Wednesday, May 16, 2018

The Minor Litanies in the Ambrosian Rite

This post comes entirely from notes written by our Ambrosian expert, Nicola de’ Grandi. The photos were taken on Monday at the church of Santa Maria della Consolazione in Milan, where the traditional rite is celebrated, and which observed the Minor Litanies with a procession and a station within the church. Last month, I posted the liturgical texts of the Ambrosian form of the Major Litanies.

In the Ambrosian Rite, the Minor Litanies are celebrated on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Ascension, not before as in the Roman Rite. This custom is attested in the very oldest Ambrosian liturgical books, and was observed from very ancient times throughout the north of Italy, not just at Milan, as seen in a liturgical manuscript at Friuli, in the Veneto region, already in the 6th century. They were originally known as the “Major Litanies”, since they were instituted before the observance on April 25th that now bears that name, but which is not attested in the Ambrosian Rite before the 11th century.

An Ambrosian liturgical manuscript of the 13th century.
Although St Ambrose himself writes that it was not the custom of the Church to fast during the Easter season (Exposition of the Gospel of St Luke 25), a fact which was adduced in criticism of the Milanese custom in the Middle Ages, it was defended in the later 11th century by a cleric of the city named Landolfo, who refers to what Christ says when asked why His disciples did not fast. “The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.” (Matthew 9, 15) The three day fast after the Ascension, the departure of the Bridegroom, therefore imitates what the Apostles did while waiting for the coming of the Holy Spirit. A contemporary of St Ambrose, St Philastrius of Brescia, attests to exactly this same custom, and for exactly the same reasons, already in the mid-5th century. The Mozarabic liturgy also traditionally observes a fast of three days in the week after the Ascension, on the Wednesday, Thursday and Friday before the vigil of Pentecost.

From the most ancient times, the Church administered baptism on Pentecost with the same rites as on Easter; this is attested in a letter of Pope St Siricius (384-99) to Himerius, bishop of Tarragon in Spain (cap. 2), and one of Pope St Leo the Great (440-461), in which he exhorts the bishops of Sicily to follow the Church’s custom and the example of the Apostle Peter, who baptized three thousand persons on Pentecost day. (Epist. 16)

In accordance with this universal custom, the traditional Ambrosian celebration of the Minor Litanies, as they are now called, has many elements in common with Lent, the season par excellence for baptismal preparation. During the processions, there are stations at various churches; at each station, lessons are read as part of the catechumenal preparation for baptism, exactly as was done in Lent. Black vestments are used as on the ferias of Lent, and in the Office, all of the characteristic features of the Easter season (the Paschal hymns, antiphons consisting of just the word “Alleluia”, etc.) are replaced with those of the season per annum. The Ambrosian Rite has no Ash Wednesday, and only much later did it adopt the imposition of ashes on the first Monday of Lent; the blessing and imposition of ashes is in fact historically done on the first day of the Minor Litanies.
In the Middle Ages, when the Minor Litanies were still kept with great solemnity, on each of the three days, the archbishop, the cathedral chapter and the entire clergy of the city participated in a procession which departed from the cathedral, and stopped at twelve different stational churches along the way, each group within the clergy walking behind its own processional cross. An enormous number of processional antiphons were sung, interspersed between the verses of the longest Psalm in the Psalter, Beati immaculati. At each station, a synaxis was held in a form which is common to various penitential functions in the Ambrosian Rite such as vigils and the ferias of Lent: twelve Kyrie eleisons, followed by a prayer, a reading of the Old Testament, a responsory, and a Gospel.

The procession
Entering the church
 Station at the altar of the Virgin
As is the case at many of the Lenten stational Masses in Rome, the readings are often chosen in reference to the Saint to whom the stational church is dedicated. For example, the Gospel at a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was that of Mary and Martha, Luke 10, 38-42, the traditional Gospel of the Assumption.
After the last station, the procession returned to the cathedral, where a Mass was celebrated in a very simple form also characteristic of penitential days; all of the usual Mass chants are omitted, apart from a very brief Cantus, the equivalent of the Roman Tract, between the readings. The Ambrosian Mass has no Kyrie or Agnus Dei, and the Gloria and Creed are omitted; the Ordinary is therefore reduced to just the Sanctus.

The Epistle at Mass
 The Gospel
Incensation at the Offertory; the Ambrosian custom is to swing the thurible, which has no cover, in very wide circles, while the servers hold up the chasuble very high.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: