Sunday, January 31, 2021

Septuagesima in the Ambrosian Rite

The pre-Lenten season known as Septuagesima originated not just as a feature of the Roman Rite, but in Rome itself. It is traditionally said to have been instituted by Pope St Gregory the Great in response to the various crises with which the City and central Italy were wracked in the mid-to-late 6th century. I have described elsewhere how these crises help to form both the liturgical texts of the three Masses, and the station churches assigned to them.
The season was later borrowed by the Ambrosian Rite from the Roman, but with a number of interesting differences. The Masses of the season are said in violet vestments, as in the Roman Rite, but nevertheless, Gloria in excelsis is said on all three Sundays. Most notably, Alleluia continues to be said throughout the season in both the Mass and the Divine Office. Before the reform of St. Charles Borromeo, it was even sung on the first Sunday of Lent, and only “dismissed” for the following Monday.

A leaf of an Ambrosian Missal printed in 1499. The left column has the Epistle (2 Corinthians 6, 1-10, as in the Roman Rite), followed by the “versicle in the Alleluia.” In the Borromean reform, the word ‘Alleluia’ was removed, and the versicle retained as a Cantus, the Ambrosian equivalent of a Tract.
The penitential character of the season may seem thereby to be lessened in comparison with the Roman Rite, but in fact, it is just as evident, or even more so, in some of the variable texts of the Mass; many of these are also among the most beautiful parts of the Ambrosian repertoire.

On Septuagesima, the Ingressa (Introit) is the same text as the Roman Introit sung at the end of the liturgical year: “The Lord sayeth: I think thoughts of peace, and not of affliction. You shall call upon me, and I will hear you, and bring back your captivity from all places.” (Jeremiah 29) These words can almost be taken as a reply to those of the Roman Introit, “The groans of death have surrounded me, the pains of death have surrounded me, and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice from His holy temple.”

The most interesting piece of this Mass is the Transitorium, the Ambrosian equivalent of the Communion antiphon; this is also the only chant of Septuagesima which is proper to it.
Convertímini omnes simul ad Deum mundo corde et ánimo, in oratióne, jejuniis et vigiliis multis: fúndite preces vestras cum lácrymis, ut deleátis chirógrapha peccatórum vestrórum, priusquam vobis repentínus superveniat intéritus, ántequam vos profundum mortis absórbeat; et cum Creátor noster advénerit, parátos nos inveniat.
Be ye all together converted to God, with pure heart and mind, in prayer, fasting and many vigils; our forth your prayers with tears, that you may cancel the decree of your sins, before there come upon ye sudden destruction, before the depths of death swallow ye up; and so, when our Creator cometh, may He find us ready.
In the following video, it is used as an Offertory at a Mass in the Ordinary Form; the word “jejuniis – fasts” is changed to “precibus – prayers.” Note that it followed by the Creed, which in the Ambrosian Rite is said at the end of the Offertory rite, a position analogous to that which it has in the Byzantine Rite.
The Mass of Sexagesima contains more proper chants, and begins to intensify the period’s penitential theme. The Prophetic reading, Joel, 2, 12-21, is a slightly longer version of the Roman Epistle of Ash Wednesday, and begins by repeating the thought of the Transitorium cited above: “Be converted to me with all your heart, in fasting, in weeping and in mourning.” The Psalmellus, the Ambrosian version of the Gradual, follows this exhortation with a confession from Psalm 105, “We have sinned along with our fathers, we have acted unjustly, we have done iniquity; have mercy upon us, o Lord.” The Preface of Sexagesima also speaks clearly of the upcoming Lenten fast:
Truly it is fitting and just… eternal God; who not only remit the sins of those that fast, but also by fasting sanctify the sinners; and not only forgive punishment to the guilty, but even grant eternal rewards to them that abstain. (VD: Qui non solum peccáta ieiunantium dimittis, sed ipsos etiam peccatóres ieiunando iustíficas: et reis non tantum poenam relaxas, sed donas abstinéntibus etiam praemia sempiterna.)
The oldest surviving Ambrosian Lectionary, the 7th-century Codex Reginensis 9 (now in the Vatican Library), lists only one pre-Lenten Sunday, which it calls “Sexagesima.” However, the epistle which it assigns to that Sunday, 2 Corinthians 6, 14 – 7, 3, is found in later manuscripts and missals on Quinquagesima; it seems clear that the scribe of Reginensis 9 made a mistake in the title of the Sunday. This indicates the Ambrosian Rite at first added only Quinquagesima, and the other two Sundays at a later stage, it is probably for this reason that the Mass of Quinquagesima has all its own proper chants, prayers and readings, excepting only the Alleluia.

In the Roman Rite, the first four days of Lent are traditionally distinct from the rest of it, and bear a different name. Although the fast began on Ash Wednesday, the next three days are not called “Quadragesima”, but “post Cineres – after the Ashes.” Likewise, in the Divine Office, the Lenten hymns and responsories are not said on those days, but only start on Sunday. The Mass prayers of the first four days make several references to fasting, but the word “quadragesimale – Lenten” first occurs in the Collect of the first Sunday.

The Ambrosian Rite still to this day has no Ash Wednesday; it is therefore Quinquagesima that forms the prelude to Lent, properly so-called, which the Roman Rite has in Ash Wednesday and the ferias “post Cineres”. It is also, of the three pre-Lenten Sunday, the one which lays the clearest emphasis on penance. The Ingressa looks forward to the Gospel of the Mass, and expresses the whole purpose of Lent, and of penance generally.
Jucunda est praesens vita, et transit; terríbile est, Christe, judicium tuum, et pérmanet. Quapropter incertum amórem relinquámus, et de infiníto timóre cogitémus, clamantes, Christe, miserére nobis.
Delightful is the present life, and it passeth away; terrible is Thy judgment, o Christ, and it endureth. Wherefore, let us foresake uncertain love, and think upon fear without end, crying out, “O Christ, have mercy on us.”
The prophetic reading, Zachariah 7, 5 – 8, 3, speaks of the true sense of fasting in terms similar to those of Isaiah 58, which the Roman Rite reads on the Friday and Saturday of this week, and the Ambrosian Rite on the first Sunday of Lent.
“When you fasted, and mourned … did you keep a fast unto me? … And when you did eat and drink, did you not eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves? ... And the word of the Lord came to Zacharias, saying: Thus saith the Lord of hosts, saying: Judge ye true judgment, and shew ye mercy and compassion every man to his brother. And oppress not the widow, and the fatherless, and the stranger, and the poor: and let not a man devise evil in his heart against his brother.”
The Prophet Zachariah, by Michelangelo, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508-12).
The Gospel, Matthew 13, 24-43, contains the parables of the Tares and the Wheat, of the Mustard Seed, and of the Leaven. At the end of these, St. Matthew tells us that the Lord spoke in parables, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, saying: I will open my mouth in parables, I will utter things hidden from the foundation of the world.” (Psalm 77, 2) The Gospel continues with Christ’s explanation to the disciples of the Tares and the Wheat, bringing us “from the foundation of the world” to its end, spoken of at the Ingressa.
He that soweth the good seed, is the Son of man. And the field, is the world. And the good seed are the children of the kingdom. And the cockle, are the children of the wicked one. And the enemy that sowed them, is the devil. But the harvest is the end of the world. And the reapers are the angels. Even as cockle therefore is gathered up, and burnt with fire: so shall it be at the end of the world. The Son of man shall send his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all scandals, and them that work iniquity. And shall cast them into the furnace of fire: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the just shine as the sun, in the kingdom of their Father. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
The preface also looks back to “the foundation of the world”, which the readings from the book of Genesis at Matins in this season also recount.
Truly it is fitting and just…eternal God, illuminator and redeemer of our souls. Who, when we were cast out of Paradise through the first Adam, by the breaking of the law of abstinence, by the remedy of a stronger fast, through grace hast called us back to the blessedness of our ancient fatherland; and by Thy holy instruction, hast taught by what observances we may be delivered. (VD: Aeterne Deus, illuminátor et redemptor animárum nostrárum. Qui nos, per primum Adam abstinentiae lege violáta, Paradíso ejectos, fortióris ieiunii remedio ad antíquae patriae beatitúdinem per gratiam revocasti: nosque pia institutióne docuisti, quibus observatiónibus liberémur.)
Finally, the Transitorium of this Mass concludes the pre-Lenten season with another call to conversion. Here, the Ambrosian liturgy reflects the theme of the Roman Sexagesima, referring the sins of the people to the natural disasters of the time.
Veníte, convertímini ad me, dicit Dóminus. Veníte flentes, fundámus lácrymas ad Deum: quia nos negléximus, et propter nos terra pátitur: nos iniquitátem fécimus, et propter nos fundamenta commóta sunt. Festinémus anteíre ante iram Dei, flentes et dicentes: Qui tollis peccáta mundi, miserére nobis.
Come, be converted to me, sayeth the Lord. Come, ye that weep, let us pour forth tears to God, for we have been negligent, and for our sake, the earth suffers. We have wrought iniquity, and for our sake, its foundations are shaken. Let us hasten to come before the wrath of God, weeping and saying: Thou that takest away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
A striking parallel is found on this day between the Ambrosian and the Byzantine Rites, one of many cases where the historical rites of Christendom have independently instituted similar practices. On the last Sunday before the beginning of Great Lent, popularly known as Cheesefare Sunday or Forgiveness Sunday, the Byzantine Rite also commemorates the casting out of Adam from Paradise. Among the Prosomia sung at Vespers of the Saturday preceding, we may particularly note the following, which shares the same ideas as the Ambrosian preface of the Quinquagesima.
The Lord my Creator took me as dust from the earth, and with the breath of life he gave me a soul and made me a living creature. He honoured me as ruler on earth over all things visible and as a companion of the Angels. But Satan the deceiver, using the serpent as his instrument, enticed me by food, separated me from the glory of God and gave me over to the earth and to the lowest depths of death. But as Master and compassionate call me back again.
The Creation of the World, and the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise, by Giovanni di Paolo, ca. 1445
Also worth noticing is this piece, which recalls the words said in the Roman Rite as the priest places ashes on the heads of the people, “Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shall return.”
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’. (In the video below in Church Slavonic.)

Friday, January 29, 2021

St Francis de Sales on the Sacred Liturgy

Since today is the feast of St Frances de Sales on the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, here are some passages from the second part of his classic spiritual treatise Introduction to the Devout Life regarding the sacred liturgy and devotion to the Saints. The addressee “Philothea”, a name which means “one who loves God”, is not a specific person, but the reader of the book.

St Francis de Sales, ca. 1691-1700, by the Spanish painter Francisco Ruiz de la Iglesia (1649-1704); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
Chapter XIV ~ Of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and how we ought to hear it
Hitherto I have said nothing of the most holy, sacred, and august sacrament and sacrifice of the Mass, the center of the Christian religion, the heart of devotion, and the soul of piety; a mystery so ineffable as to comprise within itself the abyss of divine charity; a mystery in which God communicates himself really to us, and in a special manner replenishes our souls with spiritual graces and favors.
2. When prayer, O Philothea! is united to this divine sacrifice, it becomes so unspeakably efficacious as to cause the soul to overflow, as it were, with heavenly consolations. Here she reclines upon her well-beloved, who fills her with so much spiritual sweetness, that she resembles, as it is said in the canticles, a pillar of smoke, proceeding from a fire of aromatic wood, from myrrh and frankincense, and from all the powders of the perfumer.
3. Endeavor, therefore, to assist at Mass every day, that you may jointly, with the priest, offer up the holy sacrifice of your Redeemer, to God his Father, for yourself and the whole Church. “The angels,” says St John Chrysostom, “always attend in great numbers to honor this adorable mystery”; and we, by associating ourselves to them, with one and the same intention, cannot but receive many favorable influences from so holy a society. The choirs of the Church triumphant and those of the Church militant unite themselves to our Lord in this divine action, that with him, in him, and through him, they may ravish the heart of God the Father, and make his mercy all our own. Oh, what a happiness it is to a soul devoutly to contribute her affections for obtaining so precious and desirable a treasure!
The Last Supper, 1592-4, made by the Venetian artist Jacopo Tintoretto (1518-94) for the basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in his native city; note the angels in the upper part of the painting. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
4. Should some indispensable business prevent you from assisting in person at the celebration of this sovereign sacrifice, endeavor at least to assist at it by a spiritual presence, uniting your intention with that of all the faithful; and using the same interior acts of devotion in your closet that you would use in some church represented to your imagination.
5. Now, to hear Mass in a proper manner, either really or mentally,
1. From the beginning, till the priest goes up to the altar, make with him your preparation, which consists in placing yourself in the presence of God, acknowledging your unworthiness and begging pardon for your sins.
2. From the time he goes up to the altar till the Gospel, consider the birth and the life of our Lord, by a simple and general consideration.
3. From the Gospel till after the Creed, consider the preaching of our Saviour and protest that you resolve to live and die in the faith and obedience of his holy word, and in the communion of the holy Catholic Church.
4. From the Creed to the Pater Noster apply your heart to the mysteries of the passion and death of our Redeemer, essentially represented in this holy sacrifice, and which, with the priest and the rest of the people, you must offer to the honor of God the Father, and for your salvation.
5. From the Pater Noster to the Communion, strive to excite a thousand desires in your heart, ardently wishing to be forever united to our Saviour by everlasting love.
6. From the Communion till the end, return thanks to Jesus Christ for his incarnation, life, passion, and death: as well as for the love he testifies to us in this holy sacrifice; conjuring him to be forever merciful to you; to your parents and friends, and to the whole Church; and finally, humbling yourself with your whole heart, receive devoutly the benediction which our Lord gives you through the ministry of his officer, the officiating priest.
But should you prefer, during Mass, to meditate on the mystery you proposed for your consideration on that day, it is not necessary that you should divert your thoughts to make all these particular act; but, at the beginning, direct your intention to adore, and offer up this holy sacrifice, by the exercise of your meditations and prayer; for in all meditations the aforesaid acts may be found either expressly or tacitly and equivalently.
Chapter XV – Of Vespers and other public exercises
Besides hearing Mass on Sundays and holidays, you ought also, Philothea, to be present at Vespers and the other public offices of the Church as far as your convenience will permit. For, as these days are dedicated to God, we ought to perform more acts to his honor and glory on them than on other days. By this means you will experience the sweetness of devotion, as St. Augustin did, who testifies in his Confessions, that hearing the divine office in the beginning of his conversion, his heart melted into tenderness, and his eyes into tears of piety. And, indeed, to speak once for all, there is always more benefit and comfort to be derived from the public offices of the Church than from private devotions, God having ordained that communion of prayers should always have the preference.
The procession of servers, cantors and sacred ministers makes it way through St Patrick’s Church in Philadelphia, which is packed for last year’s celebration of First Vespers of Candlemas according to the Use of Sarum. Photo by Allison Girone.
Enter, then, willingly into the confraternities of the place in which you reside, and especially those whose exercises are most productive of fruit and edification, as in so doing you practice a sort of obedience acceptable to God; for, although these confraternities are not commanded, they are nevertheless recommended by the Church, which, to testify her approbation of them, grants indulgences and other privileges to such as enter them. Besides, it is always very laudable to concur and cooperate with many in their good designs; for although we might perform as good exercises alone as in the company of a confraternity, and perhaps take more pleasure in performing them in private, yet God is more glorified by the union and contribution we make of our good works with those of our brethren and neighbors. I say the same of all kinds of public prayers and devotions, which we should countenance as much as possible with our good example, for the edification of our neighbor, and our affection for the glory of God and the common intention.
Chapter XVI – Of the honor and invocation of Saints
Since God often sends us inspirations by his angels, we also ought frequently to send back our inspirations to him by the same messengers. The holy souls of the deceased, who dwell in heaven with the angels, and, as our Saviour says, are equal and like to the angels, (Luke 20, 36), do also the same office of inspiring us, and interceding for us by their holy prayers. O my Philothea! let us then join our hearts with these heavenly spirits, and happy souls; and as the young nightingales learn to sing in company of the old, so, by the holy association we make with the saints, we shall learn to pray and to sing the divine praises in a much better manner. “I will sing praises to thee, O Lord,” says David, “in the sight of the angels.” (Psalm 137, 2) Honor, reverence, love, and respect in a special manner, the sacred and glorious Virgin Mary, she being the mother of our sovereign Lord, and consequently our mother. Let us run, then, to her, and, as her little children, cast ourselves into her bosom with a perfect confidence, at all times, and in all occurrences. Let us call upon this dear Mother; let us invoke her motherly love; and, endeavoring to imitate her virtues, let us bear a true filial affection towards her. Make yourself familiar with the angels, and behold them frequently in spirit; for, without being seen, they are at present with you. Always bear a particular love and reverence towards the angel of the diocese wherein you dwell, and of the persons with whom you live; but especially towards your own angel guardian. Address yourself often to them, honor and praise them, and make use of their assistance and succor in all your affairs, spiritual or temporal, that they may cooperate with your intentions.
A Guardian Angel Fighting for the Soul of a Dying Man, 1850s, by the Russian painter Alexey Tyranov (1808-59); Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The great Peter Faber, the first priest, the first preacher, and the first proposer of divinity in the Holy Society of Jesus, and the companion of St. Ignatius, its founder, returning from Germany, where he had done great service to the glory of our Lord, and travelling through this diocese, the place of his birth, related, that having passed through many heretical places, he had received innumerable consolations from the guardian angels of the several parishes, and that on repeated occasions he had received the most sensible and convincing proofs of their protection. Sometimes they preserved him from the ambush of his enemies, at other times they rendered several souls more mild, and tractable to receive from him the doctrine of salvation: this he related with so much earnestness, that a gentlewoman then very young, who heard it from his own mouth, related it but four years ago, that is to say, about threescore years after he had told it, with an extraordinary feeling. I had the consolation last year to consecrate an altar on the spot where God was pleased this blessed man should be born, in a little village called Vilaret, amidst our most craggy mountains. Choose some particular saint or saints, whose lives may please you most, and whom you can best imitate, and in whose intercession you may have a particular confidence. The saint, whose name you bear, is already assigned you, from your baptism.

The Exilic Collect of Septuagesima Sunday

Evelyn de Morgan, By the Waters of Babylon, 1882-83
Lost in Translation #36

Pre-Lent or Septuagesima (the roughly seventieth day before Easter) begins tomorrow evening at First Vespers. This fascinating season, which lasts two and a half weeks, acts as a bridge between the jubilance of the Christmas cycle and the austerity of Lent. Violet vestments are worn and the Gloria and Alleluia are suppressed, but there is no mandatory fasting; indeed, the old custom of finishing off foods forbidden during Lent has led to the excesses of Carnival.

The propers for Septuagesima serve as a perfect primer on how to approach the Lent-Easter cycle. During Matins of this season, the Church contemplates the fall of Adam, that fateful act which, as we will hear during the Exultet on Holy Saturday, is a felix culpa that precipitates our redemption through the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The Collect for Septuagesima Sunday is likewise instructive:
Preces pópuli tui, quáesumus, Dómine, clementer exaudi: ut, qui juste pro peccátis nostris afflígimur, pro tui nóminis gloria misericórditer liberémur. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Graciously hear, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the prayers of Thy people: that we who are justly afflicted for our sins, may be mercifully delivered for the glory of Thy name. Through our Lord.

Just as Lent recalls the forty years that the Hebrews spent in the wilderness, Septuagesima recalls the seventy years of the Babylonian Exile, when the Chosen People were so homesick that they could not sing a song of Zion (see Ps. 136, 3-4). [1] Septuagesima and Lent are sober reminders of our status as wayfarers living east of Eden, “justly afflicted for our sins” in a valley of tears. [2]

But even though we are afflicted justly, we pray that God may “graciously hear” our prayers. The plea clementer exaudi, which occurs three times in the Roman orations, is somewhat difficult to translate. Audi means to hear and ex-audi means to hear clearly, to heed or grant, even to obey. Clementer is the adverbial form of clemens, from which derives clementia or clemency. In both Latin and English, clementia has a juridical ring to it, as when a judge shows clemency in sentencing; and one of the titles of the Roman Emperors was Clementia tua or “Your Grace.” Through this Collect we are essentially acknowledging that we are guilty but begging for clemency nonetheless.

Why would God the Supreme Judge show clemency to miserable sinners such as us? Because, the Collect states, it will give glory to His name. Perhaps it is the people who, delivered from their sins, will give God glory, or perhaps the act of clemency itself counts as a glorious act. Either way, the petitioner's hope is that God will be incentivized to action by the glory of His name. That hope, which is an echo of Psalm 78:9, [3] is present at every Mass in the Suscipiat, when the faithful pray that God will accept this Eucharistic sacrifice for the praise and glory of His name.

But in the Old Testament the glory of YHWH (Kebod Jahweh) is also an actual “physical phenomenon indicative of the divine presence” that appeared on Mount Sinai, in the Tabernacle, and in the Temple, and that often manifested itself as some form of brightness. [4] The Church's Easter prayers apply this brightness to the glory of the Resurrection, and so when the Septuagesima Collect prays for deliverance for the glory of God's name, it is already looking ahead to the Light at the end of the penitential tunnel into which we are now entering, giving us hope that our mortifications will meet with a happy result.


[1] The suppression of the word “Alleluia” during Septuagesima and Lent is an apt imitation of the Hebrews refusing to sing by the rivers of Babylon, for Alleluia is the song on the lips of the angels and saints in our true home of Heaven.

[2] This phrase is absent in the new Missal. Its closest counterpart may be found in one optional postcommunion prayer in the Votive Mass In Quacumque Necessitate: “Tribulatiónem nostram, quáesumus, Dómine, propitius réspice, et iram tuæ indignatiónis, quam pro peccátis nostris iuste merémur, per passiónem Filii tui, propitiátus avarte. Per Christum.”

[3] Adjuva nos, Deus, salutaris noster; et propter gloriam nominis tui, Domine, libera nos.
[4] Sr. Mary Pierre Ellebracht, Remarks on the Vocabulary of the Ancient Orations in the Missale Romanum (Dekker & Van de Vegt N.V.), 32-33.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

The Second Feast of St Agnes: A Liturgical Oddity

January 28th is traditionally the day of the “Second Feast of St Agnes”, although this very ancient observance was reduced to a commemoration in 1931, and abolished in the post-Conciliar reform. It is still kept in some churches dedicated to St Agnes, most prominent among them, the basilica built over the site of her burial, less than a mile and a half from the gates of Rome.

The church of St Agnes Outside-the-Walls on the via Nomentana. (Image from Wikimedi Commonsa. by the parish of St Agnes Outside-the-Walls; CC BY-SA 2.0)
In liturgical books, the formal name of the feast is “Sanctae Agnetis secundo”, which literally means “(the feast) of St Agnes for the second time.” This title is found on the calendar of the Tridentine Missal and Breviary, as also seven centuries earlier in the Gregorian Sacramentary. The single Matins lesson in the Breviary of St Pius V tells us that after her death, Agnes appeared first to her parents to console them, and then to the Emperor Constantine’s daughter Constantia, who suffered from an incurable sore, while she was praying at her grave, exhorting Constantia to trust in Christ and receive baptism. Having done this and been healed, Constantia later built a basilica in the Saint’s honor.

The original purpose of the second feast, however, is not at all clear; theories abound, but evidence is lacking. In the Wurzburg lectionary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, January 21 is “natale S. Agnae de passione – the birth (into heaven) of Agnes, of her passion,”, while January 28 is simply “de natali.” One theory is that the actual day of her death was the 28th, and the 21st originally commemorated the beginning of her sufferings, starting with her trial and condemnation. However, we would then expect something similar for other prominent martyrs, particularly St Lawrence, whose passion also extended over a variety of days and events. The next oldest lectionary, Codex Murbach, doesn’t mention the second feast at all, nor does the Lectionary of Alcuin. In the Gregorian Sacramentary, the titles are simply “natale” and “natale...secundo.”

The prayers of the old Gelasian Sacramentary, which dates to the mid-8th century, and uses titles for the two feasts similar to those in the Wurzburg lectionary, may refer to the idea that St Agnes’ passion began on the 21st, and her death occurred on the 28th. One of the two collects for the former refers to the day “of her passion”, and asks that “we may follow the constancy of her faith,” while the Secret of the latter says that “she was glorious from the beginning of her blessed contest unto the end.” On the other hand, the Collect that goes with it says that we are “repeating” her feast, while the Secret on the 21st speaks of her “heavenly victory”, certainly a more appropriate expression for the actual day of death. In the revised Gelasian Sacramentaries, the preface of January 21st speaks of “the day consecrated by the martyrdom of the blessed Agnes” and of her “receiving a precious death ... for the confession of Christ”, while that of January 28th speaks of “doubling (her heavenly) birthday”, but also says that she “went forth so that she might come to share in divinity.” In short, the earliest evidence in inconclusive.
A leaf of the Gellone Sacramentary, a sacramentary of the revised Gelasian type written in 780-800. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Latin 12048; folio 17r); the feast of St Agnes “de nativitate” begins with the rubric in the sixth line. There are two Collects, the first of which is also said in the Missal and Breviary of St Pius V; the second is the one which refers to “repeating” her feast. The preface is the third element from the bottom.
The most common theory, and the most influential, is that the second feast represents a primitive form of octave. I find this theory unconvincing, but it does have one notable point in its favor. In the old Gelasian Sacramentary, some of the octaves (those of Christmas, St Lawrence and St Andrew) are referred to in terms similar to those of the “repeated” feast of St Agnes: “festivitas” or “solemnia” paired with the word “repetita” or “iterata.” However, by the end of the 8th century, the Gregorian Sacramentary had not only simplified the title of the feast as noted above, but also removed this kind of expression from its prayers, while retaining similar expressions (though not in all of the manuscripts) on some of the other octaves. This strongly indicates that the Second Feast of St Agnes was understood to be something different from the other octaves.

Moreover, St Agnes was the single most prominent female martyr of ancient Rome, very much on a par with other great Roman martyrs like Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence. Pope Honorius I built her current church in the 7th century to replace an earlier one that had fallen into ruin. (It has subsequently undergone numerous restorations.) The original, however, was one of the basilicas built by the Emperor Constantine in the very early years of the Peace of the Church, along with those of the two Apostles, Lawrence, and the cathedral of Rome at the Lateran. The early manuscripts mentioned above all refer to the “octaves” of Ss Peter and Paul and St Lawrence; it seems very odd that the octave of such a prominent Saint as Agnes, and hers alone, should instead be called a “feast … for the second time.”

Nevertheless, Dom Suitbert Bäumer (1845-96), in his History of the Breviary refers to it as an example of an octave that has only a commemoration on the eighth day, with no mention made of the feast on the days in between. (pp. 31-32 of the French edition, vol. 2, 1905) In support of this theory, he cites a text of the year 1085 called the “Micrologus de Ecclesiasticis Observantiis – Summary of Church Services”; it was Dom Bäumer himself who identified the author as one Bernold of Constance, a supporter of the great reformer Popes of that era. In chapter 44, Bernold writes that “according to the authority of Rome, … we make no daily mention of those whose octaves we celebrate on the intervening days, … except for those of St Mary (i.e., the Assumption), and of St Peter.”

What he says in this regard, however, is hardly conclusive. Fifty years later, a canon of St Peter’s Basilica named Benedict, in a treatise now known as the 11th Ordo Romanus, describes the manner of celebrating the days within octaves, specifically mentioning those of Saints John the Baptist, Peter, Lawrence, and the Assumption alongside those of Christmas and Epiphany. (chapter 68) A similar custom is attested in the Ordinal of Pope Innocent III at the beginning of the 13th century. Bäumer radically overstates his case when he attributes the celebration of the days within octaves to the influence of the Franciscans; St Francis was born fifty years after Canon Benedict wrote, and received verbal approval for his order from Innocent III only a few years before the latter’s Ordinal was compiled circa 1213-16. Simply put, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Bäumer fell into the trap that the liturgical scholars of his era routinely fell into, extrapolating too much from too little evidence.

I write above that Bäumer’s was “the most influential” explanation for the Second Feast of St Agnes, because it seems to have been the model for part of the Breviary reform of Pope St Pius X. Prior to this reform, octaves were celebrated with varying degrees of precedence, but not formally divided into classes as feasts were. The reform of 1911 created three classes of octaves, “privileged, common and simple,” the first of which was subdivided into three orders. The simple octaves are those attached to feasts of the second rank (among six), called Doubles of the Second Class; such octaves are celebrated as a Simple feast (the lowest of the six grades) on the eighth day, with no mention of them on the intermediary days.

St Agnes on the Pyre, by Ercole Ferrata, 1660-64, in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone, built at the site of her martyrdom in the Piazza Navona in Rome.
This article was originally published in 2016; it has been partially re-written to include the results of some new research, but its conclusions are the same.

The “Solomon of Naples” - A Jesuit Founder on the Sacred Liturgy: Guest Article by Fr Sam Conedera, SJ (Part 1)

We are very grateful to Fr Sam Conedera, a priest of the Society of Jesus and professor at St Louis University, for sharing with NLM this very interesting article about one of the founders of his order, Fr Alfsonso Salmerón (1515-85), and his theological work on the sacred liturgy. The article will be presented in three parts.

For a variety of reasons, Jesuit sources are not prominent on the pages of NLM. The founding members of the Society of Jesus, however, did see a connection between “the defense and propagation of the faith” to which they had committed themselves, and care for the sacred liturgy. The most abundant and eloquent testimony to this connection comes from Alfonso Salmerón, the youngest of the original ten Jesuits. Born in 1515 on the outskirts of Toledo, Salmerón attended the University of Alcalà before moving on to Paris, where almost immediately he was drawn into the circle of Ignatius of Loyola. His prodigious memory enabled his mastery of Scripture and the humanistic learning of his day, as well as the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, especially St. Thomas. Appointed papal theologian for all three convocations of the Council of Trent, he and his fellow Jesuit Diego Lainez exercised a strong influence over the conciliar proceedings, whilst simultaneously winning renown for their new order. Salmerón gave an electrifying homily to the council fathers on the feast of St. John the Evangelist in 1546, which in the following year became the first original text ever published by a Jesuit author. He spent most of his later life in Naples, where he served as provincial for eighteen years, overseeing the order’s growth, and preaching regularly in the city’s churches. Salmerón’s erudition won him the sobriquet “the Solomon of Naples” among the townsfolk, who upon his death in 1585 treated him as a saint, cutting off pieces of his clothing and hair to keep as relics.
In 1569, Salmerón was instructed by his superior general to assemble his preaching notes for publication. The aging theologian obeyed, assembling a massive commentary on the New Testament that was not printed until the turn of the seventeenth century. It is comprised of twelve volumes entitled Commentaries on the Gospel History and the Acts of the Apostles, and four volumes of Commentaries on the Letters of Blessed Paul and the Canonical Letters, which run to a total of nearly eight thousand folio pages. Despite representing the only major theological work published by a Jesuit founder, the Commentaries have never been seriously studied. They provide a wealth of information about the theological mindset of one of the earliest Jesuits, including his love of the sacred liturgy, the Eucharist, and the Latin language.
In his commentary on the Lord’s words “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men” (Matt. 6, 5), Salmerón makes the following observation about the posture of prayer:
The publican and the Pharisee prayed standing. Therefore, wherever this custom is maintained, as among the Greeks, it is not an offense. The Latin Church’s custom of kneeling, however, seems more commendable and more universal, and more consonant with devotion. This is the manner of prayer that Christ observed in the garden, where first he prayed on his knees, and then prostrate on the ground. Hence laziness or lack of devotion makes us often sit or stand during the sacrifice of the Mass (except at the Gospel). But the way to correct these practices or the scandal that results from them is uncertain.
These words exhibit several characteristic features of the Jesuit theologian’s approach to the sacred liturgy: the understanding of Scripture, tradition, and custom as a coherent unity, a recognition of legitimate plurality that gives preference to the Latin rite, insistence on upholding, rather than relaxing, ecclesiastical discipline, and attentiveness to man as a union of soul and body. As he says elsewhere, “Man indeed is not an angel, or a pure spirit, but a spirit joined to a body; therefore God, who gave both of these, demands fruit from both, as of a tree.” Salmerón occasionally theorizes about worship, saying that religious ceremonial has three aims: to bring Christians into one people and “into the house of one custom” (Ps. 67, 7), to adorn and protect divine worship, and to recall the Lord’s teaching.
Salmerón also sought to counter the Protestant attacks on the Catholic faith that had arisen in the sixteenth century, which gives his discussion of the liturgy a polemical cast. In his exegesis of “worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4, 23), he rejects the claim that Christians have no need of churches or temples, or external cult, rites, and chant. “When the Lord said that true adorers would offer worship to God in spirit and truth, he in no way removed exterior and corporeal worship, but rather the shadowy and lying cult of the Law, and the superstitious Samaritan worship.” Christ, he says, would not make a promise to his true adorers and then take away the means of their adoration; “therefore spirit and truth must be joined to our worship with rites and ceremonies.” The Eucharist has its own cult, and the Jesuit theologian explains the significance of such gestures as the bowing of the head, the joining of hands, prostration, the striking of the breast, and the sign of the cross. The physical building of the church declares that Christians are temples of the Holy Spirit; the altar of immolation for the Eucharist reminds them to offer themselves as victims; images place the examples of the saints before their eyes; holy water is a reminder of what flowed from Christ’s side. The weak especially need the Church’s ceremonies, images, and songs to ascend the mountain of God.
The high altar of the Jesuit order’s first church in Naples, known as the “Gesù Vecchio” (literally, “the old (church of) Jesus”; this is the church where Salmerón served during his years in the city, although its appearance is very different from what it would have been in his time. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Max_2010, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Salmerón’s historical consciousness is on display throughout the Commentaries, not least in his treatment of the liturgy, particularly the contested issue of stability and change. An inability to agree on the apostolic origin of particular Church practices, including liturgical ones, resulted in a rather general statement about tradition in Trent’s decree on the canonical Scriptures. This ambivalence is also evident in the Commentaries. On the one hand, Salmerón is wont to treat certain practices of his day as reaching back to the beginnings of Christianity. He attributes to apostolic tradition the Greek custom of the priest elevating his eyes and showing the chalice to the people, and the Latin practice of making the sign of cross over the chalice. He cites Thomas, Innocent III, and the Council of Florence for the view that all the Roman Church’s words of consecration pertain to the substance of the sacrament, for they have been received from apostolic tradition. Paul and Barnabas, he claims, were ordained during the celebration of Mass, as the custom of the Church and apostolic tradition teaches. He thinks that the “lineaments” of the Mass can be found already in Paul’s letters, and claims the status of apostolic tradition for the practice of holding funeral banquets in memory of the dead.
On the other hand, he shows awareness of liturgical development over time, saying that ceremonies are subject to variation, as seen in the customs of particular religious orders. He observes that the Roman Canon was formed as apostles and apostolic men gradually added to it. In commenting on Paul’s instructions to the Corinthians concerning Church discipline, he says that at this early date, public worship did not yet include such things as antiphonal chanting in choir, nor specific ministers assigned to the Gospel and the Epistle. The appearance of the angels to the shepherds at Christ’s birth (Luke 2, 9 sqq.) leads to a treatment of the historical origins of the Gloria. Although Erasmus claims that Pope Telesphorus (d. ca. 137) interpolated the angels’ hymn, what in fact happened, according to Salmerón, was that this same pontiff took the hymn from the Liturgy of St. James and from Book VII of the Apostolic Constitutions. The Jesuit theologian also draws on his knowledge of the changing customs at Rome, where he resided for several years. The church of St. Mark, he says, was originally dedicated to Pope Mark, but over time it became associated with Mark the Evangelist. Formerly the Chair of Peter at Antioch was celebrated in Rome, and then it was changed to the Chair of Peter at Rome, until Paul IV separated these celebrations. Salmeron speaks approvingly of how Gregory VII and Pius V restored the Divine Office to its pristine form, indicating his awareness that public worship may sometimes need renewal.
Salmerón’s liturgical interest is particularly evident in his Mariology. He was a vehement advocate of the Immaculate Conception, and drew on the evidence of worship to make his case. He notes that the Roman Church celebrates the feast under the name “Sanctae Conceptionis”, as do the bishops and nearly all the religious orders, and appeals to the Council of Trent’s renewal of Grave nimis, which granted annual celebration and indulgences for the feast. The praise of Mary found in the liturgies of Basil and Chrysostom is cited in support of the Immaculate Conception. The Church’s worship is key to understanding her doctrine, even prior to the definitions of ecclesiastical authority; it would be a kind of idolatry, he thinks, to erect altars and found confraternities in honor of the Immaculate Conception if the teaching were false.
A monumental column erected in Naples in honor of the Immaculate Conception in 1746, and next to it, the incomplete façade of the second Jesuit church of Naples, known as the “Gesù Nuovo” (literally, “the new Jesus”), in contrast to the “Gesù Vecchio” shown above. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Berthold Werner, CC BY-SA 3.0)
In his commentary on Gabriel’s greeting to Mary, Salmerón cites liturgical sources that begin with the word ave, such as Ave maris stella, Ave Regina coelorum, and Ave Domina angelorum. He likes the idea, taken from the text of the Regina pacis (Funda nos in pace / Mutans Evae nomen), that the name Eva has been turned around into the greeting Ave, which articulates how the Blessed Virgin reversed the course of events that Eve had set in motion. He sees a parallel between the angel’s greeting to Mary and the priest’s greeting to the people at Mass (in re divina). Salmerón observes that the Syrians have a liturgical greeting to Mary, and that the Liturgy of St. Basil includes a prayer to Mary after the offering of the sacrifice, which shows that this custom of greeting the Blessed Virgin is very ancient. In a similar vein, the Jesuit theologian correlates the words of the Hail Mary to her feasts. “Ave” corresponds to her Immaculate Conception, “Maria” to her Nativity, “gratia plena” to her Presentation, “Dominus tecum” to the Annunciation, “Benedicta tu in mulieribus” to the Visitation, “Et benedictus fructus ventris tui” to Christmas, “Sancta Maria virgo Mater Dei” to the Purification, “Ora pro nobis peccatoribus” to her Assumption, and “Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae” to Christ’s passion. There is something almost childlike in this otherwise grave and learned man’s delight in making these associations.
Salmerón is attentive to the importance of musical forms in the liturgy. Observing that music is used to arouse various emotions, he says that the Church can use it to arouse piety and devotion, and increase prayer in the spirit. Aware that music moves the hearer in different ways, he distinguishes the movement of the Holy Spirit from the “pythonic” movement people experience in their gut (venter). He defends the Church’s music not only against Protestants, but also against Cajetan (Tommaso de Vio), who said that it would be better for the Church to celebrate the Mass and Office without music, so that the words could be better understood. He retorts that this strategy works when it comes to teaching doctrine to the people, but does not apply to the Divine Office and public prayers. He accepts the use of the organ in church, apparently on the grounds that the verb psallere means singing together with musical instruments.
This is but a sampling of Alfonso Salmerón’s discussion of liturgy in his Commentaries, which may offer an unexpected picture of Jesuit thought. Future installments of this series will explore his views on the Holy Eucharist and the Latin language.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Feast of St John Chrysostom, and Mozart’s Birthday

Although the Christian names most commonly used in reference to Mozart are “Wolfgang Amadeus”, he was actually baptized as “Joannes Chrysostomus Wolfgangus Theophilus Mozart.” The first two of these names were chosen for the feast day on which he was born, that of St John Chrysostom, which was universally kept in the West on January 27th until the calendar reform of 1969. “Wolfgang” was the name of his maternal grandfather, while “Theophilus” was one of the names of his godfather, Johannes Theophilus Pergmayr, a name which is Germanized as “Gottlieb” and Latinized as “Amadeus.” He was baptized the day after his birth in 1756.

The Te Deum
St John Chrysostom died on September 14, 407, at the city of Comana in Pontus, in the north-central part of modern Turkey, while travelling into exile, banished at the behest of the Empress Eudoxia by her husband Arcadius. Over thirty years later, their son Theodosius II, as a gesture of penance for his parents’ injustices against the Saint, had John’s relics translated from their original burial site to the church of Hagia Irene (Holy Peace) in Constantinople. Since he died on the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, his feast day was appointed for November 13th, and is still kept on that day in the Byzantine Rite; the Byzantine Calendar also marks the feast of the translation of the relics on January 27th, whence his traditional Roman day. I have a copy of the Hieratikon, a priestly service book for all the main functions of the Byzantine Rite, printed in 1977, an official publication of the Orthodox Church of Greece; in the Calendar, the feast of his Translation is marked as one of a fairly small number of “red letter days,” but the November 13th feast is not.

