Friday, November 18, 2022

The Dedication of the Basilicas of Ss Peter and Paul

The basilicas which house the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul are among the six which the Emperor Constantine built in Rome in the first years of the peace of the Church. Already by the later 4th century, a hymn of St Ambrose speaks of a procession to visit them both on the Apostles’ feast day, June 29th. However, the most ancient liturgical books of the Roman Rite do not attest to a celebration of the anniversary of their dedication, nor indeed of any such anniversary; the annual commemoration of the dedication of a church is one of the many happy inventions by which the Carolingians enriched the Roman Rite. It is reasonable to assume that once this custom had taken root, the joint celebration of the dedication of the two basilicas was inspired by the joint celebration of the two Apostles to whom they are dedicated, which is one of the universal and most ancient customs of all Christian liturgy. As far as I have been able to ascertain, this is the only pre-Tridentine example of the dedication of two separate churches being kept as a single feast.
Pope Urban VIII draws the letters of the Latin alphabet in ashes spread over the floor, during the consecration of St. Peter’s Basilica on November 18, 1626, the 1300th anniversary of the original church’s consecration by Pope St Sylvester I. (Roman tapestry, ca. 1660)
Prior to the Tridentine reform, however, this feast and the dedication of the Lateran basilica on November 9th were kept almost nowhere outside of Rome itself. Even the Franciscans, who adopted the liturgy of the Roman Curia from their very beginning, did not keep either one. Most of Europe celebrated November 9th as the feast of the martyr Theodore, who is still commemorated on that day, and the 18th as the octave of St Martin.
The breviary of St Pius V, issued in 1568, and the missal which followed it in 1570, were the first liturgical books of their kind deliberately designed to be used outside their place of origin, since they came with the Pope’s permission (not requirement) to adopt them anywhere the Roman Rite was used, in place of the local liturgical use which had hitherto prevailed. However, the liturgy of November 18th contains an interesting anomaly which is found on no other occasion; although the feast commemorates the dedication of two different churches, the Collect of the Mass, which is also said six times in the Office, remains in the singular.
“Deus, qui nobis per síngulos annos hujus sancti templi tui consecratiónis réparas diem … præsta, ut quisquis hoc templum beneficia petitúrus ingréditur, cuncta se impetrasse laetétur.
O God, who each year renewest for us the day of the consecration of this Thy holy temple … grant that whoever entereth this temple to ask for (Thy) favors, may rejoice in having obtained all (that he sought).”
The prayers for the Mass of the anniversary of the dedication of a church in the Echternach Sacramentary, 895 A.D. (Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 9433)
Likewise, none of the other references to “church” in the singular are changed in either the Office or the Mass. Since most places in Europe only began to keep these feasts when (and if) they adopted the Roman liturgical books, they would have encountered this anomaly for the first time in the celebration of this feast.
Some might find it tempting to dismiss this as no more than an example of the habitual, and some might say lazy, liturgical conservatism of the Roman church. I do not believe this to be the case, since the Tridentine books are in so many ways a carefully thought-out response to the novelties of the Protestant reformation.
It is well known that the Reformation, starting with Luther himself, pretended to find justification for its novelties in some of St Paul’s letters, which became for them “the canon within the canon”, the yardstick against which everything else in Scripture, tradition and history was to be measured. This includes not just everything taught by the papacy and the Church in communion with it, but the papacy itself, and thus would the so-called reformers pit Peter and Paul against each other. The Roman liturgy (more precisely, the specifically Roman iteration of it then spreading out to other parts of the world), therefore treats the two churches and the two tombs of the two Apostles as if they were one, to lay emphasis on their real and ancient unity, always faithfully maintained and fostered by the Roman church.
The chancel arch, apse and high altar of the basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Walls, seen from the nave. Each image of St Paul is accompanied by one of St Peter, on the chancel arch, in the apsidal mosaic, and with the two statues seen here at the lower corners. (Image from Wikimedia Commons by Fallaner, CC BY-SA 4.0)
