For 1,200 years, there’s been a popular song on the church’s hymn list — and it has ties to Ascension and Pentecost.
“Veni Creator Spiritus” (“Come Holy Spirit, Creator”) dates back to the ninth century. Since then, it has been sung at ordinations, coronations, the opening of ecumenical councils, to bless soldiers going into battle and to dedicate churches, basilicas and shrines.
The hymn’s composer is generally considered to have been Rabanus Maurus, a Benedictine monk who later became Archbishop of Mainz in what is now France.
There are about five dozen English translated versions of this hymn, whose first stanza in Latin is:
“Veni, Creator Spiritus,
“Mentes tuorum visita,
“Imple superna gratia,
“Quae tu creasti pectora.
Perhaps the most familiar translation for us today at Mass begins: “Come Holy Ghost, Creator blest.”
A father’s prayer
St. John Paul II, in a Holy Thursday letter to priests in 1998, translated the first stanza as:
“Come, O Creator Spirit,
“visit our minds.
“Fill with your grace
“the hearts you have created.”
The pope had been fond of this hymn from childhood. In 1980, he told attendees at a Catholic Charismatic Renewal conference that his own father, Karol, had given him a prayer book with the hymn in it. The pope said his father told him to pray the hymn every day for understanding. “I’ve been praying this hymn every day for more than 40 years, and I’ve seen how much the Divine Spirit helps us,” St. John Paul II said.
Special hymn for history
This hymn, calling upon the Holy Spirit, has been used at many special events in history. These include:
1049 — The first official use of this hymn seems to have been at that start of the Council of Reims. At the council (in what is now France), Pope Leo IX blessed an abbey church and dealt with the issues of simony — selling church goods for profit — and papal supremacy.
1429 — Also in France, the Veni Creator Spiritus was a favorite hymn of Joan of Arc. When she arrived at the Siege of Orleans, a choir of priests chanted the hymn as she rode at the head of her troops. Her army won and the people of Orleans greeted her by singing the hymn.
1794 — During the French Revolution, many Catholics were martyred. These included the 16 Carmelite nuns known as “the Martyrs of Compeigone,” who refused to obey the “Civil Constitution of the Clergy.” They were condemned to death and sent to the guillotine. As each died, one by one, her remaining sisters sang this hymn.
1769-1784 — St. Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan missionary, founded nine missions in California, the first in 1769: San Diego de Alcala. At each, as the church was blessed by Fr. Serra, the Veni Creator Spiritus was chanted.
1901 — On New Year’s Day, 1901, at the suggestion of Blessed Elena Guerra, foundress of the Oblates of the Holy Spirit, Pope Leo XIII began the year by chanting the Veni Creator Spiritus and dedicating the 20th century to the Holy Spirit.
1962 — The lines of the Veni Creator Spiritus were the opening words of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962.
Bridging Easter and Pentecost
In the first reading for the Feast of the Ascension (May 13), we heard Christ promise that his disciples would “receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you” (Acts 1:8). On Pentecost, the Gospel tells us that the risen Jesus breathed on his disciples and said, “Receive the holy Spirit” (Jn 20:22).
The Greek word for the Spirit that appears in the New Testament is parakletos. The two Greek parts of this word mean “at your side” and “called to one’s aid.” This word gives us the common title — “Paraclete” — for the Spirit translates in various was as “advocate,” “helper,” “intercessor”, “consoler” and even as “legal assistant.”
In legal terms
It might seem odd to think of the Holy Spirit in legal terms, but think about what a legal advocate does. He acts in your defense. Advocates also often speak for people who cannot speak for themselves, such as children, marshaling various resources, appearing in court to speak for them and generally looking out for their interests. In his letter to the Romans, Paul showed how the Spirit speaks for us: “the Spirit, too, comes to the aid of our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit itself intercedes with inexpressible groanings” (8:26).
So, after all, it doesn’t seem all that unusual to use a 1,200 year-old chant as a popular way to call upon the Holy Spirit. While a chant is not “inexpressible groanings,” it is still a way to let the Spirit breathe through us and direct us to act as God wills.
Sources: “Online Etymology Dictionary”; “The New Dictionary of Theology”; “Catholic Encyclopedia”; aleteia.org; chantcafe.com; Western Washington Catholic Charismatic Renewal; St. Louis University at slu.edu; “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”; ewtn.com; vatican.va; and radiovaticana.va