New Years with the Canons of Sens (1): A Feast of Fools?

Urge recristianizar las fiestas y costumbres populares. Urge evitar que los espectáculos públicos se vean en esta disyuntiva: o ñoños o paganos. Pide al Señor que haya quien trabaje en esa labor de urgencia, que podemos llamar «apostolado de la diversión».

Fr Josemaría Escrivá, Camino

We have previously written about a remarkable MS. that seems to record the steps for a festive dance performed by the precentor of the Cathedral Chapter of Sens two days a year. The Cathedral of St Étienne de Sens was indeed renowned during the Middle Ages as a centre of liturgical excellence, both for the perfection of its ceremonies and, especially, of its chant. By the 13th century, the sobriquet li chanteor de Sens (“the cantors of Sens”) had become the proverbial byname for the city, such was the fame of its ecclesiastical singing.[1]

Thus in one of the first printed chant-books published by the church of Sens for the use of its entire ecclesiastical province, the Precentor did not hesitate to boast in the preface:

“Throughout all Gaul, the most holy Metropolitan Church of Sens shines with such dignity and excels with such grand majesty in the symphony of its divine offices, that none could deem them anywhere else more beautiful, more holy, more admirable, and (insofar as it pertains to the divine mystery) closer to the example of antiquity.”

During the High Middle Ages, the splendor of the Senonese cathedral liturgy was at full display on the Feast of the Circumcision, which Henri Villetard, a 19th-century canon of Sens, called “the seal of the musical glory of this ancient Metropolis.” It has been preserved in MS. 46 of the Bibliothèque Municipale de Sens, an extravagantly bound tome with two antique ivories, which has since the 16th century been known under the misnomer Missel or Office des Fous.


Throughout all mediæval France, the joys of the Christmas season elicited particularly playful liturgies, especially on the kalends of January. The ensemble of these sprawling festivities became known as the Feast of Fools. The excesses that unsurprisingly tarnished such celebrations often drew the condemnation of censorious ecclesiarchs, but one looks in vain for such infelicities in Sens, MS. 46. The book simply contains the music for the entire Office and Mass for the Feast of the Circumcision, albeit heavily troped, with paraliturgical songs pertaining to the same, all under the straightforward heading Circumcisio Domini. The picture it paints is certainly one of exuberant merry-making, but all of it conveyed through ritual, and what better medium of expression for the legitimate rejoicing of the plebs sancta Dei?

The MS. in question has been traditionally attributed to Peter of Corbeil, who ruled the see of Sens from 1200 to 1221. This cultivated prelate was a master of theology, who, while canon of Paris, counted among his pupils one Lothair of Segni, who in 1198 was exalted to the Petrine dignity under the name Innocent III. He duly promoted Peter to various posts, culminating in his appointment to govern Sens[2].

Peter was not only a noted theologian and philosopher but also a poet and musician. As archbishop he wrote an Office for the Assumption which was used in Sens as late as the 17th century. Some of its responsories have been published by Solesmes in Variae preces and the Processionale monasticum.

When he lent his talents to the Feast of the Circumcision, Peter was likely aiming to curb the immoderation that often marred the celebration of the Feast of Fools, providing both a decorous liturgical ritual and thereby a means of enticing the faithful away from the purely secular revels attached to the kalends of January. A similar approach to the issue had been taken in 1198 by Odo of Sully, bishop of Paris, and, as canon, Peter affixed his name to Odo’s decrees.


In his Office, Peter generally transcribed musical pieces that were already in use and are attested elsewhere, but he also appears to have taken the chance to incorporate songs of his own composition. These are, withal, of para-liturgical character; Sens would have scarcely tolerated innovations in the liturgical offices themselves.

Conductus ad Tabulam

The MS. opens with one of Peter’s compositions, to be sung in ianuis ecclesie (at the doors of the church) by the clerics as they entered before for Vespers on the evening of 31 December. The song is an exhortation to joy, inviting all to delight in the upcoming asinaria festa (Feast of the Ass). This forms the introduction to the song Orientis partibus, a veritable proto-Christmas carol. The clerics intoned this conductus—a paraliturgical processional hymn—as they made their way to the tabula, a tablet showing the ordo for the day, that everyone might know his role.


Orientis partibus is a jocular hymn addressed to an ass. It was sung in numerous mediæval Christmastide pageants which featured the ass who bore Our Lady to Egypt, but in Peter’s version, an additional stanza makes it clear it is addressed to the ass who bore the magi to Bethlehem. In the cathedral of Beauvais, a pageant was performed before Mass, as a maiden holding a child and riding an ass was escorted to the church, but in Sens there is no evidence of any visual representation of the animal. It was merely a well-known seasonal tune, with a ludic melody to which the layfolk sang the refrain, Hez, sir Asne, hez!—the only words in the vernacular in Peter’s Office.[3]

First Vespers


After reading the tabula, the celebrant began the Deus in adiutorium meum intende, farced so as to become a hymn with three rhyming quatrains. It was not uncommon for the Benedicamus Domino at the conclusion of the Office to be troped into a hymn, as we shall discuss hereafter, but this is one of the two instances where the introduction to the Office undergoes this treatment.

Commentators have noted the rich musical variety in Peter’s Office. The two introductory songs are of “markedly un-Gregorian”[4] character, but the Deus in adiutorium hymn is set to a more typically Gregorian melody.

The alleluya of the invocation is troped as well in the form of a prose (prosa, in the MS.), i.e. a sequence: the word itself is split in half, so that the seven verses of the prose are inserted between alle and luya. The playful structure thus imitates the gay verses which call for the entire church to resound with sweet harmonies in praise of the son of Mary, that the Holy Ghost might fill all the faithful with gifts and glory. Other instances exist of such proses inserted into the alleluia, which drew especial rebuke from grim later liturgists[5]. This particular prose also appears in a 13th century Ordo pontificalis from Sens (B. M., MS. 12) inserted as a trope into the Marian antiphon Alma Redemptoris Mater. The melody, although somewhat reminiscent of the merry introductory songs in its rhythm, is based on that for the termination of 6th-mode responsories once used in Sens, and is hence firmly Gregorian. 

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A musical interlude postpones the commencement of the psalmody and invites the faithful to consider the intimate connection between the incarnation and birth of Our Lord and His death and resurrection. According to the rubric, “four or five” clerics begin the versus Hec est clara dies singing in falso, retro altare. In order words it was sung in fauxbourdon, using a three-part harmony with two or three tenors, a countertenor, and a descant, which was sung an octave higher than written in falsetto.[6] The Verse is borrowed from a chant sung in the procession back from the baptismal fonts during the special Vespers of Easter Day and its octave.

Then two or three clerics in front of the altar respond, in unison, singing the verse Salue festa dies, a pastiche of Venantius Fortunatus’s famous Paschal hymn adapting it to the Christmas season. Then all join in singing the sequence Letemur gaudiis.[7]


Finally, the clerics sing in organum the versus Christus manens quod erat, set to the melody of one of the stock melismas added to the end of responsories on the most solemn feasts.

Only now does the usual psalmody begin, with no tropes or special melodies. The antiphons, though ancient, are not those preserved in the Tridentine breviary for this feast, and the five psalms are those of Christmas Vespers rather than Vespers of Our Lady.[8] The chapter (Isaias 9:2) again differs from the Tridentine one, and is sung to a special solemn melody:


Many mediæval uses sang a prolix responsory after the chapter on first Vespers of major feasts, a custom that has not been preserved in the Tridentine books, but is kept in uses such as the monastic, Dominican, and Carthusian. Here the responsory is particularly long, with several verses, the last of which is farced with three different proses.

It is interesting that Peter’s office does not indicate that a hymn is sung at this point. It might be an archaic feature, since hymns were introduced into the Roman office at a fairly late period. But since the other offices of this feast do include a hymn, one cannot help but wonder whether Peter here made a singular concession to brevity. Indeed, although the next piece is oddly dubbed a versiculus, it is it fact it is a long, hymn-like sequence originally sung as a trope to the Hosanna of the Sanctus at Mass.


The Magnificat is sung as usual, with an ancient antiphon that differs from the Tridentine one. The Benedicamus Domino is the occasion for a final hymn produced by troping both the verse and response. Several such Benedicamus tropes in the form of hymns survive, which were sung on the greatest feasts as a last outburst of gaiety before the conclusion of an office. In Laon, in fact, the feast of Epiphany was the occasion for a completorium infinitum, so-called on account of a rubric at the end of Compline that indicates tot Benedicamus quot novit quisque canamus, “let as sung as many Benedicamus [songs] as we know!” Puer natus in Bethlehem and O filiæ et filiæ are two such Benedicamus tropes still sung to-day.


See the other posts in this series:

2. Compline
3. Mattins, Lauds, and the Little Hours
4. Mass and Second Vespers
5. Why the Office of Peter of Corbeil was Suppressed
6. A New Years’ Apéritif with the Canons of Sens


[1] According to the 13th-century chronicler Galvaneus Flamma, the cultivation of Gregorian chant in Sens dates back to the reign of Charlemagne who, intent on promoting the use of the chant of the city of Rome throughout his empire, founded three schools of chant, one in Metz, the other in Sens, and the third in Orléans. Although some have cast doubt on the accuracy of this late source, the musical traditions of Sens were surely ancient, and jealously guarded, for, as another saying went, Ecclesia Senonensis nescit novitates (The Church of Sens knows no novelty). The Archdiocese of Sens, moreover, numbered amongst its suffragans the dioceses of Paris (until 1622), Chartres, Orléans, Nevers, and Auxerre, and amongst its abbeys St-Denys, Ferrières, Fleury, St-Germain d’Auxerre, and St-Pierre-le-Vif, all of which looked to their metropolitan see for liturgical direction.

[2] The Lord Peter was also close to King Philip Augustus, and when Pope and King came to be at odds, Peter tended to favour the latter, prompting Innocent to complain, Ego te episcopavi, which prompted Peter to retort, Et ego te papavi.

[3] Although in some places, the vernacular was sometimes used during Christmastide offices such as the Feast of St Stephen.

[4] David Hiley, Western Plainchant, p. 42

[5] E.g. Jean-Baptiste Le Brun des Marettes, who, in his Voyages liturgiques de France, wrote with respect to sequences, “One must not regret their loss too much, for most were nothing more than pitiful rhapsodies, such us the use that begins Alle necnon et perenne cœleste luia” (p. 168).

[6] The indication that the music was sung behind the altar may allude to the representation of a crib placed there on Christmas Day, as was done in Rouen for the performance of a liturgical drama featuring the shepherds. The rubrics of this MS., however, offers no evidence for this supposition.

[7] Originally a trope on the concluding melisma of the second verse of the Offertory Deus enim firmavit of the second Mass of Christmas composed by Bl. Notker the Stammerer. The piece proved popular and was sung outside its original context. In Paris, bishop Odo also appointed it to Vespers of the Circumcision.

[8] I.e. psalms 109, 110, 111, 129, and 131 rather than 109, 112, 121, and 126 as in the Tridentine office.

A Farced Epistle of Saint Stephen in Old Provençal

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Tropes are a genre of liturgical pieces that enjoyed some success in the Middle Ages, and in this genre, the species of farced Epistles and Gospels.[1] These were readings of the Mass in which the text of sacred Scripture is punctuated, verse after verse, by either a Latin paraphrase or a translation into the vernacular. The paraphrase or translation constitutes the farce of the Scripture text. The farce usually takes a musical and verse form.

For the feast of St. Stephen (26 December) many farced epistles of this kind have come down to us: one in langue d’oïl, Oyez trestout, of which there exists a translation in Langue d’oc, Entendes tug, and another known only from various Occitan versions and which we will designate by the incipit of one of them, Sesta lesson.”[2]

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See the rest of the manuscript here (pp. 140 et sqq.).

Leis planchs de Sant Esteve is the rhymed history in old Provençal of the martyrdom of St Stephen. It is taken from the Epistle of his feast day and, since time immemorial, it is sung every year on the feast day, at 7 in the morning, in the Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence at High Mass, which is called the Mass of the People. Attendance is surprisingly great, and the Mass is celebrated in a chapel dedicated to this same saint in the following way. When the time comes for the Epistle, a cleric, dressed in his choir dress, goes up to the preaching pulpit. The subdeacon of the Mass stands in front of it. After saluting each other (which they do again after they have finished), they sing in alternation: the subdeacon sings part of the day’s Epistle in a special tone, and the cleric in the pulpit follows with a couplet from the planchs to the melody of the Veni Creator. M. Raynouard published the planchs as they were written in 1318.”[3]

Translation from the 1318 version.

Sit down, my Lords, and be at peace,
Hearken well to what I will say.
For the lesson is true,
No word therein is falsehood.
Sezes, Senhors, e aias pas,
So que direm ben escoutas:
Car la lisson es de vertat,
Non hy a mot de falssetat.
A Lesson from the Acts of the Apostles.

This lesson which we will read
We take from the deeds of the Apostles,
We will recount the sayings of Saint Luke,
We will speak of Saint Stephen.

Lectio Actuum Apostolorum.

Esta lisson que ligirem
Dels fachs dels Apostols trayrem;
Lo dich San Luc recontarem,
De Sant Esteve parlarem.

In those days.

In that time when God was born,
And was resurrected from death,
And then went up into heaven,
Saint Stephen was stoned.

In diebus illis.

En aquel temps que Dieus fom nat
Et fom de mort ressuscitat,
Et pueys el cel el fom puiat,
Sant Esteve fom lapidat.

Stephen, full of grace and power, was working great wonders and signs among the people.

Hear ye, my Lords, for what reason
The wicked men stoned him,
For they saw that God was in him,
And he performed miracles by His gift.

Stephanus plenus gratia et fortitudine faciebat prodigia et signa magna in populo.

Auias, Senhors, per qual razon
Lo lapideron los fellons;
Car connogron Dieus en el fon,
Et fes miracle per son don.

But there arose some from the synagogue which is called that of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians and of those from Cilicia and the province of Asia, disputing with Stephen.

Again him they hasten and go,
The wicked Freedmen,
And the cruel Cilicians,
And the other Alexandrians.

Surrexerunt autem quidam de synagoga, quae appellatur Libertinorum, et Cyrenensium, et Alexandrinorum, et eorum qui erant a Cilicia, et Asia, disputantes cum Stephano.

En contre el corron e van,
Los fellons Losbertinians,
Et los cruels Cilicians,
Els autres Alexandrians.

And they were not able to withstand the wisdom and the Spirit Who spoke.

The servant of God in virtue,
Did know their lies.
He rendered silent the most learned,
And overcame all, good and evil.

Et non poterant resistere sapientiae, et Spiritui, qui loquebatur.

Lo ser de Dieu, e la vertut
Los messongies a connogut;
Los plus savis a rendut mutz,
Los bons el malz totz a vencutz.

Now as they heard these things, they were cut to the heart and gnashed their teeth at him.

When they had heard the reason,
They knew that they were defeated.
With wrath they puff up their lungs,
Their teeth they grit like lions.

Audientes autem haec dissecabantur cordibus suis, et stridebant dentibus in eum.

Cant an auzida la razon,
Els connogron que vencutz son;
D’ira lur enflan lo polmon,
Las dens cruysson coma leons.

