Popular carol's Jesuit links

The 1751 manuscript at Stonyhurst College
The 1751 manuscript at Stonyhurst College

As Christmas approaches, many choirs and congregations will be singing ‘O Come, all ye faithful’ or its original Latin version ‘Adeste Fideles’. The origins of the hymn have been attributed to various groups and individuals; but both the original Latin and the English translation have strong Jesuit links.

Some musical historians credit St Bonaventure with writing the hymn in the 13th century; others say King John IV of Portugal was the author in the 17th century. Various monks including the Cistercians, and religious orders in Germany, Portugal and Spain have also been credited with the Latin text, which originally consisted of just four Latin verses, and it was with these that the hymn was originally published. But one of the oldest surviving Latin manuscripts is held in the Collection of a Jesuit college in Lancashire; and it may well have been used as a coded message to recalcitrant Catholics at the time when being a Catholic in England was still a criminal offence.

A rallying cry to Catholics in Europe

Stonyhurst College holds a Latin manuscript of ‘Adeste Fideles’ that is attributed to John Francis Wade in 1744 and was published in 1751. The Curator at Stonyhurst, Jan Graffius, believes that the words were regarded as a rallying cry to Catholics during the reign of King George II. In an interview with BBC1’s The One Show, she says that the term ‘Fideles’ (faithful) was used to urge Catholics to remain faithful to their faith and was “a particularly loaded word” at that time. By encouraging them to ‘come to Bethlehem’ (Venite, venite in Bethlehem), they were being invited to return to the land of kings - England. Many Catholics, facing persecution and possible death, had fled to continental Europe. “This was copied very quickly and passed all round Europe and into England,” says Jan. “It would have been a rallying cry.” Stonyhurst’s Head of Music, Greg Mann notes that the music on the original manuscript is quite similar to the modern version but there are some subtle differences. “It’s slower but not sad,” he says. “(It’s) to be sung in a robust and soulful way.”

As religious tensions later in the 18th century and into the 1800s lessened, so too did the hymn’s links with intrigue, rebellion and even high treason; but even its English version has a Jesuit association. The current translation used widely at the Christmas season is by Frederick Oakeley (1802–80), who converted to Catholicism and became a Canon of Westminster in 1852. He was a frequent contributor to The Month, which for almost all of its history (1864 – 2001) was owned and edited by the Jesuits in Britain.

Jan Graffius and Greg Mann were featured on The One Show on BBC1, with the original version of ‘Adeste Fideles’ sung by the Choir of Stonyhurst College. The feature can be found at approximately 50’45” into the programme.