Wednesday, June 01, 2022

Fr Carlo Braga on the 1955 Holy Week Reform (Part 1)

Although Holy Week is long past, this week concludes with the last piece of damage done by the 1955 reform of it, the suppression of the ancient baptismal rites of the vigil of Pentecost. This seems, therefore, like a good time to present this account of the reform by Fr Carlo Braga, a Vincentian priest and close collaborator of Abp Annibale Bugnini, and a major contributor to the creation of the post-Conciliar Rite. This address was delivered in Italian at the Pontifical University of St Anselmo in Rome on November 17, 2005, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the reform, under the title “Maxima Redemptionis Nostrae Mysteria: 50 Anni Dopo (1955-2005),” published in Ecclesia Orans 23 (2006): 11-36. This translation was made by Carlo Schena, to whom we express our deepest gratitude. The text is quite long, and will be presented in four parts.

Preserving one’s own history and “making remembrance” of certain significant dates is natural to every man and in every civil society. It meets the need to re-live one’s identity, to strive to keep alive one’s past, to reap the teachings that still have to be lived out.

It is with this attitude of spirit that we gather this evening. We commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the reform of Holy Week by Pope Pius XII on November 16, 1955. Some of us lived through this event, and we relive it this evening as part of our history. Many of you are rediscovering it or coming to learn of it, perceiving the significance it had in the life of the Church through our witness. Our gathering will be constructive if we succeed in truly “making remembrance”, that is, if we are able to remember the contents of history, hope and commitment of that event, if we can give thanks for it and project those same feelings on to the future. It is an ecclesial action that can and must enrich and perfect our life and the life of the Christian community. The reform of fifty years ago had its applications, then, and its developments, after the Council. It produced good fruits, but it still needs to be deepened and re-lived.
Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.
The historical context
On May 28, 1948, only a few months after the publication of Mediator Dei (November 20, 1947), Pius XII set up a special “Commission for the General Reform of the Liturgy” at the Historical Section of the Congregation of Rites. This was a bold act which, with marked pastoral and spiritual sensitivity, took up the ferments of renewal and pastoral reflection that were emerging in the Church. From these had already blossomed some innovations in the discipline of the Church: the mitigation of Eucharistic fasting and the possibility of evening Masses [1], and a new version of the Psalter, also for liturgical use. [2] The Commission was born silently, had never been officially made public, committed itself to working in silence [3], and had set out on an ambitious project, namely to take up and complete, with the necessary updatings [aggiornamenti], the plans for liturgical reform of Pius X.
Its first appearance occurred on February 9, 1951, with the publication of the decree Dominicae Resurrectionis [4], which proposed ad experimentum the night-time celebration of the Easter Vigil. It was a sensational and significant act: it made the existence of the Commission public, and outlined the criteria that would guide the liturgical reform. This renewal would not limit itself to a mere touching up of existing rubrics and laws, or to a simplification of some minor detail. It began by striking at the very heart of the liturgy: the celebration of the “mother of all vigils”, the central part of the Paschal Mystery.
It seemed as if Pius XII had wished for this in Mediator Dei: “Since (the) bitter sufferings (of Christ) constitute the principal mystery from which our salvation comes, it is in accordance with the requirements of the Catholic faith to place this in its fullest light, since it is like the center of divine worship; indeed, the Eucharistic sacrifice is its daily representation and renewal, and all the sacred minds are closely linked to the cross.” [5] The outcomes exceeded expectations, and answered the emerging spirit of anticipation. The first celebration of the restored vigil (March 25, 1951) heightened the expectation and desire for reform of all the rites of the Easter triduum of the “dead, buried and risen” Christ, that is, the revision of the Paschal Triduum and of the entire Holy Week. (Here we can only note in passing that nothing was actually “restored” about the Easter vigil in 1951, since one cannot restore that which never existed. The Easter vigil was never a night-time celebration in antiquity, although this was mistakenly believed to the case at the time.)
These hopes were also bolstered by the multiplying innovations brought forth by the central authority of the Church: the renewal of the permission to celebrate the Easter Vigil (initially for three years, then for a fourth) [6], the new discipline for the Eucharistic fast and evening Masses (1953) [7], the simplification of the rubrics of the Missal and the Breviary (1955) [8], the numerous concessions for bilingual rituals (from 1947 onwards) and for the faculty of proclaiming the readings in the vernacular (from 1955 onwards), albeit after the proclamation in Latin. The long awaited reform of the rites of Holy Week, however, was always in the forefront. In their reports on the celebration of the Easter Vigil, the bishops called for its fulfilment. A few examples: Card. Lienart: “We express our wish that other celebrations, such as those of Palm Sunday and of Good Friday, be restored in the same liturgical and pastoral spirit”. Card. Roncalli voiced the same hope, even outlining a comprehensive picture of the different reforms in the Holy Week celebrations. [9]
The liturgists, too, were insisting on this point in international congresses held in those years. The Congress of Pastoral Liturgy of Lugano (September 14-18, 1953) stated, “Precious fruits have derived from the Easter Vigil, very appropriately restored by the Supreme Pontiff Pius XII. Let all the celebrations of Holy Week be reformed in like manner, in accordance with the pastoral solicitude of the Holy See.” [10]
Thus the reform of the entire Holy Week did not come as suddenly as the reform of the Easter Vigil. It was the completion of an already started and much appreciated work. The reform of the Holy Week and that of the Easter Vigil cannot be separated: they constitute an unicum that must be read in terms of integration and logical development. The ritual, pastoral and spiritual experience stemming from the reform of the Easter Vigil provides the foundation for the ritual, pastoral and spiritual principles of the reform of the entire Holy Week. And it was, we might say, providential that the reform of the Easter Vigil was published first, and that it was ad experimentum and optional for four years. This made it possible to gather and evaluate the reactions and to refine the working method.
(We include the following section for the sake of historical completeness, even though it mostly gives details of the internal workings of the commission.)
The History of the Reform of the Holy Week
Sixteen sessions of the work of the Pian Commission, from January 1950 to November 1955, were devoted to the study of the reform of Holy Week. [11]
An initial overview was carried out on January 27, 1950. This was only a general outline of the reform of Holy Week proposed in nos. 60-74 of the Memoria. [12] In principle, all the proposals were accepted.
The first reform to be approved was that of the Easter Vigil (January 23, 1951), announced shortly before Easter, on February 9, with Easter on March 25.
The issue of Holy Week came back to the Commission on October 18, 1952. Between October and December the new celebrations for Maundy Thursday were defined, and in the first sessions of 1953, those of Good Friday. Notably, the reintroduction of Holy Communion on Good Friday was approved, a decision confirmed by the Pope the following August.
The revision of Palm Sunday was examined in May 1954.
A rather lengthy break followed, as the Pope had asked for the whole issue of Holy Week to be examined by the cardinals at an ordinary meeting of the Congregation of Rites. An illustrative Positio had to be prepared. [13] The ordinary congregation of the Cardinals, held on July 19, 1955, ratified the decisions and the achievements of the Commission.
The Decree promulgating the reform of Holy Week and the pastoral guidelines to help priests understand and organize the celebrations properly were approved between the end of October and the beginning of November 1955. The Decree of Approval was published on November 16. [14] The volume of the Ordo includes the decree of approval, dated November 30, 1955. [15] It hit the shelves on January 4 1956. Easter fell on April 1.
At the beginning of February 1957, some Ordinationes et Declarationes completed and corrected, with regard to some details, the dispositions of 1955. [16]
The session which brought the greatest relief was, without doubt, that of April 6, 1956, when “His Eminence shares the new that several bishops have written to you on the excellent success of the restored Holy Week.”
This was a rather long and complex journey. There were delays in the discussion of the problems. The Commission got involved, at the same time, in a number of issues related to other areas of the reform. But, as with all Commissions, time was needed between one session and the other, so that ideas could mature and discrepancies could reach a natural settlement in an undisputed and unanimous consensus.
Why a reform of the Holy Week?
Confronted with such a demanding and difficult work, we may ask ourselves: why was this reform sought? What was desired? Let us briefly review some of these reasons and some of these hopes.
1. The first reason is offered by the opening words of the decree of promulgation: Maxima Redemptionis nostrae mysteria. They echo the words of Pius XII in Mediator Dei, which I quoted at the very beginning: the mystery of the Lord’s Passion and Resurrection is the principal mystery from which our salvation comes; it is the center of divine worship; it lies at the heart of the whole liturgical year, prepared by the sacred season of Lent, extended in the joy of the fifty days of Easter, and relived every eighth day. Making participation in the rites of the central day of the liturgical year more comprehensible and easier meant to enliven the celebration of the weekly recurrence.
This title doesn’t actually originate from a liturgical formulary, despite the numerous terms that refer to it: sacra, beata, gloriosa, divina mysteria, dominicae passionis mysteria, redemptionis nostrae sacrosancta commercia, etc.
It comes very close to, and perhaps was inspired by, an expression in the introduction to the Memoriale rituum published by Benedict XIII: “Praestantiora nostrae redemptionis mysteria”. The “praestantiora” comes from the fact that the Memoriale covers not only the Easter rites but also others, namely the 2nd of February and Ash Wednesday, important, but not as much as the Easter rites.
