Friday, March 01, 2019

Further Thoughts on “Useless Repetitions” in the Office

As a follow-up to Peter’s article on Monday, I would here like to offer some further considerations of the subject of “useless repetitions” especially in regard to the Divine Office.

The phrase “useless repetitions” occurs in paragraph 34 of Sacrosanctum Consilium, in the section of general norms concerning the didactic and pastoral character of the liturgy, paragraphs 33-36. “Ritus … repetitiones inutiles evitent… – let the rites … avoid useless repetitions.” It is difficult to think that the Council Fathers regarded this as a matter of particularly high importance, since it is mentioned nowhere else; nor are there any other occurrences of the words “repetition(s)” or “useless” in the document. The verb “evitent” is a subjunctive form of the verb “evitare – to avoid”, of the type called a “jussive” subjunctive, which expresses something between a wish and an order. (I once heard a canon lawyer explain at a liturgical conference that this kind of subjunctive is used to indicate that “something is a good idea, but not good enough to be enforced by the law.”) Latin has several other ways to express the idea more forcefully, e.g. “evitandae sunt.”

Paragraph 34 is part of a larger section (paragraphs 21-40) “on the restoration of the sacred liturgy”, which is to say, on changes to be made in the future. This section is not intended to serve as a description of the condition of the liturgy as it stood at the time. One is therefore perfectly free to hold and defend the opinion that the liturgy as it stood at the time contained no useless repetition, and take the words of paragraph 34 as no more than an admonition that no useless repetitions are to be added in the upcoming reform.

As such, it is a perfect example of what Michael Davies long ago branded the “time-bombs” in Sacrosanctum Concilium. The expression sounds nice, especially to the ears of the early 1960s, the age of the efficiency expert and the wholly inexplicable and unmerited optimism of the post-war era; who wants a liturgy filled with things that are “useless”? But, as is so often the case in the documents of Vatican II, no parameters are given to determine what exactly it means or how exactly it ought to be applied. Therefore, which repetitions, if any, are to be regarded as “useless”? All of them? Some? If so, which ones, and according to whom? Are daily repetitions “useless”, but weekly ones “useful”? This lack of clarity and precision (qualities which one should expect above all in the documents of an ecumenical council) gave the reformers free reign to dismiss as “useless repetition” almost anything they had previously decided they disliked and wished to get rid of. A classic case is that of the Offertory prayers, removed on the false pretext that they repeated ideas already present in the Canon, before the latter became one of several canons and was put on the endangered species list.

Textually, the Roman Breviary, which is based on the medieval liturgical use of the Papal Court, is just about the simplest and least variable form of Office that exists among the many Uses within the Roman Rite. Ceremonially, even when celebrated at its fullest, it is not particularly complicated or elaborate, as anyone who has ever attended the singing of the Office in the Byzantine Rite knows full well. There is therefore no reason to suppose that when talking about the restoration of “rites”, the Council Fathers had the Office in mind at all, and particularly in regard to useless repetitions.

Guess which rite.
There are nevertheless a few aspects of it to which the category “repetition” does apply, although I hesitate to add the qualifier “useless.”

With its traditional austerity, the corpus of chapters and orations in the Roman Breviary is quite limited, and most other Uses follow a similar arrangement. On feast days, the same chapter is read at both Vespers, Lauds and Terce; on many occasions (not all), it is taken from the Epistle of the Mass. There are a few feasts where the Mass Epistle is also read at Matins, as for example, the Epiphany; the same single verse of Scripture, Isaiah 60, 1, is therefore read six times on a single feast, and quoted almost exactly in a responsory of Matins. Since the Roman Breviary also uses the Collect of the Mass as the only proper prayer of each Office, that prayer will be said seven times, six in the Office and once at Mass.

There are, however, exceptions even within the Roman Breviary. The Sundays per annum have a different chapter for each Hour, as do the ferias of the major seasons of Advent, Lent and Passiontide. Many chapters do not correspond to the Epistle or Matins readings. On the ferias of Lent, the oratio super populum from the end of Mass is said at Vespers instead of the Collect, and the Hours of Prime and Compline have their own proper prayers. The Roman Office does therefore give space to the idea that a greater variety of these texts is possible.

I specifically refer to “most other Uses” above because in the Middle Ages, there were a number of exceptions. Particularly in Germany and the Low Countries, it was common to vary the chapters and prayers much more, as for example in the proper Use of the principality of Liège. The Premonstratensian Breviary maintains the same custom with the chapters, although not with the prayers, to this very day. In the Ambrosian Office, there is no chapter at either Lauds or Vespers, but these same hours can have several prayers on one day, as many as six or seven on occasion. All of this material might profitably have been mined for use in the Roman Breviary, perhaps at least to reduce the amount of repetition and enrich the text. In point of fact, the new Liturgy of the Hours has a very much greater variety of both of these features, with variable readings and prayers, and provision to change the former more or less ad libitum in public celebration; the new corpus of this material, however, owes very little to traditional sources.

The first page of the Common of the Saints from a Breviary according to the Use of Augsburg, Germany, 1493, with 21 different chapters for the feasts of Apostles.
The traditional corpus of Office hymns is also quite repetitive. The church of Rome took a long time to accept the use of hymns at all, and in its habitual conservatism, adopted fewer of them than other medieval Rites. Those of the minor Hours are completely invariable, while some other Uses changed them on various occasions, most often at Compline (this is still done by the Dominicans), more rarely at the day Hours. Each of the great seasons, such as Advent or Lent, has three proper hymns, one each for Matins, Lauds and Vespers, but many major feasts like Christmas and the Epiphany have only two, the hymn of either Vespers or Lauds being sung also at Matins. A similar conservatism is found among the hymns of the Saints; of the 40 Saints named in the Roman Canon, only the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and the Apostles Peter and Paul have their own hymns.

The restriction on the number of hymns, and their frequent repetition, was most certainly not “useless” in its original conception. A limited corpus of hymns made them easier to learn by heart, no small matter in an age in which books were not cheap to produce. Nevertheless, it is true that some of the finest gems of medieval hymnody are not found in the historical Roman Office, such as the Christmas hymn Veni, Redemptor gentium, the Easter hymn Chorus novae Jerusalem, and the hymn of the Assumption O quam glorifica. These are all commonly found in other medieval breviaries, and have been duly incorporated into the Liturgy of the Hours, along with a huge number of other compositions old and new.

It cannot be denied, however, that the removal of much of the frequent repetition from the Office has achieved nothing by way of restoring its regular sung celebration to our churches. It would not be out of place for a future correction of Sacrosanctum Concilium to add “ritus … repetitiones utiles non evitent.”

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