Monday, July 08, 2024

The Excision of the Institution Narratives from Pius XII’s Holy Week

This past Holy Week I was once again able to assist at the Roman Rite in its ancient-medieval-baroque plenitude, or, to put it more simply, “pre-55.” I have now attended for several years, and the contrast between it and the rite of Eugenio Pacelli is nothing less than astonishing: I would say it is of the same kind of contrast as one finds between the old and new missals in general, if the new be done in the most conservative way possible. Indeed, the ultimate irony is that there are features in the Novus Ordo Triduum that restore what Pacelli had removed—one of the few times in the year when Tridentine and Montinian rub shoulders, so to speak.

Each year I assist at the pre-55 ceremonies, my love and appreciation for them grow. If I had to use a single word, I would say they are sublime. The texts and actions are coherent in a way that those of the Pius XII remix aren’t. These rites move with a majestic, unhurried inevitability, dense with interlocking symbolism. Something about their sheer massiveness, and their utter indifference to pragmatic considerations, makes it easier to lose the sense of time; one surrenders to something so great that it can just as well exist without you, but you are humbly glad to be a part of it. It is not always the case that shortening and simplifying a rite in fact makes it feel easier and shorter. The flow of a rite, and the sacral atmosphere it creates, is far more important for pulling a man out of himself than anything a clock can measure.

The problems with Pius XII’s “restored” Holy Week—which was officially in force from 1955 to 1969, only fourteen years, not long enough to constitute any kind of custom worthy of preservation, as compared with the many centuries of the traditional Holy Week—begin on Palm Sunday and continue throughout nearly every Mass and office till Easter. I provide an overview of some of these points in chapter 12 of The Once and Future Roman Rite, though of course Gregory’s series here at NLM is already a classic, as is Stefano Carusi’s article, and the critique of Pius XII’s master of ceremonies Msgr. Léon Gromier. A simple comparison may be found here.

This year I was more struck than usual by the jarring absence of the Last Supper from the Passion accounts as read in the ’62 missal (the TLM reads all four Passions in Holy Week every year, unlike the NOM which cycles through the Synoptics on Palm Sunday). Everyone who knows about the Roman Tradition (pre-55) vs. Pius XII’s neo-Holy Week talks about this, but I think it has more of an impact if you can see it visually.

Here is what happened to the Passion according to St. Matthew, from Palm Sunday. The images are taken from my 1948 St. Andrew's Daily Missal.

Here is what Pius XII did to the Passion according to St. Mark, read on Tuesday of Holy Week. The ending is intact, but not the beginning: once again, the institution of the Holy Eucharist is completely removed.

Here are the verses chopped out of St. Luke’s Passion on the Wednesday of Pius XII’s Holy Week. 

The upshot of these cuts is that nowhere in the 1962 missal, except for a rarely-used votive Mass, are any of the institution narratives read.

But were the readings too long?

One objection that has been made to the Roman tradition of reading the Passion narratives in their entirety—a practice done for many centuries prior to 1955, and which was to a large extent resumed with the Novus Ordo (!), albeit with a rotation cycle for the Synoptics—is that these accounts are just too long.

Well, yes, they are very long. However, that hardly seems like a serious objection during Holy Week. Do we have anything better to do during Holy Week than read Scripture and pray? If one is going to read the Passion, then one ought to read about the “Sacrament of the Passion” (as St Thomas calls the Eucharist), in order to underline, as Our Lord Himself did at the Last Supper, the intimate connection between the Holy Eucharist, the Sacrifice of Calvary, and the perfect charity of which the former is a sign and the latter is the principal act. It is hard to defend the theological coherence of skipping out on the sign Jesus gave us of His loving atonement and atoning love. As my esteemed colleague Gregory wrote on social media: “The whole aim of the 1955 Holy Week reform is to divorce the Mass from the Passion and the Cross.”

Regarding length of readings, Gregory added:

Objecting to the length of the Roman Passion accounts is just foolish; the Roman arrangement is the simplest and shortest of all the historical liturgies. In the Ambrosian Rite, the narrative of all the principal services from Spy Wednesday to the Easter vigil inclusive is carried entirely by St Matthew, so the Passions of Mark, Luke, and John are all read at one ceremony: the Matins of Good Friday. The Byzantine Rite does something similar with St Matthew, starting at the beginning of chapter 21 at Matins of Palm Sunday, and getting to the end of the Gospel (chapter 28) at Vespers of Holy Saturday. On Good Friday, there are twelve Gospels of the Passion at Matins, the first of which is more than four full chapters of John (!), then large parts of all four Passions are repeated at the Royal Hours. And this, in the midst of a huge number of other readings, endless canons and other kinds of hymns, etc., with almost none of the typical features of the Divine Office omitted.
A deacon commented:
I remember attending the Paschal Divine Liturgy at an Orthodox monastery one year, which begins with the chanting of the entire book of Acts. The liturgy was about four hours, and since there was no electricity at this monastery (and no pews), two of the monks threaded their way through the church replacing peoples’ candles as they burned down. Nobody complained about the length of the service. When it was over, the people went to their cars or tents to get a few hours sleep while two monks took turns tolling the bells all night long. Early in the morning, we were all up again for Divine Liturgy, followed by a meal. Let’s face it: we’ve become sissies. 

The question is forced: What in the world was going on with Pius XII that he allowed such liturgical tomfoolery under his watch?

The first thing we have to rule out—sorry, conspiracy theorists—is that Bugnini was the “author” of the Pacellian Holy Week. He was no such thing. At the time, he was a lowly secretary to the secret committee for proposing liturgical reforms, but the major players, older than he and more influential, steered the entire project. It was other Vatican officials, not Bugnini, who pushed through the new Holy Week. The secretary, for his part, watched open-eyed, learned the tricks of the trade, acquired the insider rolodex, and prepared for his day in the sun under Paul VI.

Here is how historian Yves Chiron puts it in his biography of Bugnini:

On May 28, 1948, Pius XII set up a Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy that was eventually to be termed Commissio Piana. It was created within the Congregation of Rites, with Cardinal Micara, the new prefect of the same Congregation, as its president. Its creation was not made public; for a long time it worked in secrecy. Only when the first of the reforms it had prepared was promulgated was its existence revealed to the greater number, including most liturgists. It numbered few members and, unlike the commissions that later pontificates were to establish, it relied on few liturgy experts.
            With Cardinal Micara as president, the Pontifical Commission for the Reform of the Liturgy originally numbered only six members: Archbishop Alfonso Carinci, undersecretary of the Congregation of Rites; Fr Ferdinando Antonelli, OFM, relator general of the historical section of the Congregation of Rites; Fr Josef Löw, CSSR, vice-relator general of the same historical section; Fr Anselmo Albareda, OSB, prefect of the Vatican Library; Fr Augustin Bea, SJ, rector of the Pontifical Biblical Institute; and Fr Bugnini who, in his capacity as director of Ephemerides Liturgicae, was named secretary of this commission.
            Later on Bugnini would exercise the same function of secretary in the conciliar preparatory commission on the liturgy as well as in the postconciliar Consilium for liturgical reform. Yet whereas he played a decisive role in the preparatory commission and in the Consilium, he did not have a leading role on the Commissio Piana. He was an invaluable worker11 and rarely intervened in the discussions. He learned and observed much, probably became aware of certain problems, but never exerted a decisive influence. 

As to what might have been going on with Pius XII, readers may consult two articles of mine:

Quite simply: it is time to let go of the postwar experiments and return, humbly and gratefully, to the Roman tradition embodied in the 1570 missal and its line of continuous successors.

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