Salve Regina

By Ambassador Howard Dee

(former Ambassador of the Philippines to the Vatican)

In the year 1925, the Feast of Christ the King was instituted, and the momentum for a parallel Marian feast grew quickly. Requests for this feast had been sent to Rome since the early 1900s. 

Pope Pius XII, who had been speaking much on the Queenship of Mary, issued the encyclical letter Ad Coeli Reginam on 11 October 1954 and that same year instituted the Feast of the Queenship of Mary. 

It was first given the date of 31 May and later transferred (as a memorial) to the octave day of the Feast of the Assumption. Thus today we celebrate the Feast of the Queenship of Mary on August 22.

Very generally, we could say that we learn about Catholic doctrine in many and varied ways. One of them is through formal Church teaching, usually from the popes and the bishops, from the magisterium of the Church. Another way is when we gather for Mass, through the annual unfolding of the Liturgical Year, and through the devotions. 

We are also able to learn about our Catholic Faith and doctrine through church art and architecture. Another valuable area of our worship is the role played by church hymns. Perhaps we haven’t adverted to it, but so much of our doctrines are learned through our songs both “official” (e.g. the Gloria and the Lamb of God) and “unofficial” (e.g. devotional music, et al).

So, with regard to the doctrine of the Queenship of Mary, the fullest teaching of the magisterium is Pope Pius XII’s encyclical (11 October 1954). To “tick off” some main points of doctrine found there: (1) Mary is Queen because she is the Mother of God (#26); (2) As Jesus Christ is King because He is our Redeemer, so Mary—closely associated with his life and redeeming work as “the New Eve”—is rightly called Queen (#s 26-28); (3) Mary is Queen by her pre-eminent perfection and holiness of life (#30); (4) Queen, too, by her power as intercessor (St Bernard’s omnipotentia supplex). 

Mary’s great influence and action in the Church’s life and even in all human history derives from this. All this can be fully developed as theology and doctrine, as Pope Pius XII himself does, in Ad Coeli Reginam.

Today, regarding our “second way” of learning doctrine, perhaps we can focus on one hymn we recite often, the Salve Regina or the “Hail Holy Queen”. In our religious community we sing it together after every major festive gathering or celebration. Those who read the breviary (the official daily prayer of the Church) recite it after Vespers or Compline.

The Salve Regina comes to us from the ancient monasteries (11th and 12th century) in Europe—France and Germany especially—in particular from the Cistercians and the Benedictine monks. In the 13th century, the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites took it into their chanted “office,” the prayer they sing together as communities and which forms part of their community life. It is a hymn more than a thousand years old already, about Mary the Queen. Surely we can learn much “doctrine” from it.

Salve Regina. Hail, holy queen. Some queen-mothers (gebirah) play stellar roles in the Old Testament. When the hymn was written, in the so-called “dark ages,” there were not a few queens in Europe; a queen then was a familiar person, image and symbol. Wherever you had a king, you had a queen. They were figures of power; figures with might in their hands. They could get people, in court or in the realm, done or undone.

But the hymn doesn’t stay long on the queen’s might and power. Or maybe it tells us what the truest might is, what the truest power is. Right away it calls Mary “mother of mercy”: a move from outer dominion and rule to inward greatness of heart, to mercy, to compassion, to tenderness. Vita, dulcedo et spes nostra, salve. Hail our life, our sweetness, our hope.

To thee do we cry, poor banished, exiled children of Eve. To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. 

I have read a couple of writers from the prosperous Western countries who want to do away with those lines, whose sentiments they find rather cloying and “completely out of synch” with their lives today. Most of us would not agree. Maybe we should say something about the monk to whom most contemporary scholarship attributes the Salve Regina hymn, Hermann of Reichenau. (In the Church, St. Hermann of Reichenau.)

Hermann was born in July of 1013, sprung from two noble Swabian families, “splendid families, with crusaders, prelates, distinguished lords and ladies from their ranks, jostling one another in those pedigrees”. Hermann was born “most horribly deformed”. He was later to be nicknamed “‘Contractus’—Hermann the Cripple”. His body was so hideously misshapen, so badly distorted that he could not stand, let alone walk. He could hardly sit, even in the special chair made for him. His fingers were so weak and knotted: it was painful for him to write. His mouth and palate were so deformed that when he spoke, it was hard to understand him. In the pagan world, he would have been exposed, perhaps even at the very hour of birth, to perish. 

In our time, especially in the first world countries, he would have been aborted, as a hopeless defective, long before his time of birth. But in those ancient times, what did they do with him? They sent him to the monastery of Reichenau, located on an island in Lake Constance in Germany, a monastery well-known for its scholarship, superb library, school of painting, its interest in astronomy and music.

