Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Member of the Ambrosian Congregation Responds to Cardinal Biffi – An Assessment

We recently reported on the criticisms made by His Eminence Giacomo Cardinal Biffi against the new lectionary recently promulgated for the Ambrosian rite. The Cardinal’s criticisms have provoked an apologia for the new lectionary by Cesare Alzati, a lay member of the Congregation for the Ambrosian Rite, and professor of Liturgy at the Catholic University of Milan. The complete text of Prof. Alzati’s response to the Cardinal is available in Italian on the website of Vatican correspondent Sandro Magister, which also presents a faithful summary in English.

As a preliminary note, not included in the English text, Prof. Alzati notes that Card. Biffi’s references to the “new” Ambrosian lectionary are somewhat imprecise. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, there was in fact a strong tendency towards the permanent abrogation of the Ambrosian Rite in favor of the post-Conciliar Roman liturgy, in direct contradiction of the explicit wishes of the Council itself. As a result of this tendency, which was, most fortunately, not allowed to prevail, the Church of Milan did in fact adopt several of the features of the Roman Rite. A provisory Ambrosian lectionary for Lent and Easter, based on the traditions of the rite, was issued in 1972; for the rest of the ecclesiastical year, a modified form of the new Roman lectionary has been used. Therefore, it is not correct to speak of the lectionary used hitherto, and recently supplanted, as if it were an authentic part of the Ambrosian tradition.

1. Concerning the “second name” of Advent as the “Lent of Saint Martin”, branded by the Cardinal as an “empty and misleading archaism”, Alzati points out that it is used only in the explanatory notes, and is similar to the Byzantine “Fast of Saint Philip.”

2. Until recently, the reformed Ambrosian liturgy has kept the First Sunday of Advent on the Sunday after the 12th of November; the new lectionary returns to the historical Milanese custom of starting Advent on the Sunday after the feast of Saint Martin. As a result of this, however, Advent will have a seventh Sunday in those years when Christmas Eve falls on a Sunday. Prof. Alzati explains that this seventh Sunday is called “pre-Christmas Sunday not of Advent” in order to avoid calling it a “vigil”, which now refers to the evening first Mass of Christmas, not to the liturgical day. Cardinal Biffi’s critique of this clumsy name remains quite valid.

3. In regards to the numeration of Sundays after Pentecost, and the readings chosen for them, while the Cardinal’s critique of the older system is not convincing, neither is Prof. Alzati’s explanation of why it is retained, albeit in a modified form. In the first place, it is incorrect to say that “the Roman liturgical year (is) traditionally characterized by a certain number of ‘wandering’ Sundays that could be situated indifferently after the Epiphany or after Pentecost.” Such a system was instituted in the post-Conciliar period, but does not reflect the historical custom of the Roman Rite. (In the traditional Roman Rite, certain Sundays after Epiphany are translated to the end of the liturgical year according to very precise rules, and not “indifferently”; this is a later development which is not attested in the earliest Roman manuscripts.) In the second place, the Cardinal is absolutely correct to note that the designations of Sundays “after Pentecost”, “after the Decapitation of John the Baptist”, etc., have always been mere reference points in the Calendar; it is not an historical custom of the Ambrosian Rite to change the tenor or theme of the readings based on these designations. The newly promulgated system of readings in the time between Pentecost and Advent must simply stand (or fall) on its own merits as a new creation.

4. Even less convincing is Prof. Alzati’s defense of the most poorly conceived innovation of the new Ambrosian lectionary, the addition of a “Gospel of the Resurrection” to the Saturday vigil Masses, to be said before the Gloria. It is of no relevance that “(t)he Ambrosian tradition has always been very rigorous in calculating the liturgical day beginning with evening (of the preceding day.)” This is a principal common to ALL Christian liturgical traditions, inherited from the liturgies of the pre-Christian Synagogue. It is also very imprecise to say that “the major Ambrosian feasts have begun the evening before with the ‘great vigil,’ which, like the Byzantine practice, inserts the vigil Eucharistic celebration into the singing of vespers, embellished for the occasion with specific readings.” The Ambrosian vigil Mass “inter Vesperas – in the midst of Vespers” was traditionally done on only three days of the year, the vigils of Christmas, Epiphany and Pentecost. It is a ritual of remarkable austerity, nothing at all like the splendor of the Byzantine Great Matins; the Masses have no Gloria, and no antiphons, except for a very brief one between the single Epistle and the Gospel, and no Creed. The four readings which are added to the Vespers, (each followed by the Ambrosian equivalent of a gradual) are never taken from the New Testament at all, much less the Gospels. Furthermore, in the historical Ambrosian Divine Office, Vespers of Saturday has never been treated as if it were part of Sunday; with the exception of a very small number occasions, Saturday Vespers is celebrated like that of the other ferial days. In short, the Cardinal is again absolutely correct to brand the Gospel of the Resurrection as a “trovata”, a rather pejorative way of saying, “something made up.”

In regards to this curious novelty, the question naturally arises: Will a Gospel of the Resurrection also be read in Lent? According to the website of the Diocese of Milan, a Gospel of the Transfiguration will be read instead, as a “prelude to the glory of the Resurrection.” While this is certainly a better idea than reading the Resurrection on the day before Palm Sunday, the Transfiguration has never been part of the Ambrosian Lent.

5. Regarding the celebration of the Ascension and Corpus Christi on the traditional Thursday, which Cardinal Biffi referred to “irrational attachment to archaisms”, Prof. Alzati very correctly notes that even within Ambrosian territory, not all dioceses have joined the Italian bishops conference in moving these feasts to the Sunday. In the Swiss diocese of Lugano, there are a large number of Ambrosian parishes which keep the Ascension on the traditional day. He also notes that many Protestant countries have remained more faithful to the ancient custom in regards to the Ascension, a custom which is not only Catholic, but rooted in the very words of Scripture itself. Here, I know that I am not alone in hoping that many episcopal conferences will follow the example of the Vatican State and the Pope in returning both feasts permanently to their traditional day.

6. Finally, in his critique the Cardinal takes great umbrage at the fact that the opening formula of the Gospel passages, “At that time”, is separated from the rest of the text by a full stop, rather than a semi-colon, as modern grammar would normally dictate. In an Italian dripping with sarcasm, he skewers this “bright idea” with a force quite beyond the seriousness of the matter. Prof. Alzati, in turn, responds with an equally unconvincing attempt to impart a profound theological lesson, based on the use of a period. I must confess that I find this passage too amusing not to quote in full.

“At that time” designates the specific moment in history in which, through the intervention of God, the plan of salvation was manifested: a precise moment, situated within concrete space-time coordinates. [. . .] In the case of the incarnation, that time which is the witness of the event comes to constitute "the fullness of time" (Gal. 4:4). This is by no means a secondary aspect of the Christian proclamation… This must have been a form of punctuation that facilitated the chanting of the texts, but in any case it is an indication that unequivocally defines “a temporal expression that is self-contained,” believed to be a strong statement capable of standing on its own. In the contemporary cultural context, the very uniqueness of this element, by refocusing concentration, can become a stimulus for reflecting on the historical dimension of the Christian event – “that time” – and being more deeply aware of its representation in the mystery.

Here I believe we may apply the principal known as Occam’s razor, that the simplest explanation is the true one, as noted above in bold.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: