Thursday, September 17, 2009

Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568-1961: Part 3.2 - 1529 versus 1568

We continue with the third part of our series on the compendium of reforms to the Roman breviary. This is the continuation and conclusion of the third part, begun yesterday.

For terms and their definitions, please see the associated Glossary which accompanies this compendium.

Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568-1961

by Gregory DiPippo
for publication on the New Liturgical Movement

Part 3.2: 1529 versus 1568

Matins readings of the pre-Tridentine Breviary
In the Breviary of 1529, as in other medieval Breviaries, the readings are arranged in various ways according to the various liturgical days and seasons. On Sundays, the readings of the first nocturn are taken from the Sacred Scriptures; the order in which the books are read (Isaiah in Advent, St. Paul after Epiphany, etc.) dates back to the 7th century. In Advent and Lent, the second nocturn has readings from the Church Fathers appropriate to the season, but on most Sundays, the Scriptures of the first nocturn continue into the second. In the third nocturn, a homily from the Fathers is read on the Gospel of the day. On the ferias, the office of Matins has only one nocturn, and the readings are taken from the same Scriptural book (or group of books) that was read on the preceding Sunday. The exception to this is Lent, when every day of the week has its own proper Mass and Gospel; each of the Lenten Gospels has its own homily at Matins, and therefore, no Scriptural readings are provided for the weekdays of Lent.

On most feasts of the Lord, on the other hand, there is no Scripture in any of the nocturns. Instead, a sermon on the feast is begun in the first nocturn, and continued in the second, followed by a homily on the day’s Gospel in the third. In the Breviary of 1529, only Christmas and Epiphany are exceptions, having readings from Isaiah in the first nocturn. The octave of Epiphany, and the other feasts of the Temporale, (Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity and Corpus Christi, as well as their octaves) all have sermons and homilies, without any Biblical readings at all at Matins.

Some major feasts of the Saints, such as the Assumption, follow the same arrangement as the feasts of the Lord, with a sermon in the first and second nocturn, and a homily in the third. On most of them, however, the life of the Saint usually provides all three readings of a minor feast, and at least the first six (out of nine) on a more important feast. If there are six such readings from the life of a Saint, a homily on the Gospel of the feast is read in the third nocturn, but in very many cases, the life of the Saint occupies all nine of the readings at Matins. If the feast has an octave, the same pattern is generally observed on all eight days of the feast. The office of the Nativity of Mary is a very unusual exception; on the feast itself and each day of its octave, the Canticle of Canticles is read in the first nocturn.

Since the practical effect of this is that the Scriptures are rarely read at Matins at all, being displaced by sermons and the lives of the Saints, the 1529 Roman breviary provides very few readings from the Scriptures. For example, only one reading from the book of Isaiah is given for the ferias of the first week of Advent, and only one for the second; more readings are provided for the third and fourth week, since there are far fewer Saints to impede the ferial office. From Christmas Day to the octave of the Epiphany, only Christmas itself, the feast of St. Stephan and the Epiphany have readings from the Bible in the first nocturn. A similar situation holds for the time between the octave of Corpus Christi and Advent; the Scriptural readings provided for this period occupy a mere 37 pages of a 1460 page volume. In short, the pre-Tridentine Roman Breviary is heavily focused on the lives of the Saints and readings from the Church Fathers, and very much less focused on the Bible.

It is not, however, typical of pre-Tridentine breviaries. In other usages of the Middle Ages, the arrangement of readings provided for Matins was identical to that of the Roman use, although the readings themselves varied tremendously from one place to another. I have compared the 1529 Roman Breviary with roughly contemporary breviaries of Braga, Beauvais, Sarum, York, Salzburg, Bamberg, and the Dominican and Trinitarian Orders. Despite the fact that they all use the same system, in which the Biblical readings were frequently supplanted by other material, it is normal for a complete set of Scriptural readings to be provided for each day of the week.

Matins readings of the Tridentine Breviary

In the Pian Breviary, the most far-reaching change introduced is the new arrangement for the readings at Matins. Every office of nine readings, whether a Sunday or a feast day, is to have three from the Sacred Scriptures in the first nocturn. Scriptural readings are provided for every single day of the year, following the same ancient system present (in a much attenuated form) in the Breviary of 1529. The exceptions are ferial days which have a proper Gospel, such as those of Lent; on these days, no Scripture is provided, and the ancient custom of reading a homily at the nocturn is maintained. The very first rubric of the Pian Breviary indicates how notable such a change was; its fifth sentence reads, “In the first nocturn are read those readings occurring from the Scripture, which in the Office of the season has been distributed in such wise that some of it is read every day, even in an Office of the Saints.” (my emphasis)

Most Saints’ Offices borrow the readings of the first nocturn from the feria; if the feast is a simplex, having only one nocturn, at least the first reading, and usually the second as well, are taken from the daily Scriptural readings. Many feasts, including all those of the Lord, and all of the most important Saints’ feasts, have proper readings in the first nocturn, rather than those of the feria. This necessitated the creation of a whole new corpus of such ‘proper’ readings. In several cases, they are simply a longer version of the Epistle of the Mass; on the feast of Saint Andrew the Apostle, the first major feast of the year, the Epistle is Romans 10, 10-18, and this same passage is now lengthened (verses 4-21) to provide the readings of the first nocturn.

Although this arrangement had been used but rarely on feast days before the Tridentine reform, this change cannot be called a radical break with tradition. Rather, the well-established system of readings for major Sundays and a few major feasts is simply made the general system for the whole breviary. All Sundays are now to have a sermon from the Church Fathers in the second nocturn, commenting on the Scriptural readings of the first nocturn; this also necessitated the creation of a whole new corpus of readings from the Fathers. The ancient custom of having a sermon on the Gospel of the day in the third nocturn was left unaltered.

It should be obvious that this new arrangement is created as part of the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation, which, at the time of the first promulgation of the Pian Breviary, had been going on for just over half a century. The early Protestants rejected the idea of tradition as a source of Christian belief, and claimed that all of the Church’s teaching should be grounded in Scripture alone. The breviary of 1568, based on a very ancient traditional model, everywhere associates the reading of the Sacred Scriptures with the great feasts of the liturgical year, the teaching of the Doctors of the Church, and the lives of the Saints, emphasizing the Catholic context in which alone the Scriptures can be properly understood.

Certain modifications to the corpus of sermons and homilies are also made in response to the new theology of the reformers. The most obvious example is the homily of the first Monday of Lent, on the Gospel of the day, St. Matthew 25, 31-46, in which Christ describes the rewards of the just and punishment of the unjust at the end of the world. In the 1529 Breviary, a passage is read from a homily falsely attributed to Saint Augustine, speaking of the joys of Heaven and the pains of Hell. The Pian Breviary substitutes for this a genuine passage from Saint Augustine’s book On Faith and Works in which the great Doctor (of whom John Calvin boldly stated “he belongs entirely to us,”) rejects the notion of salvation by faith alone. The substitution was also most likely motivated by awareness of the fact that the homily was not really by St. Augustine, which brings us to another problem in the revision of the breviary.

Many sermons and Saints’ lives which were well-known to and loved by the men of the Middle Ages, and inserted by them into the public prayer book of the Church, are not in fact the historical documents they purport to be. In the 16th century, a homily labeled as the work of a particular Saint, and discovered not to be genuinely his, was thought of only as a fraud, and as such could easily be attacked by the reformers. A classic case of such a ‘fraud’ is the sermon Cogitis me, in which Saint Jerome expounds his belief in the Assumption of the Virgin Mary to his friends Paula and Eustochium; in the breviary of 1529, it provided the lessons for the first and second nocturns of the Assumption and its entire octave, and it was read in almost all other medieval breviaries as well. The Dutch humanist Erasmus had demonstrated in his 1516 edition of Saint Jerome’s works that Cogitis me was not written by him; after much debate, it is now generally attributed to Saint Paschasius Radbertus. (786 – ca. 860) In the Breviary of 1568, it is substituted by passages from Saints Athanasius, John Damascene and Bernard, whose feast occurs during the octave of the Assumption. (Ironically, the sermon of Saint Athanasius chosen for the feast day itself is also not authentic, and was removed from the next edition. In a Wednesday audience last year, the Holy Father gave an interesting explanation of the problem of such falsehoods which is very much worth reading:

What does constitute a notable break with tradition, however, is the new arrangement of the readings from the lives of the Saints on their feast days. These readings are now conformed to the pattern of the Sunday nocturns; those of the first nocturn are always to be lessons from the Bible, and those of the third are always to be a homily on the Gospel of the Saint’s Mass. The lives of the Saints, which in earlier breviaries frequently occupy all nine lessons, are now confined to the three lessons of the second nocturn. If the feast is a simplex, it may have one or two readings from the life of the Saint, but never three, since at least the first must be given over to the Biblical lessons of the day.

To fit the lives of the Saints into the new arrangement required that nearly the whole corpus of them be completely reworked. This was in point of fact done, and not only by simple abbreviation of the earlier text. The humanistic scholars of the Italian Renaissance had long discussed possible revisions of the Breviary to correct its rough, late-antique and medieval Latinity; there were even cardinals in the early 16th century who read parts of their breviary in Greek or Hebrew, so as to avoid praying in the non-Ciceronian Latin of Saint Jerome. The Pian reform gives no space to such concerns in the other parts of the Breviary, but the Latinity of the Saints’ lives is dramatically changed.

In an anonymously written historical lesson on the Dedication of a Church, the 1529 breviary reads:

Constantinus… alios ut suo hortaretur exemplo, in proprio Lateranensi palatio ecclesiam in honorem Salvatoris mundi fabricavit, et basilicam appendititiam juxta in honore beati Joannis Baptistae.

(Constantine, in order to urge others on by his example, built a church in his own palace of the Lateran, in honor of the Savior of the world, and a basilica added on next to it in honor of blessed John the Baptist.)

This sentence is rewritten thus:

Constantinus… non solum edicto, sed etiam exemplo ad sacram aedificationem est cohortatus. Nam, et in suo Lateranensi palatio ecclesiam Salvatori dedicavit, et ei continentem basilicam nomine sancti Joannis Baptistæ condidit.

