Monday, February 15, 2010

Cardinal Biffi's Critique of the New Ambrosian Lectionary - An Assessment

On March 20, 2008, the Archbishop of Milan, Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi, officially promulgated a new lectionary for use in the reformed Ambrosian Rite, after examination and approval by the competent authorities in Rome. Use of the new lectionary began on November 16th of the same year, the First Sunday of Advent according to the Milanese rite. Recently, however, Giacomo Cardinal Biffi, archbishop emeritus of Bologna, made public a series of critiques of the new lectionary; his evaluation is described by the influential Italian Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister “an axe fall(ing) on the new Ambrosian lectionary”. The Cardinal is a man who is thoroughly familiar with the Ambrosian tradition; a native of Milan, he was ordained a priest by Blessed Ildephonse Schuster in 1950, and was a member of the Ambrosian clergy until his appointment to the see of Bologna in 1984. As such, he was closely involved with the reform of the Ambrosian liturgy in the 1970s.

Several of the points which he raises bear not only upon the venerable traditions of the Ambrosian Rite, but on the reform of the liturgy in general. A synthesis of the Cardinal’s critique is given on the English language edition of Sandro Magister’s website; the eight parts are here presented in abbreviated form, with a few emendations of the translation, followed by analysis and commentary.


(T)he new lectionary should have been produced according to the “general norms for the organization of the liturgical year” of the missal in force. ... These norms were ignored. The new lectionary “goes off the rails” and strikes out on its own, as if it aimed at starting, “on the sly,” a general liturgical reform according to its own taste.

The new Ambrosian lectionary presumes certain adjustments to a very few days of the liturgical year, adjustments which are not currently part of the Missal; these will be discussed in detail in their respective places. Inasmuch as the text has been examined and approved by Rome, it seems much more likely that these adjustments are rather a first step towards changes which will later be made general in the rite.

(T)he new Ambrosian lectionary gives a second name to Advent: “Lent of Saint Martin.” Biffi objects that this is an “empty and misleading archaism.” “Empty” because the name has gone unused for at least a thousand years,

“Lent of Saint Martin” refers to the fact that the Ambrosian Advent begins on the Sunday after Saint Martin’s day, November 11; it was widely used in the Middle Ages, even outside Ambrosian territory. It is a purely informal term which does not appear in ancient liturgical manuscripts; it is not in fact presented in the new lectionary as a second name for Advent, but merely referred to in the explanatory notes. The inclusion of such a reference to this popular tradition seems harmless enough. The same notes compare this term to that of the Byzantine preparation for Christmas, which is called “Saint Philip’s fast”, because it begins with his feast day, November 15.
...and misleading because it leads to confusing Advent, which is a “time of joyful expectation,” with Lent, which has a completely different meaning, as well as with a saint who has nothing to do with it.

The designation of Advent as a “time of joyful expectation,” is a development of the post-Conciliar liturgical reform, as is the strict confining to Lent of any formal expression of penitence. I hazard to suggest that the creators of the new Ambrosian lectionary may be ahead of their time in returning to a more traditional view of Advent. “Joyful expectation” has not been a notable success in restraining the orgy of consumerism that passes for Christmas in much of the Catholic world.
Moreover, the new lectionary puts the beginning of Advent on the first Sunday after November 11 (instead of after the 12th, as in the previous edition), with the result that it can sometimes happen that there are seven Sundays before Christmas, instead of six. … (H)ow do they deal with the seventh, the creators of the new lectionary? “They could think of nothing better… than to invent a ‘pre-Christmas Sunday not of Advent’, which no one had ever heard of before, in part because it seems like a contradictory concept: ‘pre-Christmas’ cannot be anything but preparation for Christmas’, and a Sunday of preparation for Christmas is, in essence, a Sunday of Advent.”

In regard merely to the number of Sundays, this represents in fact the restoration of the traditional custom of the Ambrosian Rite, as practiced until 1969. The problem of the “seventh Sunday” is that the Vigil of Christmas no longer occupies the whole of the liturgical day on December 24th; in the new Ambrosian Rite, as in the new Roman, the Vigil of Christmas is celebrated on the evening of the 24th, just like a Saturday evening “vigil Mass”. The Cardinal is here correct to note the rather clumsy nomenclature applied to this seventh Sunday of Advent.

3. In reference to the counting of the Sundays after Pentecost, Cardinal Biffi
...objects that the Church has never considered Pentecost a “separate mystery,” but the last day … of the Easter season…. So the Roman liturgy is right to call the following Sundays not “Sundays after Pentecost,” but simply “Sundays of ordinary time” or “per annum.” And the previous Ambrosian lectionary did the same. The new lectionary, instead, by restoring the expression “Sundays after Pentecost,” demonstrates in this way a poor understanding of liturgical theology.

It is very difficult to follow the logic of this argument. Pentecost has always been celebrated as part of the Easter season, but it is manifestly a separate mystery; the coming of the Holy Ghost in tongues of fire is a different thing from the Resurrection. But however the Church regards or has previously regarded Pentecost, it is difficult to see why it should positively not be used as a reference point for the enumeration of the following Sundays. In a remarkable conspiracy of “poor understanding of liturgical theology”, counting Sundays after Pentecost is one of the very few liturgical customs common to all rites, Roman, Byzantine, Ambrosian, Mozarabic and Gallican.

4. Under the heading “Archaisms Restored” the Cardinal also criticizes the new lectionary for the following arrangement:
After fourteen Sundays called “after Pentecost,” the new lectionary continues with other curious terms fished from the past. In order: a Sunday “before the Martyrdom of John the Baptist” (August 29), seven Sundays “after the Martyrdom of John the Baptist,” and three Sundays “after the Dedication of the Cathedral”, which falls in the third week of October.

The heading of this and other sections are the Cardinal’s own, according to Magister; the Italian words here translated as “fished from the past” have a strong odor of the pejorative. The system here described, however, is merely a simplified version of the traditional Ambrosian enumeration (in four parts) of the Sundays after Pentecost, in use until 1969. In the light of His Holiness Pope Paul VI’s complaint about the replacement of the time after Pentecost with Ordinary Time, (a complaint repeated by many others since), the restoration of the historical Ambrosian terminology seems both reasonable and desirable.

(T)he new lectionary introduces into the Masses for Sunday that are celebrated on Saturday evening – and only into these – the reading of a passage of the Gospel concerning the Resurrection, in addition to the normal reading of the Gospel of the day. “In this way in Milan, (the only case of this kind in all of Christianity), one can find Eucharistic celebrations with two different pages of the Gospel.” The extra Gospel passage is read at the beginning of the Mass, before the Gloria. “And it does not,” Biffi comments, “seem like such a bright idea, esthetically and pedagogically.”

Here it can only be said that Cardinal Biffi’s critique of this absurd contrivance is perhaps insufficiently severe. It is very much to be hoped that such a radical change to the established order of the Mass will soon be corrected.

Another point on which the new Ambrosian lectionary acts on its own initiative concerns the feasts of the Ascension and of Corpus Domini. …in 1977, when the Italian government abolished them as civil holidays, the bishops’ conference ordered that the(y)… be transferred to the following Sunday. This established the “general norms” of the Roman missal and of the Ambrosian missal currently in force. But the new Ambrosian lectionary “recklessly infringes the norms,” Biffi writes. It moves Ascension and Corpus Domini back to Thursday. And it allows only that “in one or more Masses” on the following Sunday, the priests, if they want to do so “for pastoral reasons,” may repeat the Mass celebrated three days earlier.

Again, I would hazard to suggest that the Congregation for the Ambrosian Rite may be ahead of its time, anticipating a day when the Catholic Church will once again keep its holy days of obligation without reference to the needs and wants of the civil power. It is also perhaps worth noting that this practice which the Cardinal describes as “irrational attachment to archaisms” is still observed in Vatican City and many other parts of the Catholic world.

7. As to the actual content of the new selection of readings:
One of the novelties is the frequent recourse to “lectio continua” (which the Cardinal) objects …can work well in the monasteries, but not for the ordinary faithful, to whom the Church has always preferred to offer more simple and understandable texts, “religiously more useful and less problematic.”

When I mentioned this particular point of the Cardinal to a priest friend of mine, he said, “Thank God someone has finally come out and said this publicly.” His Eminence is not the first to note that the reformed lectionaries of the post-Conciliar period are based to a large degree on quite different principles from those which formed the historical tradition. Whether the wide use of “lectio continua” in the lectionary is a good thing or not is a very broad topic which must be reserved for another time. Suffice it to say that the introduction of it into the new Ambrosian lectionary is entirely coherent with the whole tenor of modern liturgical reform.

8. His Eminence is even critical of the titles of the readings. In the modern Italian lectionary for the Roman Rite, the Gospels are titled “Dal Vangelo secondo N. – From the Gospel according to N.”, omitting the Latin word “lectio – reading.” The new Ambrosian lectionary has chosen to translate accurately, in accordance with the directives of Liturgiam authenticam. The new titles read in Italian “Lettura del Vangelo secondo N.” The Cardinal objects that this practice “ ‘infatuated with archaism’ runs into a serious inconvenience: ‘to a modern ear, the expression seems to indicate a complete reading, while it is only a passage.’ ”

It is very hard to believe that any Milanese churchgoer, on hearing the words “A reading of the Gospel according to N.”, will actually think that the priest or deacon is about to read the entire Gospel.

Even the punctuation of the new lectionary is not beneath His Eminence’s notice. The introductory formula of the Gospels, “In quel tempo – At that time” , is separated from the rest of the Gospel text by a period, rather than a semi-colon, although it is not a complete sentence. The Cardinal remarks “We would like to know on the basis of what reasoning the decision was reached to enrich our beautiful language with this bright idea.” While this is not the normal practice of modern grammar, it is carried over into the new lectionary from the pre-Conciliar editions of the Ambrosian Missal, and has no impact whatsoever on the actual meaning of the Gospel.

One of the contributors to the new Ambrosian lectionary, Prof. Cesare Alzati, has responded to the Cardinal’s critique. This response has just this week been published on Sandro Magister’s site, and will soon be presented and annotated here on NLM.

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