Catholic Hymns You Should Know: Tantum Ergo

Sara and Justin Kraft

Catholic Hymns You Should Know: Tantum Ergo

Music has long been one of the chief modes by which the Catholic Church teaches the faith. Thus, throughout the centuries, the Church has developed a rich library of hymns which are designed to enrich our faith and draw us more deeply into prayer. 

"‘The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art. The main reason for this pre-eminence is that, as a combination of sacred music and words, it forms a necessary or integral part of solemn liturgy.’ The composition and singing of inspired psalms, often accompanied by musical instruments, were already closely linked to the liturgical celebrations of the Old Covenant. The Church continues and develops this tradition: ‘Address . . . one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart.’ ‘He who sings prays twice.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church #1156).

One of the most classic hymns is the “Tantum Ergo” which is a Eucharistic hymn that is sung as part of the final blessing (or benediction) following Eucharistic Adoration. The hymn itself is quite short, only two verses. It can be sung in the original Latin or in English. 

The Tantum Ergo is actually the final two verses or a longer hymn entitled the "Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium” or roughly translated “Sing the Mystery of the Glorious Body with the Tongue” which commences 

“Sing, my tongue, the Saviour's glory,
Of His Flesh, the mystery sing;
Of the Blood, all price exceeding,
Shed by our Immortal King,”

The Pange Lingua recounts the mysteries of the incarnation, last supper, and their salvific effects and culminates with the final two verses we now know as the Tantum Ergo.  

St. Thomas Aquinas the Composer

The Tantum Ergo and its longer precursor the Pange Lingua are traditionally ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas is best known for his work on philosophy and theology and it is for his studies that he was proclaimed a Doctor of the Church. His major work, the Summa Theologica (or the Sum of Theology), is considered by many to be the greatest work of theology ever written.  

However, Thomas was also a mystic and a poet. Witnesses attest that he often levitated during times of prayer. These aspects of St. Thomas’s life are often overlooked. However, they were profound aspects of his character. This is, perhaps, exemplified by a vision that occurred at near the end of his life causing him to leave the Summa Theologica unfinished. 

The story goes that during prayer, St. Thomas had a vision of heaven after which he retorted that by comparison, “All I have written is straw.”  Thomas never wrote again and died three months later.  

What We Can Learn from the Tantum Ergo

The Tantum Ergo is a great reflection on the Holy Eucharist. The words which appear below recount the manner in which we as Catholics ought to approach this great sacrament. It is also a terrific blend of St. Thomas’s philosophical prowess expressed through poetic language. 

Tantum ergo Sacramentum
Veneremur cernui:
Et antiquum documentum
Novo cedat ritui:
Praestet fides supplementum
Sensuum defectui.

Genitori, Genitoque
Laus et iubilatio,
Salus, honor, virtus quoque
Sit et benedictio:
Procedenti ab utroque
Compar sit laudatio.

Down in adoration falling,
Lo! the sacred Host we hail,
Lo! oe'r ancient forms departing
Newer rites of grace prevail;
Faith for all defects supplying,
Where the feeble senses fail.

To the everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Spirit proceeding
Forth from each eternally,
Be salvation, honor, blessing,
Might and endless majesty.

The hymn begins as we approach the Holy Eucharist. The only proper disposition is one of awe and wonder culminating in adoration which brings us to our knees. Recognizing in the sacred Host, the body of Christ, we usher in the graces of the new covenant as “Newer rites of grace prevail”. The sacrifice of the Body of Christ has a power that the sacrifices of the old covenant cannot match. Hence, we depart from the “ancient forms” replacing them with a new sacrifice in the Mass. All of this is too much to grasp on a merely human level. Hence, “faith” must supersede our “feeble senses” inability to comprehend the mystery enclosed in the Host before us. 

Contemplation of this great mystery then returns us again to our natural orientation toward God. One of praise and adoration as we call out the very identity and mystery the triune God, 

“To the everlasting Father,
And the Son Who reigns on high
With the Holy Spirit proceeding
Forth from each eternally”

and we conclude by returning to him all his divine attributes “salvation, honor, blessing, might, and endless majesty”. 

We hope you will spend a few moments reflecting on this great hymn and allowing it to make the mystery of the incarnation and Jesus’s presences in the sacred Host permeate your heart. May it bring you a Eucharistic blessing and deeper knowledge of Christ.