Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Traditional Mass of Palm Sunday

This article, the sixth in an ongoing series about the theology of the various forms of the rites of Palm Sunday, discusses the traditional form of the Palm Sunday Mass, and the changes made to it in 1955. The next article will discuss the post-Conciliar form. Previous articles covered the blessing of the Palms (part 1, part 2, part 3) and the procession (part 4, part 5).

As previously noted, it is a custom unique to the Roman Rite to read the Passion on three days of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday and Spy Wednesday, which occur before the days on which the events recounted by these passages originally took place. The blessing of the Palms celebrates the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem, which becomes the prelude to the Passion and the other events of Holy Week, which it frequently mentions. The Palm Sunday Mass itself is therefore focused entirely on the Passion.

Both the Introit and the Tract are taken from Psalm 21, the first words of which the Lord cried out on the Cross just before He died, “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”, as recorded in the Gospel of St Matthew which is read on this day (27, 46), and in the parallel verse of St Mark (15, 34) which is read on Holy Tuesday. Throughout the week, texts from the Psalms are selected to represent the prayers of the just man subjected to persecution and violence, as for example the Introit, “O Lord, remove not Thy help to a distance from me; look towards my defense. Deliver me from the lion’s mouth, and my lowness from the horns of the unicorns.”


The ancient Collect refers to the Incarnation as the necessary premise of the Passion, in accordance with the common tradition that Jesus’ earthly life began and ended on the same day, March 25; this is also the idea behind the prayer of the Angelus, which is the Post-Communion of the Annunciation. Like the opening prayer of the blessing of the palms, it also reminds us on the Lord’s day that the consummation of the Passion is found not in His death, but in His Resurrection.

“Almighty and everlasting God, Who, to provide the human race an example of humility for it to imitate, caused our Savior to assume the flesh and undergo the Cross, mercifully grant that we may be worthy of the lessons of His suffering, and the fellowship of His resurrection.”

Folio 43v of the Sacramentary of Drogo, bishop of Metz, 845-55, with the collect, secret and proper preface of Palm Sunday. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 9428; image cropped.)
The Epistle is one of the best-known passages in all the writings of St Paul, the so-called Kenotic hymn from the letter to the Philippians, 2, 5-11. This is one of four Scriptural readings apart from the Passions [13], and the only Epistle among them, at which a genuflection is incorporated into the rite of Mass, at the words “That in the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those that are in heaven, on earth, and under the earth.”

The Gradual is taken from Psalm 72. “Thou hast held my right hand; and by Thy will thou hast conducted me, and with Thy glory thou hast received me.” This choice seems to have been inspired by a book called the “Breviarium in Psalmos”, traditionally but mistakenly attributed to St Jerome. (“Breviarium” here means a collection of brief explanations, and has nothing to do with “breviary”.) “ ‘Thou hast held my right hand’ as I went down to hell, because the left hand of the devil opposed me. ‘And by Thy will thou hast conducted me’ rising (i.e. from the dead), ‘and with Thy glory thou hast received me’ returning to heaven.” (PL 26, 1032A) This serves as another reminder that although it is Palm Sunday, it is nevertheless also the day of the Resurrection.

The Passion of St Matthew is read in its entirety, from the beginning of chapter 26 to the end of chapter 27. As also noted previously, it is a custom almost unique to the Roman Rite to read the four Passions with both chapters together. Our readers are certainly familiar with the custom, also unique to the Roman Rite, by which the Passion Gospels are sung by three deacons, not the deacon of the Mass [14], each of whom represents the different characters (Christ, the Evangelist, and all the others) by singing at a different pitch. In the Missal of St Pius V, these three do not say “Munda cor meum”, nor are they blessed by the celebrant of the Mass.

The three deacons sing the Passion nearly to the end. On Palm Sunday, they stop after Christ’s burial (at verse 27, 61); on the other three days, they stop where the Evangelist speaks of the witnesses to His death (Mark 15, 41; Luke 23, 49; John 19, 37). The last part of each Passion [15] is sung by the deacon of the Mass, with all of the rites which normally precede the Gospel procession, except that candles are not used. Omitting “Dominus vobiscum” and the title, the deacon incenses the book, and sings the end of the Passion. As at other solemn Masses, the celebrant receives and kisses the Gospel book, brought to him by the subdeacon, and is then incensed by the deacon.

The Gospel at the end of the Passion, during the Palm Sunday at Santisima Trinità dei Pellegrini, the FSSP church in Rome, in 2015.
The pause between the end of the Passion and the beginning of this Gospel dramatically conveys the astonishment of all creation at the death of the Creator. With the great reform of Gregorian chant in the reign of Pope St Pius X, a special tone for this part was introduced ad libitum, with a long descant at the beginning of each verse, and a long and solemn conclusion, which masterfully represents the Church’s weeping over Christ’s death.

The Offertory is taken from Psalm 68, which also provides the text for the Communion of Holy Tuesday and the Gradual of Spy Wednesday, and is the opening Psalm of the first Tenebrae service. It is particularly associated with the Passion because of the words of verse 22 which are sung here, and which prophesied that the Lord would be given vinegar to drink in the midst of His sufferings: “And they gave me gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” (In the Ambrosian Divine Office, which has a very irregular arrangement during Holy Week, this Psalm is sung at Matins on all three days of the Triduum.)

An especially beautiful setting of the Offertory Improperium exspectavit by Palestrina.

The Communion is the words of Our Lord’s prayer in the garden of Gethsemane, read earlier in the Gospel, “Father, if this chalice may not pass away, but I must drink it, thy will be done.” On the basis of these words, the Fathers of the Church very often took other mentions of cups or chalices in the Bible as references to the Passion.

Finally, the Secret and Communion, which both appear on Palm Sunday in the Gregorian Sacramentary, are rather generic, and make no reference to either the palms or the Passion.

The 1955 reform of Holy Week made only one change to the text of the Palm Sunday Mass, but that, an extremely serious one, which needs to be considered together with a similar change to the Masses of Holy Tuesday and Spy Wednesday. The Passion of St Matthew is shortened by the removal of the first 35 verses of chapter 26, and the last six verses of chapter 27. Likewise, the Passion of St Mark on Tuesday is shortened by the removal of the first 31 verses of chapter 14, and that of St Luke on Wednesday by the removal of the first 38 verses of chapter 22.

The verses removed from the beginning of St Matthew’s Passion recount the conspiracy of the elders and chief priests against the Lord, the anointing of His feet at Bethany, Judas’ betrayal, the preparation and celebration of the Last Supper, the Institution of the Eucharist, the departure to the Mount of Olives, and the prediction of Peter’s betrayal. The verses removed from the end recount the placing of the guard at the tomb, which is not in any of the other Gospels.

“In pouring this ointment upon my body, she hath done it for my burial. Amen I say to you, wheresoever this Gospel shall be preached in the whole world, that also which she hath done, shall be told for a memory of her.” – The Ointment of the Magdalene, by James Tissot (1836-1902), ca. 1886-94; now in the Brooklyn Museum. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
The verses removed from the Passions of Ss Mark and Luke parallel those removed from that of St Matthew, and since these episodes, including the Institution of the Eucharist, occur nowhere else in the liturgical year, they are thus removed entirely from the Roman Rite. The uniquely Roman custom of reading the accounts of the Lord’s Supper together with the rest of His Passion is therefore eliminated altogether. I have previously described how the 1955 reform of Good Friday goes to considerable lengths to separate the Passion from the Eucharist, the “memorial of the Lord’s death.” The shortening of the three Synoptic Passions reinforces this by confining the account of the Institution of the Eucharist to the reading of St Paul’s version of it in 1 Corinthians 11, 20-32, the Epistle of the Mass of Holy Thursday.

In regard to ritual, the particular rite for the singing of the Passion was almost completely removed, and although the entire Passion is now treated as the Gospel of the Mass, the standard rite for the Gospel is altered. The three deacons come before the altar, kneel, and say “Munda cor meum”, then go to the celebrant, ask for and receive the blessing, and go to the place where the Gospel is sung. They are accompanied by the acolytes, but neither candles nor incense is used. The last part is sung by the narrator, not by the deacon of the Mass, without pause between the Passion and the Gospel; the special tone is not found in the new typical edition of the chant of the Passion, although it was not explicitly abolished. (However, the part of St Matthew which is sung in this special tone was deleted.) The Gospel book is not brought to the celebrant, who is not incensed.

Every time the rubrics mention the Passion, they say that it “is sung or read”, or the equivalent thereof (“proceditur ad cantum vel lectionem”); it is therefore foreseen that it may be read, rather than sung, even within a solemn Mass. This is a sad harbinger of one of the most damaging novelties of the post-Conciliar reform, the abolition of the strict distinction between solemn, sung, and low Mass.

In the second article of my 2009 series on the reform of Holy Week, I listed some other relatively minor changes to the Masses of Palm Sunday, Holy Tuesday and Spy Wednesday, changes which were later applied generally in the 1962 Missal, and then carried over into the post-Conciliar rite. Only one of these needs to be repeated here, as a matter relevant to the new tenor introduced by this reform.
From our fourth Palm Sunday photopost of last year, the major ministers during the Palm Sunday Mass at Nuestra Señora del Pilar, the FSSP church in Guadalajara, Mexico.
The 1955 Holy Week was the first expression of a profound animus on the part of modern liturgical reformers against penitential practices, as seen in the transformation of the Palm Sunday procession into a celebratory rite, and the elimination of its penitential character. In a similar vein, the liturgical color of the Candlemas blessing and procession was later changed from penitential violet to celebratory white. This animus was then given a far wider application in the post-Conciliar reform, with the removal of most penitential customs and observances such as the Rogation days, and the confining of those that remain to Lent.

Likewise, in 1955, when it was still the norm for the deacon and subdeacon to use folded chasubles in penitential seasons, they were replaced in all the ceremonies of Holy Week, the commemoration of the Lord’s suffering and death, with the dalmatic and tunicle, garments which traditionally symbolize rejoicing. [16] The grossly inappropriate character of this change was somewhat mitigated in 1960, when, for no intelligent reason, folded chasubles were abolished from the Roman Rite altogether. [17]

Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous articles):
[13] The others are the Gospels of Christmas Day, Epiphany, and Man Born Blind on the Wednesday of the fourth week of Lent.
[14] When necessary, one or more the major ministers may sing a part of the Passion, but this is not the ideal practice, and not mentioned in the rubrics of the Missal.
[15] Matt. 27, 62-66; Mark 15, 42-46; Luke 23, 50-53; John 19, 38-42
[16] This is expressed by the vesting prayers which are traditionally said when donning them: for the dalmatic, “Cloth me, Lord, with the garment of salvation, and the raiment of joy, and ever place upon me the dalmatic of justice,” and for the tunicle, “May the Lord cloth me in the tunicle of delight, and the garment of rejoicing.”
[17] See the articles on the subject by our founding editor Shawn Tribe, and colleague Henri de Villiers.

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