When it comes to understanding the Latin which Catholics used to hear at Mass, and the words they and non-Catholics still hear in classical religious masterpieces like the “Ave Verum” of Mozart, they didn’t and don’t. It is perhaps fortunate that Latin is incomprehensible to the vast majority of people, as it was, frankly, to the faithful at pre-Vatican 2 Masses. When I used to celebrate Mass in the sixties, I know I was among a minority even of the clergy, capable of fully understanding the Latin prayers and readings. Many of my confreres got the gist, but would have been hard put to offer an accurate, detailed translation. I say this ignorance is perhaps fortunate, because the words of hymns like the moving, magnificent “Ave Verum” are rubbish in any language :
“Ave verum Corpus natum de Maria Virgine, vere passum immolatum in cruce pro homine ! Cujus latus perforatum unda fluxit cum sanguine. Esto, nobis, praegustatum in mortis examine.”
“Hail, true Body born of the Virgin Mary, who truly suffered, immolated on the cross for man ! From whose pierced side flowed water and blood. Be for us a foretaste in the test of death.”
“Panis Angelicus”, of which I have spoken in an earlier post, is perhaps worse, although the music of both is as celestial as that which some hope to hear the Angels, with or without harps, sing in Heaven.
Mozart wrote the music for this anonymous profession of faith in the Eucharist, “Ave Verum”, for the Feast of Corpus Christi in 1791, just six months before his premature death prior to his 36th birthday. That host in the monstrance, held aloft by the priest in his gold-embroidered cope in the Corpus Christi procession, under the ornate canopy, is what it’s all about : that circular white wafer of bread under the glass of the monstrance is the “true body” of Jesus, “born of the Virgin Mary”. It is not some sort of symbol; it is, as the advertising jingle used to call Coca-Cola, “the real thing”, the Real Presence of Christ. It is the very same physical body which suffered in His excruciating crucifixion. The hymn recalls a graphic detail of the Gospel account of the Passion : the water and blood that flowed from the Savior’s side when it was pierced by the Roman soldier’s lance. “Ave verum Corpus” : Hail, veritable body of Jesus, a Man of flesh and blood like us. There He is, looking somewhat different, in fact a paper-thin disk which looks nothing like not only the Man it is supposed to be, but even the bread we eat. He, it, comes in a form that can easily be placed on the tongue and must be swallowed quickly before it dissolves in saliva. He, it, is meant to be eaten in advance (“praegustatum”), a “foretaste”, believers hope and pray, for the trial which will be their death. “Manducat Dominum pauper et humilis”, “the poor and humble eat their Lord” : He is the “Panis Angelicus”, the Angelic Bread of that other hymn in which believers affirm their faith in the Eucharist, the physical body of Jesus which we devour without a moment’s concern about cannibalism, or more simply wondering why on earth anyone would want to eat Him ! We must never forget that Holy Communion is not, in Roman Catholic belief, a merely symbolic union with Christ. That wafer is the “true body” of Jesus, the body he had as a baby in Bethlehem and as a victim of crucifixion on Calvary. Bon appétit !
If people knew what was being sung, they might very well throw up. So ignore the words. Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan and their audiences no doubt did not understand, let alone believe them, anyhow. Just enjoy Wolfgang at the summit of his art.