Thursday, March 15, 2007

A detailed explanation of the Ambrosian rite and San Simeon Piccolo

Guest NLM Piece by Gregory DiPippo

Over the past several years, I have had the great privilege of attending or serving several Masses in the traditional rite of the diocese of Milan, called the Ambrosian Rite after the great patron of the city, St. Ambrose: twice in the Duomo of Milan, the heart of the Ambrosian tradition, several times in Rome, at the chapel of the Fraternity of St. Peter, San Gregorio dei Muratori, and most recently, on March 11th, in Venice, at the F.S.S.P.’s church San Simeon Piccolo. (Full disclosure note: I have been the M.C. at San Gregorio for some years now.) Mr. Tribe has asked me to describe the most recent Mass, as a participant with some experience and knowledge of the rite. (A detailed analysis of the Ambrosian Rite is available in the Catholic Encyclopedia on-line:

I have always been struck by the similarity of Ambrosian music, which sounds almost nothing like Gregorian chant, to the music of the Greeks; it is “in a different modality altogether”, as the master of an Ambrosian choir once said to me. And yet, it is also full of the lengthy melismas that were characteristic of the ancient Gallican liturgy, and the language of the rite is, of course, Latin. These aspects, combined with fact that externals such as vestments and church architecture almost identical to those of the historical Roman Rite, create the impression of a liturgy from an age when the traditions of the various churches of Christendom had not yet separated from each other. Indeed, there are scholars who believe that in some respects, the Ambrosian Rite is simply a very archaic form of the rite once used in Rome itself.

The Ambrosian rite Mass at San Simeon Piccolo and Generally

The Ambrosian rite Mass began with a procession, accompanied by special antiphons repeated from the Office; the custom is to stop in the middle of the nave for the singing of twelve “Kyrie eleison”, then move into the sanctuary. In the Ambrosian Rite, the acolytes stand in front of the altar for most of the Mass, and the Deacon and Subdeacon in Solemn Mass have their default position, so to speak, facing each other over the Mensa. After the prayers at the foot of the Altar, which are similar to those of the Dominican Rite, the priest incenses it in the bizarre (to Roman eyes) Ambrosian manner; the thurible has no cover, and is swung in a complicated pattern of circles.

The first Sunday of Lent is called “The Beginning of the Fast”, but the rest are named for their Gospel, “the Sunday of the Samaritan Woman,” “of Abraham”, “of the Blind Man”, “of Lazarus”, and Palm Sunday, (also called Olive Sunday in the Ambrosian Breviary, since in Italy, olive branches are easier to get and more commonly used than palms.) As in the Eastern Rites, the Lenten Sundays are treated more or less like feasts, so our Mass on March 11th was very much the “feast” of Christ’s discourse in John 8, 31-59; “Abraham your father exulted that he might see My day: he saw, and he rejoiced.”

During Lent, in place of the Gloria there is a litany, which is very similar to the litanies sung at the beginning of every Eastern liturgy. The Litany of the 1st, 3rd and 5th Sundays, “Divinae Pacis”, (included in new edition of Cantus Selecti) contains an invocation to pray for those who are “in metallis”, in the mines, to which Christians were sometimes condemned in age of the persecutions. This penalty was abolished in the West in 220 A.D.; it possible, therefore, that “Divinae Pacis” is one of the very few surviving pieces of pre-Constantinian liturgical text (along with the Gloria and the Phos hilaron of Greek Vespers). It is an amazing thing to hear this most ancient of prayers in the true liturgical context for which it was written.

Another interesting point of similarity to the Greeks is that the tones for the Scriptural readings are quite generally similar to each other, the Gospel sounding much like the Prophecy and Epistle. On this occasion, the celebrant, Msgr . Angelo Amodeo, sang the first reading in a special tone, used only in Lent, and only in the Cathedral. Terrible to realize that with the passing of his generation, so many of these musical treasures may be lost forever!

After the Homily, the Priest lays out the corporal, while the choir sings an antiphon called “post Evangelium”; he then salutes the people with the words “Pacem habete” to which answer is made “Ad te, Domine”, also very much as in the Eastern Rites. There follows a prayer which is termed “Super sindonem - Over the shroud”, since the whiteness of the corporal recalls the burial shroud of Our Lord; this custom reminds one of another Eastern tradition, that of having an image of Our Lord’s burial on the corporal.

The Ambrosian offertory is similar to the Roman, but much longer, and the Offertory Antiphons are correspondingly also much longer. The Priest incenses the Altar, and is himself incensed, then he returns to the middle of the altar and intones the Creed; on this particular occasion, the choir of San Simeon sang a very nice polyphonic creed by Antonio Lotti. (Special kudos to Massimo Bisson, head of the choir!) The incensation does not resume until the Priest has finished reading the Creed silently and gone to sit. When it resumes, it is done by the M.C., who is preceded by two of the six acolytes; to each person he says “Behold the odor of the saints of God, as the odor of a full field that God has blessed”, and each responds “Deo gratias”. I am told that in the old days, the incensation at High Mass in the Duomo went on right through the Creed, Sanctus, Preface and well into the Canon!

After the Creed, the Priest returns to the altar, and sings the prayer “Super oblata” (Secret) out loud; the Ambrosian Rite was the source for the change introduced at this point into the Roman Rite. There follow the “Sursum Corda” dialogue and Preface, textually the same, but again with different, very beautiful melody. The Ambrosian Rite has preserved the ancient custom, also once part of the Roman Rite, of having a different Preface for virtually every Mass; some Masses have prefaces that take up a full column in the Missal!

The Canon is mostly the same as the Roman, but with a few very interesting differences. (See the full text of the Ambrosian Mass, in its comparative form with the Roman rite here.)

Several more Saints are added to the Communicantes and Nobis quoque, and the names are printed in two parallel columns, as they were originally written in ancient times on the two panels of a diptych. The washing of the hands is done immediately before the Consecration, not at the Offertory. In place of “Haec quotiescumque”, the Ambrosian Rite reads ‘Commanding them also and saying to them, “So often as ye shall do these things, you shall do them unto My memory, ye shall preach My death, ye shall announce My resurrection, ye shall hope for My coming, until again from Heaven I shall come to you.” ’ The Priest then stretches out his hands in the shape of the Cross until the Suscipe, a beautiful medieval custom that was also part of the Dominican and Carmelite rites, among others. [NLM note: it can also be seen in the Bragan rite and the Sarum use.]

The Fraction is done immediately after the Canon, accompanied by an antiphon called the Confractorium, after which comes the Pater noster ; this was also the order in the Roman Rite until the time of St. Gregory the Great. Since the Fraction has already been done, the Embolism is sung out loud, mention being made of St. Ambrose after St. Andrew. An invitation to exchange the Peace is made, and the Priest says his prayers before communion silently; the AR does not have the Agnus Dei.

From this point forward, the Ambrosian Rite is very similar to the Roman. The Communion antiphon is called the Transitorium; it should be noted that many of the longer ones are arranged in a tripartite structure similar to that of the Agnus Dei, the first part being sung by the men’s choir, the second by the boys’, and the third by both together. Also noteworthy is the absence of “Ite, Missa est”; the Mass always ends with “Benedicamus Domino – Deo gratias”, as was also formerly the practice of the Roman Rite on penitential days. “Ite” is almost certainly a later development: another example of the reformers abolishing a more ancient practice in the name of “restoring” the custom of antiquity.

The Importance of the Historical Form of the Ambrosian Liturgy

It important to preserve the historical Ambrosian Rite, first and foremost because of its great beauty and antiquity. Surely it did not come about without Divine Providence that, amid the world-wide diffusion of the Roman Rite and its uses, Milan alone among the Latins should have vigorously preserved her own highly distinct and ancient rite. At the time of the most recent ecumenical Council, even the venerable Mozarabic liturgy was reduced to a museum-piece, celebrated in only seven churches, while in the diocese of Milan and environs, the Ambrosian Rite flourished in well over a thousand.

However, it also important to preserve it in its historical form, because it was a favorite reference point for the reformers who created the post-conciliar Roman liturgy. I have already mentioned, e.g., the saying of the Secret aloud. The most famous example is the question of the Scriptural readings at Mass; the Ambrosian Rite has 2 readings before the Gospel, interspersed with chants that are similar in construction, though not in music, to those of the Roman Rite. On this basis, liturgical scholars declared that the Rome must also once have had two readings before the Gospel, a theory now generally recognized as false. The reformers then overthrew almost entirely the incredibly ancient Roman lectionary, in favor of an ex-novo creation which has hardly a trace of the actual Ambrosian texts. No mention was made of the fact that much of the Ambrosian lectionary (including virtually all of the Epistles of Lent) is in fact derived from the Roman Rite, or an older source common to them both.

(See here the complete Ambrosian lectionary)

One of the sad ironies is that the Ambrosian Rite, after furnishing so many excuses for the rupture of the Roman Rite, should itself be reformed in imitation of the “renewed” Roman liturgy. So little heed was paid to Vatican II’s prescription that “holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity, (and) she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way,” that one of the foremost experts on Ambrosian chant was once heard to declare that it is now so much like the Roman Rite that it should be abolished!


I wish only to add my thanks to Msgr. Amodeo for the marvelous opportunity to be present once again for such a beautiful celebration of the Holy Mass, to Mr. Nicola de’ Grandi, the Master of Ceremonies, who has worked for years to keep up the historical Ambrosian tradition, often in very trying circumstances, to Fr. Conrad zu Löwenstein, of the Fraternity of St. Peter, for his generous hospitality, and to the choir, servers and faithful at San Simeon Piccolo for their help and their friendship in Venice. Ad multos annos!!

[And thank you to Mr. Gregory DiPippo for his committment to this ancient and venerable liturgical rite and tradition, as well as for his work on summarizing both the Mass celebrated this past Sunday in Venice and the rite generally. - NLM]

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