But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said,

When the Saint saw their will,
He sought not the succor of armed men.
He looked up to heaven;
Hear ye, my Lords, how he spake.

Cum autem esset plenus Spiritu Sancto, intendens in caelum vidit gloriam Dei, et Jesum stantem a dextris Dei. Et ait:

Cant lo Sant vi lur voluntat,
Non quer secors d’ome armat;
Sus en lo cel a regardat,
Auias, Senhors, como a parlat:

Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.

Now, hear ye, let it not be grief to ye,
Above the open heaven I saw,
And knew there the Son of God,
Whom the Jews did crucify.

Ecce video caelos apertos, et Filium hominis stantem a dextris virtutis Dei.

Or, escoutas, non vos sia grieu,
Que sus el cel ubert vech yeu;
E connost la lo Filh de Dieus,
Que crucifixeron Juzieus.

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed upon him all together. And they cast him out of the city and stoned him.

Wherefore they were sore wroth
The faithless Jews, and they cried:
Let us seize him, who hath spoken too much,
Let us cast him without the city.
Pride can no longer be concealed,
They seize the Saint to torment him.
They shall take him outside,
They begin to stone him.

Exclamantes autem voce magna, continuerunt aures suas, et impetum fecerunt unanimiter in eum, et ejicientes eum extra civitatem, lapidabant.

D’aisso foron fort corrossat
Los fals Juzieux, e en cridat:
Prennam lo, que trop a parlat,
Gittem lo for de la ciutat.
Non se pot plus l’orgueilh celar,
Lo Sant prenon per tormentar;
De foras els lo van menar,
Comensson a lo lapidar.

And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Lo, at the feet of a young man
They place their garments, the better to throw.
Saul did the first ones call him,
Saint Paul those that came last.

Tt testes deposuerunt vestimenta sua secus pedes adolescentis qui vocabatur Saulus.

Vevos qu’es pes d’un bachallier
Pausan lur draps, per miels lancier;
Saul li appelleron li premier,
Sant Paul cels que vengron darrier.

And while they were stoning Stephen he prayed and said:

The Saint saw the stones come.
They are soft to him; he does not try to flee.
For his Lord he suffered martyrdom,
And began to speak thus:

Et lapidabant Stephanum invocantem, et dicentem:

Lo Sant vit la peyras venir,
Doussas li son, non quer fugir;
Per son Senhor suffri martir,
E comensset aysso a dir:

Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.

Lord God, who madest the world,
And tookest us out of the depths of hell,
And gavest us thine hallowed name,
Receive my spirit on high.

Domine Jesu, suscipe spiritum meum.

Senher Dieus, que fezist lo mont;
E nos trayssist d’unfer pregon,
E nos domnest lo tieu Sant nom,
Recep mon esperit amont.

And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, saying

After speaking, he knelt,
Whereof he gives us example.
For he prayed for his enemies,
And what he willed he did.

Positis autem genibus, clamavit voce magna, dicens:

Apres son dich, saginolhet,
Don annos exemple donet;
Car, per sos enemios preguet,
E so que vole el accabet.

Lord, do not lay this sin against them.

Lord God, full of great sweetness:
Thus said the Saint to his Lord,
Forgive them the evil they do,
Let them have neither punishment nor pain.

Domine, ne statuas illis hoc peccatum.

Senher Dieus, plen de gran doussor,
So dis lo Sant a son Senhor,
Lo mal quels fan perdona lor,
Non aian pena ni dolor.

And with these words he fell asleep in the Lord..

When his speech was wholly finished,
Martyrdom was fulfilled.
What he asked for was heard,
And he fell asleep in God’s kingdom.

Et cum hoc dixisset, obdormivit in Domino.

Cant lo sermon fom tot fenir,
El martire fom adymplit;
Do so quel quer et fom auzit,
El regnum Dieus s’es adormit.


[1] Edm. Martene, De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus, vol. 1 (1736), p. 281-282.

[2] From Victor Saxer, “L’épÎtre farcie de la Saint-Étienne ‘Sesta Lesson’: Inventaire bibliographique,” Provence historique 93-94 (1973), pp. 318 – 326.

[3] From Les Planchs de Sant Esteve, ed. P. d’Aix.

Latin: Language of the Church, an essay by Dr. Patrick M. Owens

Respected Latin educator Dr. Patrick M. Owens wrote a significant introduction to a recent book of essays In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Churchby Fr. Roberto Spataro.

Its cogent account of the role of Latin in the life of the Church, and its appeal for the restoration of classical Latin pedagogy, deserve to be read by all parties concerned for the future of the humanities, and more specially for the reform of Catholic education.

Some excerpts below….


At the convent of Duns Scotus College in Southfield, Michigan the sun had just begun to set as the young Franciscan novices stood in choir for Vespers. Suddenly, furtive glances and stifled chuckles interrupted the customary solemnity of the chapel as the verse “Et percussit inimicos suos in posteriora (Ps. 77:66)” was sung. The surprised novices understood the verse as “And [the Lord] struck His enemies in their backsides”.

It was 1948, and the Order of Friars Minor had recently returned to the Vulgate translation of the Psalms after an inauspicious experiment with the Bea Psalter. These twenty-three friars, who had been Franciscans for less than two years, had grown familiar with the Pian version of the same verse, “Et percussit a tergo inimicos suos” (And [the Lord] struck his enemies from their back.)

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All these novices had studied Latin for at least four years before their simple profession. In the Franciscan minor seminaries – basically their equivalent of high school – students had five hours of Latin classes and at least as many hours of liturgy in Latin each week. During novitiate there were no formal academic classes; rather, it was a time devoted to formation and discernment. As such, they were obliged to recite the entire Divine Office in choir, attend Mass daily, and listen to seminars on the Holy Rule, all of which were in Latin and accounted for at least four hours each day. Latin was not a foreign language; it was the language of the Church. The novices did not study it at a distance, they lived it. Having such familiarity with the language, it was not surprising that the novices would hear the changed words of the Psalm and immediately attribute to “posteriora” its ridiculous common meaning. They were not translating the Latin. They were understanding it.

Another example of this integration of Latin into the rhythms of religious life also occurred at a seminary. Fr. Reginald Foster, OCD, once recalled that in 1954 at the minor seminary in Peterborough, New Hampshire, the novice-master admonished a Carmelite novice to wash off his grease-laden hands. In response the novice raised his blacked hands to his superior and quipped, “Nigra sum sed formosa,” a clever reference to a Vespers antiphon from taken from the Canticle of Canticles “I am black, but beautiful (Cant.1:4).” The novice-master chuckled, and the novice was able to escape further rebuke.

The deep and instinctive familiarity with Latin illustrated by these stories resulted from a comprehension and immersive education in the language. Kenneth Baker, SJ, recounts that when he was a Jesuit seminarian in the 1950s, not only were all the seminary classes taught in Latin and from Latin textbooks, but the annual oral examinations were also conducted in Latin. All recreation time in novitiate was in Latin – meaning that for much of the day, novices were expected either to speak Latin or not to speak at all. Men who intended to enter the Order without knowing Latin were required to complete a two year Juniorate, which helped them bridge the gap. By the time of ordination, most Jesuits with such a background had read a great part of the Classics and of the Church Fathers in the original and could write and speak Latin. The Jesuit education was, in fact, a liberal arts curriculum with an emphasis on the Classics.

Nevertheless, Latin was not the exclusive province of priests and religious. Within living memory, Catholic school children in both Europe and America learned their Latin prayers and grammar. Boys as young as eight years old could recite from memory the prayers at the foot of the altar. Even children (though perhaps to a lesser extent girls) from working class families could be expected to know the Mass and to have read some Vergil and Caesar by age fourteen. Before the last century, by the age of sixteen, a diligent though unexceptional student from a well-off family would have attained a level of mastery in Latin that would surpass that of many current graduate students of the Classics. 

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The Latin Class, Ludwig Passini (1869)

To be sure, Latin was larger than the schoolroom or the choir. The language that had served the Western world as a lingua franca for nearly two millennia was still the official language of the Church’s hierarchy, prayer, and diplomacy. Beyond sheer formalities, it fulfilled a genuine need in the Church even into the 20th century: Latin was the actual mode of international communication between priests and scholars. Catholics were not studying Latin merely as a scholastic exercise, but rather for the sake of acquiring their venerable tradition and laying foundations for an enduring intellectual and spiritual culture.

The Acta Apostolicae Sedis is only one typical example of the way clergy and laity alike used Latin as a genuine means of communication in the last century. As the official monthly gazette of the Catholic Church it contained all the news that Rome saw fit to print. The AAS brought news of ecclesial appointments, the contents and digest version of encyclical letters, and the decisions of Roman congregations in reply to dubia. When Catholics were uncertain about the validity of a certain sect’s sacraments, a particularly thorny annulment petition, whether they might enjoy a relaxation of fasting or abstinence on some account, or how to recognize a newly canonized saint in the recitation of the Divine Office, for these and numerous other queries, there was found in the AAS a repository of current responses and practical assistance to which the faithful could avail themselves. The laws contained in the AAS were considered promulgated as soon as they were published, leaving no time for translations into various languages.

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With rare exception, AAS was published entirely in Latin, a practice that on account of the gravity of the subject matters and the international audience was never seriously questioned. In fact, AAS was only the latest iteration (having been preceded by the Acta Sanctae Sedis and the Acta et Decreta) of expansive international publishing for the benefit and governance of hundreds of millions of faithful. In the minds of the authors, the linguistic continuity of these publications ensured that they would be accessible to Catholics of any future generation. In 1940 a Catholic with little more than a high school degree could make sense of a literary corpus ranging from this month’s edition of the Acta Apostolicae Sedis back to the Acta Martyrum Scillitanorum (the account of the Scillitan Martyrs from 180 AD). This connection with an immutable language meant that modern people were able to be in dialogue with past generations using the same literary models, technical terminology, and allusions to scripture or liturgy. From the Vatican cloister to the high schools of Brooklyn, Catholics prayed, studied, travelled, litigated, and even joked in Latin ut sint unum.

But arguably the strongest thread holding this long fiber of Latin culture together across the centuries was the Latin liturgy. By virtue of its being the central and universal prayer of the Church, the Divine Office is the first contact for both clergy and faithful with the sublime liturgical idiom of the West. Furthermore, when the faithful pray the Divine Office, the prayer of the individual joins with that of the diocese and of the universal Church, in an act that transcends temporal and spatial boundaries Though consisting principally of Psalms, the Divine Office also contains many of the Church’s most elaborate orations, petitions, and ancient homilies. The august poetry of the psalter and meticulous diction of orations and collects provide the faithful with a common voice and universal language into which the Franciscan novices of Duns Scotus College and countless previous generations around the world assimilated their prayer. Because Latin was an essential feature of this communal liturgy, experienced by all Catholics, it ensured in turn that it remained an integral part of Catholics’ cultural memory.

Arguably one of the most important reasons that Latin education must be kept alive in the Church is to retain access to this communal experience of liturgy. Why? Because this liturgy is the repository of the Catholic tradition.

It is education which conserves and transmits the experience and wisdom of the previous generations so that such a cultural memory, identity, and common parlance can be forged and strengthened. Indeed, for most of human history, this inculturation has been a primary purpose of education. Language encapsulates the culture and the history of a society. Those elements are passed to the successive generations through the language so that future generations may benefit from the sufferings and discoveries of their forebears and enjoy the comfort of participation in a transcendent community that reaches back through the ages. Rightly conceived, culture is the conscious ideal of human perfection and the habitual vision of greatness. In the case of Catholic culture, this community originates with the Apostles and Our Lord Himself. The language that provides the Divine Office with its poetic freedom and simultaneously constrains the prose to prescriptive ancient norms, carries in its rich history an immense treasure of thought and feeling from both pre-Christian and Apostolic times. For the better part of two thousand years, it has provided the Church with a language of worship, an intellectual clarity, and a mark of catholicity.

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Catholic culture – the sensus fidelium – is replete with ideas about fasting and feasting, domestic devotions, processions and pilgrimages, all expressed in one unifying idiom of Latin. But culture cannot be infused; it must be taught, absorbed, and lived. And although the accoutrements of Catholic culture are only ancillary to the Sacraments, they nonetheless provide an integral part of the identity in the Roman Church. This core identity of the Church is what is at stake in the current controversies regarding the role of Latin.


Latin was especially important for countries whose national languages were either too diverse or too different from the rest of Europe for easy communication. In Hungary, the national language remained Latin until the nineteenth century. It was the language of politics, administration, education, and the judiciary. Orations and public debates at every level were held in Latin. More than just an official language, Latin was also the language of the everyday communication of society. Of course, not every Hungarian was an eloquent speaker, and language proficiency was dependent upon one’s level of education. Nevertheless, after the elementary schools, which were conducted mostly in Hungarian, secondary school courses were taught in Latin. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Western European travelers who had visited Hungary, remarked with awe that the Latin language was in daily use by a variety of people, not only the nobility and the clergy, but oftentimes even simple folk. Latin represented for Hungarians a bond with the glorious past of the Kingdom, a direct link with classical antiquity, an intellectual connection with Western culture, and a token of national unity, which was especially critical for an empire that was comprised of Croatians, Germans, Serbs, Slovak, and Turks, all of whom had their own native languages.[1] In this way, Hungary’s use of Latin mirrored that of the Church.

The Church’s adherence to this common practice of utilizing Latin as a lingua franca should not be surprising. Languages are intrinsically bound to cultures, and Latin for nearly two-thousand years had been the language not only of Catholic culture in the West but of Western culture itself. It is for this reason that the Church took pains to keep alive the tradition of active Latin. Catholic intellectuals knew well that since Latin was the vehicle of culture, a superficial familiarity would not be sufficient. To ensure the ability to engage with past sources and contemporary intellectuals as well as to protect the transference of Catholic culture to subsequent generations, active language use is essential. Catholic leaders, therefore, took pains to master the Catholic language not only passively through extensive reading and public lectures, but also actively by developing the ability to communicate effectively and rhetorically in written and extemporaneous spoken exchanges. This tradition persisted into modern times, producing the outstanding Catholic scholars, many of them priests and bishops, who distinguished themselves during the first half of the twentieth century. This same tradition allowed for elegant orations and spirited debates at the Second Vatican Council, where the comparably small number of prelates incapable of extemporaneous Latin conversation enjoyed personal translators. If Latin’s position, even as late as the time of Vatican II, appeared so solid, what had been the hidden fault lines that led to such a seemingly abrupt fissure between past and present over the past 50 years?

Find out by ordering the book, In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church, by Fr. Roberto Spataro, Secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Latin.

Excerpts published by kind permission of Angelico Press.



[1] cf. Graham, Hugh F. “Latin in Hungary.” The Classical Journal 63, no. 4 (1968): 163-65. Vámbéry, Ármin Arminius Vambéry: His Life and Adventures London, Fisher Unwin. 1884 p.5; Capek, Thomas The Slovaks of Hungary Knickerbocker Press, New York. 1906. 176-80

Chinese Depictions of the Life of Christ

The Life of Christ by Giulio Aleni (1637) is a picture-narration of the life of Jesus drawn by that early Jesuit missionary for the Church in China. It contains almost 60 engraved images, probably the earliest and definitely the most precious collection of Chinese icons. Here is a sampling (with a seasonal theme).

See the whole book by following the link above.

(Also see our posts on Our Lady of China here and here.)

The Annunciation
The Presentation
Christ teaching in the Temple
The Wedding Feast at Cana

The engravings are rich in visual detail, dense tableaux meant to capture a whole story. The central episode is in the foreground surrounded by other images, each one meant to evoke connected episodes in the Gospel story. Sometimes they even visually coordinate several Catholic doctrines, as in the Annunciation image, where Christ crucified appears in the left corner and underneath the poor souls await his coming.

The style in Aleni’s Life of Christ is purely Italian Baroque, though it harkens back to models in medieval painting. The faces and clothes are western (or fanciful depictions of Palestinian costume).

Fast-forward nearly three hundred years. 

In 1919, Pope Benedict XV issued Maximum Illud, an encyclical letter whose aim was to begin detaching foreign missions from the interests and direction of the colonial powers, and to promote native clergy and cultural forms in the local churches.

In 1922, Celso Benigno Luigi Constantini, the first Apostolic Delegate to China, came to China and promoted the localization suggested by Maximum Illud. Later he met the artist Lukas Chen Hs whom he encouraged to paint sinicized icons. Henceforth Lukas Chen Hs was hailed as the pioneer of localization of Chinese Catholic art.

A local tradition was born.

The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists,” published in the ’40’s, provides a sampling of photographs of works of art found in churches and private collections, all paintings on silk produced in this new, native Chinese style. This collection is an example of the “Other Modern” in the Chinese context. As the introduction explains:

“The Life of Christ by Chinese Artists comes the more gratefully at this time, when Western artists have either put the Bible stories aside as subjects for their art, or have blended with their work a harshness that wounds or a sentimentality that offends. The Chinese artist is never harsh and never sentimental. He catches the spirit of the Evangelists’ narrative. The genius of the East lies in the power of suggestion: indeed impressionism was employed in China before the word had any meaning in the art of the West. Above all, the figures, though they may be placed in a setting of abrupt peaks or plunging torrents, carry a sense of infinite peace.”

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In the new art style, the world of the Bible is transported to the palaces and gardens of ancient Chinese noblemen, the persons clothed in the flowing, long-sleeved Han Chinese dress. Since it was considered undignified to portray important persons in scenes of squalor or humiliation, these aspects of the Gospel stories are often underplayed.

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The Annunciation
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Visit of the Magi
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The Last Supper

Compare with these icons, in a more elevated style, depicting Mary Our Lady of China as Queen:

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Madonna with child, Ming dynasty royal costume
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Madonna with child, Manchu-era royal costume


Veneranda Antiquitas: Dom Mabillon on the Use and Abuse of History

In the second volume of his Musei Italici, the Maurist monk and scholar Dom Jean Mabillon (1632-1707) presented the first critical edition and study of the Ordines Romani, a loose collection of ceremonial documents spanning many centuries that represent early Roman and Franco-Roman liturgical practice.

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The 17th century absorbed a swelling tide of new documentation and filtered it with the increasing rigor of new disciplines and erudite philological methods, thanks in large part to Mabillon’s own Maurist Congregation. These documents shed new light on the historical development of the western liturgy, and prompted questions about how to reconcile contemporary practices with the historical witness.

As the first editor of the Ordines Romani, Mabillon occupied a privileged vantage point from which to survey the broad streams of the Roman rite’s historical development. In his final reflections before presenting the ordines, Mabillon asks the question of his generation—perhaps the quintessential question of the modern, “historically-conscious” world—what to do with all this history?

His brief comments here furnish us key principles for thinking about the questions of continuity and reform in the Church.


Musei Italici, v. 2, cxl1 – xlxvi (Paris, 1724)

  1. Whether older liturgical rites should always be preferred to newer ones? Whether all should be restored to one form?

There are three things to consider in sacred rites: antiquity (antiquitas), uniformity (uniformitas), and constancy (constantia). Our sacred rites are almost as ancient as our religion itself, but equally ancient is their diversity across the various churches. As Firmilianus said in his letter to Cyprian: “There are many things that vary according to the diversity of places and people, but this in no way harms the peace and unity of the Catholic Church.” Diversity was present from the beginning among the Romans, not only “about the dating of Easter, but about many other divine sacraments (divinae rei sacramenta).” Firmilianus states somewhere: “the way things are done in that place is not identical to what is done in Jerusalem.” See also Socrates in book 5, chap xxii, where he says that no religious sect observed the same ceremonies, even those that held the same beliefs about God.

Diversity of rites arises from the variety of peoples’ customs, since not everyone likes to do things in the same way or is able to get accustomed to the same habits; and also from the various founders of churches who, in matters that were themselves indifferent, laid down rules this way or that to fit the variety of places and times (pro temporum ac locorum varietate constituerunt). Therefore, it seems to me that those who try to reduce all to one and the same manner want to force all peoples to conform strictly to the same exact customs habits; nor do they do justice to the churches’ first founders, since they would so easily subvert what they established or permitted. Moreover such changes are almost never attempted without harm to the peace of the Church. This could be proven by examples, if it weren’t already obvious to everyone.

So we must live with diversity of rites chiefly for the good of peace, but also for the sake of the Church, which is made beautiful by this variety. For the Church is that much sweeter to the taste because of this variety in modes of worship. Masters of Ceremonies should take especial note of this. Many of them never rest until they have forced even the most unwilling to conform to their rites!

Those who think that ancient rites should always be preferred to new ones, or vice versa that new ones should always be preferred to old ones, face another difficulty: Neither one is pleasing without tasteful discretion (Neutrum sine delectu placet). Wherever the ancient rites hold sway, let them be preserved untouched (constanter retinendi); where new have prevailed over the old, let the old be held in high esteem, and the new not rejected. For once something has come into use and been established, it can scarcely be changed without causing a disturbance. In any case, just as the changing conditions of certain places led to a variety in rites, so diversity of times in the same places has led to the same rites being changed.

What is to be praised, therefore, in such matters, is constancy (constantia), as long as the peace and concord of the Church are preserved, and Christian charity, to which all rites must yield and render tribute (cui omnes ritus cedere ac suffragari necesse est). But if it is possible to maintain antiquity while preserving peace and charity, then no one in their right mind would say that the new is to be preferred.

In recent times, it is astonishing to see how casually the writers of new liturgical books undo sacred rites of such venerable antiquity, while knowing nothing at all about the practices themselves, much less the reasons and meaning of these practices. For, seeing what is done in their own time and assuming that everything has been done in the same way in all previous centuries, they invent likely reasons for a received novelty, reasons that are not infrequently at odds entirely with the minds of the ancients.

Here it is well to point out several examples that demonstrate our point.

1) Formerly in the Roman Church the custom was to present the pope with the sacra—i.e., the Eucharist—as he made his way to the altar, and for the sacra to be kept there until the communion, when a particle of this previously-consecrated Eucharist was added to the chalice. Then, out of the latest offering of the sacrifice, a particle was reserved “and remained on the altar until the end of the Mass,” according to Amalar in Book 3, ch. 35. According to the Ordo Romanus I, this was done “so that during the whole time the Mass is being offered, the altar be not without the sacrifice.” Thus there was never a time in the Mass when the Eucharist was not on the altar, either the viaticum on the altar itself, or a particle reserved in the sacristy.

Leo X introduced an opposite rite. Writing at the time, Paris de Crassis, the Master of Ceremonies, asks “why the sacrament of the Body of Christ, which by common custom is reserved in churches, must first be removed before a Mass is held there?”

Our ancestors, he responds, did so not because they were averse to the presence of the saving host, but because otherwise the Mass ceremonies could not be fittingly and correctly carried out, since in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament the celebrating pope or bishops could not sit or wear the mitre or receive incensation before the Sacrament, and especially because they themselves would have to incense it and not the deacon, who usually incenses. Moreover, whenever the celebrating prelate incenses, he has first to kneel before the Sacrament before incensing the altar cross and oblations and the altar. Finally, it seems unreasonable that the Sacrament should be confected again in a chapel or oratory where the Sacrament is already being adored, lest there be doubt about which of the two Sacraments ought to be adored.

But in former times it was enough to adore the Sancta once, whether the Eucharist was carried first to the altar as in the first Ordo Romanus, or kept on the altar itself, as in the second. Indeed the holy Fathers were convinced that any sacred ceremony, devoutly performed, not only did not harm the Eucharist, but greatly honored God. Nor was there any doubt for them which consecrated species should be adored, since the present sacrifice is all that concerned them. And there is not need to scruple over the adoration of one species or another, since the object is the same.

2) [The Direction of Reading …]

3) It would take us too long to go through each and every respect in which modern rites differ from the ancient, but we refer to a few here for the reader’s interest. The priest once sang the angelic hymn turned toward the people, unlike the final greeting before the Postcommunion, which he sang turned toward the altar, according to OR I. He did not begin the Canon before the end of the Trisagion, clearly so that the clergy and people could stand in awe-filled silence as the priest recited the Canon in a low voice. The Communion antiphon was not sung, as now in many churches, after the communion itself, but during the communion along with its psalm [….]. The priest did not recite the parts sung by the choir or recited by other ministers, but occupied himself in meditation or the doing of some other rites. [….]

We are not advocating for the restoration of these ancient rites, as if by our private authority, nor do we intend to cast contempt on more recent ones—far be it from us!—but to encourage those in charge of church offices to consider the ancient precedent—more venerable the closer it be to the source—and warn them not to bring out all of these vulgar and insipid excuses, as if they thought that our forefathers were utter fools for sanctioning any ritual that differs from their ideal. On the contrary, if sacred rites are to be reformed, let it be according to the mind of the ancients (veterum ratio habeatur), and let us strive to be as little removed from them as possible.

The churches of Cambrai and Arras cleaved to this principle in the restoration of their sacred rites. [….] The reformers of this Ordo state that their intention was to set in order “whatever seemed to differ from right judgment (a statu rectitudinis deviando) or from the Roman ordo, but not in such as away as to institute a new ordo (novus ordo), lest any room be given for objection that the most holy Roman ordo was in any way violated.”