Monday, August 23, 2021

The Prayers at the Foot of the Altar and the Last Gospel: A Case-Study in Pius V’s Conservatism

I remember hearing years ago a double claim: first, that Psalm 42 was recited en route from the sacristy to the altar as a private act of preparation and that the Last Gospel was recited on the way back to the sacristy as a private act of thanksgiving; and second, that it was Pope Pius V who first put them into the Roman missal in the place they now occupy. I dutifully repeated this opinion in the Q&A after a lecture in St. Louis. A religious brother who happened to be there wrote to me afterwards with a polite correction, and I thought it would be beneficial to share with readers what he shared with me—especially in these days, when people who should know better often attribute fantastical acts of originality to Pius V.

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You said that the Last Gospel and Prayers at the Foot were devotional prior to Pius V’s reform, and that they were recited while walking to and from the sacristy. I thought you might be interested to see some images from pre-Trent Roman Missals that in fact prescribe the current practice in their rubrics.

1474 is thought to be the year of the first printed edition of the Missale Romanum. The Henry Bradshaw Society published in 1899 a critical edition of a 1474 Missale Romanum from Milan. While the Last Gospel is not mentioned in the Ordinary, here are the prayers at the foot of the altar:

Missale Romanum 1474 (1899 critical edition)

A Missale Romanum printed in Venice in 1501, three years before Pius V was born, contains two rubrical sections: an introduction at the front and an Ordinarium Misse in the middle of the tome. This Missal includes both the Prayers at the Foot of the altar and the Last Gospel described in precisely the format we are accustomed to for those ceremonies in the TLM today. Since it doesn’t have internal page numbers, I have included text searches that will lead to the right pages online (the scan may also be downloaded for free). There are:

- Front section includes Prayers at the Foot: “stans ante infimum gradum altaris” (search: letificat iyuentutem)
Ordinarium includes Prayers at the Foot “cum intrat ad altare” (search: facerdos cũ itrat)
- Front section describes Last Gospel “ad cornu evangelii” (search: Initium fancti euangely)
Ordinarium does not mention a Last Gospel after the Placeat (search: tibi laf qua fancta)

1501 Missale Romanum (Venice)
One can find many Missals from this time period that omit the Last Gospel. I have not found any yet that omit the Prayers at the Foot, which are very consistent across the board, at least for the Roman rite. I also haven’t found any that direct that either of those be said while in transit. So, in the Roman usage, by the printed age, if ever that was the practice, walking and talking was no longer a thing.

Here are images from a Missale Romanum printed in 1540: the title page, the Prayers at the Foot of the Altar, and the Last Gospel:

A casual survey of the digitalized, early printed Roman Missals available on the internet shows that the practice of the Last Gospel (or whatever happens after the Placeat) remained variable up to the time of Pope Pius V, whose 1570 edition standardized many things—which was the whole point of it: Pius V wanted to issue, as it were, a gold standard. The same could be said for the formulary of the final blessing. Yet Pius V did not invent our current practice. In addition to the 1501 and 1540 editions of the Missale Romanum seen above, the very practice we know today in the TLM can be found even in some non-Roman usages, such as this 1543 Missale Aniciensis from the Diocese of Le Puy-en-Velay:

- Prayers at the Foot “ante altare” (search: ang)
- Last Gospel after Placeat (search: erat verbül)

1543 Missale Aniciensis
This is the sort of thing we will find wherever we look: all the ingredients of Pius V’s missal of 1570 were already plentifully present in earlier editions. It is a missal that conservatively transmits, while clarifying and crystallizing, what was customary in the Roman curia, now for the benefit of the universal Church. The contrast with his successor 37 papacies later could not be more pronounced.

A corollary: the 1965 missal is no solution whatsoever to our difficulties. This interim missal already marks a corruption of the longstanding Roman tradition.

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