Vexilla Christus inclita

October 25 was, according to the pre-Conciliar rubrics, the first-class feast of Christ the King. (Christ the King is now celebrated on the last Sunday in tempus per annum, apparently to emphasize the eschatological aspect of Christ’s kingship, which was not at all what Quas primas was about, but we digress.) We were particularly struck by the hymns for the office, especially the hymn for Lauds, Vexilla Christus inclita, which includes this passage:

O ter beata civitas,
cui rite Christus imperat,
quae iussa pergit exsequi
edicta mundo caelitus!

Non arma flagrant impia,
pax usque firmat foedera,
arridet et concordia,
tutus stat civicus.

Servat fides connubia,
iuventa pudet integra,
pudica floret limina
domesticis virtutibus.

In Father Joseph Husslein’s translation, these stanzas are rendered:

Thrice happy city, basking fair
Beneath His royal sway,
Where at the mandates from His throne
All hearts with joy obey!

No godless conflicts there shall rage,
But Peace outstretch her hand,
With smiling Concord at her side—
Firm shall that city stand!

Where wedded love shall keep its troth,
And youth can blossom fair,
And all the household virtues pure
Shall grace the household there.

We were struck by the imagery in Vexilla Christus inclita, so we looked it up in Dom Matthew Britt’s indispensable The Hymns of the Roman Breviary and Missal (3d ed. 1934). According to him, the hymns were composed specifically for the office of Christ the King, which was approved by the Sacred Congregation of Rites on December 12, 1925. (The day after Quas primas was formally promulgated.) However, Britt does not identify the author of these bespoke hymns. But we recalled that Fr. John Hunwicke had a series earlier this year about the Social Kingship of Christ, and we thought that Hunwicke might have a little more information about the author of Vexilla Christus inclita. And he did: he names Fr. Vittorio Genovesi as the author.

Genovesi (1887-1967) was an Italian Jesuit. He was best known during his life, perhaps, as a very talented—indeed, prize-winning—Latin poet and cultivator of Latinitas. (The blog Missa in Latina has a very detailed biography of Genovesi in the context of his Christ the King hymns.) He achieved Curial prominence under Pius XII, who appointed him hymnographer to the Sacred Congregation of Rites—this would have been some years after composing the Christ the King hymns—and then to other positions in the Congregation. Fr. Gabriel Díaz Patri, in “Poetry in the Latin Liturgy,” his contribution to a 2010 volume called The Genius of the Roman Rite, notes that Genovesi also wrote hymns for the feast of St. John Chrysostom and the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The latter distinction is especially noteworthy, given the importance of the office of the Assumption after Munificentissimus Deus. Later, he was on one of John XXIII’s preparatory committees for the Council.

In sum, Genovesi appears to be one of those priests—Cardinal Ottaviani was another—who understood that the Church carried forward the best of classical culture and who acted like it, treating Latin as one of their own languages, not something belonging to history. There is a sense, fairly sad, especially at a time when Synod fathers complained that they did not have sufficient Italian to be able to read the Synod’s drafts, that the Church lost something intangible and invaluable when Latin was graciously set aside as the Church’s language.

But equally fascinating is Genovesi’s Jesuit confrere, Joseph Husslein, who translated Vexilla Christus inclita (his translation is provided in Britt’s book). We confess that we had not heard of Husslein prior to today. In a review of a biography of Husslein by Steven A. Werner, Arthur Hippler notes,

Most American Catholics nowadays who devote themselves to “social concerns” have shrunk the magisterial social teaching to a few choice texts from Rerum Novarum, Mater et Magistra, and the writings of Pope John Paul II that happen to serve their favorite cause. The attention, for example, that John Paul II gives to the natural law, the problem of secularism, and the defense of the traditional family, just to name a few, are largely filtered out of contemporary discourse. The American “social concerns” crowd feels much more comfortable when the pope talks about global warming or capital punishment.

The example of Jesuit social thinker Father Joseph Husslein (1873–1952) offers a refreshing contrast to this contemporary intellectual fashion. Steven Werner shows him as a scholar who formed his thought by the teachings of Leo XIII, especially Rerum Novarum. Indeed, Husslein had done this so completely that his writings anticipated many developments that later appeared in Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno. From 1909 to 1931, Father Husslein published numerous books and articles, applying Catholic social teachings to the problems of the day. His crowning work, The Christian Social Manifesto: An Interpretive Study of Encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno of Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI, published in 1931, received the praise of Pius XI in a letter written by Cardinal Pacelli, who would later become Pope Pius XII.

Hippler’s review of Werner’s book is as not favorable as Pius XI’s review of Husslein’s commentary on Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, though. After criticizing Werner’s “caricature of Catholic history,” Hippler makes this point about Husslein’s career,

On this point, it is worth remarking that after the publication of The Christian Social Manifesto in 1931 until his death in 1951, “The bulk of Husslein’s writings was devotional”. Among the topics of his ten books and fifty articles were the Eucharist, the Holy Family, and the social reign of Christ the King. After presenting some possibilities for this change, Werner speculates that “Husslein went deep to the core assumptions underlying his social writing: that social change would only come about with a change in the hearts of human beings and only true religion could accomplish such change”. If this is true, Husslein fully merits the status that Werner gives him in the book’s title, namely that of prophet. A prophet sees that what appear to be social or political problems are truly spiritual problems.

(Emphasis supplied.) Some light Googling turns up more information about Husslein. He sounds like an important figure in the early understanding of Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno, at least in the United States. However, given the divergent trends in the American Church’s understanding of the Church’s social teaching, it seems like Husslein has fallen by the wayside. We will, however, make an effort to find out more about him, and, perhaps, share the information here.

But—in keeping with our running admiration of James Burke’s Connections—we note that there are some interesting connections here. Pius XI establishes the feast of Christ the King in 1925. The feast needs an office and an office—especially for a first-class feast—needs hymns, so Jesuit Father Vittorio Genovesi, a first-rate Latin poet, is commissioned to write some hymns for the office, including Vexilla Christus inclita. This hymn is translated into English by one of Genovesi’s confreres, Joseph Husslein. Husslein was himself a major thinker regarding Catholic social teaching, and a commentator on Rerum novarum and Quadragesimo anno. The latter encyclical was, of course, by Pius XI.

Someone really ought to do something for Papa Ratti. Everything seems to come back to him sooner or later.