Monday, May 11, 2015

The Institution of the Rogation Days

Today is the first day of the penitential observance known as the Lesser Rogations, and also, by coincidence, the feast of St Mamertus, bishop of Vienne in France, who first instituted them around the year 470 A.D. His successor but one, St Avitus, has left us a sermon on the Rogations, in which he describes the reason why they were instituted, in the wake of a series of public calamities.

St Avitus is described by the Catholic Encyclopedia as “one of the last masters of the art of rhetoric as taught in the schools of Gaul in the fourth and fifth centuries.” His style is florid and prolix in a way that would make a literal translation in English almost unreadable, and much longer than his almost 1500 words in Latin. I have therefore chosen just a few extracts pertinent to the history of the observance. (The complete Latin text is in the Patrologia Latina, volume 59, columns 289C-294C.)

Two points call for special note. One is that St Avitus acknowledges that the Rogations were not originally celebrated by everyone on the same days, and that only later did the various churches settle on keeping them on the triduum before the Ascension. Rome itself at first only celebrated the Greater Rogations on April 25, but received the Lesser ones from Gaul in the Carolingian period, and as part of the Roman Rite they were then extended to the whole of the Western church. The one exception is the Ambrosian Rite, in which they are celebrated on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after Ascension, and with greater austerity as far as the liturgy is concerned than in the Roman Rite. The vestments are black, the standard Milanese color for the ferias of Lent, and in the Divine Office, all of the proper characteristics of the Paschal season (e.g., antiphons consisting only of the word “Hallelujah”) are suspended.

The other concerns the term Major and Minor Litanies, by which these days are called in the Roman liturgical books. St Avitus nowhere uses the term “litanies”, but refers in one place to “psalms and prayers” and in another to the “offices of psalms,” indicating that these were the substance of the rite, and that the singing of the Litany of the Saints was a later addition. (See the notes attached to the notice of St Mamertus given on May 11 in the revised Butler’s Lives of the Saints, quoting Edmund Bishop’s Liturgica Historia.)

Two leaves of the Farnese Hours, showing a penitential procession and part of the Litany of the Saints. Painted by Giulio Clovio for Card. Alessandro Farnese, in 1546; now in the Morgan Library in New York City.
The mighty river of the Rogation observance flows in its life-giving stream, not through Gaul alone, but nearly the whole world, and cleanses the land stained with vices with the rich flow of this satisfaction made every year. But for us (i.e., the church of Vienne) there is a more particular cause for both joy and the fulfillment of duty in this institution, since that which now flows forth from here to the good of all, came first from us … and certainly I know that many of us recall the reasons for the terrors of that time. For indeed, frequent fires, constant earthquakes, sounds in the night, portended and threatened, as it were, to make a pyre for the funeral of the whole world. (There follows a lengthy description of the calamities and portents, culminating with the destruction by fire of a large public building on the very night of the Easter vigil.)

My predecessor, and spiritual father in baptism, the bishop Mamertus, who many years ago was succeeded by my own father, as God saw fit, conceived of the whole idea of the Rogations in his holy spirit on that very night of the vigil of Easter which we have mentioned above, and together with God, silently determined all that which the world cries out today in Psalms and prayers. (St Mamertus then explains his plans to the leading citizens of Vienne.)

Therefore, as God inspired the hearts of the repentant, (his plan) is heard by all, confirmed and praised. These three days are chosen, which occur between Sunday and the feast of the holy Ascension, … (and) he announces the prayer of the first procession at the basilica which was closer to the city’s walls. The procession goes with the fervor of a great multitude, and the greatest compunction, … But when, from the accomplishment of these lesser things, the holy priest recognized the signs of greater things to come, on the following day, the custom which we about to observe tomorrow, if the Lord will it, was established for the first time. In the days thereafter, some of the churches of Gaul followed this worthy example; but it was not celebrated by them all on the same days as it was established among us. Nor was it very important that a period of three days be chosen, provided that the services of Psalms be completed with annual functions of penance. Nevertheless, as harmony among the bishops grew, together with love for the Rogation, their concern for a universal observance brought them to one time, that is, these present days.

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