In Praise of the Tridentine Mass, by Fr. Roberto Spataro

I am pleased to share this announcement of a new book published by Angelico Press, chapters of which have appeared on this blog.

In Praise of the Tridentine Mass and of Latin, Language of the Church
Foreword by Raymond Cardinal Burke
Introduction by Patrick M. Owens

in-praise-of-the-tridentine-mass coverIN THIS NEW WORK, ROBERTO SPATARO shows how Pope Francis’s call for “joyful evangelization” finds a ready answer in an unlikely place: the august forms of the ancient Latin liturgy and the unchanging character of the Latin language. He shows how Latin, with its concise formulae and rigorous precision, has been the medium of Catholic—and indeed Western—intellectual life in the past and retains the power to bring unity and coherence to Catholicism in the future. With colorful images and copious examples, Spataro argues that the Latin Mass and its handmaid, the noble Latin language, which have served missionaries in the most varied and dire circumstances, might again be the most effective tools in the Church’s workshop for reevangelizing a fragmented world. In his foreword, Cardinal Burke notes that Latin is the key to an adequate knowledge of Roman Catholic history, liturgy, theology, and canon law. Also included is a detailed introduction by the renowned Latin educator and lexicographer Patrick Owens.

“While Fr. Spataro’s complex, balanced, humane, and nuanced reflections focus on the Latin language and its liturgical use in the Tridentine rite, he also explores its innumerable connections to almost every aspect of the life of the Church: not only the history and sources of her thought, doctrine, law, devotions, and experience, but also her contemporary needs for a rich spiritual life for clerics and laity, for beauty in her practices, for the pastoral care of souls, and for a renewed and vigorous evangelization.”
— ERIC HEWETT, co-founder and Executive Director of the Paideia Institute

“Fr. Spataro has put his wisdom, erudition, and characteristically Latinate eloquence in the service of the two Church treasures he is most competent to defend and promote: the perennial rite of the Mass and the Latin language. In doing so he confronts contemporary challenges to the Church with clear thinking and measured cheekiness. His message is straightforward: the Church’s linguistic and liturgical patrimony are as relevant to ours as to any generation.”
— JOHN PEPINO, Our Lady of Guadalupe Seminary

“In these talks Father Spataro not only gives us great insight into the value and meaning of the Traditional Roman Mass, he also sees its contemporary importance in the missionary effort to re-evangelize the millions of Catholics who have fallen away from the Church, and as a source and force for conversion to Christianity. His words on the beauty of the Mass recall those of Dostoevsky’s ‘Idiot’: ‘Beauty will save the world.’”
— FR. RICHARD CIPOLLA, Diocese of Bridgeport, CT

“Here is an apologia for the ‘Latin Mass’ and for the service of Latin. The former is a shorthand term for the Vetus Ordo, the Extraordinary Form, but Fr. Spataro thinks it neither old nor odd. Rather, he proposes that the Tridentine Mass is a living catechism which supports the New Evangelization that Pope Francis desires. The latter defense is offered for the sake of those who have forgotten how Latin has historically served the Church, suggesting its continued value as universal (supranational), precise, forceful in expression, and rich in nuance.”
— DAVID W. FAGERBERG, University of Notre Dame

FR. ROBERTO SPATARO, S.D.B., is a professor of ancient Greek Christian literature on the faculty of Christian and Classical Literature at the Pontifical Salesian University, and secretary of the Pontificia Academia Latinitatis. He has licentiate and doctoral degrees in dogmatic theology from the same university and has published in the fields of Patristics (especially Origen), Mariology, and Latin history, linguistics, pedagogy, and liturgy.

Our Lady of China

Today the Chinese celebrate the feast of Our Lady of China.

Our Lady of China.jpg

During the Boxer Rebellion, a great number of soldiers attacked the village of Donglu, Hebei. The village consisted of a small community of Christians founded by the Vincentian Fathers. The Virgin Mary appeared in white, and a fiery horseman (believed to be St Michael) chased away the soldiers. The pastor, Fr Wu, commissioned a painting of Mary with Christ child dressed in golden imperial robes. This painting became the image of Our Lady, Queen of China. Donglu became a place of pilgrimage in 1924. The image was blessed and promulgated by Pope Pius XI in 1928.