(Constantine, not only by edict, but also by example urged (them) on to sacred building; for in his palace of the Lateran, he dedicated a church to the Savior, and founded a basilica next to it in the name of Saint John the Baptist.)

‘Est cohortatus’ rather than ‘ut hortaretur’, ‘condidit’ rather than ‘fabricavit’, and especially ‘continentem’ rather than the very odd ‘appendititiam juxta’, are all improvements, if the Latinity of the ancient Romans is the criterion by which a text is to be judged, as it was for the scholars of that era.

By the 16th century, scholars were also aware of the fact that many of the Saints’ lives rested on rather shaky historical foundations. As has already been mentioned, the feasts of Saints Anne and Joachim, along with the Presentation of the Virgin, were dropped from the Calendar of 1568 altogether, since they derive from an apocryphal Gospel. St. Barbara, one of the fourteen Holy Helpers, was widely venerated in the Middle Ages as the patron Saint against sudden death. In the breviary of 1529, her legend transplants her native city, the one-time imperial capital of Nicomedia, from Asia Minor to Egypt, where she is converted to the Christian faith by the “most wise priest, Origen of Alexandria.” In the Tridentine breviary, she is reduced to a mere commemoration, although her feast continued to be celebrated on local calendars. The legend of Constantine quoted above states in the original version that the basilica in honor of John the Baptist was built “in the place where, having been baptized, he merited to be cleansed of leprosy.” This story of Constantine’s leprosy was already known to be quite untrue in the 16th century, and in the rewritten version of 1568, he is cleansed in baptism “from the leprosy of unbelief.” (In reality, Constantine was baptized on his death bed in Constantinople many years after leaving Rome.)

Such revisions are not entirely confined to the readings of Matins. A medieval legend of uncertain date attributes the foundation of the church of Saint Mary Major in Rome to a miraculous snowfall on the fifth of August, which indicated to a rich patrician named John where the Virgin wished a church to be built in Her honor on the Esquiline hill. The prayer of the pre-Tridentine Breviary and Missal which referred explicitly to the snowfall is dropped, in favor of a generic prayer from the Little Office of Our Lady, although the legend of the snow remains at Matins in a much rewritten form.

In an even more interesting example, the medieval antiphon of the Magnificat at first Vespers of Saint Agatha reads “Mentem sanctam spontaneam, honorem Deo, et patriae liberationem.” (A holy and willing mind, honor to God, and the liberation of the nation.) This antiphon is a grammatical fragment, consisting of 3 nouns in the objective case and their modifiers, with no verb and no subject. According to her legend, a marble plaque with these words carved upon it was laid on the newly-martyred Saint’s grave by a young man dressed in silken garments, who remained nearby until the sepulcher was closed, and then was never seen again, “whence there is no doubt that he was an Angel of God.” In the Middle Ages, these words were frequently carved on church bells, which were rung in times of danger, in honor of Saint Agatha, who has on numerous occasions saved the Sicilian city of Catania from the eruptions of Mount Etna. In the breviary of 1568, the Angel, the plaque and the antiphon are all removed.

The problem of historically false statements in the lessons of the Breviary was not tackled in full by the Tridentine reform, nor by the successive revisions of it. As noted above, the story of Constantine’s leprosy was allegorized, while the inaccurate account of his baptism remained. Until 1941, the Roman Breviary continued to repeat the late and manifestly false identification of the first bishop of Paris with Denis the Areopagite, who was converted by Saint Paul in Acts 17, and to acknowledge him as the author of the 5th century corpus of writings which passed as authentically his throughout the Middle Ages. (The discourse of the Holy Father linked above deals specifically with the problem of Saint Denis.) In the post-Tridentine period, false legends of the Saints multiplied endlessly in local breviaries in France, giving rise to the famous French expression, ‘mentir comme une deuxième nocturne,’ – to lie like a second nocturn, the equivalent of ‘to lie like a rug.’

Writing a propos of later, more radical proposals for the reform of the Saints’ lives in the breviary, Fr. Pierre Batiffol offers the following quotation from his esteemed contemporary, the liturgist Dom Alexandre Grospellier: “It is, in my opinion, to form an erroneous idea of the breviary to require in it the scientific strictness of a collection of critical hagiography. Certain legends have become the inheritance of Christian tradition, not by virtue of their historical certitude, but because of their expression of lively and fervent piety in regard to the saints: they have influenced the way of thinking, feeling and praying, on the part of our forefathers, and they come to us charged with a spiritual life which is indeed sometimes characterized by simplicity, but often full of power, and almost always able to touch the heart. These legends, therefore, belong to the history of the Church just in the same way as legendary lays and ballads belong to the history of nations. It would be something like vandalism to banish them altogether from the book of public prayer, even as it would be vandalism to break the painted windows of cathedrals or tear the canvases of early masters, on the ground that the representations in those windows or pictures are not accurate historical documents like a charter or a monumental inscription.”

-- Copyright (c) Gregory DiPippo, 2009

* * *

To read previous installments in this series, see: Compendium of the Reforms of the Roman Breviary, 1568-1961

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: