The “Inauthentic” Feast of the Holy Trinity

Over at New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo has published some thoughts prompted by Notkerus’s Saturday article on the Feast of the Holy Trinityand we re-publish it here with permission.

Our friends at Canticum Salomonis have published a translation of a part of an important liturgical treatise of the later 11th century, the Micrologus de Ecclesiasticis Observantiis, which contains a well-known anecdote about the feast of the Holy Trinity. The author, one Bernold of Constance, reports that when Pope Alexander II (1061-73) was asked a question about the feast of the Holy Trinity, then being celebrated in certain parts of Europe, he said that he saw no more need for it than for a feast of the Unity. For this reason Bernold considers the feast to be “not authentic.”

What Pope Alexander and Bernold of Constance say in this regard needs to be read in light of the great reform movement going on in the Church at the time, and the role of Rome and the Papacy in that reform.

Rome has usually been a late-comer to the great movements of reform and renewal in the Church. St Nicholas I, who traditionally shares the epithet “the Great” with Ss Leo I and Gregory I, and is famous inter alia for his defense of the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, died in 867 after a reign of nine years. From him, it was a distance of but thirty years and eight Popes to Stephen VI, whose reign of roughly sixteen months is summed up as follows in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

“Whether induced by evil passion or perhaps, more probably, compelled by the Emperor Lambert and his mother Ageltruda, he caused the body of (his predecessor) Formosus to be exhumed, and … placed before an unwilling synod of the Roman clergy. (Note: this is often referred to as ‘the Cadaver Synod’.) A deacon was appointed to answer for the deceased pontiff, who was condemned for performing the functions of a bishop when he had been deposed and for passing from the See of Porto to that of Rome. The corpse was then stripped of its sacred vestments, deprived of two fingers of its right hand, clad in the garb of a layman, and ultimately thrown into the Tiber. Fortunately it was not granted to Stephen to have time to do much else besides this atrocious deed. Before he was put to death by strangulation, he forced several of those who had been ordained by Formosus to resign their offices …”

Pope Formosus and Stephen VI – The Cadaver Synod, by Jean-Paul Laurens, 1870 (Public domain image from Wikipedia.)

After this infamous event, which has provided endless grist for the mills of anti-Catholic controversialists, the Papacy remained essentially quiescent as simony, lay investiture (the de facto control of ecclesiastical appointments by lay civil rulers) and clerical incontinence became nearly omnipresent in the Church. What made Cluny so important, especially in the 10th and 11th centuries, was the fact that the duke who founded it in 910, William of Aquitaine, renounced all control over it, in an age when monasteries were essentially the private property of the nobility, who appointed whomever they wished as abbots and officials. Given the tenor of the times, such appointments were very often made solely for the sake of providing an important connection with a salary, and with no reference to whether the man so appointed had any intention of living as a monk. Much the same applied to clerical offices of all ranks.

This state of things continued until the reign of another particularly unworthy successor of St Peter, Benedict IX, whom St Robert Bellarmine described as “the nadir” of the Papacy, and over whose career we draw a veil, as the sons of Noah drew a veil over their father. After his deposition, however, and the 24-day reign of Pope Damasus II, the papal throne was occupied by Leo IX, an active and enthusiastic reformer, now canonized as a Saint. From this point on, the reform party within the Church was in the ascendant, and would go from strength to strength, with the Popes very much at its fore; the clerical vices which were universal in the mid-11th century were almost entirely gone by the end of the 12th.

Alexander II, however, was elected in 1061, only 13 years after Benedict’s deposition; the like-minded Popes who preceded him were all fairly short-lived. Moreover, the ascendancy of the reform party was only made possible by the direct intervention of the German Emperor Henry III, for it was he who effectively deposed Benedict and then appointed to the Papacy a series of German bishops, all of whom owed their episcopal see to him; the short-lived Damasus II, his own kinsman St Leo IX, and then Victor II.

In these circumstances, it was perhaps only natural that once the reform party had taken control of Rome, it should begin to insist that the specifically Roman form of the Roman Rite also be followed, as a sign of unity with the Papacy and the worthy cause it had only very recently embraced. This was also the period when the Mozarabic liturgy was to a large degree forcibly suppressed, despite coming out the victor in a trial by fire; a similar attempt was made on the Ambrosian Rite, endorsed by St Peter Damian, and only stopped because Alexander II was himself Milanese.

The trial by fire of the Mozarabic liturgy.

Bernold of Constance was an enthusiastic supporter of the reform party; he lists a number of liturgical provisions enacted by Alexander’s successor, St Gregory VII, who was so much the embodiment of the reform that it is sometimes called “Gregorian” after him. The Micrologus, a treatise of roughly 16,500 words, refers more than 70 times to “the Roman order”, “the authority of Rome”, etc.

Richard Krautheimer, one of the great historians of the Christian art and architecture of Rome, writes à propos of the end of the 13th century, when the Papacy was about to pass into another of its less edifying phases, of “a problem recurrent in the history of Rome. Basically she was conservative. Her past, Christian and pagan, was her pride; but it weighed her down. The mistress of the world, see of the successors of St Peter, did not take easily to new ideas. Not by chance did she never house a medieval university. Bologna, not Rome, developed Roman law; Paris developed scholasticism. Similarly, for long periods patrons and artists remained untouched by new concepts of art evolved elsewhere in Europe. … the upsurge of a new art was (at various points) linked to a political revival; and it was interwoven with a rediscovery of the Roman past, Christian and pagan, rejuvenated. The alien ideas only took root when wedded to the living tradition. But a plainly conservative undercurrent lazily moved along beneath the recurrent upsweeps.” (Rome: Profile of a City; 2000 edition, p. 211. He could have added references to Gothic architecture and medieval music theory at this point.) This is very much the attitude embodied by Pope Alexander’s remark, and Bernold’s characterization of the feast of the Holy Trinity as “inauthentic.”

But even for all this, Pope Alexander’s critique of the feast evinces an astonishing lack of historical perspicacity.

The unicity of God was taught by the Jews and the pagan philosophers long before the coming of Christ, and inherited from them by the Church without question. This is why St Paul was able to preach to the Athenians that the “unknown god” to whom they had dedicated an altar had in fact finally revealed Himself, and come to seek the salvation of man, citing in support of his teaching the Greek poet who said “For we are also his offspring,” which is to say, of one God, not of many. (Acts 17, 22-31) This is also why it was a commonplace among the early Church Fathers that Plato had learned many of his ideas from Moses; already before the end of the 2nd century, St Clement of Alexandria calls him “the philosopher who learned from the Hebrews.”

It hardly needs to be said that the doctrine of the Trinity, on the other hand, the central mystery of the Christian Faith, was the subject of considerable discussion, which required seven ecumenical councils, innumerable local councils, and a vast body of theological writing for its defense.

The First Council of Nicea, depicted in a 14th-century fresco within the monastery complex of Panagia Sumela, in modern Turkey. The Emperor St Constantine, as he is called in the Byzantine churches, presides over the Council; in the lower left corner, St Nicholas is shown slapping Arius in the face for his impiety. (The monastery has been abandoned since 1923, and the frescos are sadly much damaged by vandalism.)

The most important heresies of the pre-Constantinian era, those which drove Arius and others to the opposite extreme, the denial of Christ’s divinity, all turned around the idea that because God is one, Christ must be in some way the same as the Father. This doctrine is usually known as Sabellianism, after a Roman priest named Sabellius who was excommunicated for teaching it by Pope St Callixtus I in 220 AD. However, it is also known as “Patripassianism”, the heresy that it was God the Father who suffered on the Cross. The Church Fathers, therefore, had to assert that the Incarnation did not compromise the essential doctrine of the unicity of God; the doctrine of the Trinity is the elaboration of this teaching. Among the modern writers, perhaps no one has expressed the import of this better than GK Chesterton did in The Everlasting Man.

“If there is one question which the enlightened and liberal have the habit of deriding and holding up as a dreadful example of barren dogma and senseless sectarian strife, it is this Athanasian question of the Co-Eternity of the Divine Son. On the other hand, if there is one thing that the same liberals always offer us as a piece of pure and simple Christianity, untroubled by doctrinal disputes, it is the single sentence, ‘God is Love.’ (1 John 4, 16) Yet the two statements are almost identical; at least one is very nearly nonsense without the other. The barren dogma is only the logical way of stating the beautiful sentiment. For if there be a being without beginning, existing before all things, was He loving when there was nothing to be loved? If through that unthinkable eternity He is lonely, what is the meaning of saying He is love? The only justification of such a mystery is the mystical conception that in His own nature there was something analogous to self-expression; something of what begets and beholds what it has begotten. Without some such idea, it is really illogical to complicate the ultimate essence of deity with an idea like love. If the moderns really want a simple religion of love, they must look for it in the Athanasian Creed.”

The Trinity first appeared at the Baptism of Christ, as the Byzantine Rite states in the tropar for January 6th: “When you were being baptized in the Jordan, o Lord, the worship of the Trinity was made manifest.” But the Western Church did not place the feast of the Holy Trinity on a Sunday after Epiphany. (Neither for that matter did the East, which keeps Pentecost itself as its feast of the Trinity.) The salvation of man was accomplished and revealed at the Resurrection, but the Church did not place the feast of the Holy Trinity on a Sunday after Easter. On the first weekly commemoration of the Resurrection after Pentecost, the Church pauses to contemplate not only what was done for us in the Passion and Resurrection, and the sending of the Holy Spirit, but also to contemplate Who exactly did these things, and now sends Her forth to “make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”

I think it unlikely to be mere coincidence that once the Gregorian reform had largely achieved its purpose, the blanket rejection of new feasts and devotions as “inauthentic” seems mostly to have faded away. There was a similar controversy over the feast of the Immaculate Conception in the days of St Bernard, who was opposed to it. But in the 13th century, it was the Pope himself, Urban IV, who commissioned St Thomas Aquinas to write the great masterpieces which are the Office and Mass of Corpus Christi. It is yet another oddity of liturgical history that Pope Urban’s initiative was not received even in the Papal court itself until the time of John XXII (1316-34), perhaps another example of the undercurrent of Roman laziness described by Krautheimer. It was the same Pope who canonized St Thomas, and extended the feast of the Trinity to the universal Church.

The Holy Trinity, from the Grandes Heures d’Anne de Bretagne (The Great Hours of Anne of Brittany), made by Jean Bourdichon, 1503-8, for Anne, Duchess of Brittany and Queen of France (1477-1514), and considered to be one of the finest illuminated Books of Hour ever made. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits Latin 9474.

 

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