The feast of the Holy Trinity was a rather peculiar addition to the Roman liturgical kalendar inasmuch as it does not commemorate a specific saint or event in the history of salvation, but rather a theological idea. It was in fact an observance that emanated without Rome: the Mass in honour of the Holy Trinity was composed by Stephen, bishop of Liège, around 910, and the feast itself arose about a century later. By 1030, Cluny was celebrating it on the first Sunday after Pentecost and, thanks in great part to its reticulate influence, the feast diffused throughout Christendom.
It encountered redoutable resistance in Rome, however. In 1061, Pope Alexander II, replying to the archbishop of Tortona’s question about the use of the pallium on Trinity Sunday, noted the absurdity of honouring the Holy Trinity with a special feast day, since the Trinity is daily honoured by the Minor Doxology and other praises in the liturgy. “And so, my brother archbishop,” the Pope rather tartly concludes, “I can scarcely give you a proper answer about the use of the pallium on the day when the feast of the Holy Trinity is celebrated.”1
A century thereafter, Pope Alexander III pointed out that a feast of the Holy Trinity makes as much sense as a feast of the Holy Unity: both are superfluous, since these mysteries are celebrated in the quotidian liturgy. Writing around 1150, Abbot Potho of Prüm listed the feast of the Holy Trinity together with those of the Transfiguration and Conception of Our Lady as novæ celebritates, disapprovingly asking Quæ ratio festa hæc celebranda induxit?
But resistance was doomed to failure. The sons of St Bernard of Clairvaux, whose view of novel feasts was much that of his contemporary Potho’s, adopted the feast of the Holy Trinity in 1271, and finally, in 1334, Pope John XXII, residing in Avignon, introduced it into the Roman kalendar, thereby relegating the First Sunday after Pentecost to a mere commemoration, which the next Pope John entirely suppressed in 1960. (Of course, the Mass of the First Sunday after Pentecost can be said on any feria in the week following). Other “idea feasts” eventually made their way into the Roman kalendar as well, including Corpus Christi (which also originated in Liège, interestingly enough), the Sacred Heart, and Christ the King.
In this extract from chapter LX of the Micrologus de ecclesiasticis observationibus, Bernold of Constance discusses the feast of the Holy Trinity. He evinces a pervading concern that liturgical feasts be authentica, i.e. part of the tradition of the church of Rome, and the feast of the Holy Trinity’s failure in this count consigns it to Bernold’s disapprobation.
Some celebrate the service of the Holy Trinity on the Octave Day of Pentecost, although without added alleluias, and think that it ought to be observed throughout the entire week following, but this is not authentic. It is said that this office as well as the history of the Invention of St Stephen were composed by Stephen of Liège; both of these are rejected by the Apostolic See.
When Pope Alexander [III], of pious memory, was asked about this matter, he replied that, following the Roman order, the solemnity of the Holy Trinity should not be assigned to any particular day, just as no solemnity of the Holy Unity is assigned to any particular day. This is precisely because the commemoration of both is celebrated every Sunday, nay, rather, every day.
One should know that Charlemagne’s teacher Alcuin [Albinus Flaccus], at the request of the Archbishop St Boniface, as they say, composed Mass orations of the Holy Trinity, and of Wisdom for Monday, the Holy Ghost for Tuesday, Charity for Wednesday, the Angels for Thursday, the Cross on Friday, and Our Lady on Saturday. This was so that the priests of that time, who were recently converted to the faith and were not yet instructed in the ecclesiastical offices nor provided with the necessary books, might have something with which they could carry out their duty on whatever day. As a result, even to-day some insist on saying these same orations daily, even when they have access to the proper offices. Moreover, nearly everywhere the service of the Cross is observed on Fridays and of Our Lady on Saturdays, on the basis not so much of authority as of devotion.
In the same way, therefore, that these sorts of observations do not pertain more to one week than to another, neither does that of the Holy Trinity. Hence it seems incongruous to celebrate one Sunday of the Holy Trinity with the Alcuin’s orations and Stephen’s chants when all Sundays are endowed with authentic offices which relay to us the honour of the Holy Trinity no less.
Note that we take up the practice of singing the preface of the Holy Trinity on Sundays based on the authority of Rome, not of Alcuin; it is one of the nine things which Pope Pelagius [II], Gregory [the Great]’s predecessor, ordered to be observed. Nevertheless, the work Alcuin performed for the Holy Church is not to be contemned, for it is said that he collected the Gregorian orations into the books of the sacraments, adding a few which he nonetheless decided to mark with an obelus. He then collected other prayers or prefaces which, even if not of Gregorian origin, are nevertheless appropriate for ecclesiastical celebrations, as is stated in the prologue which he placed after the Gregorian prayers in the middle of the same book.
Quidam autem officium de sancta Trinitate in octava Pentecostes instituunt, licet non sit alleluiatum, quod et per totam subsequentem hebdomadam observandum putant, sed non est authenticum. Nam quidam Leodicensis Stephanus idem officium, sicut et historiam de inventione sancti Stephani, composuisse asseritur; quae utraque ab apostolica sede respuuntur. Unde piae memoriae Alexander papa de hac re inquisitus, respondit iuxta Romanum Ordinem nullum diem specialiter ascribi debere solemnitati Sanctae Trinitatis, sicut nec sanctae unitatis, praecipue cum in omni Dominica, imo quotidie, utriusque memoria celebretur. Sciendum autem quemdam Albinum magistrum Caroli imp. rogatu sancti Bonifacii archiepiscopi, ut aiunt, missales orationes de Sancta Trinitate composuisse, et in secunda feria de sapientia, in tertia de Spiritu sancto, in quarta de charitate, in quinta de angelis, in sexta de cruce, in Sabbato de sancta Maria. Et hoc ideo ut presbyteri illius temporis nuper ad fidem conversi, nondum ecclesiasticis officiis instructi, nondum etiam librorum copia praediti, vel aliquid haberent cum quo officium suum qualibet die possent explere. Unde et adhuc quidam easdem orationes quotidie, etiam cum propria abundent officia, nolunt praetermittere. In singulis quoque hebdomadibus, sexta feria de cruce, et Sabbato de sancta Maria pene usquequaque servatur, non tam ex auctoritate quam ex devotione. Sicut igitur huiusmodi observationes nulli magis hebdomadae quam alii ascribuntur, ita nihilominus et illa de sancta Trinitate. Incongruum ergo videtur unam Dominicam cum orationibus Albini, et cantu Stephani de sancta Trinitate celebrari, cum omnes Dominicae authenticis abundent officiis, quae non minus nobis intimant honorem sanctae Trinitatis. Praefationem autem de sancta Trinitate, quam in diebus Dominicis frequentamus, non ex Albino, sed ex Romana auctoritate suscepimus. Nam haec est una ex illis novem quas solas Pelagius papa, antecessor Gregorii, constituit observari. Fecit tamen idem Albinus in sancta Ecclesia non contemnendum opus, nam Gregorianas orationes in libris Sacramentorum collegisse asseritur, paucis aliis adiectis, quas tamen sub obelo notandas esse indicavit. Deinde alias orationes sive praefationes, etsi non Gregorianas, ecclesiasticae tamen celebritati idoneas collegit, sicut prologus testatur quem post Gregorianas orationes in medio eiusdem libri collocavit.
1. Præterea festivitas sanctæ Trinitatis secundum diversarum consuetudines regionum a quibusdam in octavis Pentecostes ab aliis in dominica prima ante Adventum Domini celebrari consuevit: ecclesia siquidem Romana in usu non habet, ut in aliquo tempore hujusmodi celebret specialiter festivitatem cum singulis diebus Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto, et cætera consimilia dicantur ad laudem pertientia Trinitatis; quare tibi, frater archiepiscope, de usu pallii eo die quo sanctæ Trinitatis festivitas celebratur certum nequaquam potuimus dare responsum. (De feriis, lib. 2, tit. 5, cap. Quoniam).