimus,
Ad lucem quam inhabitas. Amen.


Lo! Angels’ Bread is made the Bread of men today:
The living Bread from heav’n with figures doth away:
O wondrous boon indeed! Though poor and lowly, may
The servant on his Master feed.

Thee, therefore, we implore, O Godhead, One in Three,
So may’st Thou visit us as now we worship Thee;
And lead us on Thy way, that we at last may see
The light wherein Thou dwellest aye. Amen.

From the third hymn, for Lauds, Verbum Supernum Prodiens (Word Descending from Above), we take the other Benediction hymn, O Salutaris Hostia (O Saving Victim), also translated by Caswell:

O saving Victim, op’ning wide
The gate of heav’n to man below!
Our foes press on from ev’ry side:
Thine aid supply, Thy strength bestow.

To Thy great name be endless praise,
Immortal Godhead, One in Three!
O grant us endless length of days
In our true native land, with Thee.

Finally, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a hymn of Eucharistic thanksgiving, Adore Te Devote (Devoutly I Adore Thee), which in the translation by the Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins expresses the mystery and wonder of our reception of Jesus in Holy Communion:

Godhead here in hiding
Whom I do adore
Masked by these bare shadows,
Shape and nothing more,
See, Lord, at Thy service
Low lies here a heart
Lost, all lost in wonder
At the God Thou art.

Seeing, touching, tasting
Are in Thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing?
That shall be believed;
What God’s Son has told me,
Take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly
Or there’s nothing true.

On the cross Thy Godhead
Made no sign to men;
Here Thy very manhood
Steals from human ken:
Both are my confession,
Both are my belief;
And I pray the prayer
Of the dying thief.

I am not like Thomas,
Wounds I cannot see,
But I plainly call Thee
Lord and God as he;
This faith each day deeper
Be my holding of,
Daily make me harder
Hope and dearer love.

In his 2003 encyclical on the Holy Eucharist, Ecclesia de Eucharistia, Blessed John Paul II praised these hymns and poems of the Solemnity of Corpus Christi: “Let us make our own the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, an eminent theologian and an impassioned poet of Christ in the Eucharist, and turn in hope to the contemplation of that goal to which our hearts aspire in their thirst for joy and peace”. Each of these hymns provides great doctrinal statements of the truths of the Incarnation, the Paschal Mystery, and the Eucharist while expressing devotion to Jesus Christ as Lord and Redeemer.

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