Tuesday, May 05, 2020

The Ancient Form of the Palm Sunday Blessing and Procession

In the form in which they are found in the Missal of St Pius V, the blessing and procession of Palm Sunday derive from a work of the mid-10th century which is now generally known as the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum. This was not a Pontificale in the sense in which that term has been used for the last several centuries, which is to say, a book of the ceremonies proper to the office of bishop. In the early Middle Ages, a Pontificale did include such ceremonies, but also a great deal of other material, often arranged rather haphazardly, including blessings and rubrics for specific ceremonies, many of which were not restricted to bishops. This particular compilation was produced at the abbey of St Alban in Mainz, Germany; internal evidence dates it with unusual precision, between the years 950 and 964. At the very end of that century, it was adopted at Rome itself, and thus eventually, after many editorial changes, became the basis for the book now known as the Pontificale Romanum.

The blessing of the Palms in a Pontifical of the second half of the 12th century, from the abbey of St Lambrecht in Austria, now at the library of the University of Graz (ms. 326). Retrieved from USUARIUM: A Digital Library and Database for the Study of Latin Liturgical History in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Period (http://usuarium.elte.hu) built by Miklós István Földváry et al. at Eötvös Loránd University (Budapest, Hungary), Research Group of Liturgical History.
The original manuscript of the PRG (as it is usually abbreviated) does not exist, and therefore its contents must be reconstructed from its numerous surviving descendants. This reconstruction was done by two scholars, Cyrille Vogel and Reinhard Elze, and published in three volumes between 1963 and 1972 [24]; much of their work was based on earlier research by Mons. Michel Andrieu. In their introduction, they are careful to explain that theirs is not a critical edition which aims at identifying an original text in the way that a critical edition of a literary text seeks to identify as much as possible the exact words of the original author. The contents of a liturgical book like a Pontifical were often adapted for local use as soon as it passed from one church to another. Since such adaptations were an accepted custom, and actually used in the celebration of the liturgy, there is no criterion for declaring that any given one of them was more “authentic” than another.

Furthermore, many manuscripts of the PRG contain more than one version of a particular ceremony, of which only one was actually in use when the manuscript was produced. Vogel and Elze’s edition contains two different ordos for Palm Sunday (vol. 2, pp. 40-54), of which I will here summarize the first, with some comments on its relationship to the texts found in the Missal of St Pius V, and the Holy Week reform promulgated in 1955.

The ceremony begins with the antiphon Hosanna Filio David and the prayer Deus quem diligere, both of which are in the rite of St Pius V. The prayer is also found at the beginning of Palm Sunday in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the oldest copy of which predates the PRG by roughly 250 years, but contains no rubric to explain its use, and makes no mention of the blessing of the palms. [25] There follow the Epistle from Exodus, which is longer by three verses (15, 27 – 16, 10) than in the Tridentine Missal, the gradual Collegerunt Pontifices (without mention of the alternative In monte Oliveti), and the Gospel, Mark, 11, 1-10, where the Missal of St Pius V and many other medieval Uses have the parallel passage from Matthew 21, 1-9. The bishop may preach a sermon after the Gospel “if he wishes”, which was not done in the Tridentine rite.

The blessing itself begins with a short introductory prayer that is not in the Tridentine Missal, followed by a series of ten prayers which are labelled as follows:

1. the exorcism of flowers and branches
2. a blessing of branches, olive and palms
3. another
4. again another
5. again the blessing of olive alone (“Petimus… ut hanc creaturam olivae”, the first in the “canon” of the Tridentine blessing)
6. another blessing of olive (“Auge fidem in te sperantium”, the prayer which stands in place of the Secret in the Tridentine blessing)
7. again the blessing of olive and branches (“Deus qui per olivae ramum”, the fourth in the “canon” of the Tridentine blessing)
8. again the blessing of palms and olives (“Benedic … hos palmarum”, the fifth in the “canon” of the Tridentine blessing)
9. again the blessing of palms and branches
10. again the blessing of branches and olives

Folio 51r of the Echternach Sacramentary, 895 AD, with the first three of five prayers of the blessing of the palms; in the PRG, these are the third and ninth of the ten prayers given before the Preface, and the one after it. The two prayers on the following folio are not in the PRG; they are followed by a “common blessing” which is also not in the PRG, but is the second prayer of the “canon” of blessings in the Tridentine Missal. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9433)
These are followed by a preface, which, however, does not segue into the Sanctus as it does in the rite of St Pius V. There is then a “blessing of all (the branches)”, after which they are sprinkled with holy water; no mention is made of incense. In the Tridentine Rite, this same prayer is said after the branches are sprinkled and incensed. Two more prayers are said, the first of which is a longer version of the second prayer in the Tridentine “canon” of the blessing. The priest then distributes the branches to the people, while the antiphon Ante sex dies is sung, which in the rite of St Pius V is sung at the procession instead. The blessing concludes with yet another prayer, after which the procession begins.

