Thursday, March 26, 2009

Compendium of the 1955 Holy Week Revisions of Pius XII: Part 1 - The Palm Sunday Blessing and Procession of Palms

For those interested in the question of the principles or history of liturgical reform, in the 20th century there are two matters which are often looked at, outside of the matter of the post-conciliar reform itself. The first of these are the breviary reforms of St. Pius X in the early 20th century and the second are the Holy Week reforms of Pope Pius XII in 1955, just a few years before the Second Vatican Council.

As we move closer to Holy Week, references to (and interest in) the latter invariably increases. For some, this topic is one of simple factual and historical curiosity, while for others, it is a matter of some deeper consideration in contemplating questions of liturgical reform within the 20th century -- which is a conversation which can hopefully be approached in a more dispassionate light in our times.

Regardless of the perspective which one brings to the matter, one of the most common questions asked is simply the question of what precisely was reformed and how. For many, the matter remains somewhat obscure and they only know that some kind of reforms were instituted.

The question is not easy to answer in brief as there is a great deal to consider. This has made it difficult to speak upon, except in general terms. Accordingly, the NLM is pleased to present the following series which may help in this regard. The piece presented here today is the first of 5-6 parts. It was independently researched and written by Gregory DiPippo as a matter of his personal liturgical interest. In it, he sets out to give a detailed consideration of precisely what was revised, both textually and ceremonially, offering some comparison between the pre and post-Pius XII Holy Week rites.

Compendium of the 1955 Holy Week Revisions of Pius XII

Part 1: The Palm Sunday Blessing and Procession of Palms

by Gregory DiPippo

(Pre-1955 Palm Sunday Procession, Westminster Cathedral, London, 1919)


In the year 1955, the rituals of Holy Week were substantially altered under the auspices of Pope Pius XII. These modifications represented the first genuinely substantial change to the Missal of Pope St. Pius V.

My purpose in the following series of articles is not to give a general history of the Holy Week rituals, but rather, solely to describe the difference between the Holy Week rites of St. Pius V and those of Pius XII.


Synopsis of the Pre-Pius XII Ritual

In the pre-Pius XII edition of the Missal of Saint Pius V, the blessing of the Palms takes place within a rite which parallels the rite of Mass. The branches to be blessed are placed on the main altar. At the beginning, an Introit is sung, followed by a Collect (there is no Kyrie), an Epistle, a Gradual, and a Gospel. After the Gospel, there is another prayer, which, although it is sung out loud, corresponds to the Secret of the Mass. The conclusion of this prayer leads into the Preface Dialogue and a Preface, at the end of which is sung the Sanctus. There follows a sort of ‘canon’ for the blessing of the branches, consisting of five prayers. After sprinkling the branches and incensing them, (following the normal order of such blessings: imposition of incense, sprinkling, and incensation) the priest sings a sixth prayer, and distributes the branches to the attending clergy, and to the people, while the choir sings the two antiphons Pueri Hebraeorum. When the branches have been distributed, the priest sings another prayer, which corresponds, both in position and in thought, to the Postcommunion of the Mass. There follows the Procession; ideally, the Palms are blessed in a different church or chapel from that were the Mass is celebrated, and the Procession goes from one church to another.

As with all processions, the subdeacon leads with the processional Cross, which, like all of the Crosses in Passiontide, is covered with a violet veil. There follows the clergy, then the celebrant, accompanied by the deacon and master of ceremonies. The Roman Gradual has six antiphons to be sung during the procession. Having reached the doors of the church, the clergy and faithful stand before the doors, while two cantors enter the church and close the doors over. From within the church, the cantors sing the refrain of the hymn Gloria, laus et honor, which is repeated by all those who are standing outside. The cantors sing the verses of the hymn, and those who are outside repeat the refrain after each verse. When the Hymn is done, the subdeacon knocks on the doors of the church with the staff of the processional Cross; the two cantors open the doors at once, and everyone enters the church, while the Responsory Ingrediente Domino is sung. (A similar ritual is performed at the procession of Candlemas, for which the Missal appoints two processional antiphons, and a Responsory to be sung when the procession enters the church.)

When the major ministers have entered the sanctuary, the priest removes his cope, and puts on the chasuble; the Mass then begins. The whole rite of this day is celebrated in violet vestments; therefore, this change of vestments present no particular difficulties.

Synopsis of the Pius XII Reforms

The reform of 1955 modifies this rite of blessing, removing the very ancient rite in imitation of the Order of the Mass, while also introducing changes which arguably made it more difficult to execute; some of which are at variance with the typical liturgical practice of the Church.

1. The vestments for the procession are no longer violet, but red. In the typical edition of the Ordo Hebdomadae Sanctae (OHS) of 1955, the hymn Gloria, laus et honor is designated explicitly with title “Hymnus ad Christum Regem”. Furthermore, a rubric has been added for the procession that one may sing the hymn Christus vincit, (which had never been used in this rite), or another hymn “in honor of Christ the King.” Despite the re-working of the procession as a procession in honor of Christ the King, one no longer uses the color which in the Western tradition has always been the royal color, violet.

2. The deacon and subdeacon must now wear red dalmatics, where formerly they wore folded chasubles. It is therefore now necessary for all three major ministers to change all of their vestments for the Mass.

With the removal of the color violet, the folded chasubles, and the veiled Cross, those things which the Church of Rome has considered as signs of mourning or penance are removed from this procession which commemorates the Savior coming to the place of His torment, and the terrible death on the Cross.

3. The OHS of 1955 declares explicitly that the palms to be blessed are to be arranged on a table in the middle of the sanctuary, in such a way that the faithful can see it. The ministers of the Mass must therefore enter the sanctuary, reverence the altar in the usual way, then turn away from the altar and the Cross. (“Celebrans cum ministris sacris... sistit retro abacum, versus populum.”) This shift of focus away from altar and cross and toward the gathered people introduced a new practice which went contrary to the normative liturgical practice of the historical rite of the Latin Church and is introduced for the first time with this reform.

The usage of placing a table in the middle of the sanctuary also presented some logistic difficulties; in order to enter and reverence the altar, as the OHS requires, everyone must go around the table in the middle first. Furthermore, once the branches have been distributed, the table must then be taken away during the midst of the liturgy.

4. The Epistle which was formerly recited immediately after the first prayer (Exodus 15, 27 - 16, 7), a passage of the greatest importance for understanding the whole rite of Holy Week, has been removed.

After the triumphal Exodus from Egypt , and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, the people rebel against Moses and Aaron, because of the lack of food. Therefore, God Himself declares to them, “I will make bread from heaven rain down upon you”, a text which has always been held by the Church to be a prophetic reference to the Eucharist. (The Book of Wisdom’s commentary on this episode, chap. 16, vers. 20, is still sung at Benediction.) Then, God orders the people to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day, because on the seventh day, the Sabbath, it will not be given.

In the context of Holy Week, the triumphant people of Israel represent the new triumphant people of the Church, which acclaims the Savior at His entry into Jerusalem. As the people of Israel, after their triumph, rebel against God and His prophet, so the people of Jerusalem rebel against Christ; those who acclaim Him as the Messiah on Sunday shout out “Crucify Him” from amid the crowd on Friday. The double gathering of the manna represents the Consecration of the two Hosts on Holy Thursday, which thus becomes the new ‘Parasceve – day of preparation’, anticipating the new Pasch: the Sacrifice of Christ, the new Paschal Lamb, upon the Cross.

5. The Gradual which followed the Epistle has also been removed. There was at this point a choice between two different graduals, one with a text from the Gospel of Saint John (11, 47-49; 50 and 53), the other from Saint Matthew (26, 39 and 41). The first of these associates the blessing of the Palms with the Gospel of the preceding Friday, ( Saint John 11, 47-54), which tells of the conspiracy of the chief priests against Jesus; His triumphal entry into Jerusalem appears in this regard as the principal cause for the anger of the priests and Pharisees. The second, on the other hand, looks forward to the Passion, sung in this same liturgy from Gospel of Saint Matthew, perfectly joining the two parts of the rite.

6. Of the nine prayers of the Pian rite, (the three which correspond to the variable prayers of the Mass, and the six which form the ‘canon’ of the blessing) there remains only one, “Benedic, quaesumus”, the fifth of the six in the ‘canon’. This prayer is said immediately after the Introit.

7. For the blessing of the branches, it is prescribed by the new rubrics that the priest must first sprinkle them with holy water, and then impose incense in the thurible and incense them. This change has no particular importance, but it touches upon another aspect of the whole new rite of Holy Week: namely, the introduction of several small modifications contrary to the normative practice found in other, analogous rites, where there was no apparent reason, either practical or theological, to change anything. Indeed, the other major blessings, of candles and of ashes, are performed following the normal practice (imposition, sprinkling, incensation).

8. The distribution of the branches is moved to the beginning of the rite, immediately after the one remaining prayer, and the chanting of the Gospel is moved to follow the distribution. In the pre-Pius XII edition of the Missal of Saint Pius V, the priest is incensed after this Gospel, as in every solemn Mass; in the new reform, on the other hand, he is not incensed.

9. It is now ordered that the Cross used for the Procession not be veiled. This introduces a variance with regard to the historical practice of the Church, and which is arguably at odds with all the rest of the rite. One possible motive for this change would be that the Crosses are veiled in violet, while this part of the rite is done in red vestments.

10. The Cross is carried by a second subdeacon in red tunicle, not by the one who serves the Mass, or else by an acolyte. Here again we have a variance with the normal practice of the Church, according to which the Processional Cross is carried by the subdeacon of the Mass, except in Processions with the Blessed Sacrament. Indeed, there has been no change to the Candlemas procession.

11. Of the six antiphons which the Roman Missal and Gradual assign to this procession, the first three (Cum approppinquaret, Cum audisset populus, Ante sex dies) no longer appear in the typical edition of the OHS of 1955. Four new antiphons have been added (Coeperunt omnes turbae, Omnes collaudent, Fulgentibus palmis, Ave, Rex noster). The entire rite of singing Gloria, laus et honor before the doors of the church, and of knocking on the doors of the church with the staff of the processional Cross, has been removed.

12. At the end of the procession, a new prayer has been inserted, which is also to be said facing the people. The celebrant must therefore reverence the altar as usual, then turn and stand in the middle of the top step of the altar, while an acolyte comes in front of him to present him the book. This likewise introduced a practice is which was outside the historical usage of the Latin Rite.

Copyright (C) Gregory DiPippo, 2009

(Part II will take up the consideration of the remainder of Palm Sunday. This will be followed by parts upon the Mass of the Lord's Supper, the Mass of the Pre-Sanctified, Tenebrae, and the Vigil.)

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