Wednesday, February 05, 2020

The Mysterious Meaning of “Ordinary Time”: Guest Article by Michael P. Foley

We are very grateful to Dr. Foley for sending to NLM a two-part article that definitively explains where the term “Ordinary Time” came from, debunking along the way a number of persistent myths about it, while presenting (in part 2) a deeper critique than has hitherto been available.

The Mysterious Meaning of “Ordinary Time”
By Michael P. Foley
Ordinary Time is here again, and with it the usual confusion and finger-wagging over the meaning of its name. “Abolish Ordinary Time,” insists K. E. Colombini in an article by that title. “In the Christian life and in this age,” he asks, “how can any time honestly be deemed ordinary?” George Weigel agrees: Ordinary Time, he laments, is a “terminological abomination.” David Warren goes further. “Ordinary Time” is not only an abominable name for a liturgical season but a sadly appropriate description of the failure of the liturgical reforms following the Second Vatican Council to renew the life of the Church. “We have been living through decades of ‘Ordinary Time,’ in which the Church was subjected to humanly calculated ‘reforms,’” Warren writes. “Let us earnestly pray they will be over—that we may soon resume the practice of the extraordinary.”

Of course, all these critiques assume that the adjective in the title “Ordinary Time” refers to that which is mundane, unexceptional, and humdrum. But are they right?

To answer this question, we must first determine what this “green season” is in the 1969/2002 Roman Missal and then examine the extra-liturgical origin of the term “ordinary time.” For one of the peculiarities facing us is that “Ordinary Time” appears nowhere in the Latin typical edition of the new Missal.

Tempus per annum

Rather than a Tempus ordinarium (“ordinary time” in Latin), the 1969 Missal mentions a Tempus per annum—literally, a “season throughout the year.” This in itself is a novel departure from Roman liturgical tradition. The phrase tempus per annum appears fleetingly for the first time in the 1960 General Rubrics and then in the 1962 Missal, but the green seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost are still called the Time after Epiphany and the Time after Pentecost. Although both periods shared much in common, they were nonetheless treated as virtually two different seasons that were imbued by the spirit of the great feast that each followed. One indication of their relative integrity is that each season was numbered separately: the Sundays after Epiphany were counted from the Feast of the Epiphany, and the Sundays after Pentecost were counted from the Feast of Pentecost.

The 1969 Missal, on the other hand, introduces three novelties:

1. It eliminates the Times after Epiphany and Pentecost, which are the oldest recorded demarcations for these periods of the year that we have (the Gelasian sacramentary lists the Sundays after Theophany and after Pentecost).

2. It treats the new Tempus per annum as one continuous season interrupted by Lent and Easter: in the words of Annibale Bugnini, it is now one “block” (un blocco unico) that occurs in two phases (fasi). Cementing this “single block” is a new method of counting the Sundays within it. The new season begins on the Monday after the Sunday following January 6 and begins again on the Monday after Pentecost, and when it begins again, the count is resumed from where it had left off, that is, from the Sunday before Ash Wednesday.

3. The goal of this new season is to have Sundays that are as nondistinctive as possible. According to the 1969 Normae Universales, whereas other seasons “have their own proper character” with a focus on a particular mystery of Christ, the Sundays of Tempus per annum are supposed to recall “the very mystery of Christ in its fullness.” How? By being, in the words of Msgr. Pierre Jounel (the 1967-1969 relator of the Consilium subcommittee responsible for the new calendar), “the ideal Christian Sunday without any further specification… a Lord’s Day in its pure state.”

“Ordinary Time”

But where is “Ordinary Time” in all this? It is not, as I have mentioned, in the Latin, nor is it in the very first vernacular editions of the Missal: The 1970 English edition of the new Lectionary, for example, translates Tempus per annum as “Season ‘of the Year.’” It is mentioned on occasion in Annibale Bugnini’s Reform of the Liturgy, but I suspect that he added these only later, perhaps when he was editing his book in the late 1970s and after the term had become popular in the early to mid-1970s (he uses the term Tempus per annum more than twice as much as Tempo Ordinario).

The creator of this term, as far as I can tell, is Bugnini’s collaborator, the relator Pierre Jounel. In a 1969 French article about the new calendar in the journal Maison-Dieu, Jounel casually introduces the new Tempus per annum as Temps Ordinaire. Here is my translation:
The notion of Ordinary Time [temps ordinaire] (Tempus "per annum") was introduced in the time of Pius X to designate the weeks from Epiphany to Septuagesima and from Trinity Sunday to Advent (Time after Epiphany and after Pentecost). The novelty introduced today is to consider this Ordinary Time as a unit of thirty-three or thirty-four weeks, "in which no particular aspect of the mystery of Christ is celebrated. Instead, the very mystery of Christ is commemorated in its fullness, especially on Sunday" (1969 Normae Universales). Thus the Christocentric character of the liturgical year is clearly affirmed.
Prescinding from Jounel’s misleading claim that Pius X introduced a new concept for the Times after Epiphany and Pentecost, let us turn to his implicit definition of temps ordinaire, beginning with what he does not mean.

Ordinal Time?

We are often told to interpret Ordinary Time as Ordinal Time because of the ordinal numbering of its Sundays and to think of the season as “ordered time,” “counted time,” “numbered time,” or “growing time.” The latter concept has the most credibility because it is currently supported by the USCCB; but as we will see later, this interpretation is at odds with both the 1969 Normae Universales and the later GIRMs, and it is nowhere to be found in Jounel’s writings. Further, in French—as in Latin and English—there are different words for “ordinary” (ordinarius) and “ordinal” (ordinalis). If Jounel or his colleagues wanted to designate an “Ordinal” Time, they could have done so.

Mundane Time?

The second possibility, which seems to upset thoughtful Catholics the most, is viewing Ordinary Time as Mundane or Run-of-the-Mill Time. They are right to be alarmed, for there would indeed be something disjointed about a liturgical year centered on the sacred mysteries of Christ having a “time-out” section where we forget, even for a moment, how all time and history have been forever changed by the Resurrection, especially when that “time-out” takes up 50% of the year. Happily, this was not Jounel’s intention either; at least, there is no evidence that it was.

Ordinary of Seasons?

Rather, by “Ordinary Time” Jounel appears to have envisioned an “Ordinary of Times,” that is, a standard season in contrast to the special seasons of Christmastide and Eastertide. Just as the calendar’s Temporal Cycle of special seasons is the Proper of Seasons (Proprium de Tempore), Tempus per annum is now to be the Ordinary of Seasons. Just as there is an Ordinary of the Mass (Ordo Missae) and an Ordinary of the Divine Office (Ordinarium divini Officii), now there is an Ordinary of the Year. Masses during this time function as a basic template for divine worship: “profoundly restored” to “their pure state” (to use Jounel’s words), they serve as “the ideal” onto which more proper elements are added at other times in order to make a distinctive season. In French, Ordo Missae and Ordinarium Divini Officii are both translated with the noun Ordinaire, and so when the francophone Jounel coined Temps Ordinaire he may have been thinking of the meaning of ordinaire in its form as a noun. This notion of an Ordinary of Seasons is implicitly corroborated by Bugnini’s explanation mentioned above and by the GIRM, both of which contrast the “proper” seasons with the common or “ordinary” season, not unlike a contrast between the changing propers of the Mass and its relatively unchanging parts like the Kyrie or Gloria.

So there you have it. But although Catholics may be relieved to learn that “Ordinary Time” does not mean “Mundane Time,” they are not out of the woods yet. There are lingering problems both with the term “Ordinary Time” and with the new Tempus per annum. To these we will turn in tomorrow’s post.

This article is a summary of a more extensive and scholarly treatment: “The Origins and Meaning of Ordinary Time,” Antiphon: A Journal of Liturgical Renewal 23.1 (2019): 43-77.

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