Since coming to Rome to work in January of 2017, I have been struck by a word that is regularly used here. I don’t recall that it was so much in use thirty years ago when I was living here as a student, but most likely it was. The word is simply, “salve.” My conclusion from listening and inquiry is that when you meet a person you don’t know well, or are meeting for the first time, such as at the supermarket checkout, the bank or a newsstand, the first word normally exchanged is, “salve.” It is Latin in origin and has come down to Italian as a simple greeting, meaning just that: “greetings” or “hello.” The word “salve” might then be followed by “buongiorno,” meaning, good morning or good day, but almost always, “salve” seems the best initial contact word in commencing a conversation in Italy with someone you don’t well or at all.
The word “ciao,” (pronounced as “chow” in American parlance) also meaning “hello,” is frequently used to begin or close a conversation in Italy, but it seems to be a little more informal than “salve.” That is, friends are more likely to use “ciao,” when meeting or parting company, and “salve,” as an initial greeting, with those one does not know so well or at all, but used only when first meeting and not when parting, if my observations are correct. “Ciao” can be used coming or going, so to speak.
As a Catholic and a monk, the word “salve” is associated most often for me with the beautiful Gregorian chant, “Salve Regina,” the nightly song to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of Compline, the Church’s prayer at the end of the day. The Salve Regina is one of four “Marian Antiphons” as they are called, written in the Middle Ages, and used since then each night at the final Office of the day, Compline.
The four Marian Antiphons are assigned to specific times in the Church’s Liturgical Year. The Church sings the “Alma Redemptoris Mater” (O Loving Mother of the Redeemer) each year during the Advent and Christmas Seasons. The “Ave Regina Caelorum,” (Queen of the Heavens, we greet you) is used in the time after the Christmas season and during the season of Lent, leading up to Holy Week. All during Easter or Paschaltide, the “Regina Caeli Laetare” (Queen of Heaven, rejoice) is assigned to conclude Compline. For what is called “Ordinary Time” in the Church, that is, all the weeks that are not Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter time, the majority of the year in fact, the Salve Regina is chanted at Compline. This is also the prayer that concludes the praying of the Rosary.
In his sixth century Holy Rule, Saint Benedict of Nursia is very specific about how the Divine Office, or Liturgy of the Hours, is to be carried out. First and foremost, the entire Psalter, or Book of Psalms of the Old Testament, is to be chanted by his monks in the course of a week. The Psalter contains one hundred fifty psalms, some short and some very long, many of them linked to the name of King David as the author. More likely some of these beautiful prayers were composed by King David, but also other divinely-inspired authors over the course of five centuries or perhaps more, finalized as a body or Book of Psalms some centuries before the birth of Christ. The Psalms of the Hebrew Scriptures came to be considered the principle prayer book of the Jewish people, and later, of Christians, especially monks, since about the fourth century AD.
In addition to the Book of Psalms, Saint Benedict also discusses in his Rule the hymns, Scripture lessons, litanies, such as the Kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy), that are to be included in praying the Divine Office, what he calls the Opus Dei or Work of God. In describing the Office of Compline, though, Saint Benedict says nothing about the singing of the Salve Regina. That may seem odd, but there is a logical explanation.
When in past years I taught monastic history to aspiring monks in my monastery, I would make mention of a fact during the course of classes and then include that fact as a question in a multiple-choice “exam” I would give at the end of the course. The question, which may seem like a trick one, was this: why does Saint Benedict make no mention of the Marian Antiphons, and especially the most familiar of the four, the Salve Regina, in his outline of the Office of Compline?
The answer to the question is simple and always one of the multiple choices in the exam: the Salve Regina was not yet composed in the time of Saint Benedict, who died in 547 AD! The Salve Regina came into being in the eleventh century, usually ascribed to the German monk Hermann of Reichenau, often called “Herman the Cripple.” Today many musicologists and chant experts consider it to be an anonymous piece. Or, as one friend likes to quip when such things are concluded after a long history to the contrary, it probably was written by Hermann of Reichenau. One theory anyway!
Benedictine and Cistercian monks and nuns began praying the Salve Regina each day by the twelfth century, first as a processional hymn chanted on the way to the sleeping quarters of the monastery. Eventually it was simply assigned to be sung in church at the conclusion of Compline and before the sprinkling of the monks or nuns with holy water by the abbot or abbess of the community.
In the later Middle Ages the Salve Regina was also a part of the ritual for blessing ships. As such it became a prayer especially dear to sailors. The name “Maris,” in Latin means “Mary,” but also the Sea or Ocean (in Italian, “mare”; in Spanish, “mar”). Hence, there is a link with Mary’s name and the sea or ocean and mariners. Mary is also called the “Stella Maris,” that is, Star of the Sea.
At Catholic school in the 1960s, we often sang a hymn that was based on the Salve Regina, that begins, “Hail, Holy Queen enthroned above, O Maria! Hail, Mother of Mercy and of love, O Maria.” The same hymn was popularized in a jazzed-up version for the 1993 film, “Sister Act,” with Whoopi Goldberg, whose movie character is hiding out in a convent and conducting a choir of San Francisco cloistered nuns. More oddly perhaps, some years earlier, in 1976, the first words of the “Salve Regina” were used at the beginning of the song, “Oh What A Circus,” in the musical, “Evita.”
For those perhaps unfamiliar with the English version of the Salve Regina, I include it here:
Hail, holy Queen, Mother of mercy! Our life, our sweetness and our hope! To thee do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears. Turn then, most gracious advocate, thine eyes of mercy toward us; and after this our exile, show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus. O clement, O loving, O sweet Virgin Mary.
I had a friend who found the imagery of “banished children of Eve,” “this valley of tears,” and “our exile,” less than appealing concepts in an approach to God. I suggested that the prayer may be reflective of a more Augustinian theology and view of salvation, but nonetheless in accord with Catholic teaching and tradition. Original Sin, the struggles of life and longing for heaven are not “pie in the sky,” but part and parcel of Catholic belief and understanding of salvation. These truths are not the only part of our faith, but important for our understanding about life on earth and the hope for life eternal in Heaven after death.
I don’t think my explanation had much of an impact on the friend thinking differently about the Salve Regina, one of a myriad of prayers and songs of our Catholic faith. Personally, I love the prayer, especially in its original Latin form, and the two Gregorian chant melodies assigned to the text are sublime. One is called the Solemn tone and the other the Simple tone. Monks usually sing the solemn tone on Saturday and Sunday nights, as well as on Feast days and Solemnities of the Church Year in Ordinary Time. The simple tone is used on other days, unless (once again!) it is Advent, Christmas, Lent or Easter. The other three Martian Antiphons are sung accordingly at those times and seasons, and they each have a solemn and a simple tone or tune as well.
I can’t help but think of the Salve Regina whenever I greet someone in a store, at the bank or when buying bus tickets at a newsstand, with that simple word, “salve.”