Monday, June 24, 2024

The Prominence of St John the Baptist in the Old Roman Rite

Unknown Master, 15th cent. Birth of John the Baptist (photo by Fr Lawrence Lew)
Each year in the Western rites of the Catholic Church, the birthday or nativity of St John the Baptist, Precursor of the Lord, is celebrated on June 24, exactly six months away from the nativity of Jesus Christ Our Lord. The simplest explanation for the date is that, as the St. Andrew’s Daily Missal says, “in the Gospel of March 25th we read that the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that three months later [i.e., end of June], Elizabeth, in virtue of a divine miracle, would have a son.”

But there is also an allegorical explanation given by all the liturgical commentators across the ages. As John himself said, concerning the Messiah: “He must increase, I must decrease” (John 3, 30). Right around Christmas in the northern hemisphere falls the shortest day of the year, when the darkness is at its peak; after this, the light will slowly increase. Similarly, right around St John’s nativity falls the longest day of the year, after which the light—John’s light—will decrease. The cycle of nature itself proclaims the right relationship between the Son and Word of God and all of His disciples, no matter how great.

Those who study liturgical, architectural, and artistic history in our times, in which St. John the Baptist is, to be quite frank, an almost marginal figure in Catholic life, may be astonished as they discover the magnitude of the traditional devotion to the Baptist, greatest of the prophets, over all the centuries of the Church, in lands Eastern and Western. In Europe there were thousands of churches dedicated to him, statues and innumerable windows, paintings of every description. He was one of the most popular patrons of places. After the Virgin Mary, there is practically no saint more often invoked.

We can see the evidence of this devotion in the classical Roman rite. Not only does he have two feasts, one of which (the Nativity’s) has a proper Vigil Mass as well, and one of which (again today’s) enjoyed an octave; but in each and every celebration of the Tridentine Mass he is invoked six times in the thrice-repeated Confiteor; again in the great “Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas” prayer at the end of the Offertory; yet again in the Roman Canon; and finally in the Last Gospel. That means nine times each Mass.

By comparison, before 1962, St. Joseph wasn’t mentioned even once in the Order of Mass!

The text of the traditional Confiteor readers:
Confíteor Deo omnipoténti, beátæ Maríæ semper Vírgini, beáto Michaéli Archángelo, beáto Ioánni Baptístæ, sanctis Apóstolis Petro et Paulo, ómnibus Sanctis, et tibi, Pater: quia peccá­vi nimis cogitatióne, verbo et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea máxima culpa. Ideo precor beátam Maríam semper Vírginem, beátum Michaélem Archángelum, beátum Ioánnem Baptístam, sanctos Apóstolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te, Pater, orare pro me ad Dóminum, Deum nostrum.
       (I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to thee, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and thee, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.)
The Suscipe, sancta Trinitas, the last prayer of the Offertory, reads:
Súscipe, sancta Trínitas, hanc oblatiónem, quam tibi offérimus ob memóriam passionis, resurrectiónis et ascensiónis Iesu Christi Dómini nostri: et in honórem beátæ Maríæ semper Vírginis, et beáti Ioánnis Baptístæ, et sanctórum Apostolórum Petri et Pauli, et istórum, et ómnium Sanctórum: ut illis proficiat ad honórem, nobis autem ad salútem: et illi pro nobis intercédere dignéntur in cælis, quorum memóriam ágimus in terris. Per eúndem Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen.
       (Receive, O holy Trinity, this oblation which we make to Thee, in memory of the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and in honor of Blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and of all the Saints, that it may avail unto their honor and our salvation, and may they vouchsafe to intercede for us in heaven, whose memory we celebrate on earth. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.)

How powerful it is to remember—and yet so often forgotten!—that the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is offered not only “in remembrance of the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension of Our Lord Jesus Christ,” but also “in honor of blessed Mary ever Virgin, of blessed John the Baptist, of the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, of these, and of all the Saints.”

The mention once again of the two patrons of the Church of Rome reminds us that only five days after the Nativity of John, on June 29, comes the solemnity of Saints Peter and Paul, who are also, like John, mentioned nine times each in the Tridentine Order of Mass: six times in the thrice-repeated Confiteor; once here, in the Suscipe; once in the Roman Canon; and once in the Embolism after the Lord’s Prayer. For those who know their numerology, nine is a special number because it honors the Blessed Trinity (3+3+3 or 3x3), as in the ninefold Kyrie of the authentic rite of Mass.

The Roman Canon mentions the Baptist in the second list of saints, after the Consecration:

Nobis quoque peccatóribus fámulis tuis, de multitúdine miseratiónum tuárum sperántibus, partem áliquam et societátem donáre dignéris, cum tuis sanctis Apóstolis et Martýribus: cum Ioánne, Stéphano, Matthía, Bárnaba, Ignátio, Alexándro, Marcellíno, Petro, Felicitáte, Perpétua, Agatha, Lúcia, Agnéte, Cæcília, Anastásia, et ómnibus Sanctis tuis: intra quorum nos consórtium, non æstimátor mériti, sed véniæ, quaesumus, largítor admítte. Per Christum, Dóminum nostrum. Amen.
       (To us also, Thy sinful servants, confiding in the multitude of Thy mercies, vouchsafe to grant some part and fellowship with Thy holy Apostles and Martyrs, with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and with all Thy Saints, into whose company we beseech Thee to admit us, not weighing our merits, but pardoning our offenses. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.)

That ”John” here is none other than the Baptist is acknowledged by all liturgical commentators (see, e.g., Archbishop Amleto Cicognani, The Saints Who Pray with Us in the Mass, Romanitas Press, 2017, p. 26).

The Last Gospel, taken from the Prologue of the Gospel of John, includes these words (John 1, 6-8):

Fuit homo missus a Deo, cui nomen erat Ioánnes. Hic venit in testimónium, ut testimónium perhi­béret de lúmine, ut omnes créderent per illum. Non erat ille lux, sed ut testimó­nium perhibéret de lúmine.
       (There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. This man came for a witness, to testify concerning the Light, that all might believe through Him. He was not the Light, but he was to testify concerning the Light.)

How sad it is to reflect on the fact that nowadays, at nearly all celebrations of the Novus Ordo, the name of St John the Baptist, the greatest man born of woman, will not be mentioned even once. (The only time he’d be mentioned at all is if the Roman Canon were chosen ad libitum.)

This is the kind of thing traditionalists have in mind when they speak of the different spiritualities of the old and new “forms” of the Mass. The devotional worldview of those brought up on the novel production of Paul VI is not the same as that of our predecessors in the Faith and of those who retain the traditional form of worship. Thank God, more and more Catholics are coming to see the immense value in reconnecting with their birthright: the lex orandi and lex credendi of the Roman Church of the ages.

Visit Dr. Kwasniewski’s Substack “Tradition & Sanity”; personal site; composer site; publishing house Os Justi Press and YouTube, SoundCloud, and Spotify pages.

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