The Byzantine Rite keeps on January 30th a feast with the imposing title (again, from my copy of the Hieratikon) “Our Fathers among the Saints, the Great Hierarchs and Ecumenical Teachers Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian (i.e. Gregory of Nazianzus) and John Chrysostom.” This commemoration arose from a vivid dispute in the 11th century as to which of the three should be regarded as the Church’s greatest theologian and teacher, a dispute in which people formed parties that called themselves “Basilians” (not, of course, in reference to the religious order), “Gregorians,” or “Johannites”. It was resolved when all three Saints appeared to John, bishop of Euchaita (a city fairly close to where Chrysostom died), saying “There are no divisions among us, and no opposition to one another.” The Byzantine Calendar keeps the feasts of St Basil on January 1st, and Gregory Nazianzen on the 25th, the days of their respective deaths; therefore, the principle feasts of all three, as well as their joint commemoration, all occur within the same month. Along with St Athanasius, all three were declared Doctors of the Church by Pope St Pius V in 1568.

A 17th-century icon of the Three Holy Herarchs. (image from wikipedia)
St Basil shares his Byzantine feast day with the Circumcision; the structure of the Byzantine Rite permits the celebration of more than one feast on the same day, without really “reducing” any of them to a mere commemoration, as is historically done in the Roman Rite. This was clearly not an option in the West, which therefore assigned his feast to June 14th, the day of his episcopal ordination. January 25th is the Conversion of St Paul in the Latin Church, and so St Gregory was historically kept on May 9th, a week after St Athanasius, whose mantle he inherited as the greatest theological writer in the controversies over the Trinity and Incarnation. In the beautiful Byzantine custom of giving distinctive epithets to the more important Saints, he shares the title “the Theologian” with St John the Evangelist.

While the tradition of keeping the ;Saints’ feasts on the day of their death is certainly very ancient, and for that reason alone laudable, it was frequently applied with more zeal than wisdom to the Calendar reform of 1969. One could hardly keep St Basil as a mere commemoration on the newly-created Solemnity of the Mother of God, which replaced the Circumcision in the Roman Rite, even if commemorations still existed. He and Gregory were therefore given a joint feast on January 2nd. Chrysostom, on the other hand, was moved from January 27th to September 13th, the day before his death. It is perplexing, to say the least, why any of this was thought necessary, especially in an age purportedly so concerned with ecumenism. The final result of these changes is that none of these Saints keeps his traditional Western day, not even the one shared by the East; none of them moves to his Byzantine feast day; and none of them moves to his death day.

A New Scholarly Work on the History of Transubstantiation

We have just received word about a new book which looks very interesting on the history of Transubstantiation as a theological concept, The Secret History of Transubstantiation: Pulling Back The Veil On The Eucharist, by Fr Christian Kappes, the academic dean at Ss Cyril and Methodius Byzantine Seminary in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Mr William Albrecht, author of the apologetics website Patristic Pillars. The book has been endorsed by His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Zen, Dr Scott Hahn and Dr Robert Fastiggi.

The major chapters are divided as follows:

– Forerunners of Transubstantiation (From Genesis to Revelation in the Jewish and Early Christian Sources)

– Greek Patristic Tradition of Transubstantiation: From its Beginnings to Culmination (From the 3rd to 5th centuries)
– Adoption of Transubstantiation (metousiôsis): A Tradition of Three Churches (From the 5th to 11th centuries)

– The Latin Reception of Transubstantiation (From the 4th to 11th centuries)
– From the Beginnings of Scholasticism to Aquinas and the Definition Of Trent

And here is the authors’ own description of their work: “Jerusalem was the center of the world for early Christians. Anyone who wants to understand the Bible needs to know the mysterious role of Jerusalem and the many symbols and prophecies surrounding her in the Scriptures. The present work’s readability has everyman in mind and thus avoids technicalities and dizzying vocabulary and concepts that cause boredom or confusion. The code or insider vocabulary of the Bible presupposes Christian knowledge of anything from local plants to animals and the Temple on Zion. The reader’s mind will be initiated into every mystery surrounding the Jerusalemite technical term: “transubstantiation,” as witnessed among Christians of the Holy City. The reader will marvel how the Bible constantly refers to it from Genesis through to Revelation. The Bible’s underlying message will never be the same again. Anything from the fiery coals of manna falling from heaven to the fiery Seraph on the manna or frankincense tree all have a role in this intense drama. The authors meticulously trace Biblical and Jerusalemite use of transubstantiation from Antiquity by all the major Churches of ancient Christendom whose witnesses culminate in defining the mystery officially in the 1500s. No significant philosopher or theologian is neglected with new names and sources (never before explored on the topic) now made available in plain English and presented in a readable narrative. This is the final word on the history, origins, and meaning of transubstantiation in the Bible and Church history.”

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

The Feast of St Polycarp

Among the group of early Christian writers known as the Apostolic Fathers, St Polycarp, whose feast is kept today on the traditional Roman calendar, is the one about whom we know the most. He was a disciple of St John the Evangelist, who appointed him bishop of Smyrna in Asia Minor, and the teacher of St Irenaeus of Lyon, who wrote the following about him to the Gnostic heretic Florinus.

“I remember the events of those days more clearly than those which happened recently, for what we learn as children grows up with the soul and is united to it, so that I can speak even of the place in which the blessed Polycarp sat and disputed, how he came in and went out, the character of his life, the appearance of his body, the discourses which he made to people, how he reported his intercourse with John and with the others who had seen the Lord, how he remembered their words, and what were the things concerning the Lord which he had heard from them, and about their miracles, and about their teaching, and how Polycarp had received them from the eyewitnesses of the word of life, and reported all things in agreement with the Scriptures.”

Ss Polycarp, Vincent of Saragossa, Pancratius and Chrysogonus; from the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, 6th century. (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)
Then, in regard to the absurd teachings of the Gnostics, he says “I can bear witness before God that if that blessed and apostolic presbyter had heard anything of this kind, he would have cried out, and shut his ears, and said according to his custom, ‘O good God, to what time hast thou preserved me that I should endure this?’ He would have fled even from the place in which he was seated or standing when he heard such words.” (This continues the tradition of St John, who fled from a public bath when he saw the heretic Cerinthus inside, lest the building fall upon them.) Likewise, while in Rome to discuss the dating of Easter with Pope St Anicetus, St Polycarp met the heretic Marcion, who asked him if he knew him, to which the Saint replied “I know the first-born of the devil.”

In addition to these stories preserved in the Ecclesiastical History of Eusebius of Caesarea (5, 20 & 24; 4, 14), there also exist a letter of St Ignatius of Antioch written to Polycarp, whom he also mentions in two of his other letters, and Polycarp’s own letter to the church of Philippi, which St Jerome records was still read in the churches of Asia in his own time. This letter begins with a commendation of the Philippians for their devotion to the martyrs.

“I have greatly rejoiced with you in our Lord Jesus Christ, because you have followed the example of true love [as displayed by God], and have accompanied, as became you, those who were bound in chains, the fitting ornaments of saints, and which are indeed the diadems of the true elect of God and our Lord.”

Of Polycarp himself, it is also recorded that he met St Ignatius as the latter passed though Smyrna on his way to martyrdom in Rome, and kissed his chains.

The martyrdom of Polycarp is recorded in a letter sent by the church of Smyrna to that of Philomelium and “to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic Church in every place.” This letter is the first authentic account of an early Christian martyrdom after that of St Stephen’s in the Acts of the Apostles. The Saint was very elderly at the time of his arrest and condemnation, for he himself says when ordered to reproach Christ, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” (This is reflected in the Gospel chosen for his feast day in the traditional Roman Rite, Matthew 10, 26-32, which ends with the words, “Every one therefore that shall confess me before men, I will also confess him before my Father who is in heaven.”)

When he was sentenced to be burned alive, the soldiers were going to nail him to the pyre, at which he said, “Leave me as I am; for He that gives me strength to endure the fire, will also enable me, without your securing me by nails, to remain without moving in the pile.” He was therefore only bound with ropes, “like a distinguished ram [taken] out of a great flock for sacrifice, and prepared to be an acceptable burnt-offering unto God.” The letter also records his prayer spoken before the pyre was lit.

“O Lord God Almighty, the Father of your beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ, by whom we have received the knowledge of You, the God of angels and powers, and of every creature, and of the whole race of the righteous who live before you, I give You thanks that You have counted me, worthy of this day and this hour, that I should have a part in the number of Your martyrs, in the cup of your Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life, both of soul and body, through the incorruption [imparted] by the Holy Ghost. Among whom may I be accepted this day before You as a fat and acceptable sacrifice, according as You, the ever-truthful God, have foreordained, have revealed beforehand to me, and now have fulfilled. Wherefore also I praise You for all things, I bless You, I glorify You, along with the everlasting and heavenly Jesus Christ, Your beloved Son, with whom, to You, and the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and to all coming ages. Amen.”

However, once the fire was set, it billowed out around Polycarp “in the form of a sail” and although he seemed “like gold or silver glowing in a furnace,” would not consume him. This is one of many famous examples of the refusal by Nature itself to cooperate with the persecutors of God’s Saints, forcing them to take the matter into their own hands, and accept responsibility for the evil which they do. At this, his side was pierced with a dagger, and the flow of blood that came forth was so great that the flames were extinguished.

The official in charge refused to allow the Christians to take the body for burial, but rather had it cremated, the standard pagan practice; this was certainly done in despite of the doctrine of the bodily resurrection. Nevertheless, the Christians of Smyrna “took up his bones, as being more precious than the most exquisite jewels, and more purified than gold, and deposited them in a fitting place, whither, being gathered together, as opportunity is allowed us, with joy and rejoicing, the Lord shall grant us to celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have already finished their course, and for the exercising and preparation of those yet to walk in their steps.” (Fr Hunwicke rightly noted, in an article published in November of 2016 on the feast of the Holy Relics, that “the current post-conciliar Roman regulations do not permit the use within altars of such relics as the tiny fragments gathered up by those who loved S Polycarp,” as described in this beautiful passage, a particularly grotesque example of the betrayal of ‘ressourcement.’)

It is an oddity of hagiography that although St Polycarp and his martyrdom are so early and so well-documented, his feast is not an ancient one in the West. It is attested at Rome in the mid-13th century, but missing from printed editions of the Roman Missal and Breviary as late as the 1520s. His place on the calendar was only solidified in the Tridentine liturgical books, which were very much concerned to assert the continuity of Catholic tradition (such as the veneration of relics) with the most ancient days of the Christian faith.

In the post-Conciliar reform, his feast was moved to the day of his death, February 23rd, on which it is also kept in the Eastern Rites. The notes of the Consilium ad exsequendam on the reform of the calendar say that his feast was originally assigned to January 26 in the West by confusion with another saint of the same name, Polycarp of Nicea. I assume that this is stated in good faith and for a good reason, but I can find no evidence for this; no such person is mentioned in the Roman Martyrology or its Byzantine equivalent, the Synaxarion, on any day. (The Bollandists state more cautiously that the reason for the discrepancy is not clear.)

A New PK-12 Catholic Classical Academy in San Francisco

Stella Maris Academy, a new school in San Francisco, California, that offers a Catholic classical education, will open in the fall; see their website here: Applications for admission are currently being accepted for the 2021-22 school year. Applicants for kindergarten must be five years of ago on or before September 1st, 2021. Younger students will be considered for PK and TK programs. The initial focus is on the years up to second grade, but classes in other years will be offered in addition if sufficient numbers of students apply.

Under the guidance of the newly appointed Head of School, Gavin Colvert Ph.D, the school is connected to Star of the Sea Catholic Church, a beacon of orthodoxy and beautiful liturgy in the city, offering both the TLM and Novus Ordo Masses. For more information on the curriculum, write to or call 1 415-745 2474. It is, in my opinion, through the communities founded on the pillars of the family, the school and the parish that hope for evangelization will emerge. San Franscisco and the Bay Area needs such projects to succeed, so I encourage support for this noble and worthy project. I ask people to consider supporting this project in any way they can. The address is 4420 Geary Blvd, San Francisco, CA 94118; website:; general enquiries: 1 415-751-0450.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Building a Home Altar

In the past year, I’ve heard more frequently than ever before from people who are interested in building an altar for their home, or who have already done so.

Their reasons for doing it vary to some extent. Some would like to have a formal prayer corner with icons or statues and they wish to give it still more dignity by the installation of an altar beneath the holy images. Others have a spare room in the house that is well suited to become a chapel where people can go to pray the Divine Office, the Rosary, or read Scripture, and surely no chapel is complete without an altar to remind us of Christ the Rock, the supreme Sacrifice, and of our duty to make our hearts His altar. Still others have priest friends who stay with them when traveling through town or who might wish to have a quiet place to say Mass when they are not otherwise obliged to offer it, or who are looking ahead to darker and more difficult times, when good priests may be forced to make rounds from house to house, or go into hiding.

Whatever the reasons may be, we need to understand a few things before we go about setting up such an altar.

First, while the family is indeed a domestic church, and the home is a sanctified place once it has been formally blessed using the Rituale Romanum, nevertheless an altar of this kind has not received a solemn dedication, nor has a home chapel been consecrated for divine worship, and so their use should be seen as something of an exception, or at least, something that should have a reasonable justification. Certainly, an emergency situation, such as the State’s unjust suppression of worship in churches, or a bishop’s cancellation of such worship, would easily qualify.

Second, the altar, if possible, should have a first-class relic in it or at least placed on it for the offering of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Some priests of my acquaintance travel with a Byzantine antimension. The very prayer said by the priest in the traditional Roman rite when he reaches the altar to kiss it before saying the Introit makes reference to relics in and near the altar: Oramus te, Domine, per merita Sanctorum tuorum [he kisses the sacred stone] quorum reliquiae hic sunt, et omnium Sanctorum: ut indulgere digneris omnia peccata mea. Amen (We beseech Thee, O Lord, by the merits of Thy Saints whose relics are here, and of all the Saints, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to forgive me all my sins. Amen). A traditional priest should be able to assist you in sourcing relics.

Third, if you custom-build an altar, it would be improper to use it for any other purpose, especially once Mass has been offered on it. It should not double as a dining room table or a television stand or a surface for cleaning rifles. Let the altar be an altar and nothing more.

Fourth, make sure that the altar is built according to correct specifications. Most regular tables are too low to be suitable for Mass, since they are made for sitting, not for standing. Although dimensions can vary considerably and still be acceptable, the following dimensions work admirably for a home altar and have been found by priests of my acquaintance to be suitable: 39 inches in height; 59 inches wide; 20 inches deep. This height, depth, and breadth allows room for everything needed for the traditional Latin Mass.[1]

When space and resources allow, it is optimal to place an altar atop three steps, but this is not always practicable in a home setting. While the steps are a beautiful symbol, clergy are accustomed to “making do” with whatever situation they have  (e.g., many priests when traveling offer Mass in hotel rooms). I have also seen home altars fully dressed with an altar frontal in the appropriate liturgical color of the season or feast; this may be considered a refinement when everything else is in place.

A home altar with frontals (antependia)

My view is that we should be building altars in our homes. My wife and I commissioned a friend to build one, which we had the privilege to see “inaugurated” by Holy Mass three days in a row when a priest friend was passing through town. Built of sturdy wood and stained a dark brown, it was set up in our living room against the eastern wall, with an icon hung above it, and two first-class relics on top of it.

A last point. There is absolutely no need for a home altar to be a “Cranmer table,” that is, situated so that a priest can offer Mass versus populum or toward the congregation. Historically and theologically, this is an incorrect way to say Mass; it is not even what the Novus Ordo assumes by its own rubrics; and it is useless in the intimate situation of a liturgy done only a few feet away from the faithful. Any priest of the Roman rite should be able and willing to offer the sacrifice ad orientem (eastward). This, moreover, is usually necessary in a house because of the small space available, where an altar up against the wall is of much practical advantage.

Priests who offer the traditional Latin Mass are usually well-equipped to offer it anywhere, carrying with them reversible chasubles and the other garments, as well as candles, altar cards, and a missal. However, it is a good idea for those who have a home altar to keep a supply of candlesticks (preferable at least 51% beeswax), cruets for the water and wine, three layers of linens to dress the altar, and a small bell. It can’t hurt to have the other items, too, in case one ends up giving shelter to a fugitive who has lost his belongings or who never owned them to begin with.

How ironic it would be if the “Christian house church” — that concept so dear to the antiquarianizing liturgical revolutionaries who took it as a pretext for their streamlined modern prayer-service — turned out to be the place where the Tridentine Mass in all its medieval and Baroque density, albeit in temporarily humble circumstances, survived the coming persecution of Catholics.