As noted above, the joint feast of Ss Peter and Paul is extremely ancient, while that of the dedication of their basilicas is a product of the early Middle Ages. The Protestant reformers believed that they could restore the original ancient Christian faith by liberating it from the supposed accretions of the medieval period, although they often disagreed amongst themselves, and often quite violently, as to what exactly those accretions were. The Tridentine reform was essentially the Catholic Church’s answer to the question of what to do with all that it had inherited from the Middle Ages, in response to the Protestant repudiation of that inheritance. The Tridentine liturgy therefore reasserts the unity between Peter and Paul with two feasts, one ancient and one medieval, in which they are jointly commemorated, as an assertion of continuity between Christian antiquity and the Middle Ages. [1]
Furthermore, the Protestants often accused the Catholic Church of emphasizing the Saints so much as to eclipse Christ Himself. Many of them believed, and still believe, that devotion to the Saints was no more than a shallow Christianization of ancient polytheism. But this idea is refuted specifically by St Augustine, the same author to whom they turned for proof of their doctrine of grace. In The City of God, 8, 27, he writes, “But who ever heard a priest of the faithful, standing at an altar built for the honor and worship of God over the holy body of some martyr, say in the prayers, ‘I offer to you a sacrifice, Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian?’ For it is to God that sacrifices are offered at their tombs – the God who made them both men and martyrs, and associated them with holy angels in celestial honor; and the reason why we pay such honors to their memory is that by so doing, we may both give thanks to the true God for their victories, and, by recalling them afresh to remembrance, may stir ourselves up to imitate them by seeking to obtain like crowns and palms, calling to our help that same God on whom they called. Therefore, whatever honors the religious may pay in the places of the martyrs, they are but honors rendered to their memory, not sacred rites or sacrifices offered to dead men as to gods.” [2]
(The Communio of the Mass of a church dedication: “My house shall be called a house of prayer, sayeth the Lord; in it, everyone who asketh, receiveth; and he that seeketh, findeth; and it is open to him that knocketh.” Matthew 21, 13)
The choice of Matins readings for a dedication and its octave reinforces this. On the feast itself and the following five days, those of the second nocturn are taken from Augustine. On the seventh day, St John Chrysostom is brought in as a witness that the Eastern churches have always held the same ancient Faith as the West; on the octave itself, the reading is from an early medieval Pope, St Felix IV, as quoted in a medieval collection of canon law. (Canon law was especially hated by the early Protestants as one of the worst medieval “corruptions.”) Likewise, in the third nocturn, the readings begin with St Ambrose, then pass to St Gregory the Great, and finally to the Venerable Bede, a symbol of the faithful transmission of the Church’s teaching from one generation to another. [3]
The very first such reading (on the second day of the feast) shows how carefully this was all thought out, a passage from St Augustine’s Treatise on Psalm 121, which quotes both Peter and Paul.
“ ‘Jerusalem that is being built as a city.’ Brethren, when David was saying these things, that city had been finished; it was not still being built. He speaks therefore of some city, I know not which, that is now being built, unto which living stones run in faith, of whom Peter says, ‘And you are built up together as living stones into a spiritual house’ (1 Pet. 2, 5) that is, as the holy temple of God. What does it mean, ‘You are built up together as living stones?’ You live, if you believe, but if you believe, you will be made a temple of God; for the Apostle Paul says, ‘For the temple of God is holy, which temple are you.’ ” (1 Cor. 3, 17)
Ss Ambrose and Augustine, ca. 1495, by the Spanish painter Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504.) Public domain image from Wikimedia Commons
NOTES: [1] The creators of St Pius V’s reformed books may not have understood when exactly the feast of a church dedication came into existence, but they would certainly have noted its absence from the Gelasian Sacramentary, the oldest of the Roman Rite, which is kept in the Vatican library.
[2] Likewise, in his treatise against Faustus the Manichaean (20, 21): “For which of the bishops, while officiating at the altar in the places where the saints’ bodies lie, has ever said ‘We bring thee an offering, Peter, or Paul, or Cyprian’? But what is offered is offered to God, who crowned the martyrs, in the places of memorial of those whom He crowned, so that great affection might arise from the association with those very places, and charity kindled towards those whom we can imitate, and to Him by whose help we can imitate them.”
[3] The reading attributed to Pope Felix is not authentically his, but this fact was unknown in the 16th century. The breviary of St Pius V reads the homily of St Gregory that begins with the words “Si veraciter sapientes” on the 4th day within the octave; in the reform of St Pius X, it was moved to the octave day.

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