Friday, January 25, 2019

Liturgical Notes on the Conversion of St Paul

In light of the Church’s very ancient tradition of celebrating the Saints’ feasts on the day of their death, when they attain to their heavenly reward, the Conversion of St Paul is almost unique in specifically commemorating the beginning of a Saint’s career. I say “almost” because traditionally, many feasts of bishops are kept on the date of their episcopal ordination. However, this custom arose from cases like that of St Basil the Great, who died on January 1st, where another feast was already in place, or St Ambrose, who died on Holy Saturday of 397, April 4th, a date which frequently occurs in Holy Week or the Easter octave. (A more recent example is Pope St John Paul II, who died on April 2, and is kept on October 22, the day of his Papal inauguration.) There is no feast analogous to the Conversion of St Paul for the callings of the other Apostles, although the Gospel accounts thereof may be read on their feast days.

The Conversion of St Paul, from the Hours of Simon de Varie, 1455 (Public domain image from Wikimedia)
The reason for the choice of date for this feast is unknown. An early martyrology attributed to St Jerome refers to January 25 as the “translation” of St Paul. One would suppose that the feast must therefore be Roman in origin, since the only known major translation of St Paul’s relics took place within Rome. However, the feast actually originated in the Gallican Rite; it is absent from the oldest Roman lectionary, and the most ancient sacramentaries. At the beginning of the eighth century, the feast first appears with the title of “Conversio” on the calendar of St Willibrord, and by 750, in the second oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite.

With its classic liturgical conservatism, the church of Rome was slow to adopt new liturgical formulae even for some of the most venerated Saints. As I have noted in previous articles, it was almost the only place to have no proper Office for St Nicholas, and only a very partial one for St Mary Magdalene. Likewise, the Roman Mass and Office of St Paul’s Conversion are copied, with some adjustments, from the older and specifically Roman feast on June 30th, originally known as the “dies natalis – the birth (into heaven)” of St Paul, and later as the “Commemoration of St Paul”.

Among the Gregorian propers of the Mass, the Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion are the same on both days, while only the Alleluia differs. Of the three prayers, the Collect of the Commemoration is partly rewritten for the Conversion, the Secret is the same, the Postcommunion differs, but the latter two make no reference to the feast. The Scriptural readings of the Conversion, Acts 9, 1-22 and Matthew 19, 27-29, were both originally used on the Commemoration, and then later changed on that day (since the liturgical conservatism of Rome was strong, but not absolute.) The Roman Office of the Conversion has only two musical propers distinct from those of the Commemoration, the Magnificat antiphon of first Vespers (which was suppressed in 1955) and the Invitatory.

The Introit Scio cui credidi

In his History of the Roman Breviary, Mons. Pierre Batiffol dedicates a large portion of the sixth chapter (almost 40 pages in the 1912 English edition) to a congregation appointed by Pope Benedict XIV (1740-58) in 1741 to make and study various proposals for a reform of the Breviary. The consultors agreed that the Commemoration of St Paul should be suppressed from the general calendar, since the Pope no longer went to the Apostle’s tomb on that day, which was the feast’s original purpose. On the other hand, there was no question that the Conversion of St Paul should be retained. This proposal for the secondary feasts of St Paul was implemented in the post-Conciliar reform, which often claimed to return to the original customs of the Roman Rite, but in this case, completely suppressed a feast which is indisputably Roman and ancient, and retained one which is indisputably not Roman and later.

Batiffol also notes that one of the consultors of the congregation, noticing that the musical propers in the Office of January 25th make no reference to the feast, composed a whole new Office for it based on the reading from Acts 9. The congregation, whose work was never implemented, and whose papers were not rediscovered and published until well over a century later, rejected the proposal. For all his trouble, the poor consultor might just as easily have proposed the adoption of the proper Office for the feast then used by the Dominicans, which contains a number of very beautiful texts, such as the third responsory for Matins.

R. A Christo de caelo vocátus, et in terra prostrátus, ex persecutóre effectus est vas electiónis: et plus ómnibus labórans, multo latius inter omnes verbi gratiam seminávit, * atque doctrínam evangélicam sua praedicatióne complévit. V. Inter Apóstolos vocatióne novíssimus, praedicatióne primus, nomen Christi multárum manifestávit gentium pópulis. Atque. Gloria Patri. Atque.
R. Called by Christ from heaven, and laid low upon the earth, from a persecutor, he became a chosen vessel, and laboring more than all others, sowed the grace of the word much more broadly among all, * and completed the teaching of the Gospel by his preaching. V. Last among the Apostles by vocation, but first in preaching, he made the name of Christ known to the people of the nations. And. Glory be. And.

The Preaching of St Paul at Ephesus, by Eustache Le Sueur, 1649 (Public domain image from Wikimedia.)
In this same Office, the Magnificat antiphon at Second Vespers is the only one taken from one of St Paul’s Epistles, Galatians 1, 15-16.

Aña Cum autem complacuit ei qui me segregavit ex utero matris meae, et vocavit per gratiam suam, ut revelaret in me Filium suum in gentibus, continuo non acquievi carni et sanguine. ~ But when it pleased Him, who set me apart me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, to reveal His Son in me among the Gentiles, immediately I condescended not to flesh and blood.

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