Perhaps a time is coming when the words of St. John Chrysostom will be once again as accurate as they were in the fourth century:

As those who bring comedians, dancers, and harlots into their feasts call in demons and Satan himself and fill their homes with innumerable contentions (among them jealousy, adultery, debauchery, and countless evils); so those who invoke David with his lyre call inwardly on Christ. Where Christ is, let no demon enter; let him not even dare to look in in passing. Peace, delight, and all good things flow here as from fountains. Those [pagans] make their home a theatre; make yours a church. For where there are psalms, and prayers, and the dance of the prophets, and singers with pious intentions, no one will err if he call the assembly a church. [2]



[1] Those who are interested in further detail can read Matthew Alderman on the proper shape, dimension, and placement of altars.

[2] St. John Chrysostom, from the Exposition of Psalm XLI, in Oliver Strunk, ed., Source Readings in Music History from Classical Antiquity through the Romantic Era (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1950), 69.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

The Feast of St Timothy

On the calendar of the Extraordinary Form, today is the feast of St Timothy, bishop of Ephesus and martyr, the disciple to whom St Paul addressed two of his letters; he is also mentioned four times in the Acts of the Apostles, and eleven times in other letters of Paul. Apart from the information recorded about him in the Bible, there is an ancient tradition that he was martyred in his episcopal city in the year 97, beaten to death by a mob after publically protesting at an idolatrous religious festival. In the reign of the Emperor Constantius (337-361), his relics were translated to Constantinople, and placed in the church of the Holy Apostles, alongside those of Ss Andrew and Luke. In his treatise Against Vigilantius, who had written against the devotion and honor shown to the relics of the Saints, St Jerome sarcastically asks, “Was the Emperor Constantius guilty of sacrilege, when he transferred the sacred relics of Andrew, Luke, and Timothy to Constantinople? In their presence the demons cry out, and those who dwell in Vigilantius confess that they feel the presence (of the saints).”
St Timothy as a child, with his grandmother Lois, by Dutch painter Willem Drost (1650s), now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg. St Paul writes to Timothy in the second letter (1, 5) of “that faith which is in thee unfeigned, which also dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois, and in thy mother Eunice, and I am certain that in thee also.” (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
Prior to the Tridentine liturgical reform, St Timothy’s feast was kept in several parts of northern and eastern Europe, (Germany, the Low Countries, followed by the Premonstratensian Order, Bohemia and Poland), and in some dioceses in Spain (followed by the Carmelites), but not at Rome itself. He is consistently assigned to January 24th, but there is an interesting discrepancy between the northern European and Spanish liturgical books; in the former, he is generally termed an Apostle, in the latter, a Bishop and Martyr. Of course, the term “apostle” is not used exclusively of the Twelve, but also applied to other early witnesses of the Apostolic preaching and teaching, St Paul first among them. The church of Rome traditionally honors another of his disciples, St Barnabas, as an Apostle, and the Byzantine Rite keeps a “Synaxis of the 70 Apostles” on January 4th, commemorating by name most of the people mentioned in passing in the Pauline letters.

St Timothy’s inclusion in the very first liturgical book of the Tridentine reform, the Roman Breviary issued by St Pius V in 1568, was therefore a novelty for Rome, but not an absolute novelty. It is noteworthy, however, that he was added to the Roman books as a Bishop and Martyr, even though at the time, the majority of places that kept his feast had it as that of an Apostle. As with the retention of St Catherine of Alexandria, and the completely ex novo addition of St Gregory the Wonderworker, this feature of the Tridentine calendar should be understood as part of the Catholic Church’s answer to the ideas of the Protestant reformation.

The story is told that at the end of his life, Luther lamented the fact that, having endeavored to rid the world of one Pope, he had ended up creating a thousand more of them, and if this story is not true, it is certainly indicative of the truth. The chaos which inevitably arose (and still arises to this day) from the concept of private interpretation of the Scriptures led almost immediately to violent disputes between the various groups of reformers; one of the most important such disputes was that between the Calvinists and Anabaptists. Calvin’s work was to a large degree a matter of both systematizing and radicalizing Luther’s very scattered ideas, but he was not at all willing or prepared to accept the much more radical teaching of the Anabaptists; namely, that if Scripture is indeed sufficient as the only rule of the Christian faith, any kind of clerical ministry is superfluous, and should be done away with.

In reaction to the logical conclusion of his own ideas, Calvin largely recreated the authority of the Church that he had rejected. As stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on Calvinism, “The Reformers felt that they must restore creeds and enforce the power of the Church over dissidents. Calvin … built his presbytery on a democratic foundation — the people were to choose, but the ministers chosen were to rule. Christian freedom consisted in throwing off the yoke of the Papacy, it did not allow the individual to stand aloof from the congregation. He must sign formulas, submit to discipline, be governed by a committee of elders. A new sort of Catholic Church came into view, professing that the Bible was its teacher and judge, but never letting its members think otherwise than the articles drawn up should enjoin. … the great iconoclast … makes the visible Church supreme over Christians, assigns to it the prerogatives claimed by Rome, enlarges on the guilt of schism, and upholds the principle Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.”

The words “presbytery” and “committee of elders” are particularly significant here, for it was in the Swiss theocratic republics like Calvin’s Geneva that episcopal governance of the Church was replaced by presbyterian government, “presbyteros” being a Greek word for “elder.” From there, it was copied by John Knox and brought to Scotland, where the new religion came to be known as Presbyterianism, to distinguish it from that of the Anglican Church, which retains the office of the bishop.

In the figure of St Timothy, therefore, who is received into the liturgical tradition of the Roman Church not as an Apostle, but as a Bishop and Martyr, we have a clear statement that the episcopacy as an institution rests on Scriptural foundations. St Paul, in whose letters the reformers claim to find their teaching, writes to him as follows: “A faithful saying: if a man (singular) desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work.”, and then lays down the qualities necessary for such a man “who will have care of the Church.” (1 Tim. 3, 1-5). At the very beginning of this letter (1, 3), Paul writes that he had commanded Timothy to remain at Ephesus, the city to whose church Paul himself had previously addressed a letter, whose angel St John addresses in the Apocalypse (2, 1-7), and where the latter is traditionally said to have died.

The Martyrdom of St Timothy, depicted in a Byzantine Menologion of the second quarter of the 11th century; now in the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. (Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons, cropped.)
Shortly after Timothy’s martyrdom, St Ignatius of Antioch, while passing through Asia Minor on the way to his death in Rome, wrote a letter to the church of Ephesus, in which he refers to the “presbytery” of the city three times, but always in connection with the bishop. “For your justly renowned presbytery, worthy of God, is fitted as exactly to the bishop as the strings are to the harp.” (chapter 4) His other letters speak in similar terms of the importance of the bishop’s role in the Church, except, significantly, the one addressed to the Church of Rome, which “presides in charity”; they repeatedly extol the importance of peace, harmony and a real, visible unity within the Church, all of which are conspicuously lacking among the early reformers. Therefore, if episcopal governance of the Church is a yet another corruption, it is one that rests on the foundation of the Bible, and was built by the Apostles themselves and their immediate successors.

St Paul speaks of his disciple Titus less often than Timothy, four times in 2 Corinthians, and once each in Galatians and 2 Timothy, but also addressed an epistle to him, “my beloved son according to the common faith.” (1, 4) In the latter, before enumerating the qualities of the good bishop, he says that he left him on the island of Crete “to establish elders (presbyterous) from city to city”; it is the bishop who establishes the “elders”, not the other way around. (1, 5-10) There does not appear to be any tradition of devotion to St Titus in any Western liturgy before 1854, when Blessed Pius IX added his feast to the universal calendar, while raising the ranks of Ss Timothy and Ignatius of Antioch. This would seem to be a liturgical answer to some of the Biblical and Patristic scholarship of that age, which often claimed quite openly that the Apostles themselves and their immediate successors did indeed corrupt Christ’s teaching, with Paul the first and worst among them.

In the post-Conciliar calendar reform, Ss Timothy and Titus were consolidated into a single feast, and moved to January 26th. St Timothy’s former day is now occupied by St Francis de Sales, who died on the feast of the Holy Innocents in 1622. As a priest of the diocese of Geneva, then as its bishop for 20 years (1602-22), he helped to bring over 70,000 persons, the majority of them Calvinists, back to the Catholic Church.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: