Friday, June 25, 2021

The Most Ancient Roman Prayers of Episcopal Ordination

At the recent Summorum Pontificum Congress in Guadalajara, Mexico, sponsored by the FSSP and Una Voce Mexico, I gave a talk about some historical aspects of the rites of ordination for deacons, priests and bishops. Within the format of an hour-long talk, it was of course necessary to be very succinct, so I have decided to do a series of posts on the topic here on NLM, in which I can go into the matter in greater depth. To begin with, we will have three posts with the oldest forms of the ordination prayers from the so-called Leonine Sacramentary, followed by some explanations of how their use in the liturgy evolved in the Middle Ages, and finally the changes made to them in the post-Conciliar reform.

The so-called Leonine Sacramentary
In very ancient times, individual churches within the city of Rome (and elsewhere) were free to compose their own Masses for specific occasions, and there was not, as far as we know, originally any standard collection of Masses used by all and sundry. The proper prayers of the celebrant (the Collect, Secret, Preface and Post-Communion, plus, where applicable, the variable Communicantes, which was rare, the variable Hanc igitur, which was very common, and the final prayer “over the people”) were written down on a pamphlet called a “libellus Missae – Mass booklet.” Each church had its own collection of these, but they were, of course, also often borrowed and copied by the clergy of one church from the collection of another.
The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary in Verona, Italy. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Lo Scaligero, CC BY-SA 4.0)
The oldest source of liturgical texts of the Roman Rite is a manuscript in the library of the cathedral chapter of Verona in northern Italy (Cod. Bibl. Capit. Veron. 80), commonly known as “the Leonine Sacramentary,” a collection of these libelli Missarum originally made in Rome itself. Its dating and raison d’etre have been the subject of a huge amount deal of scholarly debate; the 1966 critical edition by Dom Leo Mohlberg OSB includes a bibliography on just the question of the dating, with over 80 entries. Broadly speaking, the Verona manuscript seems to be a copy made in the first quarter of the 7th century of a collection made about 40 years earlier. The name “Leonine Sacramentary” is essentially a fancy of its discoverer, a canon of Verona named Giuseppe Bianchini (1704-64), who was in his time a highly respected scholar of Christian antiquity.
The collection is in every way extremely irregular, as are many of the individual Masses it contains, several of which have multiple alternative collects, or two prefaces, while others are lacking various parts. The first three quires of the manuscript are now missing, and so if it ever had a prologue which explained why it was made, and made as such, with less rhyme or reason than one would expect as to both the contents and their arrangement, this is now lost. However, there is a conjecture which I think would well account for its wild irregularity.
For almost 20 years in the mid-6th century, the Italian peninsula was wracked by a terrible war between the Ostrogoths, who had ruled Rome and most of Italy since 493, and the Byzantines under the Emperor Justinian, who sought to regain control of their ancient capital and the heart of the Roman Empire. Beginning in March of 537, the First Rome was besieged for a year, and most of its famous aqueducts were broken. In 546, the city was sacked, and in 549-50, subjected to another siege, at the end of which, a notable portion of the population fled. It is guessed that about fifty years later, when St Gregory the Great was, as Pope, effectively the ruler of Rome and environs under the suzerainty of Byzantium, the population was down to perhaps around 80,000, perhaps rather fewer than that, living in a city built for 1.5 million.
A broken section of the Aqua Marcia, an aqueduct originally constructed in 144-40 BC, near Tivoli; 1832, by Thomas Cole (1801-48. Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)
In such a situation, we may well imagine that the rationale for compiling such a large number of libelli Missarum in so irregular a fashion was simply to preserve as much of Rome’s liturgical tradition as possible, for fear that otherwise, if the city were once again sacked or depopulated, that tradition might well be lost in whole or in part.
If this is in fact the reason for making the collection, it is highly significant that while it has (just to give a few examples) 43 separate Masses for Martyrs in Eastertide, 28 for Ss Peter and Paul, and 31 “daily” Masses, it has only one formula for the consecration of bishops, only one for the “blessing” of deacons (as it is called), and only one for the consecration of priests. It thus becomes even more important to note that these same prayers, although they have in some respects changed form over time, are the same found in all pertinent liturgical books of the Roman Rite throughout the following centuries until 1968, and are still used in the traditional ordination rites to this day. It is not an exaggeration to say that they are among the most ancient, the most consistently used, and most Roman parts of the Roman Rite.
The Leonine Prayers for the Consecration of Bishops
Under the heading “Consecratio Episcoporum – the Consecration of Bishops”, the Leonine Sacramentary has first a Mass, with the three prayers and a proper Hanc igitur (numbers 942-45 in Mohlberg’s edition.) These parts are not labeled with rubrics in the manuscript itself.
Collect Exaudi, Domine, supplicum praeces, ut quod nostro gerendum est ministerio, tua potius uirtute peragatur. – Hear, o Lord, the prayers of Thy suppliants, so that what is to be done by our ministry may be completed rather by Thy power.
Secret Suscipe, Domine, quaesumus, munera famuli tui illius, et propitius in eodem tua dona custodi. – Receive, o Lord, we ask Thee, the offices (or “gifts”) of Thy servant N., and mercifully preserve Thy gifts within him.
Hanc igitur oblationem, quam tibi offerimus pro illo famulo tuo, quem ad pontificalem gloriam promouere dignatus es, quaesumus, Domine, placatus accipias; ut quod diuino munere consecutus est, diuinis effectibus exsequatur. – We therefore ask, o Lord, that Thou peaceably accept this offering which we make to Thee for N. Thy servant, whom Thou has deigned to promote to the glory of the episcopacy, so that when he has obtained by divine gift, he may carry out with divine effects (or “purposes.”)
Post Communion Adesto, misericors Deus, ut quod actum est nostrae seruitutis officio, tua benedictione firmetur. – Be present, o merciful God, so that what has been done by the function of our service may be strengthened by Thy blessing.
In the Missal of St Pius V, the Collect of the Mass for the consecration of a bishop is similar in thought and wording to this one, but not identical; the Secret and Hanc igitur are identical, but the Post-Communion is completely different.
The consecration of a bishop; illustration from an edition of the Roman Pontifical made in France in the first quarter of the 16th century for Louis Guillart d’Épichelière, bishop of Tournai and almoner of King Francis I. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 955, folio 66v.)
There follow two more prayers (946 and 947 in Mohlberg), one short and one long, both of which are found in the Pontifical of Pope Clement VIII and its medieval predecessors. (It is an oddity, typical of the Leonine Sacramentary’s disorganized state, that the prayers of the Mass refer to a single bishop, while the consecration prayers assume that more than one man is being consecrated.)
Propitiare, Domine, supplicationibus nostris, et inclinato super hos famulos tuos cornu gratiae sacerdotalis, benedictionis tuae in eos effunde uirtutem. – Be favorable, o Lord, to our supplications, and having inclined the horn of the priestly grace over these Thy servants, pour forth upon them the power of Thy blessing.
The expression “horn of Thy grace” refers to the horn-shaped vessel in which oil for anointings was kept, as mentioned in regard to the anointings of the kings David (1 Sam. 16, 13) and Solomon (3 Kings 1, 39).
Folio 214r of the Gellone Sacramentary, ca. 780 AD, with the prayer “Deus honorum omnium” in the rite of episcopal consecration. (Bibliothèque nationale de France. Département des Manuscrits. Latin 12048. In the matter of digitization, Italian libraries are miles behind their counterparts in France, Germany and the UK, and there does not appear to be a single picture of the Leonine Sacramentary available anywhere on the internet.)
The second prayer is considerably longer. The Latinity of it is very sophisticated, and some explanation of the imagery it employs will be given below. The irregular spellings are original; the division of it into two parts is in Mohlberg’s edition, and reflects a division in the manuscript.
Deus honorum omnium, Deus omnium dignitatum quae gloriae tuae sacratis famulantur ordinibus, Deus, qui Mosen famulum tuum, secreti familiaris adfatu, inter cetera caelestis documenta culturae de habitu quoque indumenti sacerdotalis instituens, electum Aharon mystico amictu uestiri inter sacra iussisti, ut intellegentiae sensum de exemplis priorum caperet secutura posteritas, ne eruditio doctrinae tuae ulli deesset aetati; cum et aput ueteres reuerentiam ipsa significationum species optineret, et aput nos certiora essent experimenta rerum quam enigmata figurarum. Illius namque sacerdotii anterioris habitus nostrae mentis ornatus est, et pontificalem gloriam non iam nobis honor commendat uestium, sed splendor animorum: quia et illa, quae tunc carnalibus blandiebantur obtutibus, ea potius, quae in ipsis erant intellegenda, poscebant.
Et idcirco his famulis tuis, quos ad summi sacerdotii ministerium deligisti, hanc, quaesumus, Domine, gratiam largiaris, ut quidquid illa uelamina in fulgore auri, in nitore gemmarum, in multimodi operis uarietate signabant, hoc in horum moribus actibusque clariscat. Conple in sacerdotibus tuis mysterii tui summam, et ornamentis totius glorificationis instructos, caelestis unguenti fluore sanctifica. Hoc, Domine, copiosae in eorum caput influat, hoc in oris subiecta decurrat, hoc in totius corporis extrema descendat, ut tui spiritus uirtus et interiora horum repleat et exteriora circumtegat. Abundet in his constantia fidei, puritas dilectionis, sinceritas pacis. Tribuas eis cathedram episcopalem ad regendam aeclesiam tuam et plebem uniuersam. Sis eis auctoritas, sis eis potestas, sis eis firmitas. Multiplices super eos benedictionem et gratiam tuam, ut ad exorandam semper misericordiam tuam tuo munere idonei, tua gratia possint esse deuoti.
A statue of Aaron by Nicholas Cordier, in the Borghese chapel of St Mary Major in Rome, 1609-12
God of all honors, God of all dignities which serve Thy glory in sacred orders, God, who among other matters of heavenly worship, didst instruct Thy servant Moses in secret and familiar speech about the nature of priestly vesture, and order that Aaron, Thy chosen one, should be clad in mystic robes during the sacred functions, so that following generations might receive understanding from the examples of their predecessors, lest the knowledge of Thy instruction should go wanting in any age, since, indeed, among the ancients, the very appearance of things signified would be an object of reverence, and among us there would be the proofs of the things themselves more certain than the mysteries of figures. For the adornment of our minds is that which was expressed by the outward vesture of that former priesthood, and now, it not the honor of the garments, but rather the splendor of souls that commends the pontifical glory to us. For even those things which then pleased the eyes of the flesh, demanded rather that what they signified should be understood.
And therefore we beseech Thee, O Lord, give bountifully this grace to these Thy servants, whom Thou hast chosen to the ministry of the supreme priesthood, so that whatsoever those garments signified by the shining of gold, the splendor of jewels, and the variety of many forms of work, may shine forth in their character and deeds. Fulfill in Thy priests the perfection of Thy mystery, and sanctify with the flow of heavenly ointment them that are adorned with the ornaments of all beauty. May this, O Lord, flow abundantly upon their head, may this run down upon their beard, may this extend unto the extremities of their whole body, so that the power of Thy Spirit may be fill them within, clothe them over without. May there abound in them constancy of faith, purity of love, and sincerity of peace. Grant them an episcopal throne to rule Thy Church and all the people. Be Thou their authority, their power and their strength. Multiply upon them Thy blessing and grace, so that, being always suited by Thy gift to beseech Thy mercy, they may be able to be devout by Thy grace.
The first paragraph of this prayer is an anacolouthon, which is to say, grammatically incomplete; the address to the “God of all honors” does not conclude with its own verb. Here we see the great antiquity of the tradition by which the priesthood of the Old Testament is seen as a prefiguration of that of the New; this theme also appears in the parallel prayers of the priestly and diaconal ordinations. The idea that the garment of the high priest and the details of its decoration revealed to Moses by God on Mt Sinai (Exodus 28) had a mystical meaning is extremely ancient. Indeed, it is found in the Bible itself in the Book of Wisdom. “For in the priestly robe which he wore was (represented) the whole world: and in the four rows of the stones the glory of the fathers was graven, and thy majesty was written upon the diadem of his head.” (18, 24)
There are no rubrics alongside these prayers, so we cannot be certain as to exactly what ceremonies accompanied them as they were said. In later rites, however, including the early medieval rites which find their way into the Pontifical of Clement VIII, the anointing of the bishop by his consecrator takes place before the words “May this, o Lord, flow abundantly...”; from the context, it seems very likely that this was already the case when this prayer was originally composed. The words “May this, O Lord, flow abundantly upon their head, may this run down upon their beard, may this extend unto the extremities of their whole body”, are a paraphrase of Psalm 132, 2, which explicitly mentions priestly anointing, and the figure of Aaron, the first priest of the Old Covenant. “Like the precious ointment on the head, that ran down upon the beard, the beard of Aaron, which ran down to the skirt of his garment.”
The next article in this series will be a brief detour from the main topic, and present an interesting anomaly in one of the Masses in the Leonine Sacramentary.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: