Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Bugnini on the Reform of Palm Sunday (Part 1)

In 1956, Fathers Annibale Bugnini and Carlo Braga published in the Ephemerides Liturgicae a commentary on the Holy Week reform which Pope Pius XII had promulgated late in the previous year. This commentary makes for an incredibly frustrating read. It is supposed to explain changes which were by far the most significant made to the Tridentine Missal since its first publication in 1570, and the harbinger of greater changes soon to come. And yet for the most part, it concerns itself with fairly minor issues, and gives far less space than one would wish to the more substantive ones.

A full account of what it says about the changes to Palm Sunday would be tedious, since much of the material is dedicated to historical matters that have little to do with the then-recent reform. Therefore, I will consider it here by order of topic, following the liturgical texts in the Missal of St Pius V.

The commentary reports that the first example of the blessing of the palms arranged in imitation of the Order of Mass is found in an ancient Roman Ordo also called the “10th century Pontificale Romano-Germanicum,” and notes the presence therein of all of the traditional elements, the Introit, Collect, Epistle etc. Immediately, we are presented with an equivocation: the Collect of the blessing, which is abolished by the 1955 reform, is present on Palm Sunday in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the oldest copy of which (Vat. Reg. 316) is from the beginning of the 8th century. It is true that the Gelasian Sacramentary does not give a rubric to explain its use, and that the blessing of the palms is not mentioned. Nevertheless, in suppressing it, the reformers removed an element that was present in the Roman Rite from as far back as we have records.

Folio 46r of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780-800, with the prayer “Deus quem diligere”, the Collect for the blessing of Palms in the Missal of St Pius V, at the bottom of the page. (Bibliothèque National de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048; image cropped.)
The commentary also points out that evidence for the blessing of the palms in Rome itself before the adoption of this Pontificale at the very end of the 10th century is scant, and largely conjectural, and that the Mass is focused on the Passion. This is quite true. And yet, in the manuscript cited above, we also find the title “Dominica in Palmas de Passione Domini”, and in the Gellone Sacramentary, from the end of the 8th century, “Dominica in Palmas.” (shown above)

There follows the Epistle, Exodus 15, 27 – 16, 7; in the first article in this series, I explained in detail what this reading signifies in the context of the blessing of the palms. About it, the commentary has this to say: “The reading taken from the book of Exodus was chosen for this reason only, that at the beginning, it mentions seventy palm trees, while in the remaining verses, it has no relation to the day’s celebration.”

Here we are confronted with a series of embarrassments. The authors have completely failed to notice that, just as the day itself is occupied with more than one event (the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the Passion), and just as the very form of the blessing alludes to the principal event of another day (the Institution of the Mass on Holy Thursday, which is also read in the Passion Gospel), likewise, the reading is not concerned to speak only about the event celebrated on this day, but also to connect that event to the rest of Holy Week and Easter. And here, I confess my own embarrassment at reporting that the authors have borrowed this “observation” (without citation) from none other than the Blessed Ildephonse Schuster, who says the same thing in his commentary on Palm Sunday in The Sacramentary.

In and of itself, this may seem like no more than a peculiar lack of literary sensibilities, (although that it no small flaw in the study of the liturgy, which is, after all, to a large degree the study of various bodies of literature.) I am inclined to think this is the case with Schuster, who says that the reading “does not appear (my emphasis) to be in keeping with today’s mystery”, but nevertheless draws his own connection between it and the Passion, while missing five allusions to the rest of Holy Week.

The underlying attitude of Bugnini and Braga is something worse, and more damaging. They ask us to believe that in the process of creating a blessing of tremendous solemnity, the opening rite of the most important week of the liturgical year, the medieval Church marred it by adding something for a purely superficial, almost accidental reason. Moreover, this element was accepted almost universally within the Roman Rite, and persisted in use for roughly a millennium. This notion that a rite of such importance could really be no more than a collection of accidents and mistakes, “a wholly artificial composition”, as they call it (again, copying Schuster), begs for an invitation to scour through the rest of the Missal for similar mistakes. Such an invitation would be issued shortly after Sacrosanctum Concilium.

Likewise, à propos of the two options for the gradual that follows it, they write that “they were certainly chosen only out of the necessity of putting a chant between the two readings.” No space is given to the notion that the rite’s creators might have been men of greater literary skill than themselves, or that their choice might have been made for good and deliberate reasons.

The same attitude permeates their explanation of the blessing of the palms. The Preface, they tell us, was created for a different purpose, and probably chosen only for this rite because of the words “Thy creatures” and “Thy creation”: another superficial, accidental choice, as if the rite’s creators could not possibly have selected or written a more suitable text. The prayers were originally not intended to be all said, but chosen, depending on the type of branch; then “little by little, they acquired the force of an obligation; either because of a false idea of increasing the strength of the blessing through the multiplication of the prayers by which it is given, or because of a desire to make the rite more solemn by increasing its elements.” It seems not to have occurred to them, even though they were both Italians, that more than one type of branch may have been blessed at the same ceremony, as is still commonly done in Italy to this very day.

Here again, we are presented with an equivocation. Earlier on, the commentary does give a brief summary (less than 90 words) of the blessing of palms from the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum, the ancestor of the blessing found in the Missal of St Pius V. What it does not say is that this earlier form of the blessing is vastly longer, and the ceremony accompanying the procession is vastly more complex. This brings us to a section of the commentary which makes it difficult to maintain a lively belief in the authors’ honesty, and which will be discussed in the second part of this article.

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