There at Reichenau, this crippled boy “who could hardly write, or stammer, who had almost constant pain,” somehow “found himself”. His biography says he was “always patient and pleasant, easy to talk to, ever friendly, never complaining or criticizing, plucky and cheerful, laughing often, even in days of pain.” Everybody loved him. It turned out he had a mind of talent and vigor. He studied mathematics, several languages, the sciences and philosophy of the time, and music. He wrote a learned scientific treatise, and a “chronicon”—a scholarly world history from Christ’s time to his own. Those twisted fingers learned to make clocks, astrolabes (a forerunner of the sextant), musical instruments, and music. 

Hermann wrote much music. (C C Martindale SJ) <i>“It is practically certain it was he who wrote the Salve Regina, with its plain chant melody, and the Advent season’s Alma Redemptoris Mater, two great Marian hymns which are in our breviaries till today.”</i>

He died at the age of 41, after a life of unrelieved discomfort and real suffering, but also of great patience and sweetness of spirit, of deep friendships and shining holiness—longing at the last so intensely for the life to come. The record says there were oh, so many tears and “great lamentation” when in the end his remains were brought back for burial to his ancestral estate in Altshausen, which he left years before when—seemingly useless for the world—he joined the monastery.

To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. When you sing those words again in Salve Regina, think of the broken-bodied Hermann the Cripple writing them, ever so painfully, but ever so bravely too, in his monastery cell. (But when sorrow, hurt or darkness come down upon us, do we not likewise resonate with Hermann’s pain and his poignant words?)

Turn then, most gracious Advocate, your eyes of pity (misericordes oculos) toward us. Advocata nostra: she who will greatly plead our cause before our God, “now and at the hour of our death.” Yes, our firm but gentle defender, her “eyes of pity” ever upon us, even now while we live and labor, you and I, “in this valley of tears”. Again, this is not so much “the mighty woman” but the mother of infinite loving and caring, the mother of an infinite tenderness.

And after this our exile—oh, we think upon the hour of our death too, the ending of our exile, when finally we are homeward bound—show unto us then, the blessed fruit of your womb. Show us your Son and God’s own Son; oh, show us Jesus at last!

The Salve Regina hymn is sung daily in monasteries and religious houses, especially in the evening when the monks end their night prayer. They sing it, as they leave the Church; they kneel as it ends, to receive their abbot’s night blessing. It is a prayer for the day’s ending, and also for life’s ending. 

In my country the Philippines, in what we call “the Spanish times,” when the night fell, the town’s leaders, and heads of families would gather in the little candle-lit town church. The priest would lead them in prayer, and then (so we read in the chronicles of the time) they would all sing the Salve Regina together, with much simple piety, before the cura would give them the blessing for the night. Then they would go home, each father to bless his own family, before they all lay down to sleep.

It is said that one evening the great Saint Bernard, abbot of Clairvaux, known for his passionate love for Our Lady, was in the Cathedral of Chartres as the choir was singing the Salve Regina, so beautifully and so movingly, that Bernard fell to his knees, crying out, “O clemens, o pia, o dulcis Virgo Maria! Oh clement, oh loving, oh sweet Virgin Mary!” 

The Salve Regina ends on that note: a triple note of love, tenderness and sweetness. This Queen of our hearts is a gentle, loving, tender Mother: she is vitae dulcedo, sweetness of our lives, our hope. This is the Queen of all the earth and sky, and so she is our hope, we poor sinners, you and I.

When we were in Russia with Cardinal Sin, I asked an Orthodox church theologian about their doctrine on Mary. “No,” he said, “we have no Marian dogmas in our church. What we want to say of her is painted in our icons and sung lovingly in our hymns; that is our real Mariology.”

I thank Our Lady for having made the faithful understand that, before her, there is no high or low, man or woman, neither learned nor stupid, rich or poor, but only one family, all sons and daughters in her one Son, each one to be brought up in His truth and grace, made to grow in Him as Way and Truth and Life. We can never thank her enough for that spirit of peace and purity which she has brought into the Church, the gentleness and goodness she has kept alive within the souls of all her children through all the ages.

Lord, we ask only one favor of you, that of dwelling in your Holy Church, not as one with power or one with fame, not as scholar or scientist, not as athlete or actor, politician or philosopher, as “one above or one below”, but simply as son, as daughter, as a child of Mary, your Mother, now and at the hour of my death. 

Our Lady of the dying, and Our Lady of the battle, Our Lady of consolation and Our Lady of ever-present help, that Virgin before us and beside us whom the disciple of Jesus invokes from his first childish prayer to the final hour of his death—how could anyone ever imagine that love and devotion given to her, hides as with some blocking screen, the Person of the One Mediator, the One and Only Son? “Salve regina, mater misericordiae...” Thus, oh my Lord, your monks sang of old, in words clear as light even as they touched our hearts, piety and truth joined together, sweetness and strength, knowing full well that all grace and all salvation comes to us through You; knowing too that You yourself were given to us in the arms of your Mother, she who cradled you at Bethlehem, she who held You in her arms at the foot of the Cross at Calvary. (Pierre Charles, adapted)


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