Lebrun: On the Diffusion of Hand-Missals in France

Wherein Lebrun explains the history of the vernacular hand-Missal and why its use has become wide-spread in France. (This is Part 2 of the Preface. See Part I)


How the Ordinary came into the hands of the people

The Ordinary of the Mass was accessible to few people besides the priests until the end of the 14th century. At that time the use of the printing press, which allowed the printing of any number of Missals in large and small volumes, no longer permitted it to remain hidden as it had been, and in the following century the heresies of Luther and Calvin, who dared to blaspheme against the Mass, obliged many of the laity to read it and examine its prayers, because it was so hotly disputed. The Councils of Mainz and of Cologne, in 1547, ordered it to be explained to the people. This decision was confirmed at the Council of Trent,[1] which enjoined priests to explain, on Sundays and Feasts, some of the mysteries of the Mass, and what was read in it, so that the faithful would be not only well instructed concerning the truth of the mystery, but also the meaning of the prayers and ceremonies. The Council desired further[2] that priests explain the sacramental formulas, and that bishops have them translated into the vulgar languages to facilitate their understanding by the people.

The Church has never pretended to hide the mystery from the faithful in an absolute sense. She has only feared that their lack of comprehension might cause them to misunderstand the words they express, and she has desired that these words not be given to them unless they are explained at the same time. Several centuries before the Council of Trent, priests were ordered to explain to the people in the vulgar tongue what is said at Mass and at Baptism. This was expressly recommended in a national council of England, held at Clovesho in 747 under the direction of St. Cuthbert, Archbishop of Canterbury. The King Ethelbald and the great men of the realm also assisted. There were read the letters of Pope Zachary and of St. Boniface, who for a long time was the soul of councils in Germany, France, and England. This is the decree of this council: “May priests know how to administer all that which pertains to their functions properly and according to the prescribed form; may those who do not know learn to be able to interpret and expound in the particular tongue the Symbol of Faith and the Lord’s Prayer and the most holy words which are solemnly said in the celebration of the Mass and the office of Baptism; and may they ensure they learn what the sacraments themselves, which are visibly confected in Mass and Baptism, or in other ecclesiastical offices, spiritually signify; lest either in the very intercessions by which they are known to pray to God for the sins of the people, or in the offices of their ministry, they might be found mute and ignorant, as it were, if they do not understand neither the sense of their words nor the sacraments by which through them others attain eternal salvation.”[3]

Virgin_with_Chancellor_Rolin_Luber (1).jpg

French version of the Ordinary of the Mass.––The necessity of explaining the ordinary of the Mass

At the end of the 16th century the Cardinals of Lorraine and of Guise, successively Archbishops of Rheims, ordered a French translation of the Ordinary of the Mass to be published. Later many others appeared, that of Jouyac,[4] of Veron, of M. d’Illaire, and of M. de Harlay, Archbishop of Rouen, printed with the Manual of the diocese and separately; that of M. de la Miletière in 1646, of M. Catalan in 1651, and in 1654, M. Desplats, doctor of theology, translated the entire Missal which has often been reprinted[5]. In 1660 M. de Voisin published a new translation of the Missal with the approbation of several bishops, the vicars general of Paris, and a great number of doctors. It is true that at the insistence of M. the Cardinal Mazarin, the assembly of 1660, under the presidency of M. de Harlay Archbishop of Rouen, condemned this version. But the same president having become the bishop of Paris ten years later did not disapprove of the translation introduced the beginning of Holy Week in Latin and French;[6] and permitted a new edition to be published in 1673, including an explanation of the ceremonies, and this edition has been republished often.[7] As a matter of discipline the Church can forbid or permit the same thing depending on the various times and places it can be harmful or faithful to the faithful. Every day we see return to the Church a great number of persons who since their childhood had heard the offices celebrated in their mother tongue and whose ministers had told them a hundred times that the Roman Liturgy was full of impieties. How can they avoid reading this liturgy in a language they can understand? M. Pélisson, who after tasting the sweetness of Catholicism knew very well what consolation it was for new converts to read the words of the Mass, worked with the Court and the Bishops to publish and distribute a Latin-French Missal throughout the realm in 1676, in 5 small volumes. He also published separately, in the same year, the Ordinary of the Mass with short prayers, which the lord bishop of Saintes in 1681, and other bishops afterwards had printed in their dioceses. 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 to ask 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.

Since I began to apply myself seriously to this task, I have realized that one cannot understand the true sense of the words of the Mass without explaining all of them word by word, and that the principal defect of all the treatises that have been made on the Mass stems from the fact that it has never been explained in its entirety;[8] that explanations have been given based on mere conjecture; that it was necessary to try show which paths the Church took; that it was necessary to draw as much as possible from the Fathers, the most ancient ecclesiastical writers, and from tradition an understanding of the terms, dogmas, and mysteries contained in it; and that for this a literal, historical, and dogmatic explanation of all that goes to compose the Mass is required. We do not need to propose any other views than those of the Church, or fix our souls on anything but the thoughts with which she desires we occupy ourselves, or excite in ourselves other sentiments that those that she wants us to form in our hearts, so that we have the advantage of praying and offering along with her, and that we do not forego the fruit that is attached to an understanding of the words, rich in meaning and mystery, that she places in our mouths.

Cruelties of the Huguenots

(to be continued…)

Any comments or criticisms of the translation are welcome!

**A PDF of the Preface in French can be seen here.


[1] Ut frequenter inter Missarum celebrationem, vel per se, vel per alios, ex iis quae in Missa leguntur, aliquid exponant, atque inter caetera sanctissimi huius Sacrificii mysterium aliquod declarent, diebus praesertim Dominicis et feriis (Conc. Trident. sess. 22, c. 8).

[2] Juxta formam a sancta synodo in catechesi singulis sacramentis praescribendam, quam episcopi in vulgarem linguam fideliter verti atque a parochis omnibus populo exponi curabunt (Sess 24, c. 7).

[3] Ut presbyteri omne sui gradus officium legitimo ritu per omnia discant exhibere nosse: deinde ut symbolum fidei, ac dominicam orationem, sed et sacrosancta quoque verba quae in Missae celebratione et officio Baptismi solemniter dicuntur, interpretari atque exponere posse propria lingua qui nesciant discant: nec non et ipsa Sacramenta, quae in Missa ac Baptismate, vel in aliis ecclesiasticis officiis visibiliter conficiuntur, quid spiritaliter significent, et discere studeant: ne vel in ipsis intercessionibus quibus pro populi delictis Deum exorare noscuntur, vel ministerii sui officiis inveniantur quasi muti et ignari, si non intelligant nec verborum suorum sensum, nec sacramenta quibus per eos alii ad aeternam proficiunt salutem.

[4] Printed with permission of the ordinary of Lyon in 1607, reprinted at Rouen in 1609, etc.

[5] At Le Petit and at Angot, in 1655, 1687, and 1697.

[6] In 1662, M. de Voisin published with privilege, and dedicated to the Queen mother a translation of the offices of Holy Week, including the Ordinary of the Mass and the entire Canon.

[7] At Pierre le Petit, in 1673.

[8] Gabriel Biel, toward the end of the 15th century, undertook to explain all the words of the Canon in Latin. But he filled his Commentary with so many questions and scholastic authorities that he lost himself and often lost sight of the true sense of the letter, so that he finds few readers who have the patience to follow him to the end.


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