At the close of the 1924 Shanghai Synod of Bishops in China, the first national conference of bishops in the country, Archbishop Celso Costantini, Apostolic Delegate in China, along with all the bishops of China, consecrated the Chinese people to the Blessed Virgin Mary. An officially-sanctioned image of Our Lady of China was blessed, granted and promulgated by Pope Pius XI in 1928. In 1941, Pope Pius XII designated the feast day as an official feast of the Catholic liturgical calendar. In 1973, following the Second Vatican Council, the Chinese Bishops conference, upon approval from the Holy See, placed the feast day on the vigil of Mothers Day.

There is a fuller version of the history here.

The Mass has several proper parts.

The readings are Act 1:12-14 and Jn 19:25-27. The Psalm is 113:1-3, 4-6, 7-8. Of these, the psalm and Gospel are optional parts of the Commune Festorum BMV. 

The Communion is Ave Maria, Gratia plena, Dominus tecum, Benedicta tu in mulieribus. Alleluia.

The Collect and Postcommunion are proper (here translated by a friend from China, though an official version may exist somewhere):

Collect: Almighty and everliving God, you chose Mary to be the Mother of Your Son and to be Our Mother. We ask that, through her prayers, you may bless the billions of the Chinese people, grant peace and an abundant harvest of grain to our country and our people, and make the whole nation know you, love you, and serve you. We ask this through Your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, One God forever and ever. Amen.

Postcommunion: Lord, in this feast we have received the Bread of Heaven. We ask that, through the prayers of Our Lady of China, you may bless us, make us constantly imitate the virtues of Our Lady, love you, and serve you with all our heart. We ask you to hear us, in the name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Readers of Chinese can find the Mass here:

In addition to the Mass, there is a prayer of consecration to Our Lady of China:

Prayer to Our Lady of China:

Hail, Holy Mary, Mother of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Mother of all nations and all people. You are the special heavenly Mother of the Chinese people. Teach us, your way of total obedience to God’s will. Help us to live our lives true to our faith. Fill our hearts with burning love for God and each other. Stir up in our youth, an unconditional giving of self to the service of God. We call on your powerful intercession for peace, reconciliation and unity among the believers and conversion of the unbelievers in China and throughout the world, for God’s mercy is our only hope. Our Lady of China, Mother of Jesus, hear our petitions and pray for us. Amen.

Consecration of the Chinese People to Our Lady of China:

O Mary, Mother of God, and our Mother, with sincere filial love, we consecrate to your most tender, most loving immaculate heart, our bodies, souls, abilities, lives, words and deeds, and all that we have. We also consecrate to you the Chinese people throughout the world. We pray that you be the Mother of priests and all missionaries. May they loyally and zealously proclaim the Kingdom of God. Be the Mother of all Christians. Help them to progress in virtue and to shine forth evermore the splendor of faith. Be the Mother of all unbelievers. Deliver them from darkness and lead them into the light of Faith. We beseech you to show mercy to the immense population of Chinese descent. They have all been redeemed by the precious blood of your Divine Son. Through your most efficacious intercession, may they all take refuge in the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Source of life and holiness, and become one fold under One Shepherd in the Church.

Help of Christians, pray for us. Holy Mary, Mother of all Graces, pray for us. Our Lady of China, Queen of the Chinese People in Heaven, pray for us.

中華聖母 Our Lady of China.jpg

Pre-Lent in Christian Liturgies: An Ancient and Universal Custom

This article was originally published by Henri de Villiers on his blog the Schola Sainte-Cécile. It is translated and published here with permission.

SeptuagesimeIn all of the ancient Christian liturgies there is a period of preparation for the great fast of Lent, during which the faithful are readied for the coming of this major period in the liturgical year so that they can gradually enter into the ascetic practices that they will observe until Easter.

This preparatory period of Lent lasts for three weeks in the majority of rites. In the Roman Rite, these three Sundays are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. These names come from an ancient counting system, and refer to the period of ten days in which each of these Sundays falls. They precede the first Sunday of Lent (Quadragesima).

Churches following the Syrian and Coptic traditions have preserved a more ancient arrangement that includes shorter periods of fasting: the Fast of Nineveh and the Fast of Heraclius. The origins of the period of Pre-Lent in other rites can probably be traced back to these.  

Reminders of human frailty, meditation on the last things, and also prayers for the dead are recurrent elements in this liturgical period.

Inexplicably, the modern rite of Paul VI suppressed the time of Pre-Lent in its liturgical year, despite its antiquity and universality.

The Origins of Pre-Lent: The Fast of Nineveh

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, thatJonas & la baleine great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jonah III).

Jonas est rejeté par la Baleine devant NiniveThe whale spewed Jonah out on dry land near the city of Nineveh. In order to commemorate the fast of the Ninevites, the churches of Syria instituted a fast from the Monday of the third week before Lent (corresponding to the Monday of the Roman Septuagesima). These days of fast are called Baʻūṯá d-Ninwáyé in Syriac, which we could translate as the Rogation (or Supplication) of the Ninevites. It seems that this fast initially lasted a whole week, or more precisely from Monday to Friday, because fasting on Saturday and Sunday is unknown in the East (though it was possible to extend a period of abstinence without fasting into these two days). Later the Fast of Nineveh was reduced to three days: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (and Thursday became a “day of the thanksgiving of the Ninevites” in the Syro-Chaldean rite). Traditionally the fact that the fast lasts three days is explained by the three days Jonah spent in the whale. The very strict Fast of Nineveh is still practiced by the various Aramaic churches, in both the oriental tradition (the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syro-Malabar Churches) and the western (the Syriac Church). During these days, the book of Jonah is read (by the Assyro-Chaldean, on the third day). This fast has remained very popular, and certain faithful go so far as not to eat or drink during the three days. Alone among the churches of the Syriac tradition, the Maronite Church no longer observes the Fast of Nineveh properly speaking, though (as we shall see later) it has adopted the arrangement of three Sundays of preparation for Great Lent.


Les neufs saints syriens qui évangélisèrent les campagnes d'Ethiopie au VIème siècle
The nine saints of Syria who evangelized Ethiopia

The Coptic Church of Egypt, as well as the Ethiopian Church, received from the Syrian Churches the practice of the Rogations of the Ninevites. In the Egyptian Coptic liturgy, these three days of rogation in memory of the fast of the Ninevites (also called the “Fast of Jonah”) strictly follow the liturgical customs of Lent (the Mass is celebrated after Vespers, the hymns are chanted in the Lenten tone and without cymbals, the readings are read from the Lenten Lectionary). The Fast of Nineveh was adopted by the Coptic Church of Egypt under the 62nd patriarch of Alexandria, Abraham (or Ephrem) (975 † 978), who was of Syrian origin. It is possible that the adoption of the Fast of Nineveh in Ethiopia was more ancient. (The first bishop of Aksum, St. Frumentius, was a Syrian and the Church of Ethiopia was reorganized in the 6th century by the nine new Syrian saints, who contributed greatly to the evangelization of Ethiopia.) The Fast of Nineveh (Soma Nanawe) is very severe in the Ethiopian Church and no one can be dispensed from it.



Saint Grégoire l'Illuminateur et le baptême de l'Arménie
St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Baptism of Armenia

When was the Feast of Nineveh adopted by the Syriac Churches? There is some evidence it was probably practiced in very ancient times. St. Ephrem, a deacon of Edessa, composed several hymns on the Feast of Nineveh (in which it appears that the fast lasted a week and not three days as today). The Armenian Church has a Fast of Nineveh that lasts five days: it begins on the same Monday as in the Syriac Churches (the third Monday before the start of Lent) and ends on the following Friday (when they recall Jonas’s appeal to the Ninevites), or a complete week (the Armenians never fast on Saturday or Sunday). The fast and abstinence of these days is severe, similar to that of great Lent. Armenian authors claim that it was instituted by St. Gregory the Illuminator after the general conversion of the Armenians in 301. Probably St. Gregory the Illuminator only renewed a custom that was already common among the neighboring Syriac Christians.


The Origins of Pre-Lent: The Week of Quinquagesima, the Fast of Heraclius, and Cheesefare Week

In the East as in the West, the week immediately before Lent very early takes on a penitential character. A first abstinence from meat begins then. Recall that in the primitive Church Christians followed a strictly vegetarian diet during the whole of Lent. In the week immediately before Lent (in Latin Quinquagesima, in Byzantine Tyrophagy), meat is no longer consumed but dairy products, eggs and other animal products are still consumed.


Le Christ au désert servi par les Anges - Philippe de Champaigne
Christ in the Desert ministered to by the Angels – Philippe de Champaigne

Lent lasts for seven weeks in the East and six weeks in the West. In the East, where neither Saturdays nor Sundays are fasting days (apart from Holy Saturday), this makes for a Lent with 36 days of fast. In the West, where Saturdays but never Sundays are fasting days, the number (before Gregory the Great) amounted to the same 36 days. To compensate for missed fasting days and to reach the symbolic number of 40 (the 40 days of Christ’s fast in the desert) while making room for the possible occurrence of feasts that dispense the fast (principally the Annunciation), pious Christians chose to anticipate the official beginning of the Lenten fast by one week.


La communion de saint Grégoire le Grand
The Communion of St. Gregory the Great

The abandonment of meat in the week before Lent is attested in the West at an early date. The Sunday of Quinquagesima is called in the ancient Latin books “Dominica ad carnes tollendas” or “Dominica ad carnes levandas” (hence the name Carnival), which indicates that they began to remove meat from their diet on the day after this Sunday, before passing to a strictly vegetarian diet on the next week. The first Sunday of Lent is called “in capite jejunii” (at the beginning of the fast). Recall that before St. Gregory the Great, Roman Lent did not begin until the Monday following the first Sunday of Lent (an arrangement conserved among the Ambrosians and Mozarabes). St. Gregory caused the fast to begin on the Wednesday of Quinquagesima to make for a round number of 40 days of fasting (nevertheless, to this day the Roman Rite maintains the order of offices of Quinquagesima after Ash Wednesday, and the rubrics proper to Lent do not come into force until the first vespers of the first Sunday of Lent).



Saint Léon le Grand
St. Leo the Great

The Liber Pontificalis attributes the institution of Quinquagesima Sunday to St. Telesphorus, the 8th pope reigning from 125 – 136/138. This attribution may be legendary, but since the part relating to Pope Telesphorus was written under pope St. Hormisdas (514 † 523), we can infer that the custom was already immemorial at that time such that it could be plausibly attributed to such an ancient pontificate. The Leonine Sacramentary contains a Mass for Quinquagesima. its texts are said to have been written under pope Vigilius around 538.


In the East, there is very early evidence for the existence of Cheesefare Week one week before Lent. The pilgrim Egeria (Itinerary 27.1) reports that in Jerusalem it had been customary since the 4th century to add an eighth week of penance. In the 5th – 6th centuries the Georgian lectionaries, witnesses to the liturgy of Jerusalem at this period, have proper readers for the two Sundays before Lent.

In the 6th century, St. Dorothy of Gaza claims that the institution of a week of penance before Lent was already ancient and did not originate in her day:

“Subsequently the Fathers deemed it good to add another week as a preparation to dispose those who are about to enter the fasting period, and to honor these fasts with the holy number forty days that Our Lord himself fasted” (Dorothy of Gaza, Spiritual Works, XV, 159).


L'empereur Héraclius défait l'empereur perse Chosroès
Emperor Heraclius defeats the Persian emperor Khosrow

The custom of a week of penance immediately before the start of Lent, attested before the 6th century (St. Severus of Antioch counts it in his description of Lent), would later be sanctioned by several official decisions in the 7th century under the reign of Heraclius. The origin of the Fast of Heraclius is uncertain. The majority of authors say it is related to the events of the war between the Roman byzantine Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 602 – 628, during which the Jewish populations of Palestine rebelled against the Christians and the rule of Constantinople, and allied themselves with the Perisan troops. As a result of the war, Jerusalem fell into Persian hands, \ the relic of the True Cross was taken to Persia, and 90,000 Christians were massacred. In 629 when jerusalem had been retaken and Heraclius entered in triumph, all the Christian churches including the Holy Sepulcher had been destroyed. The Emperor ordered the massacre of the Jewish rebels, despite having promised them amnesty. In penance for this perjury, the patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem instituted a week of fast before the beginning of Great lent. The fast initially lasted for only 70 years, but remains to this day in the form of the Fast of Heraclius among the Copts of Egypt and Ethiopia.


This is the most widely-accepted explanation, but there is another: Heraclius ordered his troops to observe a week of abstinence from meat and a reduced consumption of dairy during the sixth year of the war against the Persians, in order to implore God for victory. It is possible that both explanations are true, and more than probable that they only justified an already existing custom. In the following century, St. John of Damascus writes that Lent is preceded by one preparatory week (The Holy Fast, 5).

The institution of a week of mitigated fasting just before Great Lent, observed at a very early date in both East and West, had two virtues, one symbolic and the other practical. On one hand, these days of partial fast were seen as a compensation to attain the number of 40 true days of fasting. On the other, it facilitated the transition into the strict vegetarian diet of Lent.

The Synthesis of the Fast of Nineveh and the Week without Meat: The Extension of Pre-Lent to Three Weeks

In the 6th century in both East and West, the custom of having one week of abstinence from meat before the start of Lent was already well-established. Only the 24th canon of the Council of Orleans in 511 proscribed the observance, a proof e contrario that the practice had extended into Merovingian Gaul already before that date. Several Churches in the East added the Fast of Nineveh in the third week before Lent. Henceforth it was tempting to tie these two periods together, and to extend Pre-Lent to three weeks.

Eglise arménienneIt is possible that in the East this liturgical bridge between Lent and the Fast of Nineveh took place first in Armenia. The Armenian period before Lent is called Aratchavor. It spans three Sundays. Septuagesima is called Barekendam (or last meat day). The first week is strict and dedicated to the Fast of Nineveh (instituted by St. Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century). The second and third week are less marked by penance, and there is only fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.


Sacramentaire de Charles le Chauve : folio 3 r° : saint Grégoire le Grand dicte ses livres liturgiques à ses scribes, sous l'inspiration du Saint-Esprit
Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, folio 3 r°: St. Greogry the Great dictates his liturgical books to his scribes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In Rome, the 6th century witnessed the addition of two more Sundays before Quinaquagesima: Sexagesima and Septuagesima. The Epistolary of Victor of Capua (546) proves that Sexagesima Sunday existed in this period. The ancient Gelasian Sacramentary (Vat. Reg. 316) contains proper prayer texts for Septuagesima and Sexagesima. The stations for these three Sundays were fixed under Popes Pelagius I (556 † 561) and John III (561 † 574) in the basilicas of Saint Laurence, St. Paul, and St. Peter. We have the homilies given by St. Gregory the Great for Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Further, it is likely that St. Gregory refashioned the liturgies of these three Sundays to accentuate their penitential character. The most ancient known Roman lectionary, the Lectionary of Würzburg (produced in the first half of the 6th century) which was used in Gaul and corresponds to the structure of the Gelasian Sacramentary, shows that the readings we use today for the three Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, were already in use. Most medieval diocesan variants of the Roman Rite also included special readings for Wednesdays and Fridays during these three weeks, a reminder that these fasting days once included special liturgical stations.


Pre-Lent also exists in the Ambrosian tradition. The three Sundays have the same name as in the Roman Rite: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. But note that the Alleluia is not suppressed (not until Quadragesima Sunday, the eve of the start of the fast). The texts used for these three Sundays are very different from those of the Roman Rite, which would not be the case of Septuagesima had not been a very ancient feature of the liturgy in Milan or had been borrowed from Rome. For example, there is the beautiful Transitorium of the Mass for Septuagesima, which proclaims the theme of this special time before Lent:

Convertímini * omnes simul ad Deum mundo corde, & ánimo, in oratióne, jejúniis & vigíliis multis : fúndite preces vestras cum lácrymis : ut deleátis chirógrapha peccatórum vestrórum, priúsquam vobis repentínus supervéniat intéritus ; ántequam vos profúndum mortis absórbeat : & cum Creátor noster advénerit, parátos nos invéniat.

(Convert all of yee to the Lord, with a pure heart and soul, in prayer, in fastings and many vigils. Pour out your prayers with tears to remove the condemnation merited by your sins, before death comes suddenly upon you; before the abyss of death swallows you. And when our Creator comes, may he find you ready.)

As is the case in Rome, the Sundays of Quinaquagesima and Sexagesima were instituted earlier than Septuagesima. Note also this particularity of the Ambrosian tradition: on the last Sunday after Epiphany–which precedes Septuagesima–we find the systematic reading of Matthew 17:14 – 20, about the healing of the lunatic son, which ends with the verse proclaiming the start of Pre-Lent:

But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”

If we keep in mind that in Rome before Gregory the Great (end of the 6th century), Lent began on the Monday following the first Sunday of Lent (as is still the case in Milan and Toledo), and make this Sunday coincide with the Sunday preceding Byzantine Lent (Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam), then here are the correspondences between Roman and Byzantine pre-Lent:

Roman Rite

Byzantine Rite

Septuagesima Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
Sexagesima Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Quinquagesima Sunday of the Last Judgment
Last day of meats
First Sunday of Lent Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam

In this period, the Byzantine rite opted to read Gospels that prepare the faithful for Lenten penance. The order of these three weeks is attested in the Typikon of the Great Church (9th – 10th centuries); the absence of more ancient liturgical documents prevents us from being able to specify a more exact date for this ordering. Note that during the week after the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, as a result of complex medieval polemics, the Byzantines completely suppressed all fasting, even the customary Wednesday and Friday fasts, in order to distinguish themselves from the Armenian fast of this same week.

