Monday, April 19, 2021

Ending Seventy Years of Liturgical Exile: The Return of the Pre-55 Holy Week

“Quis dabit ex Sion salutare Israel? Cum averterit Dominus captivitatem plebis suae, exsultabit Jacob, et laetabitur Israel. Who shall give out of Sion the salvation of Israel? When the Lord shall have turned away the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice and Israel shall be glad.” (Psalm 13:7)

In 586 BC, the Jews of old were violently removed from the Temple in Jerusalem and its sacrificial cultus, and led off to exile where they had only memories of their traditional divine worship. Seventy years later, in 516 BC, they began to return to the land of their fathers — those who, listening to Ezra, longed for true worship and were willing to make a new life in the old land.

In 1951, on February 9th, Pius XII’s “new and improved” Easter Vigil was first launched “ad experimentum” — a simple Latin phrase that would become ever more commonplace as the Vatican more and more treated the sacred liturgy as a laboratory specimen. Although the way was paved for this drastic innovation by Pius X’s unprecedented manhandling of the venerable Roman psalter, it is accurate to say that 1951 marked the beginning of that overturning of the Eucharistic liturgy of the Roman Rite that culminated eighteen years later in the modern papal rite of 1969, which, only by a certain legal stretch of the imagination, can be called the Roman rite as it had been known in history.

The year 2021, however, appears to be the year in which Rome (taken here to mean those who are quietly in charge of affairs concerning the usus antiquior) has given a global wink to those wanting to use the pre-55 Holy Week, and, indeed, to reclaim pre-55 practices more generally. No express permission is being given, because none is needed for that which is immemorially sacred and great. Catholics of the Roman rite, in small groups, here and there, are returning to the liturgical temple after seventy years of exile.

In his sermon on Passion Sunday (March 21, 2021), Canon Francis Xavier Altiere, ICRSS, said the following:
You will recall on Septuagesima Sunday that we spoke about the Babylonian exile and the symbolism of the number 70. We heard how the Jews suffered greatly from the suspension of their traditional worship when they could no longer frequent the Temple. We can borrow this analogy to speak about our own Catholic worship, because this year marks the 70th anniversary of the start of the gradual demolition of the Roman rite [of Mass]. You know that the New Mass was introduced in 1969, and you probably know that in 1955 a new version of the Holy Week ceremonies was introduced, but the first trial balloon actually came in 1951, with the introduction of an experimental new Easter Vigil. In fact, for the architects of the reform this new rite clearly was seen as the first step in a longer process because years later, when he promulgated a totally new missal, Pope Paul VI looked back on this and said, “the beginning of this renewal was the work of Our predecessor Pius XII, in the restoration of the Paschal Vigil and of the Holy Week Rite, which formed the first stage of updating the Roman Missal for the present-day mentality” (Missale Romanum, April 3, 1969). My purpose this morning is not to give a detailed critique of these reforms, but simply to take it for granted that, rather than “updating” the sacred liturgy to the limited horizons of the present-day mentality — whatever that may mean — we should rather cherish the treasures we have received from tradition and try to adapt our thoughts to them instead. Modern man is shaped by technocracy and so if we want to derive more fruit from the liturgy, we need to try to let our minds move on another plane that is somewhat foreign to us: the world of symbolism.

Sometimes people still ask why we think there is freedom to celebrate the pre-55 ceremonies. The answer, to put it succinctly, is that one has to know how to interpret the “signs of the times,” as, most famously, the last Council bid us do. For example, for three years the PCED/CDF “gave permission” to the ICKSP and the FSSP to do the pre-55. This year, no permission was granted — not because it was denied, but because the CDF doesn’t want to micromanage this stuff anymore. One can tell from the printed 2021 Ordo (written in Latin, of course: today’s ultimate code language), which includes many pre-55isms, albeit with no explanation of why they are there; one can see it from the trend of responses that have been made to individual queries in recent years; one can see it from the fact that Santissima Trinità dei Pellegrini in Rome, a stone’s throw from the Vatican, is doing and has been doing pre-55 ceremonies for a long time now, celebrated by bishops and cardinals. The Vatican is well aware that all this is going on, and lets it happen — for some officials, presumably, on account of agreement and sympathy; for others, because they don’t want the bad publicity of a fight or the inconvenience of an intervention.

Priests and faithful all over the world enjoyed the richness and splendor of the pre-55 Holy Week ceremonies in larger numbers than ever, and we can certainly expect that those who have experienced it will never wish to turn back. Those who are hesitating because of scruples about “permission” should reflect on the sad fortunes of the liturgy for the past several decades. One bad decision after another has been handed down, to the great detriment of the faithful, and often in the teeth of unbroken tradition (e.g., Paul VI’s attempt to dismantle minor orders and the subdiaconate, or John Paul II’s permission for altar girls, or the permission for Communion in the hand, which was extorted by disobedience and tolerated by cowardice and lukewarm faith). One could give too many examples of where permission for abuse has been granted, while that which is “sacred and great” was forbidden. The admission of Benedict XVI that the usus antiquior had never been abrogated, contrary to the modus operandi of all of its opponents for decades, should be enough to make us genial skeptics about the “official” line.

Conversely, no Catholic may rightly believe that immemorial and venerable tradition has to “justify itself” in a court of law. It bears within itself its own justification for existing, because it is given to us by the generosity of Providence and has been received and celebrated by countless Catholics for centuries, even millennia. Could anyone take seriously the proposition that a remodeled Holy Week that lasted for not even 14 years has a greater right to exist or to be used than ceremonies that enjoyed continuous use for 500 or 1,000 years or even longer? Yes, the hierarchy of the Church has a responsibility for regulating these things, but the whole point of regulating the liturgy is to ensure that it reaches us intact in its splendor, not to strangle it or butcher it. Authority is given for the common good, not for the private good of its wielders, or for the promotion of strange philosophies.

In short: one who thinks explicit permission is required for the pre-55 Holy Week has not yet grasped the nature of tradition and the inherent rights of immemorial custom or the limits of papal and curial authority.

On Good Friday: incensing the veiled chalice containing the Host

In my lecture “The Once and Future Roman Rite: What We Lost from 1948 to 1962 and Why We Should Recover It Today,” I devote the final section to explaining why no permission is necessary for reclaiming elements such as Holy Week, the true Vigil of Pentecost, the octave of Corpus Christi, the octave of the Holy Innocents, folded chasubles and broad stoles, multiple orations, doubling of readings by the priest, the recitation of the Creed on various feastdays, and the use of Benedicamus Domino at Masses without Glorias. (This link will take you directly to that section.) As I point out, almost no one at present, including the SSPX, follows all of the rubrics of 1960 when celebrating with the 1962 missal, so a “perfect conformity to legislation” is not and has never been achieved, nor would there be any compelling reason to attempt it, especially now, with hindsight into the nature of the changes and the rationale (not to mention personnel) behind them.

Those who object that “we are taking things into our own hands and that makes us no better than perpetrators of other liturgical abuses” are making a false parallel. It is one thing to reclaim a heritage that was already fixed, specified, reverent, and holy (as with the pre-55 Holy Week); it is quite another to dismantle it or experiment with it or subject it to political agendas, as occurs all the time with the Novus Ordo’s plethora of abuses. In general, arguments based on a “one size fits all” model usually fail. One might think, in a different sphere, of the argument of John Courtney Murray and others that the Church must have one consistent policy for religious freedom rather than asking for freedom of operation when her members are in the minority but wielding her authority over society when her members are in the majority. That’s perfect nonsense. Of course she should wield her authority when she can, and demand freedom when she cannot. False religions will be similarly inconsistent to the extent that they too believe in absolute truth claims (think of Islam, which is “peaceful” when in the minority and militant when in the majority), and should be resisted in any case as purveyors of error and causes of spiritual shipwreck.

On a practical note, it’s never too early to start thinking ahead to next year’s Holy Week, so that you can have a timeline for taking the steps needed to celebrate solemn pre-55 ceremonies. For example, you may wish to source your tricereo or triple candle, and ensure that you will have the right chasubles and stoles. There is, happily, an ever-burgeoning number of high-quality videos of the pre-55 ceremonies (with more being added all the time — one can hardly keep up!), so that clergy and their M.C.s can study them ahead of time, which is often far more helpful than bleary-eyed late-night sessions with rubrical manuals. Some examples of these videos:

St. Joan of Arc: Palm Sunday  |  Good Friday 
St. Mary’s on Broadway: Palm Sunday  |  Holy Thursday  |  Good Friday  |  Easter Vigil
Our Lady of Mt Carmel: Holy Thursday  |  Good Friday  |  Easter Vigil

I’m sure readers can point us to other videos they would recommend for this or that special reason (the camera angles, the audio quality, the architecture or vestments, etc.).

The Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest has released a video called “The Pre-1955 Holy Week: A Liturgical, Spiritual & Cultural Treasure.” Taylor Marshall and Timothy Flanders discussed the topic in a long and wide-ranging conversation here, although I should note that we ought to be careful not to exaggerate Bugnini’s role in the Pacellian reforms; it seems, alas, that these reforms were endorsed by a number of like-minded individuals and that the young Bugnini at the time was more of a fanboy and water-carrier for them than a sinister schemer (see Dom Alcuin Reid’s “Holy Week Reforms Revisited — Some New Materials and Paths for Further Study,” in Liturgy in the Twenty-First Century: Contemporary Issues and Perspectives [London/New York: Bloomsbury, 2016], 234–59). Which is not to say that he was not a sinister schemer later on....

Readers should also become familiar with two excellent websites, which, while overlapping to some extent, are not redundant in their resources: “Restore the 54” and “Pre-1955 Holy Week Resources.”

Thinking back over my life in the traditionalist movement, I find it a great cause of joy to think of the burning questions that occupied most people at any given time. Way back in the 1990s, the question was simply: “Where am I going to find a Mass according to the 1962 missal?” — any Mass, low, high, legal, sketchy, or whatever! Then in the 2000s, one started hearing more often about pontifical Masses here and there, about ordinations and other sacramental rites. After July 2007, the dominant theme became diocesan clergy learning the TLM and even taking up the preconciliar breviary. In the past decade or so, it seems to me that the movement is broadening to include the pre-55 Holy Week and other riches lost under Pius XII. I predict that in years to come, the recovery of the “Breviary of the Ages” (as Bishop Athanasius Schneider calls it) will be a matter of increasing importance.

In any case, right now the hot topic is no longer “should we celebrate the pre-55 Holy Week” — this is a matter of obviousness to those who have taken the time to study the question — but “What time of day should they be celebrated?” And on that question, which is full of interest, I intend to publish a separate article later on.

Looking ahead in Paschal time, what are some steps that could be taken to restore pre-55 practice? Perhaps the first and most important would be to celebrate the Paschal feast of St. Joseph in its more appropriate place, namely, on the Wednesday before the Third Sunday after Easter (this year, Wednesday, April 21, adding a commemoration of St Anselm), in place of the highly artificial St Joseph the Worker on May 1st. The start of the month of May — a trainwreck oft lamented by Fr Hunwicke (1, 2, 3) — should be put to rights by celebrating Saints Philip and James on May 1st, the Finding of the Holy Cross on May 3rd, St John before the Latin Gate on May 6th, and the Apparition of St Michael on May 8th. (N.B.: I commend once more to NLM readers the “Octave of Liturgical Restoration” from May 1–8: see here for more information.) Parishioners may be encouraged to acquire either the St Andrew or the Fr Lasance daily missals, because they will match up perfectly.

The triple candle at the Easter Vigil & the chanting of the Exsultet

Further Reading:

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: