Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Book Review: Ambrosianum Mysterium

Ambrosianum Mysterium: The Church of Milan and its Liturgical Tradition, 2 volumes, Cesare Alzati, trans. George Guiver, C.R. The Alcuin Club/Grove Books

Reviewed by Shawn Tribe

For a good many us, when we hear about the Ambrosian liturgical tradition, we of course think of the Ambrosian Missal. But of course, historically the Ambrosian tradition is not simply about the Order of Mass but something broader. As such, Ambrosianum Mysterium should not be thought of as a book just about the text and rubrics of the Ambrosian Missal.

From the outset this becomes clear. Cesare Alzati begins by looking at the unique relationship of St. Ambrose and the Milanese; a relationship that persisted even long after his passing. As well, details of the unique structure of the church of Milan, such as its “ten orders” are discussed. It is such sorts of details, which look in depth into the ecclesial life of the Milanese church, which these two volumes are packed with. Mention of this organizational structure is not merely some idle ecclesial curiousity included in the book to merely round out a study with historical facts. According to Alzati, “the liturgical books show how this [Milanese] organization was bound up inseperably with the order of the [Ambrosian] rite.” Further, as regards the connection of the Milanese with St. Ambrose, so too can this connection be found in their liturgy: “in effect, every celebration, in whatever place, appeared in the [liturgical] books as a celebration of the Church gathered around the vicar of Ambrose and the ordained servants of Ambrose.”

Altazi takes us through the early mists of time to the origins of the Ambrosian rites and introduces readers to some of Ambrose's comments which make reference to the rites as they existed during his time, including that of the Divine Office, rules of fasting and, of course, the Mass itself. A very great deal of the emphasis in the books is found in detailed looks at each of the sacraments, the unique ceremonial to be found in relation to the presence of “winter” and “summer” basilicas (and how that was influenced when those basilicas where destroyed and replaced by a single basilica), and the struggle to be found in the Romanizing influences, particularly within the Carolingian age.

For those readers who are most primarily interested in the question of the liturgical ceremonial of the missal and divine office, rest assured that such is present in goodly quantity in the second volume of this set.

Altazi takes us through the Tridentine period and up to the present, post-conciliar day with the revisions that occurred to the Ambrosian Missal after the Council – and the tendency, ever present it would seem, to drop this local tradition in favour of the modern Roman missal – something which, interestingly, Altazi notes was thought of as the “new Western rite”.

Altazi is certainly not a traditionalist, and as such, one can catch glimpses of some of the modern approaches to liturgiology and ecclesiology that has followed the Council. That being said, he presents readers in this book with a very great deal of information on the Ambrosian tradition. At times, there is perhaps too much for the average reader, with a great many scholarly references to particular manuscripts. This, at times, can make the text a little difficult to follow but is particularly useful for those who wish to do further research and study.

Overall, a decent book set with some interesting information to be found within. The books are sold separately, and if one was to have to choose which volume to pick, the second volume has the most information likely of interest to readers – being the place whereby the focus especially turns upond the Missal and Breviary.

Link to volume 1
Link to volume 2

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