Friday, February 21, 2020

The Faithful Are Not Morons

Is the presence of the Septuagesima season in the liturgical year “bewildering” to the faithful? This is the contention of an article recently published on by Jennifer Gregory Miller, which defends the suppression of it as a positive development of the post-Conciliar reform, one which better highlights the centrality of the Paschal mystery. If this contention were considered by itself, it could be simply refuted with the five-word Latin saying, “Quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur – that which is gratuitously asserted may be gratuitously denied.” There is no reason whatsoever to imagine that the faithful found or currently find it “bewildering.” However, the article merits a more thorough refutation, in part because it accepts and promotes one of the most damaging ideas behind the post-Conciliar reform, and in part because it contains a number of factual errors, and this from a website that purports to promote and encourage Catholic culture.

As proof that the suppression of Septuagesima better highlights the centrality of the Paschal mystery, Miller cites the reaction of her young students (“elementary age children”) to a liturgical calendar wheel, divided into 52 sections which represent the 52 weeks of the year. Each week is marked by its appropriate liturgical color (violet for Advent, white for Christmas, etc.) Since it is based on the post-Conciliar calendar, without Septuagesima, the violet part before Easter occupies six sections of the wheel, while that of the Easter season occupies seven, visually demonstrating that Easter is more important. (“the preparation period before Easter doesn’t equal or outweigh Easter.”) If Septuagesima were still part of the calendar, the same violet section would have nine weeks, and thus appear to be more important. The suppression of Septuagesima is therefore lauded, since it restores “a central focus on the Paschal Mystery in the Liturgical Year. Easter now has the proper position as central and highest feast of the year.”

This is prima facie absurd. With the sole and tiny exception of the Mozarabs, all Christians who adhere to an historical rite, whether Eastern or Western, lived for well over a millennium with a liturgical year in which the preparatory season before Easter was longer than the Easter season itself. All Eastern Christians, whether Catholic or Orthodox, still do. What evidence is there that any one of them has ever drawn from this the conclusion that Easter was somehow less important than Lent?

The assumption that lies behind this was one of the underpinnings of the post-Conciliar reform, a notion which has done and continues to do incalculable damage to the Church. It is, quite simply, that the run of the faithful are morons. Because of their uneducable stupidity, they are absolutely incapable of rising to the level of anything that is in any way complex or subtle; the liturgy must therefore be simplified and dumbed down to the level of their stunted mental grasp. If this seems an unduly harsh way of looking at the matter, notice what serves as the test case for the value of this particular break with a universal tradition of almost 14 centuries – not its effect on the lived faith of maturely formed, practicing Christians, but its effect on the immediate perceptions of elementary school children in catechism class. It is as if to say that the education of the faithful about the features of the liturgical year cannot be expected to go beyond counting colored blocks numbered in the single digits.

Now it may also seem that I am unfairly assuming the degree to which Mrs Miller herself appears to share this notion. I grant that this article may be unrepresentative of her thought. But she does also write, “It’s easy to see how the Septuagesima season could be bewildering.” Not “It’s easy to see how the Septuagesima season could pique the interest or curiosity of the faithful,” much less “It’s easy to see how 14 centuries of Catholics learned the temporal cycle by living it year in and year out from childhood, in all its complexity, including Septuagesima.” She goes on to say that because of the similarity between Septuagesima and Lent (which she overstates), “I can imagine the confusion it caused if a person wasn’t in tune with the Church Calendar. “ ‘Is it Lent already? Did I miss Ash Wednesday? Am I supposed to be fasting?’ ”

I prescind from the notion that the calendar should be redesigned for the sake of those who aren’t in tune with it by giving them less to tune into. The crux of the matter is this: any feature of the liturgical calendar can, in theory, become confusing, if those who are responsible for teaching the faithful neglect their duty. “Wait, it’s Advent, so Jesus is still in His Mother’s womb… so why are we celebrating Her Conception?” “Wait, it’s Christmas, which is a joyful season, … so why are we celebrating a man who was stoned to death and a bunch of murdered babies?” If, on the other hand, those who take responsibility for teaching the Faith assume the best of their charges, and demand the best of them, there is no reason why they may not easily learn what countless generations before them learned, and that, with far fewer resources at their disposal.

From a recent post - children living out the liturgical year by burying the Alleluja on the eve of Septuagesima.
This being said, there are several other considerations which are germane to this topic.

1. As Annibale Bugnini, the principal architect of the post-Conciliar reform, recounted in his memoire, Pope Paul VI himself “compared the complex made up of Septuagesima, Lent, Holy Week and Easter Triduum, to the bells calling people to Sunday Mass. The ringing of them an hour, a half-hour, fifteen and five minutes before the time of Mass has a psychological effect and prepares the faithful materially and spiritually for the celebration of the liturgy.” Of course, having thus noted the season’s importance, he offered no resistance to those who decided that “there should be a simplification: it was not possible to restore Lent to its full importance without sacrificing Septuagesima, which is an extension of Lent.” (The Reform of the Liturgy, p. 307)

2. It is simply not credible to claim, as Bugnini does, that the post-Conciliar reform “restore(d) Lent to its full importance”, given the almost complete abolition of the traditional discipline of Lenten fasting, and the removal of almost all references to fasting from the official liturgical texts of the Roman Rite. In a better age than our own, this will be seen as one of its most embarrassing aspects.

But it must be remembered that this was done not only by suppressing Septuagesima, but also by assimilating Passiontide to the rest of Lent. Having thus flattened out the very ancient and subtle articulation of the Church’s preparation for Easter in four stages, the Novus Ordo then recreated it exactly for Christmas, with Christ the King, the two clearly different parts of Advent, and the vigil of Christmas. If it were so necessary for Septuagesima to be suppressed to restore the importance of Lent, Christ the King should also be suppressed to restore the importance of Advent. (By the way, Advent, with a minimum length of 22 days, occupies 4 blocks on the wheel, while the Christmas season, with a maximum length of 15 days, only occupies three. It might be better to reduce Advent to just December 17-24, so as to restore the centrality of Christmas.)

3. We may take comfort from the fact that the vast majority of commenters on liturgical matters seem to recognize that the suppression of Septuagesima was a stupid mistake. The Church itself has in a small but significant way acknowledged this and corrected it by including it in the Ordinariate Rite.

4. Mrs Miller writes that she “found so few pre-Vatican II writings on Septuagesima.” This can only be for lack of trying. Septuagesima occupies 116 pages of the relevant volume of Dom Guéranger’s The Liturgical Year, and 61 pages of Pius Parsch’s The Church’s Year of Grace (English editions). The latter writes, “A little reflection upon the liturgy of these three Sundays will show a unified and beautifully constructed underlying plan. The three great station churches, St Lawrence, St Paul, and St Peter (arranged in ascending importance) indicate the extraordinary significance the Church attaches to these Sundays.” Bl. Ildephonse Schuster’s The Sacramentary is more succinct than Guéranger and Parsch on almost every topic, but does of course dedicate an article to each of the three Sundays.

5. As documented by our colleague Henri de Villiers, every historical Christian tradition has a Fore-Lent of some kind, and those of the East share many themes with the Roman Septuagesima. You can read his article in the original French on the website of the Schola Sainte-Cécile, or in my English translation in four parts at the following links: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

Adam sat opposite Paradise and, lamenting his nakedness, he wept, ‘Woe is me ! By evil deceit was I persuaded and robbed, and exiled far from glory. Woe is me ! Once naked in my simplicity, now I am in want. But, Paradise, no longer shall I enjoy your delight; no more shall I look upon the Lord my God and Maker, for I shall return to the earth whence I was taken. Merciful and compassionate Lord, I cry to you, ‘Have mercy on me who am fallen’. (From Vespers of Cheesefare Sunday.)

Finally, a list of the article’s factual errors.

1. “The number of liturgical seasons in the 1962 and current Roman Calendars differ only by one season.” This is incorrect on one count, and imprecise on another. It is incorrect to refer to the two calendars as “1962” and “current.” Since the promulgation of the motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, both calendars are “current”, regardless of the minority status of the former. It is imprecise to say that the two seasonal calendars are otherwise the same, although they may appear to be so on the calendar wheel (which has its own imprecisions). Several ancient features of the temporal cycle were suppressed or altered beyond recognition by the post-Conciliar reform, such as the Ember Days, the octave of Pentecost (which is older than that of Christmas), Passiontide and the Rogations. It hardly needs repeating that none of this was asked for by the fathers at Vatican II in Sacrosanctum Concilium.

2. Septuagesima is not “the last liturgical season to be added to the Universal Liturgical Calendar.” First of all, at the time of its institution, there was no such thing as a universal liturgical calendar, and most of Europe had not yet adopted the Roman Rite. The Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest surviving lectionary of the Roman Rite, includes Septuagesima, but not Advent. The four-day period of Ash Wednesday and the three following days “after the ashes” became part of Lent after Septuagesima was instituted. The Lesser Rogations were invented in Gaul before Septuagesima was invented in Rome, but were adopted in the latter city much later.

3. It is true, but completely irrelevant, to state that Septuagesima “is not mentioned until the sixth century during the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great”, since this is true of most of the details of the Roman Rite. The only surviving collection of Roman liturgical texts that predates St Gregory is the so-called Leonine Sacramentary, which is not a sacramentary, or indeed a liturgical book in the proper sense at all, but rather, a privately made collection of “libelli missarum”, small booklets which contained the prayers and prefaces of Masses for specific occasions. It would be far more correct to note that Septuagesima appears in all of the surviving liturgical books of the Roman Rite from the very beginning.

4. It is an exaggeration to say that “the tone (of Septuagesima) was very penitential, the priest wore purple vestments, and flowers were no longer allowed on the altar.” The tone of the season is distinctly less penitential than that of Lent. Flowers are allowed on the altar, and although the vestments are violet, the deacon and subdeacon do not wear folded chasubles as they do in penitential seasons, and the preface of Lent (“who by bodily fasting suppress vices…”) is not used. The Ambrosian adoption of Septuagesima attests to this, since it continues both the Gloria and Alleluja.

5. The following section is completely wrong. “… in the Eastern churches there were additional days of the week that were not considered fast days, such as Thursday and Saturday, which diminished the fast number of days even further. Eventually the Septuagesima season was added to reach the actual number of forty fast days. Later Septuagesima no longer became (sic) a time of fasting, but the season remained.” In the Byzantine Rite, the Lenten fast is mitigated on Saturday, but it is still a fast day. Thursdays are not exempted from Lenten fasting in any tradition; the author seems to have misunderstood the ancient Roman custom that they were “aliturgical” days. Septuagesima and its Eastern analogs were not created to raise the number of fast days to exactly forty, but rather, as she does note correctly, to prepare the faithful gradually for the rigors of Lent. This is of course still done in the Byzantine Rite, which has four Sundays in its Forelent: the Publican and the Pharisee, the Prodigal Son, Meatfare and Cheesefare.

(My thanks to Dr Peter Kwasniewski and a priest friend for their suggestions of material for this article.)

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