Wednesday, April 27, 2022

A Qualified Defense of St Pius X’s Breviary Reform

Recent events have provoked a good deal of discussion in various fora about papal actions in matters of liturgical reform. In several of these discussions, and indeed, on articles here on NLM, the contention has been made that St Pius X’s significant reform of the breviary was, as it were, the breaching of the fortress, leading to further and highly deleterious reforms. It is not my purpose here to refute any of these contentions, least of all, those of my esteemed colleague Dr Kwasniewski. I intend rather to outline some important qualifiers in the light of which this reform needs to be understood, and particularly, understood as something very different, in kind, and not in degree, from the reforms that came after it. It is also not my purpose to claim that every aspect of this reform was perfect, or done as well as it might have been, or even necessary. I have always considered the whole project to be an imperfect solution to an intractable problem.

Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The essence of the reform was the re-ordering of the very ancient Roman arrangement of the weekly psalter. I described the original order and its rearrangement in detail in my series of article on the reforms (and note the use of the plural here) of the breviary in 2009-10 (part 7.1; part 7.2; part 7.3), so I shall here give just a very basic summary. (In order to stick to the main point, it will be necessary to oversimplify just a bit.)
In the very ancient traditional arrangement, the psalms of Lauds and Prime are partly variable and partly fixed, while those of Terce, Sext, None and Compline are completely invariable. These include only 24 of the 150 psalms; of the rest, the Roman weekly psalter puts those from 1-108 at Matins (18 on Sunday and 12 on weekdays), and those from 109-147 at Vespers. However, on the majority of feast days, the daily psalms of Matins and Vespers are replaced by proper psalms, and on all feast days, the psalms at Lauds are taken from Sunday. This means that many psalms were said only in the office of Sunday or on ferial days.
The problem which the reform of St Pius X was intended to deal with was that by his time, the number of feast days had multiplied very considerably, and it had become the custom to allow most of them to take precedence over the office of most Sundays and almost all ferias. I have a breviary printed in 1829 for the Franciscans in the Papal State, in which there are only 18 free days on the calendar. Therefore, the daily psalter was only used very, very rarely, on the tiny number of days (e.g. the major Sundays, Christmas Eve, Ash Wednesday) which could never be impeded. (This is also, incidentally, why one sees fewer really nice green vestments in the great churches of Europe; since the Sundays after Epiphany and Pentecost were so often impeded, green was hardly needed, since it was only rarely used.)
The calendar page for July of a Benedictine Breviary printed in 1770. There are only five days in the month that are not taken up with either a double or semidouble feast. 
The first point to note, therefore, is that the part of the Divine Office which St Pius X was principally concerned to reform, the weekly psalter, was mostly (not entirely) obsolete at the time that he reformed it. Regardless of whether one thinks that the problem was resolved well or badly, or somewhere in between, it was nevertheless a real problem, to which a real solution was given. And regardless of whether one thinks that the subsequent reforms were done well or badly, or somewhere in between, one cannot call the objects of them (e.g. Holy Week or the order of Mass) obsolete.
Secondly, St Pius X was certainly not the first Pope to make significant changes to the breviary. St Pius V rearranged to the psalms of Prime, but in so minor a way as to be hardly pertinent to this topic. Far more importantly, he made a very considerable change to the readings of Matins. Urban VIII promulgated a radical (and justifiably much-criticized) reform of the hymns of the Divine Office, changing texts that were in some cases more than twelve centuries old, which is to say, older than the offertory prayers of the Mass are now. However, neither of these reforms swiftly led to a cascade of other, more dramatic reforms, sweeping away the customs of centuries to no good purpose. It is safe to say that St Pius X would could never imagine, and indeed, that he had no reason to imagine, that his reform of the psalter would do so either.
Of course, as a matter of history, it cannot be denied that after St Pius X’s time, the twentieth century saw more changes happen to the Roman Rite more swiftly than in all its prior history. But each of these later changes differs not in degree, but in kind, from his.
The first of these is NOT, by the way, the new psalter of Pius XII, for which I personally have no patience whatsoever, but which was nevertheless in a very real sense an ideal reform. The use of it was never obligatory, and therefore, it was, as military men say, run up the flagpole to see who would salute it. People soon stopped saluting, and it was quickly taken down.
However, the real breaching of the fortress did take place on the watch of Pius XII: first, with his general reform of the rubrics; second, and far more importantly, with his reform of Holy Week. In the case of the former, it cannot be denied that the rubrics of both the missal and the breviary had become very complicated. However, the reform enacted in 1955 to remedy the problem actually made it worse, as such reforms are wont to do. More importantly, it was the first reform to change the text of the liturgy (and that, mostly by way of hacking things out of it), for the sake of the rubrics. In other words, the liturgy was changed to benefit the rubrics, and not the rubrics to benefit the liturgy. It should require no explanation to demonstrate the danger of this principle.
A page of a breviary printed in the mid-20th century, a former owner of which elegantly, but incorrectly, noted the new rubrical changes of 1955. 
Now, it has to be said that no small part of this complication of the rubrics actually came from the reform of St Pius X, and furthermore, that that particular aspect of his reform might well have been done differently and better. But it most certainly can not be said that his reform was done with disregard for the text of the liturgy per se; its care for the text of the liturgy was minute, and one might even say too minute.
Pius XII’s other major reform, of the Holy Week ceremonies, was also done to deal with a real problem, namely, that in many places (by no means all), they were not well attended. But in this case, that problem was used as a pretext to introduce all kinds of changes that had no bearing on it, and which cut deep into the bone of the Roman liturgical tradition. If greater participation was the goal, there was obviously no need to cut down the blessing of the palms so radically, or cut the synoptic accounts of the Last Supper out of the Roman Rite, or suppress the very ancient rite of the Presanctified on Good Friday, etc. But by the time this reform was enacted, the liturgical bien pensants had already fully embraced the highly damaging principle that popular participation can only be brought about by giving the people much less to participate in. It hardly needs to be added that the claims about the history of the liturgy on which it is based are a mixture of half-truths and outright falsehoods.
These principles, simplicity for its own sake, and callous disregard for the texts and rites of the Roman liturgical tradition, justified by atrocious scholarship, would carry through to the rest of the 20th century liturgical reforms: first, John XXIII’s mutilation of the breviary, and unnecessary removal of many more things from the missal; a new “simplified” set of rubrics which are anything but; and then within less than a decade, the total revolution of the post-Conciliar period.
Whatever its flaws may be, the Pius X reform is not based on these principles. It did not claim to simplify the Office for the sake of simplifying it. It did not claim that the reform was necessary to engender greater interest in the Office on the part of the faithful. It did not make false historical claims that it was returning to an earlier custom, and it honestly acknowledged that it was returning to an earlier custom in a novel way.

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