Beauty of the Liturgy, Beauty of the Soul: An Essay by Dom Karl Wallner, O. Cist.

Dom Karl Wallner, O. Cist. is a monk of Heiligenkreuz Abbey and former Rector of the Pontifical University of Heiligenkreuz (1999- 2017), where he is currently a professor of Dogma and Sacramental Theology. In this essay, consonant with the themes he invoked in “The Profanation of the Sacred and the Sacralization of the Profane,” Dom Wallner reflects on the ways that the beauty and order of liturgical celebrations form the soul toward God.

The editors and the translator, Tobias Philip, an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, have added several footnotes and slightly modified the text, putting the pontificate of Benedict XVI into the past tense. The piece is translated and published with Dom Wallner’s permission. A version of paper delivered in German may be found here.

Beauty of the Liturgy – Beauty of the Soul

by Dom Karl Wallner

Balthasar (The Creation, Fouquet)
The Creation, God Introducing Adam and Eve, from ‘Antiquites Judaiques’, c.1470-76, Jean Fouquet, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, France


1. The Fight for the Beauty of the Liturgy

I.I The Meaning of the Liturgy

In Benedict XVI, we had a pope who was profoundly a German intellectual. It is worth our while to ponder his essential message, in order to discover where the Holy Spirit is working in it. Benedict XVI very clearly saw how the Christian Faith is in danger of ruin, and to this crisis he opposed his broad education, keen intellect, and the authority of the Petrine office, inviting us to rediscover the essence of the Faith. Indeed it was a matter of the substance of the Faith. Considering this focus, it is notable that it was Pope Benedict’s personal wish for the first volume of his entire corpus, which has now been published,[1] to have the liturgy as its theme. For the pope the liturgy was not an ornamental detail, but the key to the future of the Christian Faith. The Christian God is indeed not an abstract system of speculative terms, or an airy fantastic image, but one who willed to approach us in person and in history. We are the religion of God made man – of the God who expresses himself in a particular earthly existence as universal love. And this religion of the God who has drawn near to us in finite form necessarily appropriates the sensible world – hence the liturgy. In what we call the Liturgy, the divine Logos, who has expressed himself in human form by becoming man, has left his church nothing less than himself: “Do this in memory of me!”

My subject is the beauty of the liturgy in its relationship to the beauty of the human soul. I do not want to give you an overly speculative or scholarly presentation, but simply to offer you a few theses; I think that the liturgy can affect the soul in a way that uplifts, broadens and heals it, and that the soul can affect the liturgy in the same way. But I must begin by saying that I am not using the term “soul” philosophically, as Plato’s “psyche,” nor as Sigmund Freud or Carl Jung, with his “anima” and “animus.” I am not interested in the specialized meaning of the “forma corporis,” as Thomas Aquinas defined it, either. In the end, what I mean by “soul” is not exclusively that which occupies the attentions of a psychotherapist or a confessor.

That there is an interaction between inwardness and outwardness, between ritual and emotion, is an experience that I, as a monk, am able to have daily within the world of a God-focused life, whose ordering frame is the liturgy. Through these experiences I subsequently speak less as a theologian and more as a monk and, moreover, the long-serving Master of Ceremonies for a monastery that has for centuries taken a special care for the beauty of the liturgy in its form and its chant. Therefore, I would also like to tell you how I myself experience the effects of the liturgy on my soul – and vice versa.

I.2. Beauty in Danger

Balthasar 1
Hans Urs von Balthasar

First, it is rather astonishing that it has become possible once again to speak about the “Beauty of the Liturgy.” Astounding, because a few decades ago my subject “Beauty of the Liturgy – Beauty of the Soul” would have been no subject at all. In the mid-1960s, in both church and society the post-war sense of triumph suddenly collapsed into a cold, concrete-gray-colored modernity, and within theology the only one who concerned himself with the theme of “Beauty” was the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In 1961, the first volume of his magnum opus came out as a “trilogy,” which he actually concluded with the 15th volume in 1987, a year before his death. Balthasar describes the fact that he was not invited to be an advisor at the Second Vatican Council with some regret, but regarded it as a blessing, since it gave him time to write this theological summa, which is organized according to the three transcendentals – beautiful, good, and true. What is astounding about this first part of the work, unparalleled in the history of theology, is that its theme is beauty. It is entitled “The Glory of the Lord,” and the two other parts are the “Theo-drama” and “Theo-logic.” It is notable that he didn’t choose to call the first part the “Theo-aesthetic” or the “Beauty” of divine Revelation, since “aesthetics” always has a sense of the purely external, ornamental or decorative. For Balthasar, God’s beauty centered on the “kabod,” the Hebrew expression in the Old Testament for the “splendor” with which God shines upon man and enlightens him in his Revelation. Beauty’s power of fascination in the natural world is a universal sign that God grants us. He places it also at the summit of revelation, allowing his own beauty to stand out as the most beautiful object of all and to be comprehended in the ugly unbeauty of the scorned crucified one.


His work is important because Balthasar and Ratzinger were friends, and we may suppose that, as prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger encouraged Pope St. John Paul II to make Balthasar a cardinal in 1988. In the early 60’s, when Balthasar discusses

Christian Revelation from the point of view of beauty, it is a direct provocation. At that point, under the influence of the Zeitgeist, theology was about to dissolve into a highly contested battleground, and the contest became visible most of all in the realm of the Liturgy– where it can still be seen. In the subsequent decline of the beautiful in the liturgy two false models were proposed: formalist rubricism and destructive anti-aestheticism.

  1. Rubricism

One false model is formal rubricism. “Rubrum” means “red” in Latin and the “rubrica” are the red texts that explain the formal instructions for carrying out the service – where the priest stands, where he goes, how he holds his hands, and so on. They tell him which gestures and rituals he has to perform, as well as how, when, and where to do so. Precise observance of these rubrics in the post-Tridentine liturgy leads to an impressive sacral liturgical magnificence. Precise instruction in the often complicated rituals was a point of difficulty in seminary education. Psychologically, rituals always provide a sense of home. Like a skeleton, they carry the body of the soul along the road of its inward conversion towards the divine. At the same time, they can become a constraining corset. But this rarely happens when one goes beyond their exterior form to their inner meaning.

One consequence of rubricism was a certain psychological defect, one that today has almost entirely died out, but which before the council was prevalent among clerics and was supported by Tridentine rubrical rigorism: I am referring to liturgical scrupulosity. Rubrical scrupulosity was a symptom of viewing the liturgy as the exact fulfillment of a ritual that was owed to God more than as the expression of a love-filled prayer of God “in spirit and in truth.” There were priests who anxiously pronounced the words of consecration very slowly, and even repeated them several times, but these have largely disappeared today. There are numerous anecdotes, which despite their humorous content still show that a deformity existed. The formulas of speech from that time are demonstrative, like the “persolvere” (completion) of the Breviary and the “perficere” (carrying out) of the ceremonies etc. Rubrical ritualism is wrong, because it one-sidedly makes the effect of the liturgy on the soul dependent only on outward form; it transforms the liturgy into the legalistic pharisaism that Jesus rejects.

  1. Anti-aestheticism

The second erroneous development came in the 60s: the exchange of formalistic aestheticism for its opposite. I am not a philosopher or a scholar of the period, but couldn’t the entire development of the 60’s be summarized with the catchphrase “Distrust of Beauty”? or “Distrust of Order”?[2] I believe that the agenda of the council was to give the liturgy a soul again, to purify the rampant formulas regulating speech and action by reducing them to the essential, and thus once again to give back to the divine liturgy its original spiritual and spiritualized form. An observation made by the great Romano Guardini from 1922, “A process of unforeseeable consequence has begun: the church awakens within souls” seems to me to be talking about the liturgy! The famous quote actually represents the forceful echo, which his short first book “On the Spirit of the Liturgy” had triggered in 1921. The council wanted an internalization of the liturgy and clarified the “participatio actuosa, conscia et plena” as the active, conscious, and full participation of the people of God, the main agenda of the reform. The council fathers, prepared by the Liturgical Movement and its popular expressions, wanted to renew the liturgy, moving away from a liturgy often made up purely of clerics, musicians, and servers toward a liturgy of the conscious participation of all the celebrating faithful. Liturgy would no longer be only the externally beautiful celebration, in which those present passively take part just once, and which they have the priest celebrate, the servers assist, and the musicians play. The “cultural revolution” that began after the council, however, was not the realization of this project; the destruction of the “beauty of the liturgy” was not “post-conciliar” but “anti-conciliar.” It was not the council, but the mentality of 1968, that ultimately governed the implementation phase of the Second Vatican Council and denounced the categories of beauty and order.


Balthasar (seige)
Pompey Enters the Temple of Jerusalem, Jean Fouquet

There inarguably existed a cold-spirited pre-conciliar aestheticism, which assumed the community would simply passively consume the well-choreographed ceremonies and poorly-understood rituals of the cleric. Still, I deny that it was the will of the council to push through an ideology that, above all else, was about blurring the boundaries between the sacred and the profane under the motto of active participation of the faithful in liturgical events. For Catholics today, the ecclesiastical “Woodstock” generation’s idea that church architecture must resemble the banal world of everyday life sounds scandalous! At the time, however, importing the profane – and with it the “unbeautiful” – was the order of the day. That was also when devotional images disappeared, since they was judged to be “kitsch.” Cryptic abstraction and provocative ugliness took their place. Today we may well ask ourselves ourselves: haven’t we introduced so much of profane life into church building, music, gestures, dress etc., that, as a result, people would just as rather remain outside in the profane world? Alternatively, they make for themselves a secular sacro-world.

And here I stand again with Balthasar and also indirectly with Benedict XVI: the “beautiful” is a transcendental, i.e. a property that we intuitively perceive and that can be found on both sides of the division in being: it reigns between the divine and finite. If even worldly beauty gives me joy, comforts me, fascinates me, sweeps me away, makes me shudder, uplifts me… then how much more impressive must the beauty of God be, which indeed is not beautiful “in some way,” but is “kabodglory,” according to its very essence? When natural reason and its judgement are rightly disposed so as to see that the heights of beauty extend ultimately to God, then the denigration or even banishment of beauty from divine worship becomes an error. In other words: if the liturgy is not meant to be beautiful, then what is?

Balthasar (Hundertwasser)
The Hundertwasserhause apartment in Vienna

Perhaps I could have spared myself these preliminary observations, since indeed we find ourselves in the wake of an internal paradigm shift in the Church. Just as the old concrete-colored modernity has transitioned to the colorful hodgepodge of a Friedensreich-Hundertwasser-postmodernity,[3] so the subject of “The Beauty of the Liturgy” has become a welcome subject once again. It is clear that the times have already changed, that it is almost exclusively older priests who wear potato-sack albs over their vintage turtlenecks, while chaplains appear in the priestly collared shirt, which, in fact, they combine with fashionable jeans often without any inhibition. Everywhere seminars, lectures, and retreats on the theme of “Ars celebrandi,”” are filled to capacity. And, as an educator of priests, I joyfully experience the new generation of young religious and priests, people who value the aesthetics of the liturgical forms, not out of rubrical strictness, but out of an emancipated will and spiritual maturity. (I do not understand why those still living on in the year 1968 are so unhappy about this, since their whole lives have been about un-conventionality and liberation. The young are just “alternatively modern”” in the sense that the children of 1968 would define “modernity”…).

Balthasar (the trinity in its glory)
The Trinity in its Glory, Jean Fouquet

But back to Benedict XVI. He was not only incidentally friends with Balthasar, author of the “The Glory of the Lord.” Sacramentum Caritatis, his post-synodal exhortation on the subject of the Eucharist (22 February 2007), shows how important the aesthetic dimension of the liturgy already was for him. A passage in this text addresses the theme “Beauty and Liturgy”; the pope describes beauty as a theological and liturgical value.[4]

The beauty of the liturgy…is a sublime expression of God’s glory and, in a certain sense, a glimpse of heaven on earth. The memorial of Jesus’ redemptive sacrifice contains something of that beauty which Peter, James and John beheld when the Master, making his way to Jerusalem, was transfigured before their eyes (cf. Mark 9, 2). Beauty, then, is not mere decoration, but rather an essential element of the liturgical action, since it is an attribute of God himself and his revelation. These considerations should make us realize the care which is needed, if the liturgical action is to reflect its innate splendour.

Later that year, Benedict XVI took up the same theme on the occasion of his visit to Heiligenkreuz monastery on September 9th, 2007. In his address, he elaborated a theology of the liturgy and of the monastic service in particular. With reference to the phrase “operi Dei omnino nihil praeponere – let nothing be preferred to the service of God” from the Rule of Saint Benedict, the pope formulated the following task for us and for the Church:

            Your first service for this world must hence be your prayer and the celebration of the Mass. The meaning of every priest, of every person consecrated to God, must be ‘to put nothing before the service of God.’ The beauty of such a sense will express itself in the beauty of the liturgy, so that there, where we sing with one another, praise God, celebrate and pray, will be present a piece of heaven on earth. It is really not a false assessment when one sees a likeness of the eternal in a liturgy concentrated on God in its rites and chants.[5]

Our dear God showed his sense of humor a few months later, when he allowed our choral prayer, in the form of the Gregorian choral, to reach the top of the charts in the secular music business in the form of a CD entitled “Chant: Music for Paradise.” We had this sentence from the pope printed on all the CDs: “Where we sing with one another, praise God, celebrate, and pray, a piece of heaven is present on earth.”

After this very contextual introduction, as a thesis I would like to name three points of convergence between the aesthetics of the liturgy and one’s spiritual state. The beauty of the liturgy brings about in the soul detachment, transcendence, and spiritualization.

2. Three Theses on Transformation

2.1 Detachment through “Opus Operatum

There is cult and ceremonial in all religions. All religions recognize something like a liturgy, and the Greek word “leiturgia” is indeed etymologically derived from the stem “leit” (which in turn comes from “laospeople”) and “ergon – work” with relation to “service.” Liturgy in the general sense is thus publicly-managed cult, religious service in the realm of the divine or the gods. Benedict calls it “opus Dei – work of God/work for God,” and from there comes our word “divine service,” (Gottesdienst) that can be translated as a objective genitive just as well as a subjective genitive. The term also resonated with the pagans, with their notion that one must keep the innumerable gods in good humor through the “leit- ergon” or “public cult.” The Greek word for the cultic victim is “hilasmos,” from the root “hilaros” meaning “cheerful.” Cult is about keeping the gods in a good mood through the savor of the sacrificial victim.

In any case, although in the external religious service positions of prayer, actions, sacrificial gestures, chants, and movements may be similar, in the most inward sense they are different from one another, since the liturgy expresses to the faithful and vice versa: “lex credendi lex orandi.” From this it is true that everything lies outside of our doing, for it is the penetration of God into our world. The Protestant theologian Karl Barth formulated it thus in his book The Epistle to the Romans, that God comes “vertically from above.” The religion of biblical revelation recognizes one God, who from himself – on his own initiative, surprisingly and overpoweringly – steps over the abyss from his infinitude to our finitude. God breaks into our world, he enters the realm of the finite. He perpetually adds himself to the measurableness of this world in such a way that he tips it over into the measureless: where the glory of God is present in this world, what is used in the Old Testament as a substantive sign for God actually occurs. God is “kabod – magnificence.” This is not merely the beauty of a sunset, or the beauty of a brain wave that can activate itself in reflection and philosophizing, or the beauty of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. “Take off your shoes, the place on which you stand is holy ground,” he called out to Moses from the burning bush. It is the “Ehye asher ehye,” the “I am who am.” God is ungraspable in his magnificence; rays proceed like stigmata from the face of Moses, who survives his encounter with the incomprehensible magnificence. In Psalm 72:19 it says that the magnificence of God fills the whole world. And the psalmist stands completely in awe of an incomprehensible being when he cries: “The voice of the Lord whirls up to the oaks, it tears the entire woods bare. In his palace all cry: O magnificent God!” (Psalm 29:9); the magnificence of God means being overwhelmed through something “de arriba from above.” What is contained in this experience is both more and different from the sort of experience induced by self-suggestion or group dynamic.

The Church has liturgical chants in which she sings to Christ as the “most beautiful Lord Jesus.” Dogma knows of Christ, that he is word made flesh, the world mind, who wants the beauty of the essence of God to shine out in the form of a particular human existence. God makes his absolute beauty shine out in the ugliness of the crucifixion. In the Gospel of John the cross already glows with the nimbus of beauty once and for all: the disturbed soldier is so struck by the lightning from the divinity of the Crucified One that he discovers faith. According to Luke the curtain of the temple, which up to then hid the glory of God from the eyes of men, was torn apart. In the Apocalypse, which takes Johannine symbolism and fashions it into a fantastic painting, the image of the slaughtered Lamb is empty of its distaste: as victor it stands on the throne, as all light itself it illuminates the City of God.

The Liturgy celebrates this already-effected beauty. And thus it is for the first time at once psychologically liberating. There is nothing more contradictory to the Catholic liturgy than the desire to force a way through to the divine through magical ritual. We do not have an intense desire to be transported by grace through an experience of calm, ecstasy, and divination. The only activity and astonishment is over the genuine advent of God. The church emphasizes this fact in the scholastic doctrine of “opus operatum,”” which Luther and the Reformers sadly thought they had to replace with the belief of the faithful. The “ex opere operato” expresses our confidence that the innermost heart of our Faith is set forth in our religious services: not that we must desperately clutch for and seek out the divine, but that we must only open the space for it, for us to be near. “You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you.” The opus operatum means that there is a predominance of grace, a priority of the holy work of God. Joseph Ratzinger characterized our zeitgeist as “Neo-Pelagian”: we have adopted a hands-on approach, convinced we are able to manage our relationship with the divine all on our own. New Age and Esotericism are the pseudo-religious flowerings of the Neo-Pelagian mentality. In them, a person is able to direct his own experience of the divine through various practices of meditation and techniques of physical self-mastery.

For us the liturgy is so beautiful because we believe that Christ himself is present as the liturgist, and that he effectively grants his glorious grace when we give to him, in addition to our gestures, prayers, and rites, room for that grace to enter. A holy “mimesis” occurs, as the Greek Fathers put it: in this “imitation” there is a “making present” of salvation, which God has already accomplished in time. Mimesis also makes it possible for us to become, despite our imperfection and erring, subjects of a truly beautiful and pure activity. What a relief! Augustine formulated it this way: “When Peter baptizes, Christ baptizes; when Paul baptizes, Christ baptizes” and then comes his point, when he says: “When Judas baptizes, Christ baptizes.” The primary actor is thus always God, who encounters us in holy signs, gestures, and rituals.[6]

Liturgy is therefore never the self-affirmation of the liturgist or the self-celebration of the community. The priest is neither actor nor artist. Therefore he must never worry about whether he will receive affirmations of his ability backstage or at the theater exit, where fans surround him and clamor for autographs. After a worthily and transcendently celebrated divine service, the success of the service does not become a matter of question in the sacristy, or at least not a question of self-affirmation. When the master of ceremonies sidles up to the priest and playfully asks: “So, how was I today?,” something is amiss.

I claim, therefore, that the liturgical actions and chants work positively on our souls, since they teach us religious detachment. They are not simply human sets, human choreography, and human direction, with whose help we must win for ourselves a point of contact with the divine. Much more do we receive in them – whether we are relaxed or distressed – the becoming present of the beauty of God himself.

2.2 Uplifting through “Celebration”

Today we are witnessing the return of the irrational. There is a great attraction for and movement towards the mythical and occult, the secretive; there is a new fascination with cult and ritual. In the 70s the word “cult” was totally “out” in the secular realm; today it signifies something that it is totally “in.” Simply: “cult is a cult.” First of all there is a euphoric rediscovery of celebration. The show- and party-business loves a glamorous “celebration.” Perhaps the secular culture of leisure “celebrates” itself with such delight and mania for this very reason, that it has lost anything substantial to celebrate. Josef Pieper in his classic Leisure: The Basis of Culture points out that “work,” or rather “business,” is simply the negation of “leisure,” which means “free-time” in Latin. “Leisure” is “otium,” business on the other hand is translated as “neg-otium,” i.e. the negation of leisure. Perhaps the desire for celebration is so great because today we are just as oppressed by “otium” as we are by “negotium”: where a final meaning of life fails, where the orientation? to a super-worldly transcendence does not exist, the resulting stress and anxiety even affect our “otium,” since in leisure we must get everything from smoking, lust, and liberation of which we are supposedly deprived in “negotium.”

Image result for david dances painting
David Dances Before the Ark, Pieter van Lint (ca. 1650)

Perhaps we have never been more estranged in our work- and life-culture as now. In these straits, the raw stimulus of celebration, the show, the ecstasy of rapture, is necessary to make us forget our finite sorrow. Worldly festivities—a beer tent, an evening show, a concert, or a game show, a football game or film premiere—can be impressive events. To achieve all these things requires a certain technical perfection. I have experienced many secular productions from backstage. Their preparation is meticulous, their timing flawless; the actor enters the stage made up, equipped with a microphone, and his every step is precisely choreographed. I have often wondered what we in the Church could achieve if, in celebrating our God, we used even a modicum of the enthusiasm and perfectionism that is employed in producing such staged celebrations, which vanish as quickly as a soap bubble! And I fear that much of what we experience today in worldly “celebration” consists of stolen, flattened, spiritualized and thus perverted elements of our liturgy.[7]

I claim that one of the effects of the beauty of the liturgy is the uplifting of the soul, an effect elicited by the festive “celebration.” In fact, this uplifting becomes an imperative at every Mass, since the “sursum corda” is a direct, military command: “Pay attention! Up with your hearts!” This uplifting, however, is something substantial, and not merely superficial. The limpid sources from which we draw in the touching celebration of our liturgy lie deeper than the level of musical perfection, or the rehearsed elegance, grace, and rhetorical talent of liturgists. The goal is not an aesthetic impression or even the emotion of ecstasy, but connection with the invisible God. That is what Paul understood in his letter to the Romans 12:1 with the famous formulation “leiturgia logike,” or “rational worship.”

Catholic liturgy does not work through the means of trance, auto-suggestion, and hypnosis; it does not come from the murmuring of incomprehensible mantras and the muttering of esoteric magic spells, but it is always a“leiturgia logike – rational religious service.” It is thus never the primary goal of the liturgy to turn off judgment or discursive thought, which is the explicit object of certain eastern forms of meditation. There, meditation aims at the intuitive feeling of becoming one with the whole. In the structure of a religion that knows no expressible personal God, this immersion must logically be the highest ideal. The way is through liberation from conceptual thought. Through the repetition of mantras the initiative feeling of unity with the whole should grow. How different, indeed, is the Christian way of prayer! Since we do not believe in a timeless myth, but in a God who works in salvation history, “contemplation” is called for. According to St Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises, “meditare” means to have a clear imaginative experience of the salvation of Christ in the center of one’s own thoughts and heart, while “contemplare” means that the individual ego becomes the “temple” in which the salvation of God is present. “Gustare” (taste) has meaning because the God who makes himself present can also be tasted inwardly.[8] Romano Guardini writes in On the Spirit of the Liturgy, which brought him to the heights of renown in 1918:

It is only truth–or dogma, to give it its other name–which can make prayer efficacious, and impregnate it with that austere, protective strength without which it degenerates into weakness (. . . .) Dogmatic thought brings release from the thralldom of individual caprice, and from the uncertainty and sluggishness which follow in the wake of emotion.[9]

Secular show-business may be able to produce emotions through dolled up festivity just as well as a creatively executed religious service. Lest I be misunderstood: of course the uplifting of the soul is also dependent on how well we prepare the liturgy, on whether we employ effort and care. Religious service must be prepared as well as possible; liturgical plans must be made; music must be practiced; ministers must be instituted, taught, and trusted as the most important and pastorally dedicated assistants to the liturgist … nevertheless the goal is not perfect staging or an impressive sacred show. This cannot be the goal, because emotions pop like bubbles. They are only ad hoc and then come to naught. In the Sacrament, by contrast, God comes “with light steps,”” but he comes on a much deeper and more inward plane than the most beautiful possible form. The divine Logos uplifts not only our momentary feelings, but our entire life.

2.3. Spiritualizing through “Ordo”

The third way the beauty of the liturgy affects the soul lies in its capacity to “spiritualize,” since it is itself, in all its perceptible sights and sounds, an act of “spiritualization.” We must connect it to the “leiturgia logike,” a Pauline expression from the Epistle to the Romans, in which Paul handles the themes of redemption through atonement and justification through faith, laying the intellectual foundations of soteriology. The “leiturgia logike” stands not only in contradiction to magic spells, trances, and irrational ecstasies, which were present in all antique cults, especially the mystery cults; the term “rational liturgy” interprets what is most inherent to the Christian cult. It describes the Christian cult through the death and resurrection of Christ as a sublimation of the Jewish victim-and-atonement ritual. Romans 12:1 says: “I admonish you, brethren, through the mercies of God to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing to God, as your leiturgia logike, (rational service) to God.” The point of connection with “leiturgia” is unambiguous in Romans 3:25, where Paul symbolizes the “sacrifice of atonement” according to the ritual sacrifice of Yom Kippur: “God has established him, Christ, as sacrifice of atonement…”

Paul knew the sacrificial cult of the temple, he knew the daily slaughter of animals before the altar of burnt sacrifice, the sprinkling of the blood of the sacrificial animals, the ceaseless burning of the victims of sacrificial atonement with their skin and hair in order to remit sins, represented in the blood and the animal. Today we are scarcely conscious of the extent to which Judaism, (until the year 70 when Jerusalem was taken by Titus and the sumptuous Herodian Temple was burned to the ground,) was an outwardly sensual and extremely cultic religion. At the center of all was the sacrificial cult in the temple on Jerusalem’s Mount Zion, the footstool of the invisible and unnamable God. The cult of the temple witnessed an endless succession of sacrificial rituals. Following the Gospel exegete Joachim Jeremias, we must imagine the halls as a great slaughterhouse. The animals were delivered to death, taking the place of sins. Their lives were taken, for only thus could the death of man’s relationship with God, which came about by a trespass of the law, be overcome.

Sanguis Christi – Scuola Bernini Museo di Ariccia

On Holy Saturday, the Church sings these words, put into her mouth by Christ:“O mors ero mors tua. – O death, I will be your death.” When the young Church recognized the cross of Christ as the moment of salvation, Christ himself as the sacrifice of atonement and the lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, then it was clear for her that all the bloody cult of sacrifice had been abrogated once and for all. Christianity was a cult-revolution in antiquity. The bloodletting of Golgotha makes all man-made victims obsolete. There is now just the “leiturgia logike,” the spiritual, rational liturgy. It is telling that the Epistle to the Hebrews signifies the Christian religious service as “the sacrifice of praise” and “fruit of the lips.” And in the fact, inexplicable in itself, that early Christians refused to express their civic loyalty by sacrificing before images of the emperor, we can see a clear result of this spiritualization. There is no longer any other sacrifice efficacious before God, save the one of Golgotha. There are also no longer any priests in the plural, but only the one Jesus Christ.

The Council of Trent teaches that the Holy Mass alone makes the one and only sacrifice of Christ present, just as the consecrated priest is only a priest insofar as he participates in the one high-priesthood of Christ. The Mass of the Church is therefore always spiritual; it is always a form for the sake of its content and never the reverse; the sensible is called in to perform the task of displaying the spiritual. That also means that outward beauty is directed towards inward beauty. Our soul is ordered “per visibilia ad invisibilia – through the visible to the invisible.” In a phrase of the Preface of the Nativity, we are even “rapt” (rapiamur) into the sphere of the divine.

This ordering, this spiritualizing “ordo,” is the proper goal of the liturgical action. Hence the term “ordo” is an important category, since with this Latin expression we signify indeed not only the sacrament of ordination, but also the normative liturgical action: Ordo Missae (the rite of the Mass), Ordo Exequiarum (the rite of burial), Ordo Baptismi (the rite of Baptism) etc. The spitualizing element lies in the term “Ordo,” which is sadly not retained in the German translation: the Synod of Würzberg (1971-1975) concluded that the rituals of the sacraments generally should not be given the name “order,” but should be called “celebrations.” In place of “Ordo Missae” comes “the celebration of the Mass,” and thence elsewhere “the celebration of baptism,” “the celebration of ordination,” “the celebration of religious vows,” and even “the celebration of burial.” On the one hand this is gratifying, since no one would have expected so much “festivity”[10] from a synod in the 70s. Of course, what is at stake has nothing to do with festivity, but with another, very well grounded cause: the sense of community in the liturgical act, a sense which must lie at the foundation of every act worthy to be called a “celebration.”

The Roman sobriety that “ordo” connotes is better, in my view, because it points to the spiritual. Our liturgy, indeed, always takes its life from a prescription that God has set forth. The prescribed form is at the same time the subjective content. Paul reverently emphasizes it in the eleventh chapter of First Corinthians, where he repeats his great commission, saying that he only passes down “what he himself has received.” He then repeats a formulary from an early Christian Mass Canon that corresponds word for word to the report of the Last Supper in the Gospel of Luke. This spiritualizing power of the prescribed and pre-formulated is something that we monks are permitted to experience in choral prayer: we do not just pray some invented texts, but the psalms inspired by the Holy Spirit. Thus our prayer unites us with souls at prayer for the last three millennia, and with all their emotions and thoughts. Saint Benedict does not want us to make up our prayers, but to allow ourselves to be consecrated in the realm of what has already been given by the Holy Spirit: “ut mens nostra concordat voci nostrae.” The texts should form our souls, not vice versa.

It is proper therefore to the spiritual beauty of the liturgy to cleave to the liturgical “ordines.” Today we urgently require a liturgy that has the power to resist the cult of egomania, the idolatry of the “I-me-mine” and subjectivism’s reign of terror. Liturgical norms do not spoil the play, but rather free us for true play. Romano Guardini says: “To be at play, or to fashion a work of art in God’s sight–not to create, but to exist–such is the essence of the liturgy.”[11] (We will hear more about this.)

As an example for priests, I must also point out that the value of the liturgical order also comes from its high character-forming value for the celebrant: it guards both from being subjectively uptight and from pietistic dawdling. There is a serenity that comes from fitting oneself into an ordo. It is important for young candidates for the priesthood to learn the ordo for the celebration and administration of sacraments thoroughly. The more one has learned to move in the postures, sequences, gestures, and formulations, the less he will be enslaved to himself. Then the whole thing does not depend on the celebrant, on whether he, as we say today, “gets along well with people.” Rather, something supernatural will happen: Christ enters with grace into the heart of the celebrant.

Indeed, I have experienced it myself as the master of ceremonies: self-abandonment to the form is precisely what makes one free for the essential. The formula detaches the soul, readying it for the substantial. The natural turns into the habit of the supernatural; the banal is overcome, and becomes the sacred, while movement and chant become art. I shall quote Guardini again, who put it this way: “The liturgy is art, translated into the terms of life”![12]

Balthasar (Heiligenkreutz)
Monks in choir at Heiligenkreutz Abbey

The ordo is therefore constitutive for the beauty of our spiritual experience of the liturgy, since it connects the liturgist horizontally with the present church, which is indeed the oldest “Global-Player,” which indeed universally (“kat’ holon”), embraces all cultures and races, all countries and continents. The content of the approved liturgical Ordo, however, puts us vertically under the authority of God, concretized and made contemporary through the apostolic authority of Peter and the successors to the apostles. Not for nothing do the post-conciliar documents warn against making the liturgy into a demonstration of private theology or even private teaching. “Quot sacerdotes, tot liturgiae – there are as many liturgies as there are priests” is a misleading statement, which we owe to the spirit of the times and certainly not to the Holy Spirit. Joseph Ratzinger says that the priest has the duty to lead the congregation in such a way that there is something inaccessible and not manipulable, into which he also fits, so that he is not a director, but only an actor, standing in as a tool in the hands of the divine director. Ratzinger in fact also warns of a new clericalism, where the priest becomes the artist behind the action, who has entertained the audience through his own doing. Liturgy celebrated in this way does not open the spiritual windows, through which our soul is not able to catch a glimpse of the realm of God’s beauty. Rather, through such actions our souls are locked away in the dungeon of the purely worldly. That is not beautiful, but at most entertaining.

3. The Therapeutic Power of Aimlessness

I conclude. Starting from the dogmatic foundation of God’s turning towards us, we assert that where the Liturgy is celebrated “beautifully” with all human devotion, a detachment, uplifting, and spiritualizing of the soul occurs. There follows a transformation, for though the beauty of the liturgy influences the soul, our worship is only truly beautiful when it arises from the purity of conviction, as Benedict XVI so forcefully taught us. Liturgy is only beautiful then and because of this, when the magnificent God shines in it as the subject of an event concealed from the senses. There it reveals even a therapeutic power. All of this presumes the right inner disposition of the liturgist, and his effort to worthily celebrate the ordo.

Pope Benedict XVI should have the final word. He says:

“With every endeavor for the Liturgy the glance much be decisively on God. We stand before God – he speaks with us, and we with him. Wherever one considers with liturgical consciousness how he can make the liturgy attractive, interesting, or beautiful, the liturgy has already fallen away. Either it is the opus Dei with God as the actual subject or it is not. I pray on this site: with the holy liturgy formed from viewing God in the community of the saints, of the living church of all places and times, may it become an expression of the beauty and sublimity of the God who loves mankind!”[13]

Source for German text:
Schönheit der Liturgie – Schönheit der Seele, in: ders. (Hg.), Fünf-vor-Elf. Beiträge zur Theologie. Band 2 der Schriftenreihe des Instituts für Dogmatik und Fundamentaltheologie an der Phil.-Theol. Hochschule Benedikt XVI. Heiligenkreuz, Be&Be-Verlag: Heiligenkreuz 2010, 137 – 154.


[1] Joseph Ratzinger, Theology of the Liturgy, Collected Works, vol. 2, ed. Gerhard Ludwig Muller, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2014.

[2] On the theme of liturgical form, see Martin Mosebach’s essays “Return to Form,” First Things, April 2017, “Holy Routine: The Mystery of Repetition,” First Things, September 2017, and his important book The Heresy of Formlessness, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2006. (Editors’ note)

[3] This is the nom-de-plume of Austrian artist and architect Friedrich Stowasser, which could be roughly translated as “Peace-Realm Hundred-Water.” He was famous for eschewing straight lines in his bold and colorful designs,.

[4] Benedict XVI., Sacramentum Caritatis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation, 2007, Nr. 58-60. [Version taken from the Vatican website.]

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Address on September 9 2007 in Heiligenkreuz monastery.

[6] Tract 6 in Joannem, the sermon for the feast of the Lord’s Baptism in the Breviary of St Pius V and the Monastic Breviary. (Editors’ note)

[7] Modern entertainment in show-business, film, and radio are able to produce a variety of psychological effects. Sadness, joy, anger, fear, even ecstasy, arousal, inspiration, etc. are induced with great skill. A piece of entertainment may be funny at one moment and scary in the next. For an example, take the Youtube videos of the so called “Körperzellen Rock” [“Body-Cell Rock”], in which old and middle-aged people are so transported into ecstasy at the line “every cell is happy,” that they have to be dragged out of traffic by policemen, and all without the influence of alcohol. Indeed, group dynamic has a suggestive power. But, according to our understanding, the liturgy is the exact opposite of demagoguery and technically induced trance. Our liturgy is, in its essence, not a skillful production after which everyone congratulates one another in the sacristy — “Today we were great again!”– People who say this betray the fact that they only celebrate themselves and not God, whose love drives him to open his “tent,” his “tabernacle” among us.

[8] One may note the difference between the eastern mantra-meditation, in which the object is to avoid all thought and imagining, and the Christian rosary, which indeed is all about freeing thoughts from words. But not in order to be darkened in the cloud of the unimaginable, but “to contemplate the secrets” and make them contemporary to me in my imagination. Said differently: the rosary makes possible a true liberation from thought, and can also be edifying. But a return to the Logos is also possible at the same time and, above all else, to be desired.

[9] Romano Guardini, The Spirit of the Liturgy, translated by Ada Lane, 1933, (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1935), 126.

[10] Note that the German Feierlichkeit can also mean “solemnity,” which was not a popular theme in the 1970s. (Editors’ note)

[11] R. Guardini, 181.

[12] R. Guardini, 185.

[13] Pope Benedict XVI, Address on 9th September 2007 in Stift Heiligenkreuz.

The Vetus Ordo Missae for a “Church Going Forth”: Fr. Roberto Spataro, SDB

In late March, Angelico Press will be coming out with a translation of selected speeches by Fr. Roberto Spataro, SDB, a professor at the Pontifical Salesian University and the Secretary of the Pontificium Institutum Altioris Latinitatis (Pontifical Institute for Higher Latin Studies). The tentative title of the volume is In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, the Language of the Church. It will include an introduction on the history of spoken Latin by Dr. Patrick Owens, who is a widely respected Latinist, and a preface by Cardinal Burke, who recommends the work in these words:

“Dom Roberto Spataro is a Salesian father who bases his thinking on the sound pastoral praxis of the Church, which is always firmly rooted in study and respect for doctrine, as well as on his own magisterial knowledge of the Latin language. In these brief pages, he offers us words full of pastoral charity, love for souls, and love for the Church, which is the Mystical Body of Christ.

Dom Roberto Spataro does not speak about the Usus Antiquior or the Vetus Ordo of the Mass as a historical reality to be recovered, but as a living sacramental vehicle through which Christ encounters us, trains us, and fills us with the grace of the Holy Spirit. All the texts in this collection are filled with a genuine pastoral sensibility. They show us the heart of a faithful Salesian priest, a true son of St. John Bosco, and a scholar inspired by profound love for the living Church, and for the many souls that thirst to know, love and serve Christ, the one Savior of the world.”

We are pleased to share the following sample chapter, also posted on New Liturgical Movement.


The Vetus Ordo Missae for a “Church Going Forth”

File:Fritz von Uhde - Der Gang nach Emmaus (1891).jpg
Fritz von Uhde – Der Gang nach Emmaus (1891)


Honored Sir, distinguished gentlemen, dear friends,

I am honored to have received an invitation to this gathering. Our meeting is held in Lecce—one of the capitals of art and culture of southern Italy, the seat of a vivacious coetus Summorum Pontificum, where the national coordinator Dr. Capoccia is based. We owe the splendid pilgrimage days of October 2014—in the presence of the grandi cardinali so esteemed by the great Pope Emeritus–to his initiative. This kind of gathering helps us to reflect on the spiritual riches of the Vetus Ordo Missae (VO Missae), that authentic thesaurus of doctrine and piety that Benedict XVI has restored to the Church intact in order for it to accomplish its mission in history: to give glory to God and to be an instrument of grace for the salvation of souls.

The reflections I intend to share are based on a concern of which, I am sure, none of us is unaware. It is an objection on the part of those who look with little sympathy on the vetus ordo, a challenge we could formulate in this way: the Extraordinary Form of the Roman liturgy is an anachronism, divorced from the Church’s current life and needs as indicated by the pontificate of Francis, who is urging the Church to make a bold pastoral turn toward the peripheries of the world, without hesitation or retreat. The world’s poverty calls for options very different from that of an ancient ritualism that is incomprehensible to modern sensibilities. Some go even further in their evaluation of the Tridentine liturgy, saying that there is an insurmountable distance between the magisterium of the current Pope and the groups who promote the Mass in Latin. In order to sentire cum ecclesia (think with the Church), it is necessary, therefore, to renounce the liturgia antiquior.

I see the matter differently. I maintain, in fact, that the Tridentine Mass offers a resource for realizing the program that the Supreme Pontiff has espoused in the most relevant and authoritative document of his magisterium to date, the apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (EG), summed up in the already well-known expression “a Church that goes forth.”

What he means by “a Church that goes forth” is illustrated in n. 24 of EG:

“The Church which “goes forth” is a community of missionary disciples who take the first step, who are involved and supportive, who bear fruit and rejoice.”[1]

We should read this citation alongside another, drawn from the passage immediately preceding. Here Francis explains that the actions of these disciples, which constitute the movement of the Church going forth, is nothing other than what we call evangelization and mission. We have to take the initiative, involve ourselves, accompany, bear fruit, and rejoice because there is a content to transmit the Gospel!

“Evangelization obeys the missionary mandate of Jesus: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’ Today in this ‘Go’ of Jesus are present all the scenarios and challenges of the evangelical mission of the Church, and we are all called to this new missionary ‘going forth.’”[2]

A Church that “goes forth” means, therefore, nothing more or less than a missionary Church that evangelizes people and their cultures, a task that must be undertaken in the diverse situations and numerous challenges of the world today.

The Latin Mass is certainly part of this ecclesiology of “going forth,” and this for three reasons:

1) Above all for a doctrinal reason. Before testifying, before accompanying, before celebrating, the community of disciples who “go forth” and reach the existential peripheries do not arrive empty-handed. They pass on their most precious treasure to the men and women they encounter, their own reason for existence: their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. The Supreme Pontiff has reminded us of this, citing the words of the missionary mandate that is valid for all times: Teach and observe all that I have commanded you.

Victor Meirelles, The First Mass in Brazil, 1860

My dear friends, my claim is that the VO Missae is a summarium (summary) of the teachings and commandments of our Lord.

“What are the two principal mysteries of the faith?” asked the timeless catechism of St. Pius X. “The unity and trinity of God, the Incarnation, Passion, and death of Jesus Christ.

Using a ritual language composed of gestures and speech, the VO Missae is a dialogue going out from the Holy Trinity and returning to the Most Holy Trinity. Take one example. In the priestly prayers, the priest twice addresses himself directly to the Holy Trinity: first, at the conclusion of the Offertory when he implores the three Divine Persons to gather the offering presented in memory of the Passion and glorification of Jesus Christ and in honor of His Mother and the saints: Suscipe, Sancta Trinitas, hanc oblationem . . . At the end of Mass, the priest begs the Holy Trinity to accept the offering that the Son has renewed. And how could the Three Divine Persons refuse the propitiatory gift of Jesus Christ: Placeat tibi, Sancta Trinitas, hoc obsequium servitutis meae . . . ? Unfortunately, these two prayers have disappeared in the Novus Ordo (NO), and what’s more, in the Ordinary of the Mass the Most Holy Trinity is never mentioned once. This is rather curious, to say the least.

The second principal mystery of the Faith, the Incarnation, is constantly recalled in the celebration of the Extraordinary Form. What do the faithful who assist at this Mass see? Physically, they see a crucifix depicting the second Person of the Holy Trinity, the one who became Incarnate and suffered for our salvation. In this way, the lex credendi penetrates with luminous simplicity into the lex orandi. The vetus ordo Missae presents, in all their integrity and essential nature, the divine teachings that together form the content of the evangelical mission of the Church “going forth.

Elevation of the Host, with vision of St John of Matha, painting by Juan Carreño de Miranda, 1666


We could multiply examples to show how the Tridentine Mass, in se et per se, is a sort of catechism for everyone, suited for evangelizing both believers and non-believers alike. We see, for instance, that the framework of salvation history—creation, sin, incarnation, redemption, grace, glory, and eternal life—is assumed into the prayers in words that recall the teaching, not of a post-conciliar liturgical expert (however great), but of the Fathers of the Church, of great teachers like St. Leo the Great. For example, there are the words the priest pronounces at the moment of the infusion of the water into the chalice: Deus qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti [creation] et mirabilius reformasti [redemption], da nobis per huius aquae et vini mysterium eius divinitatis esse consortes [divinization or the life of grace] qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps [incarnation].

Again, is not the drama of sin physically embodied and existentially invoked in the gestures of the Confiteor–when we kneel, beat our chests, and repeat the words and hearken to the absolution of the priest? This ceremony was unfortunately abolished by the NO: Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum vestrorum tribuat vobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus. This prayer seems like it could be an echo of the words of the Holy Father, who has repeatedly told us that God is good, indulgent, merciful!

Further, in the Roman Canon, the priest asks the Father that we and those whom we meet in our journeys “going forth” may arrive after such a long way at the end of the road, and all go forth from this world to pass the final judgment, the only judgment about which we need to concern ourselves, even though we do it serenely because the Madonna, whose intercession is often recalled in the old Mass, prays for us: ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi et in electorum tuorum iubeas grege numerari. “Go out, brethren,” the pope asks us, “evangelize,” “teach” what the Divine Teacher has communicated to us. And while, in filial attachment and obedience to the Holy Father, we close the doors of our churches to go out and hurry toward the nations, the peoples, the cultures we have to evangelize, we will carry with us the Missal, the one the faithful page through in bi-lingual and pocket editions when assisting at the Holy Mass, and which, therefore, they know almost by memory: it is our preferred Catechism.

I’d like briefly to add another consideration. Even as the NO has introduced the sacrosanct principle that the rite should be adapted to the pastoral needs of the community, it has involuntarily left itself open to a blow that has landed with a series of unfortunate consequences: it has permitted the priest and others with liturgical roles—heedless of the distinction between what should never be modified and that which can be—to introduce elements entirely extraneous to the lex credendi. In the name of liturgical creativity–not the same as adaptation–doctrinal errors can be taught inadvertently, even very grave ones. The Extraordinary Form, for its part, guards the purity of Christian doctrine in an indestructible chest of sacrality. How can we deprive men and women who have the right to receive the authentic Christian faith of the riches of the treasures of knowledge and divine wisdom? In this way, do we not betray the missionary mandate, when in the place of the faith of the Church, we recklessly proclaim our own personal opinions?

2) The second reason is of a spiritual nature and applies those who carry out evangelization, those who–to remain faithful to the image employed by Pope Francis–“go forth.” He himself has spoken about “situations” and “challenges” that oppose the Gospel. Sometimes he has called them by name, and with just severity. Let’s recall them here, even with rapid brush strokes.

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Altarpiece of Blessed Miguel Pro, Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, La Crosse, Wisconsin

On one hand, there is anthropological and moral relativism that does not admit any objective truth. It tends to manifest itself in that sort of right to free thinking denounced by Pope Benedict in the memorable Missa pro eligendo pontifice of 2005.[3] The faithful who go forth and encounter this situation, so prevalent in the weary and desperate western world, encounter indifference, marginalization, and derision. The nihilism that grips contemporary networks of communication and the decision centers of the world of finance and politics, often imposes a sort of white martyrdom. This is what we are all exposed to. On the peripheries, or the eastern part of the world, especially where the majority radical form of Islam holds sway, the believers “going forth,” and even those who prudently remain at home, undergo a bloody or semi-bloody martyrdom caused by vexations of various kinds. According to trustworthy statistics, the numbers are horrifying: every five minutes a Christian is killed. As of this year, a new word has been added to the dictionary, one with a sinister sense: Christianophobia. The Church “going forth” of the twenty-first century is a Church of martyrdom. It is unfortunate that shepherds with grave responsibilities and Catholic intellectuals who have wide audiences, even those who style themselves the curators of what they call, in a rather dubious expression, the “Church of Francis,” forget this drama that ought to have an absolute priority in the teaching and action of the Church “going forth.” It is true that the VO Missae is not the “happening” party to which, often, we painfully see the Sacrifice of Christ on the altar reduced. It is the Mass in which we all climb mystically to the mount of Calvary, and not just for a pleasant morning stroll. We are immersed in a story of persecution, that of the Holy Innocent par excellence, His blood is poured out, His passion is renewed: the Martyr at the head of all the martyrs is immolated on the Altar. Here the believer is escorted, admonished, prepared to confront his martyrdom, whether it is white or bloody.

The Missa VO is a school of evangelization. It is so not because it offers courses in theology for the laity, taught (if only!) by serious professors in clerical suits ready to present the theologoumena of some exponent of theology à la page. It is a school of evangelization because it disposes missionaries “going forth” to confront and measure themselves against the world, which, ever since the time of the Prologue of St. John, proclaimed with good reason in every Tridentine Mass, refuses the light, remains in the shadows of error and violence, and fights the Gospel, not metaphorically but with bloody seriousness. The Church “going forth” is a militant Church, as it was once called, and even if it is not called that anymore, it always will be so, as our brethren persecuted for the faith know only too well.

3) The third reason is a pastoral one. According to EG, the Church “going forth” works for a pastoral conversion. Like all the pithy expressions of Pope Francis, this one merits further explanation. I think we can give an authentic interpretation to the thought and intentions of the Holy Father if by “pastoral” conversion we mean the assumption of a perspective of ecclesial action that departs from and measures itself constantly according to the psychological, moral, and spiritual needs of the people, buffeted as they are by the sorrows of life, of contemporary life in particular. This is nothing more than the solicitude of the Good Shepherd, who moved among the crowd because the people were like “sheep without a shepherd.” To keep within the ambit of the gospel image, it is interesting to note what Christ the Good Shepherd decides to do, with regard to the smell of those sheep abandoned and stricken. The Evangelist relates that “he began to teach them many things.” That is, he offers them healthy and nourishing food; not emotions or experiences, but good doctrine, because the Good Shepherd is the Good Teacher and the Good Teacher is the Good Shepherd, the same one who teaches the indissolubility of marriage. Those who oppose doctrine and pastoral practice in their pastoral and disciplinary choice do not act according to the method of the Good Shepherd.

Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint

Fine then: what does this all have to do with the old Mass? So much! Pastors today, in order to encounter the exigencies of the suffering flock, what can they offer their flocks? Their sympathy, their piety, their patient attention, their solidarity? Certainly this, but this is very little! Pastors can and must offer divine grace! What a marvelous reality! The Gospel speaks about it for the first time in the sweetest scene it has transmitted to us: the Annunciation to Holy Mary, full of grace. Wherever there is grace, at Nazareth or in any other place in history where human liberty opens itself to God, behold! the divine Word operates in the power of the Holy Spirit, with the cooperation of the Mother of God, and life, light, consolation, peace, purity, sanctity, gifts and perfections, virtues and fruits inundate the human soul. Divine grace is offered to us principally and ordinarily through the sacramental economy, of which the Holy Mass is the source and summit, fulcrum and motor, because there the Eucharistic Heart of Our Lord continues to pour out His treasures, “blood and water,” as John the Evangelist observes.

Of course I don’t intend to affirm that the VO Missae has an exclusive claim on grace and that the ordinary form is not an abundant dispenser of it. Absolutely not! However, the Tridentine Mass generates, so to speak, a liturgical-spiritual culture that exalts the action of grace. Indeed, while the Mass in the ordinary form gives emphasis to the exterior participation of the faithful and the minister, it interprets actuosa participatio in terms of a plurality of gestures, and thus expresses in its ritual a certain human agency. In the old Mass, each word and each silence, each gesture and each rite is broadened and elevated to create a truly supernatural tension that can create a human space, enlarging the soul and its faculties—like the most pure bosom of the Virgin Mary and her Immaculate Heart—to gather grace. God is the protagonist and the only actor, and grace is poured out copiously in order to be humbly received, gathered, guarded, fructified. “Bear fruit”: the very term used by Pope Francis to describe the Church “going forth.” Grace cleanses, grace heals, grace renews: this is the medicine administered in the field hospital.

Dear friends, the current pontificate seems to stir up so such enthusiasm in a large part of the faithful. Are our pastors at various levels, besides citing the expressions that Francis uses (and which undoubtedly have a notable communicative efficacy), really and seriously translating this invitation to evangelization and to mission into concrete actions, so that—as EG 24 reminds us—men and women of our time, in their various circumstances of history and geography, receive the teachings and commandments of Our Lord? I am certainly not in a place to respond to this question. However, especially where resources are very scarce, I would venture to ask our pastors to investigate the doctrinal, spiritual, and pastoral riches of the VO Missae and that forma fidei et caritatis which tradition—of which the Tridentine Mass is the most precious jewel—offers the Church “going forth” today and yesterday, ever since the divine Word was sent from Heaven to live in the immaculate womb of Mary and the Holy Spirit blew into the hearts of the Apostles at his Pentecost—so that she may be a sign and instrument of salvation. This Mass was the Mass of the zealous missionaries, intrepid confessors, venerable pastors, courageous martyrs, in short of a Church authentically “going forth.”

Nec plura. Dixi. Gratias.

[1] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 24:

[2] Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 19:

Nolite fieri sicut equus et mulus!

Image result for medieval drollery

The following is a true story from the Life of Blessed Meinwerk:

The Bishop [Meinwerk] had often sought to obtain a certain mantle of outstanding beauty and wonderful craftsmanship that belonged to the Emperor [Henry II] but in vain.

Then one day, while the Emperor was busy with several things, he surreptitiously snatched it away. But the Emperor, accusing him of robbery, declared that he would have his revenge in due time. Meinwerk, however, replied that it was much more proper that the mantle should hang in the temple of the Lord than cover his mortal limbs, and asserted that he considered the Emperor’s threats worthless.

Yet the Emperor knew that the Bishop, much occupied in secular business, sometimes fell into barbarisms, both in speaking Latin and in writing it. And so with his Chaplain the Emperor deleted fa from famulis and famulabus in a certain collect for the dead in the Missal, and then asked the Bishop to celebrate a Mass for the eternal rest of the souls of his father and mother. The Bishop, therefore, hastened to celebrate this unexpected Mass, and said mulis et mulabus, as he found written; but, realizing the error, he corrected what he had said wrongly by repeating the words.

Bischof Meinwerk auf Tragaltar Helmarshausen 1110
Bl. Meinwerk, Bishop of Paderborn, from a side altar in the Cathedral of Paderborn. Note the maniple in his hand.

After Mass, the Emperor jeeringly told the Pontiff, “I asked you to celebrate Mass for my father and mother, not for my male and female mules.” But the Bishop replied, “By the mother of Our Lord, you mocked me again according to your usual habit, and not in just any way, but in the service of our God, for Whom I will be the avenger. Behold! I swear it, for what is done unto Him will not go unpunished.”

Forthwith he summoned the canons into the chapter-house of the Cathedral and ordered the Emperor’s Chaplain, who had been aware of the trick, to be punished with the most severe flogging. After this punishment, he dressed him in new clothes and sent him back to the Emperor to announce what had happened.

(Vita b. Meinwerci Ecclesiæ Paderbornensis Episcopi, LXXXII).

St. Henry II, Holy Roman Emperor, Obl. S. B., from the Sacramentary of Henry II (München BSB Clm 4456 Seite 33c)

Episcopus autem quoddam imperatoris tegmen egregium precipui decoris et mirifici operis pallium, sepenumero optinere desiderans effectu caruit, donec quadam die imperatori pluribus intento illud fortuitu rapuit. Imperator vero episcopum de rapine incusans vitio, talionem debitum suo se tempore redditurum perhibuit; ille vero pallium hoc convenientius in templo Domini pendere quam sua membra mortalia tegere affirmans, minas eius se vili pendere asseruit. Sciens asutem imperator episcopum saecularibus negotiis multipliciter occupatum tam in latinitatis locutione, quam in lectione barbarismi vitia non semel incurrere de missali in quadam collecta pro defunctis, fa de famulis et famulabus, cum capellano suo delevit et episcopum pro requie animarum patris sui et matris missam celebrare rogavit. Episcopus igitur ex improviso missa celebrare accelerans, ut scriptum reperit, mulis et mulabus dixit; set errorem recognoscens, repetitis verbis quod male dixerat correxit. Post missam insultans imperator pontifici: “Ego,” inquit, “patri meo et matri, non mulis et mulabus meis missam celebrari rogavi.” At ille: “Per matrem,” ait, “Domini, tu more solito iterum illusisti mihi; et non quoquo modo, verum in Dei nostri servitio.

Cuius ero vindex, en promittit meus index;
Namque sibi factum non pertransibit inultum.”

Illico canonicis in capitolium principalis ecclesie convocatis, capellanum imperatoris huius rei conscium durissime verberibus castigari iussit, castigatumque novis vestibus indutum ad Imperatorem nuntiaturum, que facta fuerant, remisit. 

The Lenten Veil, by Henri de Villiers

In honor of the imminent start of Septuagesima, we repost this superb article by Henri de Villiers on the Lenten Veil.

The Lenten Veil—Velum quadragesimale

By Henri de Villiers

We are grateful to the author for his permission to translate his article Le voile de Carême – Velum quadragesimale.”  Also published at Liturgical Arts Journal.

Lent is a time of fasting. In former times, in order to prepare themselves to live the great mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians not only fasted from food but also practiced an auditory and visual fast.

Auditory privation took the form of suppressing of the use of the organ and musical instruments, but also in many diocesan uses, suppressing the ringing of bells.

Visual privation with the veils that were placed over the Cross and the statues or even the prohibition of placing flowers upon the altar. Visual privation also included closing off the sanctuary with a great veil, the velum quadrigesimale.

And so in Paris, until around the year 1870, such a veil was hung from the first Sunday of Lent until Spy Wednesday. This great veil, made of violet or ash-coloured linen, completely closed off the sanctuary and masked the view of the High Altar. It was dropped on the pavement of the sanctuary during the course of Spy Wednesday Mass during the chanting of the Passion according to St. Luke, precisely when the chronista reached the chanting of this verse: “et obscuratus est sol: et velum templi scissum est medium.” (Luke 23:45).

This dramatic visual action gave life to the words of the Gospel of the Passion that the faithful heard and reinforced its meaning in their hearts.

This great veil—called the velum quadrigesimale or velum templi—was not, however, particular to Paris, since it is found in all the lands of the ancient Carolingian world. Its usage is attested by many councils and medieval statutes and actually goes all the way back to Christian antiquity. Growing more and more ornate toward the end of the Middle Ages, especially in Germany, the Lenten veil, which had survived the Lutheran reform, is currently witnessing a renewed interest.

1. The Lenten Veil in the Ancient Use of Paris

Below are several paragraphs concerning the decoration of churches during Lent, taken from the Caeremoniale Parisiense published in 1662 by Cardinal de Retz, and edited by Martin Sonnet, priest and beneficiary of the Church of Paris, a reference work for understanding the old Parisian rite. This passage describes the set-up of the decoration of churches proper to the time Lent, carried out before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. Regarding the great Lenten veil, the parisian Ceremonial stipulates not only when it must be placed in the sanctuary, but also at what precise moments it must be opened or closed.


From the Sundays and ferias of Lent until Palm Sunday.

And when Jesus had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry (Matthew 4:2).

1. The first Sunday of Lent is a semi-double of the first class. Semi-double with respect to the office; first class, with respect to its privilege.

2. The Saturday before Vespers, the Master of Ceremonies ensures that the churchwarden or the sacristan and his assistants entirely cover up all crosses, reliquaries or relics of the saints, and images of the church, even the Processional Cross, in a dignified manner with a violet or ash-coloured veils made from camlet or damask silk, or from a silky fabric. He likewise ensures that the high altar and the other altars of the church be covered with frontals of the same colour.

3. And before the high altar, between the choir and the sanctuary, from one side to the other, a great oblong and wide veil is hung, or a large curtain made of violet or ash-coloured camlet, which can be drawn back or folded or let down when needful, or even spread out or closed or drawn, until Wednesday of Holy Week.

4. Now, this great veil is spread out for all ferial hours only, and for the entire day and night, and it is never spread out during mass, nor during the Sunday office from First Vespers until Second Vespers and for the entire day and night, nor indeed on the offices of double and semi-double feasts, nor by day nor by night.

5. Additionally, all draperies and all the carpets of the steps or the predella of the high altar and the other altars, are taken down throughout the Church: in sum, until Easter, the entire church is without ornament.


Observe how the same Ceremonial describes the lifting of the great Lenten veil a little later, when it speaks about Spy Wednesday:


11. The deacon sings the Passion according to St Luke, which the celebrant meanwhile reads on the Gospel side, as is noted in the preceding Tuesday. Now, after he arrives at the eagle which is in the middle of the choir, the Master of Ceremonies extends the great veil between the sanctuary and the altar, in the usual manner. It is elevated in each part of the choir, and held by two clerics, until these words of the Passion: “And the veil of the temple was rent in the midst”. And when the deacon pronounced those words, at the command of the Master of Ceremonies, the two aforementioned clerics immediately let go, so the veil may suddenly fall entirely on the floor of the choir, and it is afterwards taken away by the sacristan.


It is very interesting to note that the great Lenten veil remains opened all Sunday, from First Vespers to Second: the Day of the Lord, Dies Domini, has always been the feast of the Resurrection, even in Lent. Fasting is forbidden on this day.

The Cæremoniale Parisiense of Cardinal de Noailles, published in 1703, moreover, quite reasonably postpones the installation of the veil until after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent and before the Night Office of Monday: since the veil remained open on all Sundays, its installation before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent—however it perfectly logically fit with the entry into Lent—was not absolutely necessary. According to this Ceremonial, the other veils on the images and crosses are nevertheless always installed before First Vespers of the First Sunday of Lent. As we shall see, the practice of placing the Lenten veil after Compline of the First Sunday is already found in most medieval monastic customaries from the 10th century, and perhaps this is a souvenir from ancient times—before St. Gregory the Great!—when the fast did not commence until Monday.

2. The Lenten Veil in the Rest of Europe

Before the Renaissance and the printing of the first diocesan ceremonials, it is not always easy to discover the development of various liturgical rites in exact detail: the rubrics in the old Medieval Missals are fragmentary or even non-existent. We may still glean several useful details in the acts of provincial councils, and especially in the Customaries of the Abbeys, which regulated the details of conventual life in each of the great monastic centers with great precision.

And so we find the great Lenten veil mentioned by a series of medieval Anglo-Norman councils as being part of the supplies that every church was obliged to possess: these are the councils of Exeter (1217), Canterbury (1220), Winchester (1240), Evreux (1240), and Oxford (1287).

Prior to these councils, a number of customaries, constitutions, and statutes of medieval abbeys witness to the custom of closing off the sanctuary with a veil during Lent.

The most ancient mention is found in the Consuetudines Farfenses, the Constitutions of the Abbey of Farfa, near Rome, produced around the year 1010 (ch. XLII), which notes for the evening of the First Sunday of Lent:

Nam denique secraetarius cortinam exacta vespera in fune ordinet et completorio consummato in circulos extendant.

And finally, after Vespers have finished, the sacristan shall set up a curtain over a cord and, at the end of Compline, they shall spread it out.

St. Lanfranc († 1089), abbot of Saint-Étienne in Caen and then archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, speaks in his statutes about the Lenten veil, which must be installed after Compline of the First Sunday of Lent, and about other veils for the crosses and images, which are placed the next day before Terce:

Dominica prima Quadragesimae post Completorium suspendatur cortina inter Chorum et altare. Feria secunda ante Tertiam debent esse coopertae Crux, Coronae, Capsae, textus qui imagines deforis habent.

On the First Sunday of Lent, after Compline, let a curtain be hung up between the choir and the altar. On Monday before Terce, the Cross, crowns, reliquaries, and the fabrics which have images [painted] on them must be covered up (Statutes ch. 1, § 3).

Here are several more references, which admittedly show some variation in detail amongst the medieval monastic uses, but which allow us to appreciate the wide extent of the use of the Lenten veil:

  • Post Completorium appenditur velum inter altare et chorum quod nullus praeter Sanctuarii Custodes, atque Ministros, absque rationabili causa audet transire.After Compline, a veil is hung between the altar and the choir, which no one besides the custodians of the sanctuary and the ministers [of the mass] should dare to cross without reasonable cause. (Liber Consuetudinum S. Benigni Divionensis, Customary of St-Bénigne in Dijon)
  • Dominica post completam debet Secretarius tendere cortinam inter chorum et altare et Crucifixum cooperire.On Sunday after Compline the Sacristan must stretch out a curtain between the choir and the altar and cover the Crucifix. (Liber Usuum Beccesnsium, Book of the Usages of Bec-Hellouin)
  • Hac die post Completorium cruces cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis per XL usque ad quartam feriam ante Pascha post Completorium remanebit. (…) In Sabbatis vero et in vigiliis SS. duodecim Lectionum ante Vesperas a conspectu Presbyterii est cortina retrahenda, et in crastino post Completorium est remittenda. Similiter retrahentur ad Missam pro praesenti defuncto, et ad exequias: Non intres in iudicium, donec septem psalmi finiantur post sepulturam. S et ad benedictionem novitii. (…) Ad missam vero privatis diebus, ut Sacerdos libere ab Abbate, si assuerit, ad Evangelium legendum benedictionem petat, Subdiaconus cornu cortinae in parte Abbatis modice retrahat, et data benedictione, ut prius erat, remittat. Diaconus vero accedat ad cortinam, ubi sublevata est, quaerens benedictionem.On this day, after Compline, let the crosses be covered up, and a curtain be extended before the sanctuary, which must remain so on all ferial days throughout Lent until after Compline of the Wednesday before Easter. […] On Saturdays, however, and the vigils of saints of twelve lessons, the curtain must be drawn back before Vespers that the sanctuary might be visible, and it is put back the next day after Compline. It is likewise to be drawn back on a funeral mass where the body is present, and on obsequies from Non intres in judicium until the seven penitential psalms finish after the burial, and on the blessing of a novice. […] But on weekday masses, in order that the priest, if he wishes, can freely ask the blessing of the abbot for reading the Gospel, let the Subdeacon slightly draw back the end of the curtain at the abbot’s side, and after the blessing has been given, let him put it back as it was before. But let the deacon walk up to the curtain, at the point where it is lifted up, to ask for the blessing. (Liber Usuum Cisterciensium, Book of the Usages of Cîteaux, ch. 15: De Dominica prima XL).
  • Hac die post IX ante Sanctuarium cortina a Sacrista tendatur, et cruces in ecclesia cooperiantur. (…) In festis vero SS. XII. Lectionum, et Dominicis, die praecedente ad Vesperas a conspectu Sanctuarii cortina abstrahenda est, et in die festi post Completorium rehrahenda: similiter singulis diebus ante elvationem Domin Corporis abstrahantur, et ea facta retrahetur.On this day after None, let a curtain be spread out before the sanctuary by the sacristan, and let the crosses in the church be covered up, […] But on saints feasts of twelve lessons, and on Sundays, at Vespers on the preceding day the curtain is to be opened up that the sanctuary might be visible, and after Compline on the feast it is to be put back. Similarly, on each day let it be opened up before the elevation of the Body of the Lord, and closed again thereafter. (Tullense S. Apri Ordinarium, Ordinary of St-Evre-lès-Toul)
  • Vesperae autem diei praecedentis diem cinerum, cruces, et imagines cooperiantur, et cortina ante Presbyterium tendatur, quae ita omnibus diebus privatis usque ad quartam feriam hebdomadae palmarum dum canitur: Et velum Templi scissum est, remanebit. (…) Et omnibus etiam privatis diebus ad elevationem Dominici Corporis et Sanguinis Missae conventualis, quae cantantur in summo altari.Now, at Vespers of the day preceding the Day of Ashes, let the crosses and images be covered up, and a curtain be stretched out before the sanctuary, which shall remain thus on all ferial days until Wednesday of the Week of Palms, when Et velum templi scissum est is sung. […] but not on ferial days at the elevation of the Body and Blood of the Lord during conventual Mass, which is sung at the high altar. (Caeremoniae Bursfeldenses, Ceremonial of the German Benedictine Congregation of Bursfelde, ch. 31, 1474-1475)

3. The German Fastentuch

The Lenten veil has remained in use here and there in Sicily and in Spain, but it is especially in Germany and Austria that it has been preserved to our day. The fact that the Lenten veils (or Fastentuch in German) had there become genuine works of art by their decoration surely has something to do with their preservation, and the continuance of their use.

The Lenten veil of Paris would usually have been a rather ordinary woolen sheet (made of ‘camlet’ to employ the technical term used by Martin Sonnet in the Ceremonial of 1662), and must have remained without any special decoration for a long time, as it was in its primitive state. None of these have been conserved and we have not been able to find any ancient iconographic representations.

On the other hand, it is at the end of the 13th century that we observe, in Flanders and Germany, that Lenten veils became ornamented, first with embroidery and then with painting, becoming more and more rich and sumptuous.

Especially in southern Germany and Austria one sees that Lenten veils became very richly painted canvases representing scenes of the Passion, often true masterpieces of their time.

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Fribourg (1612)

In Germany, the cathedral of Our Lady of Fribourg preserves the largest Lenten veil known in Europe. Dating to 1612, it measures more than 10 by 12 metres and weighs almost one ton. The central scene of the crucifixion is surrounded by 25 squares containing various episodes of the Passion.

Lenten Veil of the Abbey of Millstatt in Austria (1593)

The Lenten veil of the Abbey of Millstatt, in Carinthia (Austria) originating in 1593 had fallen into disuse. Restored, it has been reinstalled and used once more every Lent since 1984.

Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria (1458)

These Lenten veils were a veritable instrument of catechesis through image, educating the people on the history of salvation.

The Lenten Veil of the Cathedral of Gurk in Austria, composed of 99 (tableaux) from Scripture (1458)

In Northern Germany, the Lenten veil remained of a much more simple design: made of white linen decorated with embroidery, consisting usually of references from Scripture or the liturgy. These features are found also in the ancient Lenten veils of Flanders that are conserved in the museums of Belgium, the more ancient belonging to the 14th century. The Museum of the cathedral of Brandenburg near Berlin possesses one dating from the year 1290.



Martin Luther, who detested the idea of Lent and of penance, tried to make the Fastentuch disappear in all of Germany. Little by little they fell into disuse, and from the end of the 19th century the use had practically disappeared. Curiously, this ancient tradition reappeared vigorously beginning in 1974, when the charitable association Misereor had the idea of producing a Fastentuch to give concrete expression to Christians’ Lenten efforts. This initiative has a certain impact all over Germany, leading to the rediscovery of this tradition, the restoration of numerous historic veils that slept in the vaults of cathedrals or museums, and their suspension in sanctuaries once more. There was so much interest that even the Lutherans were moved to put them up! Currently, it is estimated that one third of German Catholic churches as well as many hundreds of Lutheran parishes hang up a veil during Lent. From Germany the practice is expanding currently into Switzerland, Belgium, Ireland and even France.


4. A Tradition with Roots in Christian Antiquity

The practice of veiling images, crosses, and relics during Lent is certainly ancient in the West. Thus, we see in the life of St. Eligius, written by St. Audoin († 686), that the precious casket of the saint was covered by a veil during the entire duration of Lent. But this is not exactly the purpose of this article.

The practice of hanging a veil before the sanctuary of churches hearkens to the most ancient period.

The Old Testament, a type of the New, speaks of a veil that covered the Holy of Holies, first in the itinerant Tabernacle of the desert, then in the Temple of Jerusalem (according to St. Paul, the veil that was rent at the death of Christ was the second veil, and a first veil closed off the Holy Place. Cf. Hebrews 9:3).

The first Christian churches used the sanctuary veil as much in the West as in the East.

The ancient altar was usually covered by a ciborium or baldacchino, between whose columns veils were hung.


Besides these veils over the ciborium, the sanctuary itself was separated from the choir and the nave by a cloister called the chancel or templon, a barrier that might include columns, between which veils were hung. Twelve columns closed off the sanctuary of the basilica of the Anastasis (today the Holy Sepulchre) constructed by Constantine at the beginning of the 4th century. These columns served to support curtains, as various patristic texts tell us. The curtain of the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, donated by the munificence of the emperor Justinian, was made of cloth of gold and silver of an estimated cost of 2,000 minae.


This double rung of veils, the veil of the templum and the veil of the ciborium, constituted the limits of the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in the temples of the new covenant.


The curtains were kept closed or open depending on the moments of the liturgical action. Their opening always signified the full transmission of grace and symbolized the opening of the heavens.

“When,” said St John Chrysostom, “the heavenly host is upon the altar, when Jesus Christ, the royal lamb, is immolated, when you hear these words: ‘Let us all pray to the Lord together’, when you see that the veils and curtains of the altar are pulled back, consider that you contemplate the heavens that are opened up and the angels that come down to earth.”


The West was not to be outdone: one finds in the Liber Pontificalis several references to popes (e.g. Sergius I, Gregory III, Zachary, Hadrian I) who donated veils to ornament the arcades of the ciboria and the sanctuaries of Roman churches.

Many ancient Eastern and Western liturgies contain a prayer—the prayer of the veil—that the celebrant says when, during the offertory, he leaves the choir and enters the sanctuary, going beyond the veil that closed it off.

The prayer of the veil in the Liturgy of St James, which represents the ancient use of the Church of Jerusalem, is justly renowned:

“We thank Thee, O Lord our God, that Thou hast given us boldness for the entrance of Thy holy places, which Thou hast renewed to us as a new and living way through the veil of the flesh of Thy Christ. We therefore, being counted worthy to enter into the place of the tabernacle of Thy glory, and to be within the veil, and to behold the Holy of Holies, cast ourselves down before Thy goodness: Lord, have mercy on us: since we are full of fear and trembling, when about to stand at Thy holy altar, and to offer this dread and bloodless sacrifice for our own sins and for the errors of the people: send forth, O God, Thy good grace, and sanctify our souls, and bodies, and spirits; and turn our thoughts to holiness, that with a pure conscience we may bring to Thee a peace-offering, the sacrifice of praise:

(Aloud.) By the mercy and loving-kindness of Thy only-begotten Son, with whom Thou art blessed, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and always:

R/. Amen.”


The Assyro-Chaldean, Armenian, Coptic, and Ethiopian Churches have kept the use of a curtain that closes off the sanctuary. In the Armenian Church, a church is considered to be in disuse if its sanctuary is bereft of a curtain. In the Byzantine church, the columns that once propped up the curtain grew coated with icons in the course of the ages and became the iconostasis: the curtain is still present, although its extension is most often limited to the breadth of the sanctuary doors.

Veil Armenia.jpg

Even if a curtain closes off the sanctuary yearlong in the East, there are nevertheless special customs during Lent. Thus, in the Armenian Church, the usual curtain is replaced during Lent by a black curtain. This black curtain always remains closed during mass and the Lenten offices, symbolizing the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. It is not opened until Palm Sunday.

The Russians likewise change their usual brightly coloured curtain for a sombre-coloured one during the weekdays of Great Lent. All the other veils and coverings of the church are similarly changed. Brightly coloured curtains return on Holy Saturday during the Paschal Vigil, right before the singing of the Gospel of the Resurrection, while the choir sings “Rise up, O Lord, and judge the earth.”


Is it foreseeable that this custom will be restored in France, like it has in Germany?

Juridically, there is nothing blocking it, since the Congregation of Rites has affirmed that the use of the great veil of Lent closing off the sanctuary is indeed permissible (decr. auth. 3448, 11 May 1878).

Nevertheless, we still have something of the “visual Lent” of our forefathers since we have kept the Roman usage of veiling the crosses and statues before First Vespers of Passion Sunday (fifteen days before Easter). Even if this article is not directly about that beautiful custom, it might perhaps help us to better understand the origins of that use and to grasp its historical and symbolic depths.

*For more on veils, also posts at NLM here and here.

The Velatio Nuptialis: An Ancient (and forgotten) Part of the Latin Marriage Rite

This article was written by M. Henri de Villiers for his blog the Schola Sainte-Cécile. We are pleased and grateful to translate and publish it here, and at New Liturgical Movement, with the author’s kind permission.

Le mariage de Monsieur le duc de Bourbon et Mlle de Nantes dans la chapelle royale de Versailles le 24 juillet 1685
Marriage of the Duke of Bourbon and Princess Marie Anne in the Royal Chapel of Versailles on 24 July 1685. Notice the veil held by two ecclesiastics above the couple during the nuptial blessing, given by the bishop.

Until around 1999, our parish of Saint-Eugène in Paris was one of the few in France to keep up a custom that goes back to the first centuries of the Church. At Nuptial Masses,[1] two high-ranking clerics or two witnesses held a large white veil[2] over the kneeling couple during the nuptial blessing given by the priest between the Pater and the Kiss of Peace.

In France, the traditional name for this veil is the poêle. The word comes from the Latin pallium, which means a rectangular piece of fabric.[3]

The same word poêle was also used in France to designate the canopy for the Corpus Christi procession and for the funeral pall, and for the canopies used for solemn receptions of a bishop or powerful prince. It lives on in the popular expression “Tenir les cordons du poêle” (“Hold the ends of the veil”) that refers to someone enjoying an honorary position. Jean-Jacques Dortous de Mairan, in his encomium for Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, points out that it was in virtue of his position as chaplain to the King that he had the privilege of holding the poêle at the wedding of the Duke of Orléans in 1692.

Far from being a simple folk custom proper to certain regions of France, the poêle for the nuptial blessing goes back to the earliest centuries, where it was a fundamental element of Christian marriage. Required by the Fathers of the Church, the origin of this rite helps us to understand the arrangements for marriage in the first Christian centuries in the West.

The velatio nuptialis in the age of the Church Fathers: a Confirmation for the Church and by the Church of the Sacrament of Marriage

From the period of the catacombs until the Early Middle Ages, the essential part of the rites of the sacrament of Christian marriage were celebrated in private and took place in the home. The exchange of vows was from the beginning considered the fundamental element, a consent manifested by an exchange of symbolic gifts (such as the ring, but also a token piece of money.)

Gradually these domestic rites began to be held in the church (and at first in front of the church building), and there is a faint reminder of this in the traditional marriage rite (still followed in the 1962 books): the sacrament is celebrated before the Mass, which is later offered for the husband and wife already married. But originally the spouses gave themselves the sacrament of marriage in their own house by the exchange of consent.

Nevertheless, the spouses then had, in a manner of speaking, to ratify this sacrament they had given themselves by receiving a solemn blessing at the church during a special Mass celebrated for their intention. This solemn, public confirmation of the sacrament given in private appears to have been well-established at least since the 4th century[4] and took the form of a ceremony performed before the priest in the church: the velatio nuptialis, or nuptial veiling.

During a Mass celebrated for the husband and wife (a Mass that has had proper prayers and texts since the 4th century), the couple is covered with a veil while the priest pronounces over them the special nuptial blessing. This blessing comes between the end of the canon and the Communion.[5] The placement of this blessing was no accident: it preceded the ancient blessing that was given by the bishop to all the faithful before Communion.[6]

Contrary to what certain liturgists in the 20th century believed, the veil in question was not the veil that the bride wore on the marriage day (at that time every Christian women wore one, whether she was married or not), but rather a large veil stretched over the couple precisely as the title of the blessing in the Gregorian Sacramentary indicates: Oratio ad sponsas velandas.

St. Ambrose, the famous 4th-century bishop of Milan, speaks in clear terms about this public ratification in the church (and before the Church) of the sacrament that the spouses had given themselves in private: “It is fitting that the marriage be sanctified by the imposition of the veil and the blessing of the priest.”[7]

In 380, in a letter to Archbishop Himerius of Tarragona, Pope Siricius mentions the nuptial blessing given under the veil:

De conjugali velatione requisisti, si desponsatam alii puellam alter in matrimonium possit accipere. (“You inquired about the wedding veiling, whether one can marry a girl who has been betrothed to another.”)

The question that worries Himerius and Pope Siricius’s subsequent response are very obscure:

He wanted to know whether it was possible to give a second nuptial blessing under the veil. The Pope refused. But it is telling to see that the veiling of the spouses is a synonym for marriage in canonical questions about this sacrament from this time onward.

The same Pope Siricius wrote in 390 to many bishops and mentions the velatio nuptialis incidentally:

Nos sane nuptiarum vota non aspernantes accepimus, quibus velamine intersumus (Ep. 7, PL 13, 117).

Several more passages in the Latin Church Fathers from the 4th to 6th centuries indicate a common point of agreement: in the West the veiling of the spouse is the only public aspect of the ceremony of Christian marriage.[8]

The wide attestation of this rite in the 4th century could lead us to think that the ceremony dates from before the Peace of Constantine. A text of Tertullian (c. 150 † c. 220) might also indicate that the nuptial blessing was practiced in Christian Africa in the 3rd century during the sacrifice of the Mass:

“This union that the Church ratifies, that the sacrifice confirms, that the blessing consecrates, and that the angels celebrate, and that gladdens the Father” (Ad Uxorem, II, 8, 6). In any case this citation shows that the marriage celebrated by the spouses in private is confirmed by the subsequent celebration of the holy sacrifice of the Mass.

In 403, St. Paulinus of Nola composed a very beautiful poem on marriage, an epithalamion written for the occasion of the wedding of the lector Julian (future bishop of Eclanum), son of the bishop of Benevento, to the daughter of the bishop of Capua. Paulinus describes the bishop of Benevento leading the couple to the altar, where the bishop of Capua gives them his nuptial blessing, who are both covered by the same veil:

“Ille jugans capita amborum sub pace jugali,
Velat eos dextra, quos prece sanctificat” (Poem XXV, v. 226-227).
(Joining both their heads under a peaceful yoke / he veils with his right hand those whom he sanctifies with his prayer.)

In the most ancient Roman liturgical books we find not only the text of this velatio nuptialis/nuptial blessing but also the other texts for the Mass celebrated for the husband and wife. The Leonine and Gelesian Sacramentaries even include a special preface and Hanc igitur. In the Leonine Sacramentary, the most ancient witness of the Latin liturgy, the Mass is entitled: Incipit velatio nuptialis. From the Gelesian Sacramentary we know that this Mass for the spouses was celebrated a second time thirty days later and on the day of their anniversary.

The Leonine text of the nuptial blessing is repeated in the Gelasian. It is notable that the text asks for God’s blessing only over the wife, even though it is evident that the two spouses are under the same veil. Here is what the Blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster, archbishop of Milan, wrote about this:

“A further remark seems called for in this connection. The various formulas for the nuptial blessing among the Latins have reference rather to the woman than to the nuptial pair in common. According to the Leonine Sacramentary, it is for her that the holy sacrifice is offered: hanc igitur oblationem famulae tuae N. quam tibi offerimus pro famula tua N.; so also does the velatio conjugalis, together with its special blessing before the Fraction of the Host, refer exclusively to the bride: Sit amabilis ut Rachael viro, sapiens ut Rebecca, longaeva et fidelis ut Sara, etc.”

Considering the mentality of the ancients with regard to the inferior status of women, the Church displays an admirable wisdom here: in her liturgical formulas she takes the weaker part under her protection, raising her from the degrading condition to which paganism had reduced her, ennobling her to the point that, in Christian chivalry, she has become almost a cultic symbol (Liber Sacramentorum).

It is highly significant that this blessing is given in the Leonine and Gelasian Sacramentaries in the form of a chanted consecratory preface like that of the canon of the Mass. In the Roman rite chanting a preface signified a solemn consecration. This practice is retained of course in the Mass, at priestly ordinations, at the consecration of Chrism on Holy Thursday, and for the blessing of water on Holy Saturday. It was also done at the solemn blessing of water on the night of Epiphany, during the Vigil of Pentecost, and on Palm Sunday.

The Sacramentary of St. Gregory modified the structure of the Gelasian nuptial blessing by suppressing its preface form, but substantially retaining the ideas of the ancient text. This is the form that has passed into the Missal of Pius V. However, even after the publication of this missal, Rome still used the more ancient form of the preface, which survived in many dioceses, especially in France, until the end of the 19th century.

See for example the beginning of the nuptial blessing chanted in the form of a consecratory preface in the Sacerdotale Romanum of 1580 (pp. 32v to 34v). This book contains the official ritual of Rome and Venice before the Rituale Romanum of Paul V entered into force in 1614:

Bénédiction nuptiale chantée en préface consécratoire, Sacerdotale Romanum de 1580

Outside Italy we find the same ceremony in the liturgical books for the Hispano-Visigothic liturgy (or Mozarabic rite) and St. Isidore of Seville mentions it. Even though its texts differ from the Roman, the velatio nuptialis accompanies the nuptial blessing. See the rubric in the Liber Ordinum edited by Dom Férotin:

Quum venerint hii qui conjungendi sunt, explicita secundum morem missa, antequam absolvat diaconus, accedunt ad sacerdotem juxta cancellos ; et venientes parentes puelle, aut aliquis ex propinquis si parentes non habuerit, tradit puelam sacerdoti. Ille vero velans eos de palleo aut sippa, ac posito desuper jugali facto de coccino et albo, dicit hanc prefationem cum duabus sequentibus orationibus.[9]

Note here that in Spain, the veil mentioned by the Roman texts takes the name pallium,[10] which was also adopted in France as poêle.

It is possible that the ancient rite of Gaul knew a similar rite. A canon of the Statua Ecclesiae antiqua, a Gallic text from the 5th century, leads us to think that the parents and witnesses present the couple to the priest to receive a blessing:

Sponsus & sponsa cum benedicendi sunt a sacerdote, a parentibus vel paranymphis offerantur. Let the husband and wife, when it is time to be blessed by the priest, be presented by their parents or their witnesses.

One of the essential roles of the witnesses might have been precisely to hold the pallium over the spouses.

What is the origin of the Christian velatio nuptialis?

It is difficult to determine the origin of the velatio nuptialis. Some have thought that the veil spread over the couple is derived from Greek and Roman custom but Roman marriage seems to have involved only a red veil for the bride, the flammeum, which is rarely mentioned by the Church Fathers and never in the ancient liturgy. However, Greco-Roman influence cannot be excluded, since the idea of a veil is present in the etymology of the Latin and Greek terms for marriage: nubere (= to be veiled, covered), nuptiae connubium, νυμφίος.

Modern-day Jews have a very similar rite, the use of a wedding canopy called a huppah, but it is very difficult to find Biblical evidence for this practice. In fact, it is not impossible that the Christian ritual influenced the Jewish ritual in this respect, since the first Jewish author to speak of it, Rabbi Isaac ben-Abba Mari, in the 12th century, categorically disapproves of the introduction of the custom of holding a cloth over the bride and groom during the nuptial blessing.

It is significant to note that the Western liturgy, at least since the 4th century, knew of another velatio, the velatio virginum. in which virgins were solemnly consecrated to God. This is not like the veiling of a nun, but a large cloth stretched over the religious sister being consecrated as she lies prostrate on the floor. Which of the two veilings influenced the other? It is difficult to say, but the rites for the religious profession of virgins seem to be based on those of marriage, meant to signify their mystical union with Christ.[11]

What is the meaning of the poêle or pallium of the nuptial blessing?

The white pallium stretched over the couple as they receive the nuptial blessing symbolizes the bright cloud, the manifestation of the glorious protection of God:

The bright cloud that accompanies the chosen people’s wandering in the desert (Exodus 13:20-22)

The power of the Holy Spirit that overshadowed the Virgin Mary (Luke 1:35)

The bright cloud that appeared in the Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Luke 9:28-36; 2 Peter 1:17-18).

In Latin, the word for clouds (nubes), to marry and to veil (nubere) have the same etymology. The white pallium signifies the heavenly blessing that descends on the spouses, and thus the divine ratification of their mutual choice.

The simultaneous veiling of the bride and groom also expresses the fact that they have become one body and one flesh. This is in fact the text of the epistle read at the nuptial Mass in the Missal of St. Pius V:

“For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh.” (Ephesians 5:31; citing Genesis 2:24).

In Old French, the term poêle, as we have seen, is synonymous with the canopy used to honor both the Body of Christ on Corpus Christi and the person of a king or bishop. The poêle is therefore also a token of honor given to the couple at the moment of the nuptial blessing.

Finally, here is the symbolism pointed out by in the 18th century by Fr. Charles-Louis Richard, O.P:

“The veil or poêle (pallium) is held over the heads of the bride and groom to teach them that modesty must rule their conduct in the holy state of marriage that they have chosen.”[12]

The velatio nuptialis after the time of the Church Fathers

On 13th November 866, Pope Nicholas I responded to a number of questions about Christian life posed to him by the newly converted Bulgars, in a letter that has remained famous. One of its passages describes the ceremonies of marriage:

“With regard to marriages, the custom of the Roman Church is that after the betrothal and other conventions, the parties make their offering through the hands of the priest, then receive the nuptial blessing and the veil, which is not given at second marriages.[13] When leaving the holy place, they wear crowns on their head that are kept inside the church[14]; but the only essential part of these ceremonies is the consent which is required by law.”

In the Middle Ages the velatio nuptialis was in use constantly throughout all Christian Europe, wherever the Roman rite spread. It is attested in France, Spain, and Italy as well as in England, where the pallium was called the pall. In 1321 the chronicles noted that King Edward II bought a sumptuous pallium to be put over the heads of Richard Fitz Alanand and Isabel le Despenser during their nuptial blessing. This custom was part of the Sarum Rite.

In the 12th century, the celebrated canonist Gratian, based on the authority of Pope Siricius, notes that the fact of receiving the nuptial blessing under the veil entails that it is forbidden for the young girl to enter into another marriage, once she:

In propria domo ducta est et cum sponso velata est et benedicta. (Has been brought to her own house, veiled, and blessed with the groom.)

Gratian notes that the marriage is ratified under the veil:

Similiter de hujusmodi desponsata intelligitur quæ videlicet cum sponso est velata & benedicta. (Likewise she is considered married who has been veiled and blessed with her spouse.)

Here is an illustration of the nuptial veiling in a 14th century manuscript of Gratian’s Decretals:

Décret de Gratien - France, XIVème siècle - Bibliothèque apostolique vaticane, ms lat 1370, fol 247v°

The nuptial blessing/velatio nuptialis was given after the Pater and before the Kiss of Peace (the celebrant gave the peace to the groom who gave it to the bride). It is in the same position in the Missal of St. Pius V, even though the rubric indicating the spreading of the veil during the nuptial blessing was never written. This rubric never featured in the Missals printed before Pius V, but it was often marked in the various published Rituals.

See for example the rubric of the Parisian Manuale sacerdotum of 1497:

Ruprique précisant l'usage du pallium à la bénédiction nuptiale - Manuale sacerdotum parisiensis de 1497

Antequam dicatur Pax Domini, sponsus & sponsa prostrati ante altare pallio cooperiantur. Sed sacerdos vero versa facie manus super eos extensa dicat legendo hanc orationem sequentem sine Dominus vobiscum ».

In the same work, another rubric specifies that the pallium is removed at the end of the nuptial blessing and that the priest continues the course of the Mass as usual with the Kiss of Peace.

Ruprique indiquant le retrait du pallium à la fin de la bénédiction nuptiale - Manuale sacerdotum parisiensis de 1497

The Roman Ritual of Paul V (1614), a professedly minimalist and non-obligatory text, to avoid repeating the Missal, is content to refer to the text of nuptial blessing in the votive Mass for the bride and groom found in the Missale Romanum. In this wise, and perhaps quite accidentally, the rubric about the spreading of the veil over the couple ceased completely to appear in Roman books. So the most solemn action of Christian marriage in antiquity was gradually forgotten.

Use of the poêle survived, however, in France for a long time, because the great majority of diocesan books continued to include it until the end of the 19th century. Here are several representations from the 18th and 19th centuries (besides the one from the 17th century shown at the top of this article):

Mariage sous le poêle au XVIIIème siècle

Mariage sous le poêle au XIXème siècle-01

Mariage sous le poêle au XIXème siècle-02


Jour de Noce - Quadrille d'Edouard Detraux - 13 août 1866

Jour de Noce - Quadrille d'Edouard Detraux - 13 août 1866 - détail

The Parisian books continued to note the use of the white pallium covering the couple. See for example the rubrics of the Rituale Parisiense of 1791, page 139:

Rituale Parisiense de 1791 - rubrique précisant la bénédiction nuptiale, avec un voile blanc couvrant les époux

And the rubric specifying the removal of the veil after the blessing, page 141:

Rituale Parisiense de 1791 - rubrique marquant la fin de la vélation

The use of the poêle in France was maintained in some regions into the 20th century, mostly in Normandy and in the East. The rite is still used commonly in many parts of Italy, even in the present day:

Vélation nuptiale en Italie

Vélation nuptiale en Italie

Vélation nuptiale en Italie

But it is above all in Spain and the former Spanish colonies that the rite has been conserved to the present day. It passed from the Hispano-Mozarabic rite to the Roman rite over the course of the ages and constitutes one of the elements of what is called the Toledan marriage ritual. When consulted by the archbishop of Mexico in 1886 on the use of the marriage veil, the Sacred Congregation of Rites authorized the preservation of this traditional rite (n.3656). It is notable that contrary to the practice observed in France, England (as described in the Sarum books), and in Italy, the veil is not held above the couple but placed on the head of the bride and the shoulders of the groom.

The Sacerdotale Romanum of 1580 mentions (pg. 32) the nuptial veiling of the spouses at the moment of the nuptial blessing, noting that it is done if that is the custom. The rubric specifies that in that case the veil is put on the shoulders of the groom and the head of the bride. This detail—curious in a Roman book—exactly describes the Toledan use, in which a white veil or sometimes a humeral veil is used.[15] Here are some photos:

Vélation nuptiale à San Sébastien en Espagne en 1940-01

Vélation nuptiale à San Sébastien en Espagne en 1940-02

Vélation nuptiale à San Sébastien en Espagne en 1949-03

Vélation nuptiale en Espagne-04

Vélation nuptiale en Espagne en 1954-06

Vélation nuptiale en Espagne-05

Besides Spain, the rite of the veil is present in America and in the Philippines. A very interesting article on the New Liturgical Movement describes the practice in its traditional form.

In conclusion

Custódi nos, Dómine, ut pupíllam óculi.

Sub umbra alárum tuárum prótege nos.

The beautiful symbolism and ancient roots of the marriage veil make us hope that this venerable custom does not become entirely extinct in France. We hope we will soon see more marriages under the poêle!

Other articles by Henri de Villiers:
On the Lenten Veil,
On the Ambrosian and Eusebian Rites,
A Farced Epistle for Holy Innocents


[1] “Marriage Mass” is a misnomer, because in the traditional liturgy it is actually a Votive Mass for the Bridegroom and Bride who have been married before this Mass, as shown by the collect. We will return to this point a bit later in this article, since it helps us understand the reasons behind the velatio nuptialis.

[2] In practice, an altar or communion cloth was used.

[3] A piece of cloth with which one can wrap oneself. The garment of philosophers and the wise. Tertullian (c. 150-220) claims the use of the pallium as a distinguishing mark of Christians. In the Middle Ages, the term also referred to a rectangular banner.

[4] But it is certainly possible the ceremony existed even earlier, since the Christian theology of marriage was already well-established in the 3rd century, and even earlier.

[5] To be more exact, after the Pater until in the 6th century St. Gregory the Great moved it to the end of the Canon, following the example of the Byzantine rite.

[6] A blessing that exists in all the other Eastern and Western rites at this point, which disappeared from the Roman books in the course of the Middle Ages. The blessing given by the priest at the end of Mass is a more recent and meager replacement for it.

[7] Epistle 19, to Vigilius, bishop of Trent, 7 – cf. PL 16, 1026

[8] Consequently, canonical questions relating to marriage are tied to the velatio nuptialis.

[9] Marius Férotin, OSB. Le Liber Ordinum. París 1904.

[10] Or sippa, a term otherwise unattested according to Du Cange

[11] “St. Paul had formerly compared the virginal state to the spiritual marriage of the soul with Christ; and Tertullian, taking this as his starting-point, maintained that Christian virgins should wear veils on their heads, after the manner of married women. These ideas, when subjected to the influence of the Gallican liturgy, developed more and more in a mystical direction, so that a strange combination of ceremonies, taken from the marriage liturgy, replaced the early rite of the consecratio virginis, described in the Roman Sacramentaries—a rite which implied a simple eucharistic prayer and the velatio capitis. There we find the matrons, paranymphae; the consent to the profession of virginity; the subarrhatio with the ring, the velatio, and the coronatio; from all of which there resulted a magnificent and perfected ceremony, somewhat too emotional perhaps, and certainly detrimental to the theological sense which should dominate all these scenic accessories. There we read of nuptials, of golden bracelets, of vines with sweet-scented blossoms, of precious rings, of milk and honey tasted by the lips of the bridegroom, of his blood dyeing the cheeks of the bride, and even of an ethereal marriage-bed—ipsi sum juncta in coelis, quam in terra posita tota devotione dilexi—all these allusions showing, it would seem, no cognizance of the fact that we have to live here on earth, and have, moreover, to guard the treasure of virginity in weak and fragile earthen vessels.” (Cardinal Schuster, The Sacramentary).

This text by Cardinal Schuster is admiable. However, contrary to what the author states, the veil of the velatio virginum is not a velatio capitis in the ancient liturgical books. One is inclined to think that, from its origins, they used a grand pallium like for marriage

[12] Analyse des conciles généraux & particuliers, Paris, 1773, Part II, Volume IV, p. 300.

[13] The nuptial blessing under the veil was no longer given at a subsequent marriage. The Council of Laodicea already imposed a penance for a second wedding after widowhood. St. Augustine himself spoke of a “less honorable wedding” and St. Thomas Aquinas said that in a second marriage there is a sort of “defective sacrament,” since even if it is full sacrament, its signification is nevertheless diminished.

[14] A rare witness to the use of wedding crowns in the West. The Greeks and Romans already crowned the newly-weds with flowers, laurel leaves, or other branches. The crown of flowers until recently used by French newly-weds is a vestige of this. The crowning of the bridegroom and bride has always been an essential part of the marriage rite in the East, and fulfills the same role as the Western velatio sponsalis: a solemn ratification of the spouses’ union before the community.

[15] Since the Ritual of Toledo implied that the veil remained over the spouses from the Offertory until the Pater, this custom must have had its origins in the practical step of just placing it over their shoulders.