The procession goes “to the church where the Mass will be celebrated”; the common custom of blessing the palms in a different church is presumed. Three processional antiphons are named, the first, second and sixth of those in the Tridentine version, with the rubric that mentions “the rest of the antiphons which belong to this festivity.” (These varied, within a reasonably narrow range, from one church to another.) Along the way, it made a station at a cross, which became a common feature of the Palm Sunday procession in the Middle Ages, and was later done in a great many different ways.

The cathedral of St Martin in Mainz, Germany, before 1858. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.) The abbey of St Alban was destroyed in 1552.
According to the PRG, the boy choristers sing an antiphon, Fulgentibus palmis, which is not in the Missal of St Pius V, but was added to the procession in the 1955 reform; the men’s schola replies with another, Occurrunt turbae, which is in both versions. Then the boys of the monastery school slowly come before the cross, throwing their cloaks to the ground, and prostrate themselves in front of it, while the clergy sing the antiphon Pueri Hebraeorum vestimenta prosternabant. From the other side, boys of the laity, led by a processional banner and singing Kyrie eleison, come before the cross, and at a signal, throw their palms down before it, and prostrate themselves, as the clergy sing the antiphon Pueri Hebraeorum tollentes ramos. [26] When they have moved away from the cross, the boy choristers begin the hymn Gloria, laus et honor, which they alternate with the schola, “either looking at the holy Gospel (which is carried in the procession), or inclining their heads to the cross.”

The schola sings an antiphon, “Let them all praise thy name, and say ‘Blessed is He who cometh in the name of the Lord,’ ” together with Psalm 147; at another antiphon, “Let us be found faithful with the angels and children...”, the people throw flowers and branches before the cross. The bishop or celebrating priest then comes before the cross and prostrates, as the choir sings another antiphon; he then says the prayer Deus qui miro ordine, which in the Missal of St Pius V is the third prayer said in the “canon” of blessing of the palms.

The procession now moves again, led by the processional cross and banner, to the “city or church”; the “city” is mentioned because the blessing was often done in a church outside the city gates, and the cross at which the station was held was often the great one set up in or near all medieval cemeteries, again, outside the city gates. For this part of the procession, the clergy sing “the antiphons or responsories (from Matins)” of the day, or a hymn, Magnum salutis gaudium, which was not preserved in the Roman Rite, but remains to this day in the Ambrosian.

(The hymn Magnum salutis gaudium, sung as the procession enters the church of San Rocco al Gentilino in Milan on Palm Sunday, 2012; the celebrant is our departed friend Mons. Angelo Amodeo, and the master of ceremonies our long-time contributor Nicola dei Grandi.)

Assuming that the procession is entering a city from outside its walls, the responsory Ingrediente Domino in sanctam civitatem is sung at the city gates, rather than at the church door, as in the Tridentine rite. (One later French Pontifical specifies that it is sung in alternation between the men’s schola and the boy choristers, with the latter climbing up on top of the gate first.) If there is a long way between the gate and the church where the Mass is said, the antiphons of Matins and Lauds of Palm Sunday may be sung along the way. At the church itself, an antiphon Coeperunt omnes is sung with the Benedictus; this antiphon was also added to the procession in 1955. Before the Mass, a final prayer is added, which in the Missal of St Pius V is used as the Oratio super populum of Holy Monday.

The final section, which concerns the Mass, says that the “ministers and clergy and people hold the palms in their hands until the Mass is completed”, not just during the Passion as in the Tridentine Missal.

Notes (continuing the numeration from the previous articles):

[24] Le Pontificale Romano-Germanique du Dixième Siecle; Studi e Testi 226, 227, (1963), 266 (1972); Vatican Apostolic Library, Vatican City.

[25] There are many things about the early history of the liturgy which are and must remain uncertain, since there are so many early liturgical books in which there are no rubrics to explain how the content was actually used. The fact that the prayer Deus quem diligere appears at the same point in the Gelasian Sacramentary and the PRG does not guarantee that it was used in the same way when the liturgy was originally celebrated out of these manuscripts, although this is certainly possible. But it is also theoretically possible that when the compilers of the PRG saw it in that place in an older manuscript, they decided to keep it, but for a new purpose.

[26] In the main text of Vogel and Elze’s edition, this appears as a repetition of the antiphon Pueri Hebraeorum vestimenta prosternabant; this is corrected in a footnote as the context seems to demand, following an earlier edition of this part of the ceremony and one of the manuscripts.

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