Thursday, November 03, 2022

Forgotten English Rituals: A New Research Project by Nico Fassino

Our thanks to Mr Nico Fassino for sharing with us this account of his latest research project, on the 1954 English Ritual. He is the founder of the Hand Missal History Project, an independent research initiative dedicated to exploring Catholic history through the untold and forgotten experiences of the laity across the centuries. Learn more at or @HandMissals

The Rituale Romanum, that priestly manual containing the texts of the sacraments and blessings of the Roman rite, is a beautiful and fascinating book. Despite being frequently used for mundane moments and life-changing milestones alike, it is one of the most overlooked of all the liturgical books of the Catholic Church. It has received far less study than the missal or the lectionary, for example, and is often misunderstood.
Title page of the Rituale Romanum of 1614
In the popular conception, the Roman Ritual is viewed as a relatively recent creation (first published in 1614) and therefore is judged far less venerable than the texts of the Roman rite of the mass which stretch back more than a millennium before that. Because it is distinctly separate from the missal, and used in so many ordinary circumstances, it can sometimes be thought of as more ‘informal’ or less central to the Christian life than the liturgy of the Mass.
But the ritual is a unique and compelling book deserving of a great deal more study. Though the Roman Ritual itself dates to the Counter Reformation, the content is ancient and draws from a pan-European tradition of printed Catholic rituales dating back to the early medieval ages. It is also no minor or ancillary part of the spiritual life. As Cardinal Emmanuel Suhard wrote, the ritual book is one of the most crucial tools given to priests as part of their charge to be “craftsmen of universal rehabilitation”:
In the Church his is the task of reconciling all created things with God; not overnight or without a struggle, but progressively, starting with the smallest things. One has only to open that wonderful book, the Ritual, to see that this is so. Nowhere else does the Church manifest more clearly her maternal love and concern for the passing companions of our earthly journey. The liturgy neglects nothing.
It blesses houses, bread, eggs, fruits. It thinks of fountains, ships, stables, fields, sick animals. It does not forget bees, wax, tools. It sanctifies water, light, fire, incense. There is nothing it does not encounter with sympathy, even tenderness. It is surprised at none of the most recent discoveries: machines, railways, automobiles, airplanes, telegraph, seismograph and soon television. It encompasses everything, it admits everything for man’s good use and as related to his eternal destiny for which, as stressing in the liturgy, those mysterious elements serve as symbols. (Priests Among Men (New York: Integrity, 1950). Page 63.)
Conventional Narratives
Because the standard text of the ritual is in Latin, it is commonly thought that the beauty of the ritual and the full richness of the sacraments were not understood by the laity for most of Christian history. Conventional histories of Catholic liturgical reform assume that advocacy for the vernacular in the sacraments, and pastoral concern for the laity, were modern trends stemming from the twentieth century Liturgical Movement. Thanks to these calls for reform (so the narratives go) the Second Vatican Council finally changed things and ushered in a new era of vernacular ritual books where the laity could understand things for the first time beginning in 1964.
The Catholic Transcript, Aug. 20, 1964, p. 1, via Catholic News Archive
The 1954 English Ritual
But that was not the first time that a Vatican-approved vernacular ritual had been published and promoted around the globe. More than a decade before, in November 1953, the American Bishops unanimously approved a version of the ritual for the United States which allowed almost all the sacraments and blessings it contained to be said officially in the English. This ritual – which is now almost entirely forgotten – was approved by the Holy See and published to great fanfare in December 1954.
The St Louis Register, Dec. 24, 1954, p, 9, via Catholic News Archive.
The 1954 English Ritual was titled Collectio Rituum, or “Collection of Rites.” It was heralded as a major victory for the Liturgical Movement in America, which had worked to promote the project since 1947. The English Ritual had been championed by Bishop Edwin V. O’Hara of Kansas City, Missouri (a long-time supporter of the Liturgical Movement and one of the most influential American prelates of the twentieth century), and brought to fruition by two key Liturgical Movement figures: Rev. Gerald Ellard, SJ, and Rev. Michael Mathis, CSC.
The US Bishops’ news service heavily promoted the 1954 English Ritual, and everyone anticipated it would be popular and widely adopted. Although it had been originally created for use in America, interest in the 1954 English Ritual soon spread to English-speaking lands throughout the world. Within one year of publication, the Holy See had granted permission for Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Burma, Ceylon, and Malaya to use the American ritual.
But it soon became clear that the 1954 English Ritual was not very popular after all. There was no widespread clamor for the ritual amongst the clergy and laity, and the reactions of the bishops themselves were mixed. Some bishops only partially permitted its use in their dioceses, while others (like Francis Cotton of Owensboro, Kentucky) refused to authorize it at all, despite the fact that they had voted to approve it only a year prior!
St Louis Register, Jul. 29, 1955, p. 2 of sec. 2; via Catholic News Archive
In November 1956, less than two years after initial publication, the American bishops secretly voted to put an end to the failed Collectio Rituum and replace it with a new edition. The replacement ritual, eventually published in 1961, contained substantially less vernacular than the original and undid almost all of the innovations of the 1954 edition.
It was a bitter defeat for liturgical reform. Those in the Liturgical Movement took pains to avoid any public discussion of this reversal, and they redoubled their efforts to secure lasting victory for the vernacular at the upcoming ecumenical council.
The Pittsburgh Catholic, Sept. 28, 1961, p. 7 of the arts section; via Catholic News Archive
A New Study of Ritual Books
In a research project more than two years in the making, “Forgotten English Rituals: The Collectio Rituum of 1954 and the untold history of the vernacular administration of the sacraments”, I use uncited primary and archival sources to provide a comprehensive study of the origins, demise, and cover-up of the landmark American Collectio Rituum. But the story of vernacular administration of the sacraments does not originate with the English Ritual of 1954. Indeed, there is a vast and almost totally neglected history of the official use of English in Catholic ritual books which I also explore for the first time.
For centuries, rituals used in English-speaking lands throughout the world contained officially permitted vernacular. There are so many different versions that it is frankly impossible to list them all. In an appendix, for example, I offer an incomplete bibliographic catalog of 25 different ritual books which contained English permissions. Even with this limited list of 25 different rituals, I discovered at least 128 editions issued by at least 35 Catholic publishers. Of these, fully 112 editions of 18 titles were published before 1954!
The ‘Visitation and Care of the Sick’ permitted in English. Page detail from the 1812 Ordo Administrandi Sacramenta, the ritual book published for official use in England and Wales.
To better explore the history of English in the administration of the sacraments, I analyzed the content of 21 different rituals published between 1738 and 1962. I chose 16 different sacramental rites and blessings from the ritual, (e.g. baptism, marriage, extreme unction, blessing of sick children, etc) and discretely analyzed which portions of each of these ceremonies were officially permitted to be given in English as the authentic liturgical text.
List of the 21 English Rituals studied in Forgotten English Rituals
List of the 16 Sacraments and blessings studied in “Forgotten English Rituals”
Through this content analysis, we gain a much richer understanding of the centuries-long tradition of vernacular in the administration of the sacraments and are able to compare different rituals on a one-to-one basis. The results are fascinating: for some sacraments and blessings, these older rituals contain just as much official vernacular text as the 1954 English Ritual… in some cases, they contain more!
Summary table of vernacular content analysis
Table of vernacular content analysis for the sacrament of marriage, from “Forgotten English Rituals”. Blue “E” sections are permitted in vernacular, while White “L” or “L (pe)” sections are required in Latin.
To help set the history of English vernacular rituals into a wider context, I also studied the official vernacular content in the Sacrament of Baptism across 26 additional European rituals between 1450 and 1929. These rituals are mainly drawn from Spanish, French, German, Hungarian, and Czech lands, but there were many others which could also have been included. Indeed, there are such a vast number of these rituals that this research cannot hope to be more than an introduction and starting point.
While there has long been awareness of the existence of vernacular in some historic European ritual books, particularly from German-speaking lands, this research breaks new ground by quantitatively analyzing the content of the rituals from multiple nations and comparing them in the same one-to-one manner as the English rituals mentioned above. It also includes previously unstudied ritual books (for example, none of the 16 German-language ritual books included in this research are cited in Hermann Reifenberg’s magisterial 1971 study of medieval German rituals and their vernacular content).
List of the 26 European Rituals studied in “Forgotten English Rituals”
The use of vernacular in these historical European rituals is fascinating. In some, the vernacular is printed alongside the Latin and the rubrics state one or the other can be used... in other cases, only the vernacular is printed without Latin even as an option. In several rituals, even the sacramental form itself was officially permitted in the vernacular!
Portions of various European ritual books. At top: the renunciations from the sacrament of baptism in Ritual #V (1803 Paris), an example of both Latin and vernacular being printed in the ritual text with either permitted (“Latin or French”). Middle: the introductory dialogue from the sacrament of baptism in Ritual #C (1597 Coutances), an example of only the vernacular being printed in the ritual text, without Latin even as an option. Bottom: the conditional form of baptism given exclusively in French in Ritual #J (1642 Orleans).
In addition to the rediscovery and analysis of historic vernacular ritual books, this research also surveys the campaign for modern reform which swept the church beginning in the very first years of the twentieth century – preceding even the modern Liturgical Movement. These modernization efforts ultimately resulted in an ever-expanding push for vernacular permissions (beyond the organic customs of the past) and the revision and replacement of the ritual texts themselves (many of which had remained nearly unchanged since at least the eighth century). The rise and fall of the remarkable 1954 American Collectio Rituum, told in full for the first time, is thus revealed to be both a crucial bridge between ancient traditions and the modern age, as well as a hitherto overlooked ‘tipping point’ in the story of liturgical reform.
Forgotten English Rituals” overturns conventional histories by demonstrating the widespread and official use of the vernacular in the administration of the sacraments in the centuries before the Second Vatican Council. These findings also complicate modern debates about the role of the vernacular itself as a contributing factor to the catastrophic post-conciliar decline of sacramental practice.
Beyond the narrative history, the study includes almost 60 pages of photographs and 40 pages of detailed data in appendices. It is my hope that this work can serve as a starting point for future research, which this subject so clearly deserves.

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