Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Purest Source of the Roman Palm Sunday Rites

Yesterday, I gave a description of the Palm Sunday blessing and procession as they appear in the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum (PRG) of the mid-10th century, the ancestral form of those rites as they appear in the Missal of St Pius V. To conclude this series, it remains to say a bit more about the relationship (or lack thereof) between this ancient form and the reforms of 1955 and 1969. Since these two reforms are so similar to each other, here again, my guide will be the commentary on the 1955 reform published by Frs Annibale Bugnini and Carlo Braga in the Ephemerides Liturgicae in 1956. [27]

Each section of the commentary is followed by the text of the new rite from the then-newly published Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae Instauratus, in an abbreviated form. [28] Under the prayer that was added to the end of the procession is a footnote that says “Anciently, a liturgical procession always concluded with a prayer, … the ordo of this Sunday also in this rite returns to the purest sources of the liturgy.” (Note, of course, the implication that hitherto, we have not been drawing from the “purest” sources.) This statement is laden with irony. There is indeed such a prayer in the PRG, albeit a different one from the one made up in 1955, but there is no reason to suppose that it was said in the peculiar versus populum manner introduced in 1955. And if this was indeed a return to the purest sources of the liturgy, why was it was abolished in 1969?

The conclusion of the Palm Sunday procession in a Pontifical made for the diocese of Płock, Poland, in the last quarter of the 12th century. No prayer is given at the conclusion; how quickly the “purest” sources of the liturgy were polluted! (Sem. Plock. 29 Mspł.; olim: München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 28938. Retrieved from USUARIUM: A Digital Library and Database for the Study of Latin Liturgical History in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (http://usuarium.elte.hu) built by Miklós István Földváry et al. at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, Hungary, Research Group of Liturgical History.)
Earlier in the commentary, Bugnini and Braga state that there is very little evidence, and that conjectural, that there was any blessing of the palms or procession at Rome at all before the PRG was introduced there at the end of the 10th century. That would mean that the purest source of the liturgy, as far as this particular pair of rites is concerned, is the PRG, since it is the oldest one known to us in use at Rome, and all subsequent forms derive from it. How much, then, of the rite given in this “purest source” made it into the reforms of 1955 and 1969?

The reforms of 1955 and 1969 retain four elements from the rite of St Pius V, all of which do also occur in the PRG, but in a different order, and two of them in a slightly different form: the opening chant, a prayer of blessing, a distribution of the blessed branches (optional in the modern reforms), accompanied by one or more antiphons, which varied according to different uses, and a Gospel.

The following elements, which are common to the PRG and the Missal of St Pius V, were not retained.

– the opening collect
– the Epistle
– the gradual
– the prayer corresponding in position to the Secret of the Mass
– the preface
– more than one prayer for the blessing
– the prayer after the blessing
– the prayer after the distribution of the branches

In regard to the prayers of the ceremony, the 1956 commentary is inexcusably imprecise, since it fails to explain a significant difference between the structure of the blessing in the PRG and in the Missal of St Pius V. In the former, most of the prayers of blessing are between the “secret” and the preface, which, like the consecratory prefaces found in many other rites, does not lead into the Sanctus. In the latter, they are after the Preface, which does have a Sanctus, and thus stand in the place of the Canon of the Mass. The commentary states that the blessing in the PRG is the first example of the Palm Sunday rite arranged like a so-called “dry mass”, but this is true only of its first part, up to the Gospel. The medieval rite of the Papal court, which became that of St Pius V, did not inherit this form as something in common use, but created it as a deliberate and unique choice.

The second half of the last of the ten prayers of the blessing of the palms, and the first part of the preface, in a Pontifical of the second half of the 12th century, from the abbey of St Lambrecht in Austria, now at the library of the University of Graz (ms. 326). Retrieved from USUARIUM as above.
The commentary then states that the prayers in the PRG were to be selected “according to the nature of the branches.” It is an article of faith among liturgists that when an early manuscript gives multiple blessings for the same ceremony, the original intent was that one could choose among them, and only later did people somehow forget this, and begin to say them all. I confess that my research for this series has profoundly shaken any faith I may have once had in this article of their creed. In the PRG, and in the various sacramentaries which served as its sources, the multiple prayers are usually labelled “alia – another”, but there is no rubric to indicate that a choice was made among them. (Latin has two words for “or”, either one of which would have served just fine to indicate such a choice.) This explanation seems all the more improbable from the fact that six of the ten prayers have the word “olive” in their title, and one of the “alia” has it in the text.

But even granting the truth of the theory for the sake of argument: almost all of the prayers in the Missal of St Pius V are also in the PRG, although their placement or use may be different. The modern reformers could have returned to the “original” tradition (whether they understood it rightly or not), and allowed the celebrant to choose which prayer he would say. Instead, they decided to trash that tradition almost completely in 1955, by suppressing all but one of the prayers which had come down from the “purest sources” of the Roman Rite (and which happens to be the second shortest among them by five words), and then complete the job in 1969 by replacing that with two new prayers. However, since there are two of them in 1969, and one must choose between them, at least that little fragment of the “purest” tradition was preserved.

In the course of this series, I have given two examples of more elaborate forms of the Palm Sunday procession, from opposite ends of the medieval spectrum, that of the PRG, and that of the Sarum Rite. In their commentary, Bugnini and Braga correctly state that the procession of St Pius V is very much simplified, compared to these and other medieval versions. There is no need to elaborate further upon the fact that none of the many different medieval ceremonies which were formerly part of the procession were reincorporated into it in the reforms of 1955 or 1969; the sole exception is the very minor matter of carrying the Gospel book in the Novus Ordo.

Knocking on the door of the Holy Family Parish in Cubao, the Philippines - the rite that will not die! (From our first Palm Sunday photopost of 2014.)
They also lament what they see as the result of this, that the procession “said nothing to the people”; therefore, the importance of the blessing was exaggerated, and it was made very lengthy, to impress upon them the power of the blessed branch as a protective sacramental. In this regard, one final grave omission needs to be mentioned.

Bugnini and Braga claim that the Tridentine form of the ceremony gives greater importance to the blessing than to the procession because of the desire to create a more powerful sacramental, “to be taken home as a promise of protection and help in adversities.” This can most charitably be described as a radical overstatement. But if we assume that at some point in their careers, at least one of them must have actually read the rite which they were helping to reform, or some prior version of it, it is hard not to see this as a willful misrepresentation, made to serve their ideological purposes.

This theme is mentioned in two of the nine prayers in the Missal of St Pius V, but not in any of the other elements of the blessing. Although the prayers of the PRG are more numerous and very much longer, it is barely more notable there. And yet, it is a theme with a very respectable pedigree indeed. The Bobbio Missal, a rather complicated manuscript which predates the PRG by roughly 250 years, is also the oldest witness to the complete text of the Roman Canon. As such, it is impossible that two such prominent liturgical scholars were not familiar with it; the Henry Bradshaw Society published a critical edition by E.A. Lowe of Oxford University in 1920. It contains a blessing of palm and olive branches, the final clause of which reads as follows: “that all who with holy devotion shall bring them to their dwellings to expel ailments, or also to overcome all the snares of the enemy ... [29], may be safe from every attack of the enemy; that all nations may know that Thy name is glorious, through all the ages of ages.”

Folio 282r of the Bobbio Missal, with the second part of the blessing of palms and olives. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des manuscrits. Latin 13246)
Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous articles):

[27] Although Vogel and Elze’s edition of the PRG was not published until 1963, Bugnini and Braga, and the committee which produced the 1955 reform, of which Bugnini was the secretary, were familiar with the medieval manuscripts on which it was based, many of which had been previously studied and published. The commentary refers to the PRG by name, citing the work of Andrieu upon which the later edition was partly based, and give details about the ceremony which correspond to those in that edition.

[28] The rubrics are given in full, but many of the liturgical texts are given just by their Biblical annotations or incipits.

[29] This ellipsis represents the words “et biberit – and drink”, which admit of no ready explanation, but do not change the overall sense of the prayer. The quality of the writing may give the reader also some sense of the quality of the Latin in this manuscript.

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