Leo XIII deserves to be better known. And he deserves to be better known for his hymns.
He wrote the hymns we use on today's feast of the Holy Family. Gregory diPippo once passed on to me a splendid story about Pope Leo waking up in the middle of the night and frantically ringing the bell for his servants, and shouting "Il piede! Il piede!". [Piede is Italian for Foot, and metres as well as popes have feet.] They assumed he had hurt his foot and wanted a medic; instead, he called for pen and paper. He had just solved, in his sleep ... as one does ... a metrical problem in a poem he was working on ... waking up with the solution in his head, he needed to jot it down before he forgot it. I wonder if he explained this to his footman. (Yes!! It's Pantomime Time!!!)
Back to today's Holy Family hymns.
The Mattins hymn Sacra iam splendent. was composed by Leo in the Sapphic Metre, which was either invented or brought into prominence by Sappho, a poetess of the Greek island of Lesbos (which PF loves to visit) around 600ish BC, and made popular in Latin by Catullus and Horace; a metre which has always been a favourite among schoolboys because it is one of the easier metres in which to write Latin verse. Perhaps that is why it was so widely used 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 on a printed page 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 yet again 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 evokes a lovely picture of a Catholic (or Orthodox) church at festival time; lights burning; altars wreathed; clouds of incense. Just think how maddened PF and Arthur Roche would have been, had it been allowed to remain! Just imagine the spittle-flecked pontifical tirades!
Sacra iam splendent decorata lychnis
Templa, iam sertis redimitur ara,
Et pio fumant redolentque acerrae
(3) "fessis". Disgusting? It is disgusting. Let me tell you why.
Leo wrote that our blessed Lady, 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 'fessis' suggests to the Francophone or Italophone ear not 'weary' but 'buttocks'. [A Late Latin word? Cognate with fascia?] So Dom Anselmo Lentini, boss of the coetus which revised the hymns of the Divine Office after the Council, changed it to the problem-free word 'lassis', thus spoiling the nicely alliterative "felix ... fessis" but sparing the blushes of those notoriously bashful constituencies, the French and Italian 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' sounds even more indelicate than 'fessis' does to French and Italians.
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?
I wonder if Dom Anselmo considered spelling fessis as f***is.