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The Roman Hymn of Ss Peter and Paul

Gregory DiPippo

The liturgical genre known as the “hymn”, which is to say, a composition arranged in stanzas with a repeating meter, was introduced into common use in the West by St Ambrose in the later part of the fourth century. The Empress Justina had wanted to seize one of the churches of Milan and give it to the Arian heretics. The Catholics of the city occupied the church, led by their bishop, who taught them how to sing in such a fashion, borrowed from the Eastern churches, in order to profitably pass the time and keep up their spirits. (This worked, and the basilica was not taken in the end.) This episode was so well known that well over a century after his death, when St Benedict wrote his Rule, he used “ambrosianum” throughout as the standard term for a hymn.

The church of Rome, however, was historically always very conservative about anything new in the liturgy. As late as the 13th century, hymns were still not used in the Divine Office at the Lateran basilica, and some part of the Office never had them at all. The Roman repertoire of hymns is also quite narrow. A good example of this conservativism may be seen in the feasts of the Apostles; although many proper hymns were composed for the various Apostles in the Middle Ages, the only one adopted into the Roman Office is for the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, the patrons of the city, whose feast is kept today. Known from its opening words as “Aurea luce”, it is traditionally ascribed to “Elpis”, a fictitious first wife of the philosopher Boethius; in reality, it is the work of an unknown writer of the Carolingian era.

Aurea luce et decóre róseo,
Lux lucis, omne perfudisti sáeculum:
Décorans caelos ínclyto martyrio
Hac sacra die, quae dat reis veniam.

(Light of light, Thou hast suffused all the world with golden light and rosy beauty, adorning the heavens with a famous martyrdom on this holy day, that gives pardon to the guilty.)

Jánitor caeli, Doctor orbis páriter,
Júdices saecli, vera mundi lúmina:
Per crucem alter, alter ense triumphans,
Vitae senátum laureáti póssident.

(The door-keeper of heaven, and likewise the teacher of the world, the judges of the age, the true lights of the world, triumphing, the one by the cross, the other by the sword, are crowned and take possession of the assembly of life.)

O felix Roma, quae tantórum Príncipum
Es purpuráta pretióso sánguine!
Non laude tua, sed ipsórum méritis
Excellis omnem mundi pulchritúdinem.

(O happy Rome, that art adorned with the precious blood of such great Princes, not by thy own praise, but by their merits dost thou excel the beauty of all (the rest of) the world. – This stanza is not part of the original text, but was added to it by the Breviary reform of St Pius V.)

Olívae binae pietátis únicae,
Fide devótos, spe robustos máxime,
Fonte replétos caritátis géminae
Post mortem carnis impetráte vívere.

(O ye twin olive trees of one devotion, obtain life after the death of the flesh for those devout in faith, most mighty in hope, filled from the double font of charity. – This stanza is part of the original, but dropped out of use long before the Tridentine reform; it has been restored in the post-Conciliar Liturgy of the Hours. The use of the two olive trees as symbols of the two Apostolic founders of the Roman church comes from the fourth chapter of the Prophet Zachariah.)

Sit Trinitáti sempiterna gloria,
Honor, potestas atque jubilatio,
In unitáte, cui manet imperium,
Ex tunc et modo, per aeterna sæcula. Amen.

(To the Trinity be everlasting glory, honor, might, and rejoicing, in that unity that ever hath rule from then and now, through all ages. Amen.)

Saints Peter and Paul, 1590-1600,  by El Greco. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.

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