2. Holy Week is, in its ritual and euchological elements, the fruit of the work of many generations, a masterpiece which constitutes the most precious part of the entire liturgical heritage. However, over the long centuries of its history, some valid elements had been lost, others had crept in which were less in keeping with the nature of the Liturgy, others had become less appropriate, others were no longer able to foster the full participation of the faithful. From time to time, masterpieces – and our Holy Week as well – need a little retouching or even some restoration; a risky task, but one that must be tackled with courage. What is necessary is to have the right means at hand.
[1 ] Cfr. C. BRAGA - A. BUGNINI, Documenta ad instaurationern liturgicam spectantia 1903-1963, CLV-Ed. liturgiche, Rome 2000: Circa Missas vesperti nas et ieiunium eucharisticum in Gallia (1946-47), n°. 1844-1848; Celebratio Missae horis postmeridianis pro Belgio, Ibid, n°. 1849-1851. - N.B. In the following notes, the indication Documenta refers to the volume here indicated.
[2] Pius XII, Motu Proprio In cotidianis precibus, De nova psalmorum conversione latina, in Documenta, n°. 1787-1791.
[3] Some notes on the Commissione Piana can be read in A. BUGNINI, La riforma liturgica (Bibliotheca Ephemerides Liturgicae, Subsidia 30), CLV-Ed. liturgiche, Rome, 21997, 23-26 and 903.
[4] SACRA CONGREGATIO RITUUM, Decretum Dominicae Resurrectionis, in Documenta, no. 2314-2316. Alongside the Decree, the Ordo of the Easter Vigil of 1951 is also given (n°. 2317-2356). In n° 2363-2443 we find the Decree for the prorogation of the Easter Vigil, the Ordinationes and the second edition of the Ordo for the Easter Vigil published in 1952.
[5] Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei. Cfr. Documenta, n° 2033.
[6] Cfr. the Decrees of the Congregation for Rites in Documenta, nos. 2366, 2590.
[7] Pius XII, Motu Proprio Christus Dominus (6 January 1953) and the annexed Instruction of the Holy Office in Documenta, nos. 2469-2520.
[8] SACRA CONGREGATIO RITUUM, Decretum De rubricis ad simpliciorem for mam redigendis (23 March 1955), in Documenta, nos. 2593-2649.
[9] The two quotations are taken from MEMORIA De instauratione liturgica Maioris Hebdomadae (24 and 45). Cfr. note 13.
[10] Partecipazione attiva alla liturgia. Acts of the Third International Conference on Liturgical Studies, Lugano 14-18 September 1953, Centro di liturgia e pastorale, Lugano 1953, 38 (Latin text), 237 (Italian text).
[11] The various passages are documented in the Acts of the Commission, as reported by N. GIAMPIETRO in his work Il Card. Ferdinando Antonelli e gli sviluppi della riforma liturgica dal 1948 al 1970 (Studia anselmiana 121, Analecta liturgica 21), Studia anselmiana, Roma 1998, 274-388. Here I will limit myself to the essential points.
[12] Cfr. C. BRAGA, La riforma liturgica di Pio XII, Documenti 1: La “Memoria” sulla riforma liturgica (Bibliotheca Ephemerides Liturgicae, Subsidia 128), CLV-Ed. liturgiche, Roma 2003, 58-76.
[13] SACRA RITUUM CONGREGATIO. Sectio historica (no. 90). De instau-ratione liturgica Maioris Hebdomadae, Positio. Typis polyglottis vaticanis, Vatican City 1954, 1 vol. in 4°, 110 pp. The volume contains: 8 pages of general introduction on the liturgical reform; a first chapter of 30 pages, dedicated to the reform of the Easter Vigil (criteria followed in the reform, successes and difficulties encountered); a second chapter of 18 pages, in which the reasons, the problems and the proposed solutions for the reform of Holy Week are presented. It concludes with a long Appendix of 40 pages, with the main positive and negative reports sent by the bishops to the Congregation with regard to the celebration of the Easter Vigil.
[14] SACRA RITUUM CONGREGATIO, Decree Maxime Redemptionis nostrae mysteria (16 November 1955) with the Instructio, in Documenta, n° 2661-2713.
[15] SACRA RITUUM CONGREGATIO, Decree of publication and text of the Ordo, in Documenta, n° 2714-2932
[16] SACRA RITUUM CONGREGATIO, Ordinationes et Declarationes circa Ordinem Hebdomadae Sanctae instauratum, 1 February 1957, in Documenta, no. 3027- 3051. The text of the second edition of the Ordo is not given.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: