The Modern Origins of Liturgical Ressourcement: Pierre Lebrun’s “Literal, Historical, and Dogmatic Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of the Mass” (1726)

Canticum Salomonis is pleased to introduce another long-term translation stream, this time taken from the work of the French liturgical scholar and Oratorian Father Pierre Lebrun (1661-1729).

Our 7th February post of Alexander VII’s bull Ad aures nostras introduced us into the period of the first vernacular translations of the Mass. Pierre Lebrun occupies a central place in France in subsequent efforts, which largely ignored Alexander’s bull, to educate Catholics in the liturgy.

Screen Shot 2018-01-16 at 9.45.47 PM
Frontispiece of the 1843 Edition of Explication


I. The Work of Father Pierre Lebrun

Fr. Lebrun is praised by no less than Dom Guéranger, whose famously cantankerous sensibility spares some unusually choice words for this Oratorian predecessor:

(1726). Pierre Lebrun, Oratorian, whose find work on the Mass we have already cited many times, is one of the last liturgical writers truly worthy of the name that France has produced. His knowledge was equal to his orthodoxy. L’Explication littérale, historique et dogmatique des prières et cérémonies de la Messe is in four volumes in-8°, published at Paris between 1716 and 1726.

Jean LeClerq has this to say:

“The masterwork of Father Lebrun is his Explication de la Messe which appeared between 1716 and 1726. After two centuries have passed, we must admit that nothing has replaced it, despite some admirable attempts. With Lebrun it is like Jacques Goar: their works are the basis of any serious attempt to address the questions they treated. However, it would be a good thing to reprint Lebrun, taking account the best and most recent theories, new or corrected texts, and the points of detail that have been better clarified and definitively fixed. But a work of this nature would require as much erudition as modesty, which explains perhaps why no one has tried it. (Advertisement in Explication de la Messe, Lex orandi 9 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1949).

More recently, the Abbé Quoëx observed that as a Mass commentary, Lebrun’s Explication is a work that “remains unsurpassed and whose amplitude and complexity is well expressed by the title.”

Coming to liturgical scholarship by a curious route–first taking the part in a contemporary controversy in favor of satire–his scholarly interests became closely tied with the evolving political situation of his day. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, high churchmen and servants of the king actively cooperated in a large-scale effort to convert and catechize the Calvinists of France. As Lebrun describes in his Preface (available below), this effort included the publication of vernacular translations of the Mass Ordinary and even of full-length missals. What was once forbidden had become had now become ubiquitous:

Finally, after the editions made by order of the King for the benefit of new converts after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, such a large quantity have been printed every year, with the authority of the bishops, that it is no longer a question at present whether vernacular translations are proper and whether they ought to be read by the people. It is an established fact. We find them in everyone’s hands, and there is nothing more to be done except to give them, by means of an exact explanation, as much or more respect for it than was attempted to inspire in them by the secrecy with which it was kept from them. It is this that compelled many persons of distinction to demand with earnest the work that we here present.

If in the Middle Ages the thirst for Mass explanations had been slaked by the famous allegorical commentators, among them Honorius and Durandus, there had not yet emerged a parallel literature for the modern period. Further, in Lebrun’s eyes the great medieval allegorists, “as able as they were, were not well-versed in antiquity, and […] had not the time to do the necessary research,” or in other words, they did not base their mysticism on knowledge of Patristic literature. Therefore, a new effort was necessary,  nothing less than a comprehensive study of the liturgy and the history of its interpretation, beginning with the earliest sources:

For a long time many learned and experienced men have desired that what is mysterious should not be confused with what is not. But however edifying may be the views that are presented in order to nourish the piety of the faithful, they must cede their place to the chief ideas that have been held by the Church. Whether it was necessity, convenience, or seemliness that was the first cause of the ceremony in question, that we must say; and then rise as high as possible to discover the spiritual reasons the Church has, so to speak, superimposed upon the reason of institution. The most recent ideas that propose themselves must come last in our consideration.

The immediate provocation of the Explication was the printing of Benedictine Claude de Vert’s Explication simple, littérale et historique des cérémonies de l’Église (4 vol., Paris, 1709-1713), which purports to fill this gap. M. de Vert’s work gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th century scholarship, and into the cradle of liturgical rationalism, when no less than a Benedictine monk attempts to give an entirely literal, physical explanation for the origins of liturgical prayers and ceremonies. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Cartesian project, which “penetrated into the Temple of nature” and revealed the rational structure behind the changing forms of the universe, Vert seems to apply a Cartesian method to the piety of the Church, in which the words and ceremonies once encumbered with fictitious mystical causes are reduced to their true first physical causes. The words and actions of the rite are viewed as a physical system governed by the laws of physics: physical effects kept in motion by inertia.  All “imaginary” causes–allegory, mysticism, etc–are dismissed as “bad taste,” for this is “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.” The result sounds perhaps just as ingeniously imaginative and entertaining as the medieval allegorists!

M. de Vert describes the inspiration for his work:

Having heard in passing, more than thirty years ago, from a very intelligent man and besides well-versed in antiquity, that candles were not originally used in the Church for any other reason than for illumination, the idea struck me, and set me on the track of the natural and historical meaning of the ceremonies, and I understood at that moment that all the other practices of the Church must also have had a primitive physical cause and reason for their institution. I thus set myself to investigate the causes and reasons [….] I have drawn my conclusions, formed my opinion, taken my side, and drawn up my system.

The application of this principle is thoroughgoing. Candles are used in Church because they were needed in the dark of the catacombs. Once their practical purpose had ceased, they were kept anyway out of habit. Again, the primitive purpose of incense is to dispel bad odors, and the Baptismal candle was to help the baptizandi find their way to the font! These usages were only “spiritualized” afterwards. Again, the reason we kneel at the et incarnatus est is by the physical causation of the liturgical word. This is Lebrun:

If we genuflect at the words of the Credo: Et incarnatus est, that is because a little before we say descendit. It is quite easy to perceive, M. de Vert says, “that this ceremony is nothing more than the effect of the impression of the sound and the letter of the word descendit, for genuflection is a sort of descending.” And if in many churches the genuflection is maintained until the word sepultus has been said, do not think that this comes from the desire to adore through this posture of voluntary abasement the humiliations of the incarnate Word. No! It is because we are waiting for a word that tells us us rise, and this word is resurrexit, “for,” he adds in a note, “RESURGERE in its proper sense signifies to rise, to stand erect.

In the Passion reading in the Roman Rite, the faithful prostrate themselves in many places at the death of Christ. Again Lebrun:

Does the Christian people prostrate themselves on the earth in order to adore in the humblest manner possible this precious death that Jesus Christ has suffered for our sins? M. de Vert sees nothing in this ceremony but the attempt to represent a man expiring: “We lay ourselves on the ground,” he says, “and bow our heads in the manner of one expiring and giving up the soul and falling down dead. What’s more,” he adds, “in the Roman Rite a pause is observed here, as if to express, perhaps, the repose of the dead, which is to say, the state of human bodies after death.”

One could call de Vert’s scholarship a scholarship of “enlightened literary taste.” The same early modern sensibility that in philology sought to clear medieval accretions from “authentic classical texts” and in architecture replaced the colors of the Gothic with white Neo-Classical temples, here seeks to reduce the colorful pageantry of the inherited liturgical tradition to clean and pseudo-scientific causes that flattered the literary and rational tastes of that generation. As such it received sharp criticism from the parti des dévots, including the bishop of Soissons, Jean-Joseph Languet de Gergy in his Du Véritable esprit de l’Église dans l’usage de ses cérémonies.

Portrait of French bishop and theologian Jean-Joseph Languet de Gergy (1677-1753)

Father Lebrun is quick to point out de Vert’s arbitrary method of procedure and its unsatisfactory results. Beginning with a materialistic a priori is not impartial research, and leads necessarily to the exclusion of the witness of the Church and her tradition, which claim symbolic reasons for many things. In fact, M. de Vert’s rationalism ironically falls into the same error, though on the opposite extreme, as the medieval commentators: that of ignoring the true nature of the literal sense.

The literal sense is not reducible to a physical cause. Rather it is pure and imply that which the author intended when instituting it, and in many cases this is a symbolic, mystagogical purpose:

The true literal and historical sense of a writing or a ceremony is that which the author or institutor had in mind, and it is often a figurative sense, of symbol and of mystery. If we consider the scepter of kings and the crosier of bishops and abbots in a coarse and material fashion, we might say that it is given to them for support while walking, because this is the more ordinary use of staves and because in fact in ancient times bishops and abbots availed themselves of staves in their travels. But since we are seeking the reason for the institution of the ceremony of the pastoral staff, we would distance ourselves from the true sense of the Church if we gave, as a reason of institution, the ordinary usage of support while walking; for the scepter and the crosier are given to both young and old to be used only in actions of magnificence and ceremony. The proper and historical significance of the scepter is to be the symbol of the power of the king in all his dominions, just as the pastoral staff is given by the Church to bishops and abbots to mark their authority in their diocese and in their monasteries, and because as pastors they have the crook to protect their flock and to chastise those who trouble its peace and good order. The Church herself teaches us these symbolic senses in her pontificals.

Of course, Lebrun is not unaware that certain practices or ceremonies only acquired their symbolic senses after their practical use had ceased: as in the case of the maniple. Rather, he admits a variety of causes. His response presents a balanced approach to mystagogical exegesis firmly based in the literal meaning of the text, which both approves and corrects the imaginative methods of the medieval commentators.

He sets himself to discover whether the origins are convenience, seemliness, necessity, or symbol, and admits any combination of these. Nevertheless, he is firm in his conviction that many usages have nothing but a symbolic reason for their institution:

There are some uses that have never had anything but symbolic and mystical reasons. Some persons doubt that this has been the case since their origin, but it will be easy to persuade them, if we consider the the first Christians always had in view the raising of the mind to God; that everything that passed through their hands became, so to speak, symbolic; and that, as the sacraments were instituted under the form of symbols, they were inclined always to spiritualize everything. This is easy to see in the Epistles of St. Paul, in the writings of St. Barnabas, St. Clement, St. Justine, Tertullian, Origen, etc. The ancient author of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy writing under the name of St. Dionysius, tells us that the symbolic reasons for the ceremonies were kept in secret, and that only the heads of the Church knew them and revealed them to the people on certain occasions.

St. Paul gives nothing but mystical reasons for the practice of praying with heads uncovered which men must observe in church, and the Fathers of the Church who explain the words of St. Paul too give nothing but mystical reasons for this use. It is also for a mystical reason that throughout many centuries the newly baptized were vested in a white robe, and that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, dressed his bed and chamber in white after having received Baptism during the illness of which he died. When the first Christians turned toward the sun as they raised their prayer, it is because they regarded the orient as the figure of Jesus Christ; and when they went to pray in places that were elevated and well lit whenever that was possible, it is because the exterior light represented the light of the Holy Spirit, as Tertullian teaches us.

Contemporary Relevance

Claude de Vert’s materialist method is more than just a curious museum piece. It is one of the first major efforts in a project, which still endures in areas of the liturgical academy in modern times, that views with suspicion or even contempt the mystagogical tradition of the West and symbolic aspects of the liturgical rite. Modern Cartesian literalists apply de Vert’s principle, for example, to vestments: the maniple is nothing but an absurdly glorified handkerchief, and the chasuble just a Roman “business suit” that would have been worn without any mystical connotations by early Roman priests, and so forth. In this sense, Lebrun’s vigorous indictment of the thoroughgoing rationalism of these “grammarians” of his day might apply just as well to some modern historical critics in every discipline of theology.

M. de Vert claims that his ideas introduce us to “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.” There is nothing more excellent than such taste, as long as it is retained within its just bounds, just as nothing is more pernicious than a taste that is ruined for not knowing how to restrain itself. We must acknowledge, to the glory and the shame of our century, that we have both conceived good taste, and so often spoiled it; that spirits otherwise capable of good things are given to deplorable excesses even while explaining the word of God. Origen and many ancient interpreters depended too much on allegory, enough to lead their so-called critics to dispense with them entirely. These latter have carried out their design so thoroughly, that it is no longer acceptable to find in Moses, the Prophets, and the other Holy Books, that which Jesus Christ revealed there to his disciples, and that which they later elaborated for the entire Church. These pretended critics are all grammarians at best, whose works are pernicious to the faithful, and useful only to good theologians to help them understand the scope of certain terms. They are strangers in the Old and New Testament, hospites Testamentorum. On the specious pretext of looking for the simple, literal, and historical sense, M. de Vert has allowed himself like them to be blinded, but also like them, he has allowed himself to be duped.

Modern Catholic scholarship largely inherited these prejudices under the influence of the Biblical scholars, and an anti-priestly, anti-cultic, anti-mystical bias found its way thence into the liturgical movement. [1] Abbe Quoëx explains the modern narrative about the allegorists:

In the wake of A. Wilmart and liturgists such as J. A. Jungmann, P.-M. Gy, and more recently E. Mazza, critiques have been mounted against the allegorical method of commentary of which Amalarius, more than the inventor, was a sort of “high priest.” They have highlighted the arbitrary constructions and the imaginative piety of these works. They have emphasized the decisive influence of the cleric of Metz on the greater part of the expositiones missae of the Middle Ages, from the Liber de divinis officiis of Remigius of Auxerre to the fourth book of the Rationale divinorum officiorum of Durandus of Mende, and thence on the ritual elaborations of the medieval period and the understanding of the Mass in general until the Reformation and beyond.

Setting aside the question of Amalarius’s influence, real or overstated, claims like these have contributed to throw no little suspicion on the mystagogic approach to the liturgy and, in recent times, to discredit the value and the significance of medieval ritual developments that, grafted onto the ancient Gregorian ordo over the course of five centuries, have produced nothing but a “liturgy encumbered with secondary, not to say superfluous, signs.”

The work of picking up the pieces and restoring a balanced appreciation of the medieval mystagogical tradition has yet to be taken up.

One of the great misfortunes of the 20th century Liturgical Movement, as Alcuin Reid has pointed out in The Organic Development of the Liturgy, is that it did not learn from the mistakes of the early modern period. The rationalizing liturgical trends that crystallized in the condemned Synod of Pistoia (1786) and the neo-Gallican rites was an experiment in “modernization” that was not only roundly condemned but, as we shall see, cogently addressed by faithful Catholics in the 18th century.

Fr. Lebrun’s comprehensive work can serve as a model of liturgical ressourcement that both acknowledges the capacity of liturgy to bear a plethora of symbolic meanings, and respects its historically conditioned manifestations. Its clear, concise, pastoral approach makes it a useful handbook for introducing the Catholic faithful to the Latin liturgical tradition of the West without forfeiting the great benefits of modern historical research. Finally, it is a basic introduction to liturgical sources, not only the textual but also the mystical.

LeBrun intended to write 9 volumes, but only finished three, finally published in 1726 as four volumes. It was reprinted more than a dozen times. No portrait of the author is known to the editors who reprinted the work most recently in 1949, though without editorial comment, along with a short biography.

(Translation of the Preface to follow this week……)


[1] Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition, pg. 133: “Father Bouyer’s constructive critique of the direction that liturgical theory and practice had taken during the post-Tridentine period is expressed with a typical French clarté: ‘Nothing of lasting value, then, can be achieved without a preliminary criticism of both the Baroque and the Romantic mentality, since the false notion of the nature of the liturgy has been formed by both periods.’ Today we would describe the temper of this opinion as overly influenced by a preferential option for the primitive.

Other professionals of his generation shared Father Bouyer’s evaluation of the Baroque and Romantic periods, which include the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. So it became fashionable to criticize Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) for his restoration of ‘all the pomp characteristic of the later days of Cluny’ and to praise primitive Benedictinism instead. Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was wrong to tell his beads when he presided at but did not celebrate the Mass. And so forth. Liturgists came to prefer the very remote past to the more immediate past. Modern biblical studies and historical theology, especially patristic studies, began to shape the approach that professionals took to liturgy.

3 thoughts on “The Modern Origins of Liturgical Ressourcement: Pierre Lebrun’s “Literal, Historical, and Dogmatic Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of the Mass” (1726)

    1. Thomas d’Aquin, mystagogue: L’Expositio missae de la Somme de Théologie (III, q. 83, a. 4–5),” Revue Thomist 105 (2005): 179–225.

      “A complete study of rites must therefore permit us to define the limits but also the irreplaceable role of symbolism. This is what Pierre Lebrun does in his Explication littérale, historique et dogmatique des pières et des cérémonies de la messe, a work that to this day remains unsurpassed and whose amplitude and complexity is expressed by the title” (Trans. Aelredus).


  1. The comparison with the Neo-Classical is apt. The present’s recovery of the past is actually an act of greater modernization. So the painted statues and architecture of the Middle Ages–preserving practices going back to ancient times–were dispensed with for the supposed pure white of the ancients. Likewise a highly synthetic view of reality that super-poses layers and layers of meaning on “ordinary” objects–a view that is typical of the ancient world–is dispensed with in the name of returning to supposed primitive simplicity.


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