Leo XIII deserves to be better known. And he deserves to be better known for his hymns. He wrote two of those which we use on the feast of the Holy Family, which some of you may be observing today ... and the rest of you in a fortnight's time.
Dulce fit nobis is a cut-down version of his Sacra iam splendent. Leo wrote it in the Sapphic Metre, which was either invented or brought into prominence by Sappho, a poetess of the Greek island of Lesbos around 600ish BC, and made popular in Latin by Catullus and Horace; a metre which has always been popular among schoolboys because it is one of the easier metres in which to write Latin verse. Perhaps that is why it became a popular metre in the Carolingian period; but Leo was too good a Latinist to have chosen it from such a base motive. [Incidentally, you can always recognise this metre it because it is the metre where the fourth line is shorter than the first three, and goes Tumtitty Tumtum; e.g. English Hymnal 335 Wherefore, O Father, we thy humble servants, which was used (and probably written) to cover the silent repetition by the Anglican Catholic clergy of the Unde et memores etc. of the Canon Romanus, the oblatory language of which it echoes.]
Back to Leo and his Holy Family hymn. He bequeathed three problems to the post-Vatican II revisers.
(1) Horror of horrors, the hymn was ten (10!!) stanzas long. Far too long for modern clergy.
(2) The first stanza contains a lovely picture of a Catholic (or Orthodox) church at festival time; lights burning; altars wreathed; clouds of incense. That had to go for obvious reasons.
Sacra iam splendent decorata lychnis
Templa, iam sertis redimitur ara,
Et pio fumant redolentque acerrae
(3) "fessis". Disgusting? You may wonder what is problematic about that word.
Leo wrote that Mary, a good Mother and a good spouse, gave a helping hand to both Son and husband,
si potest curas relevare fessis
[ ................. happy
if she can lighten, with a friendly duty,
cares for the weary.]
But, apparently, 'fessis' suggests to the Francophone ear not 'weary' but 'buttocks'. So Dom Anselmo Lentini changed it to the problem-free word 'lassis', thus spoiling the alliterative "felix ... fessis" but sparing the blushes of that notoriously bashful constituency, the French clergy. (I will award this Blog's Order of Chastity, Fourth Class, which authorises you to have a pink pompom on your biretta, to any reader who can demonstrate that there is another language in which 'lassis' is even more indelicate than 'fessis' is in French.)
Leo was a fluent French speaker. Yet, as a cultivated Latinist, he wrote "fessis" without a moment's anxiety. What sort of cultural shift has landed us with an 'emancipated' society in which the word is too sniggerworthy to be printable?