Friday, November 18, 2022

“For a General Liturgical Reform” by Annibale Bugnini (Part 3)

We continue our publication of the first-ever English translation of Bugnini’s programmatic 1949 article in Ephemerides Liturgicae, outlining the plan for a total overhaul of the Church’s liturgical worship. (See Part 1 and Part 2.)


This was the point that met with the most interest and the one that, indeed, in terms of a reform, would have the greatest practical significance for the clergy. The Breviary was also, one must admit, the starting point and the benchmark for all previous reforms and, on closer scrutiny, the constant tendency was always to lighten (never to increase) the daily pensum of the Divine Office. It is in this direction, as was to be expected, that all of our contributors’ suggestions are oriented, having in common yet another particularity: [the wish] to bring the Divine Office back to the centre of priestly piety by making it appealing, and also to bring it back, as far as possible, into the hands of the people.

And here we come to the proposals.

1) Some observe that the “rhythm” of the Hours of the Breviary, which animated the life of the monks with frequent prayer, even during the night, no longer corresponds, today, to the rhythm of life of the clergy assigned to pastoral ministry, which is the vast majority. The parish work, made more burdensome by the shortage of priests, the social and religious works that multiply, gravitating around the parish, the natural cell of Christian life, the most elementary evangelisation that requires a great deal of time, and finally, the human organism that is much weaker now than in the past, to fulfil these tasks; all this, according to them, would necessarily require a lightening and an adaptation. What is needed, they say, is a Breviary in which the prayers are distributed differently, for example in the morning and in the evening. Such is a natural rhythm of human life, which would correspond better to our present conditions. If one were to forget these sociological reflections, they conclude, the Breviary would become more and more of a burden for the pastoral clergy, and the all-together recitation of Hours composed to be distributed throughout the day would only increase the malaise that is already so severe.

2) Others, on the contrary, conceive the reform not in the spirit of a quantitative reduction, but rather of a better overall balance of the opus Dei through the year, the week and the day. The reform, they say, must preserve the Breviary’s choral and “communitarian” character. And this should be fostered by the movement, already seen among the clergy in several countries, of gathering together in common life and prayer based precisely on the recitation of the Divine Office.

3) Some note that the current Breviary “cannot be considered very burdensome,” that its recitation is varied and appreciated and better reflects the secular tradition, that it is devout in content and that therefore a reform should be inspired by these two principles:

a) simplicity, above all in the rubrics which are today fantastically complicated (suppression of the “lectio IX,” commemorations, octaves, transferred offices, etc.). The breviary should be an agile and brief “devotionary” that can be recited without needing calendars or epacts;

b) variety that facilitates devotion and education. The ideal, again in their opinion, would be for each feast to have its own lessons, homilies, hymns, etc.; the “commons” are the fossilisation of piety.


The psalter constitutes the basis of liturgical prayer.

The unintelligibility of some parts constituted, until recently, the first and greatest difficulty to a pious and devout recitation. A great step forward, on this point, was achieved with the recent new translation of the psalms, about which, while we can note a general satisfaction and no mince of praise is spared for its unexpected and unhoped-for realisation, there has also been, (we mention it for the sake of accuracy) those who have expressed the wish that “Gregorianists and medieval-Latinists may still be able to examine a few points” and carry out, before the “nova interpretatio” is definitively adopted for the whole Church, some minor modifications, in those points where the text still presents difficulties for liturgical use. An old parish priest is alarmed for fear that one day he will be forbidden to use the old psalter; he knows almost all 150 psalms by heart, and during his visits to the sick, which are often very long, he can recite the Breviary by heart, something that would be impossible if the new psalter were to be imposed by completely excluding the use of the old one.

Intelligibility is not the sole problem regarding the psalter. Since the reform proposals are decidedly oriented towards a reduction of the daily pensum [burden], they generally focus exactly on the psalter to achieve this goal.

1) Some would like to reduce the Matins, as in the octave of Easter and Pentecost, to three psalms and three lessons, thus thinking to have ipso facto found the desired solution. In such case, the following scheme is proposed: Invitatory, hymn, three psalms with three lessons, Dominus vobiscum, oration of the day (the “Te Deum” should be reserved for major solemnities).

2) Others, on the other hand, find that the current weekly recitation of the entire psalter should remain intact, and call for a more rigorous approach, as only the most important feasts should abandon the weekly psalter scheme; the others should have their own psalms only at Vespers, Matins and Lauds; at the minor Hours and Compline one should use the corresponding weekly psalter.

3) On feasts adopting the Sunday psalms, some would recommend using the gradual psalms [119–133] for the minor hours, reserving Psalm 118 for Sunday only.[1] (Still others find Psalm 118 ever more beautiful and rich, and would want it even more often).

4) Some suggest that the distribution and division of the psalms be revised, shortening certain arrangements, like those of Sunday.

5) Other specific proposals are: to avoid repeating the same psalm twice in slightly different forms, such as 13 and 52, 39 iii and 69; that Psalms 41-42 be grouped together; that each psalm be accompanied by a brief explanation, or a title clarifying its meaning; that the “Athanasian” symbol be reserved for the feast of the Most Holy Trinity, or be divided into parts [to be recited] as Prime psalms on Sundays;[2] that Lauds be returned to the old arrangement in use before Pius X; that at Vespers sung with the people, the option be given to replace the last proper psalm with the Laudate Dominum (Psalm 116).

6) Finally, there was no shortage of those who would see in the distribution of the Psalter over a fortnight the one and most effective way of achieving a real lightening of the Divine Office. “One could think,” says one of the proponents, “of a more profound reform of the Divine Office, retaining the daily recitation and correlatively enabling the reading of Sacred Scripture. This wouldn’t imply any substantial change to the liturgical year nor to the basic order of the canonical Hours. But the psalter would be divided into two weeks with the following scheme:

Vespers: four antiphons and four psalms or parts of psalms, a Scripture lesson (some twenty verses) in relation to the liturgical season (or to the feast, but only for major feasts) and followed by a responsory, hymn, verse, Magnificat.

Compline: current pattern.

Matins: Invitatory, hymn, then one nocturne of three antiphons and three psalms (or three groups of psalms with one Gloria), three lessons (one from Scripture, one historical or patristic, and a homily) on Sundays and feasts; one lesson on the ferias per annum, two lessons on ferias that have their own gospel (a biblical lesson and a homily).

Lauds: current pattern, but with the daily recitation of Psalms 148-150 in accordance with the ancient tradition.

Minor Hours: current pattern.

There follows a detailed scheme of psalmodic distribution over the two weeks and an indication of the canticles for the ordinary and festive “cursus.”

The proposal is undoubtedly fascinating, much more than it might seem at first sight. After all, the idea would not be entirely new. The Ambrosian rite, ab antico [since ancient times], has a psalter divided into two weeks. Then there is the issue of breaking with the one-week Roman tradition, which prompted even Fr Parsch to resolutely discard the project.

However, all things considered, it seems to us that the “vale” [goodbye] to a venerable tradition is amply offset by the advantages that would ensue, should the project really move towards a realisation; in other words, it seems to us that this would be the most simple and most serious way to reach a reasonable and convenient reduction of the onus canonicum. Of course a trend towards this solution could not fail to meet with much approval, especially from the pastoral clergy. But this evidently remains in the realm of pure desire, and our reporting has no other purpose than to show one of the most successful and feasible solutions to this thorny problem.

And now you know why we eventually got this.


Antiphons are intimately connected to the psalmody, and there is no lack of proposals of various kinds for them as well.

It is asked:

1) that the antiphons both before and after the psalm be said always in their entirety, and not in the current manner of using a reduced form at the start;[3]

2) that the Breviary and the Antiphonary be harmonised, where differences exist both in the text and in the position of the intonation asterisk;

3) that a better choice of the antiphons be made, that they be more useful, better reflecting the sense of the psalm, of which they should be like the title, being preferably drawn from the New Testament so as to set the psalm in the light of Redemption;

4) that the alleluia be removed from certain antiphons that do not call for it, e.g. “Quomodo cantabimus canticum Domini in terra aliena, alleluia, alleluia” (Second Sunday after Easter, resp.; “Consolantem me quaesivi et non inveni, alleluia” (Feast of the Sacred Heart), etc.

5) that on the Feast of the Most Sacred Rosary the antiphons of the 1st Nocturne be taken from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and those at Lauds be taken from Vespers, for these antiphons have been applied to the psalms too mechanically, the joyful mysteries are celebrated twice, in the hymn at First Vespers and in the antiphons of the 1st and 2nd Nocturnes. Likewise, with much incongruity, the joyful mysteries are lumped together with the sorrowful ones (2nd Nocturne), and the 4th and 5th sorrowful mysteries are poorly contracted into one.

This series will continue with Part 4, on the Readings of Matins, Chapters and Responsories, Hymns, the Preces, and the Beginning and End of the Hours.


[1] This proposal bears a likeness to the monastic Office, where the gradual psalms are prayed at minor hours from Tuesday to Saturday, and where Psalm 118 is divided over Sunday and Monday.

[2] “si divida in parti come salmi di Prima della domenica”… if I understood correctly, the proposal would be that of using the Athanasian Creed as a substitute of the psalmody (!) at Prime on Sundays. Another reading could be: “divided into parts just like the Sunday Prime psalms” [i.e. Psalm 118, I guess]. But I think in this case Bugnini would have written “si divida in parti come i salmi di Prima della domenica.”

[3] This was implemented in the 1960 revisions, where antiphons are always “doubled.”

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