Learn the Latin of “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum”

As a further reflection in the wake of Corpus Christi Sunday, permit me to offer a reflection on the two great Eucharistic hymns of Benediction. I sometimes get requests for help in understanding the Latin texts of these very familiar hymns for Eucharistic Adoration and Benediction.

“O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum,” though familiar to many Catholics, remain only vaguely understood in terms of a word-for-word translation. They are sometimes referred to as just “O Salutaris” and “Tantum Ergo.” Most know the poetic English renderings (“O Saving Victim opening wide” and “Humbly let us voice our homage”) but this does not necessarily facilitate a word-for-word understanding as the Latin is sung. What I hope to accomplish here is to provide a very literal rendering (preserving the Latin word order) so that one can understand the Latin precisely. It is my hope to bring these hymns more alive for the faithful who sing them, but may not be highly skilled in Latin.

“O Salutaris Hostia” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Verbum Supernum Prodiens” (The heavenly Word going forth), written by St. Thomas Aquinas. He composed it for Lauds (Morning Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is iambic dimeter, which is accentual with alternating rhyme. Even the hostile Jean-Jacques Rousseau was said to have been so pleased by this hymn that he said he would have given all his poetry to be its author. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:

O salutaris Hostia
quae caeli pandis ostium
bella premunt hostilia
da robur fer auxilium
O saving Victim
who of heaven opens the gate
wars press hostile
give strength bear aid
O saving Victim
who opens the gate of heaven
hostile wars press;
give strength; bear aid
Uni Trinoque Domino
sit sempiterna gloria
qui vitam sine termino
nobis donet in patria
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory
who life without end
to us may give in the Fatherland
To the One and Threefold Lord
may there be eternal glory;
who life without end
may give to us in the Fatherland

I have prepared a more thorough word study here: Study of the O Salutaris.

“Tantum Ergo Sacramentum” – This is actually the last two verses of the hymn “Pange Lingua” (Sing, my tongue), also written by St. Thomas Aquinas. It was composed for Vespers (Evening Prayer) of the Divine Office for the Feast of Corpus Christi. The meter is trochaic tetrameter catalectic, which rhymes at both the caesura and the end of the line. There is in this hymn a wonderful union of sweetness of melody with clear-cut dogmatic teaching. To facilitate easier comparison, I present the Latin text on the left; a very literal, word-for-word English translation preserving the Latin word order in the center; and an English translation with more English-like word order (and some punctuation for additional clarity) on the right:

Tantum ergo sacramentum
veneremur cernui
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads
So great therefore a sacrament
let us venerate with bowed heads;
et antiquum documentum
novo cedat ritui
praestet fides supplementum
sensuum defectui
and the ancient document
new give way to the rite
may supply faith a supplement
of the senses for the defect
and the ancient document
to the new rite give way;
may faith supply a supplement
for the defect of the senses
Genitori Genitoque
laus et jubilation
salus, honor, virtus, quoque
sit et benediction
procedenti ab utroque
compare sit laudatio
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy
health, honor, strength also
may there be and blessing
to the One proceeding from both
equal may there be praise.
To the One who generates and the One who is generated (i.e., to the Father and Son)
be praise and joy,
health, honor, strength also
may there be, and blessing.
to the One proceeding from both
may there be equal praise.

I have prepared a more thorough word study here: Study of the Tantum Ergo.

Here is setting of the Tantum Ergo (composer unknown, but sometimes attributed to Mozart), which I paired with some video footage I found:

5 Replies to “Learn the Latin of “O Salutaris Hostia” and “Tantum Ergo Sacramentum””

  1. Thanks so much for this, Father. My Latin is pretty good but your commentary brought out so much Thomas’ compositional genius. We in ArchBalt have just begun a Year of the Eucharist — a blessing for the whole church, and these are — or should be — the soundtrack for the year.

  2. At our parish it is sung in Latin. I hope it stays that way. It is the only Latin that is ever used except for one priest who at daily Mass occasionally does the Agnus Dei in Latin

  3. Thank you so very much for this post, Msgr Pope, and for the pdf files.

    I’ve just started learning Latin in order to translate the rite of consecration of virgins, as I’m told that the current English translation of the rite in the Roman Pontifical is somewhat wanting. Your pdf files provide the perfect model for what I’d like to do. So thank you and God bless you!

  4. This short study is absolutely fabulous. Thank you so much for your teaching. Exposition is powerful in its own rite, I attend Exposition as often as I can, but praying these two eucharistic hymns at the beginning and end truly opens and closes the gates of Heaven. I appreciate having a much fuller understanding and wish there is more study available.

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