Only a few rare rites, isolated from the general current of Christendom by the progress of Islam, did not develop the three weeks of pre-lent. Thus the Hispano-Mozarabic Rite did not develop from the primitive, pre-6th century stage of one Sunday of preparation (Quinquagesima). This Sunday is called ‘Dominica ante carnes tollendas,’ indicating that Lent was preceded by a week when meat but not dairy or other strictly non-vegetarian foods was cut back. Egypt and Ethiopia have both the Fast of Nineveh and the Fast of Heraclius, but not joined into one period of Pre-Lent. Among the Ethiopians, however, the Sunday corresponding to Latin Sexagesima–though reckoned liturgically as part of the time after Epiphany–is fixed in relation to the following Sunday (Quinquagesima–Za-Warada or Qabbaka som): it is Bridegroom Sunday (Zamana Qebbala Mar’awi)(because the antiphons use texts from Matthew 25:1-13). It also marks the end of the time when marriages are permitted. Finally, the Assyro-Chaldeans have only the Rogations of the Ninevites and have no equivalent to Quinquagesima.

The Treasures of the Holy Sepulcher Unveiled: An Interview with the Superior of St. Savior’s Monastery in Jerusalem

The following is an interview with Brother Stéphane Milovitch, OFM, superior of the Franciscan monastery of St. Savior in Jerusalem, about his role in caring for the patrimony of the Holy Sepulcher. He tells us about some the most striking pieces from the collection, and the exciting new Terra Sancta museum opening this fall in Jerusalem. Also published at Liturgical Arts Journal.

1) In addition to your responsibilities as Guardian of the Franciscan Community at St. Savior Monastery in Jerusalem, you are also the person in charge of the Cultural Heritage of the Custos of the Holy Land. What does that job entail?

I entered the Custody of the Holy Land in 1992 after studying mathematics in France. Ordained a priest in Jerusalem in the year of the Grand Jubilee of 2000, I was given the obedience of studying liturgy in Rome at the Benedictine Academy of Sant’Anselmo. The subject of my doctorate was a study of the daily procession that the Franciscans have performed for the last 700 years without interruption out of love for the Holy Sepulcher, re-enacting the Paschal Mystery of the passion, crucifixion, death, deposition, embalmment, placing in the tomb, the glorious resurrection, and apparition to Mary his Mother and to Mary Magdalene.

The Franciscans are celebrated the eighth centenary of their uninterrupted presence in the East. The only Catholic religious in the Holy Land for many centuries, we have peaceful recovered, one after another, the various sanctuaries of the Redemption that in the 12th century the Church seemed to have lost forever. These sanctuaries are places to which pilgrims from the whole world come to prayer and celebrate they are also places where the Franciscans celebrate the Latin liturgy every day in the name of the Catholic Church.

Franciscan friars pray during the Lenten procession inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 17, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
Franciscans perform a Lenten procession in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (Source)

In the sanctuaries of the Holy Land pilgrims celebrate every day the Mass “of the place” and not the place “of the day,” for actually it is always the Annunciation at the Grotto in Nazareth, Christmas in the Grotto in Bethlehem, Good Friday on Calvary, and Easter at the Holy Sepulcher, etc.

When the Mass of the day and the Mass of the place coincide, i.e. when we celebrate a feast of the calendar on the very Gospel place that is the origin of that feast, we have a statio: a liturgy celebrated solemnly throughout the whole day (Liturgy of the Hours and Eucharist) by the Custody by the Franciscans of the convent of St. Savior in Jerusalem.

In the West, everyone (sovereigns and faithful) grasped the spiritual importance of these stational liturgies. Throughout the centuries, the friars have received gifts of great artistic quality with the intention that, during these celebrations, these gifts would represent the donors who were not able participate in these liturgies in person. Over the centuries, we have found ourselves with a very rich liturgical, artistic and cultural  patrimony coming to us from the entire world, which we would now like to present to all those who appreciate the human artistic genius fostered by faith in Jesus Christ. Moreover, the quality of these objects testifies to the faith of their artisans and donors.

Until a decade ago, the rich liturgical and historical patrimony of the Custody was jealously preserved by our sacristans who would employ it intelligently in liturgical celebrations. They have also transmitted it to successive generations of Franciscans.Today, following the great exposition Treasure of the Holy Sepulcher that took place in 2013 at the Palace of Versailles, the Custody has become more aware of the exceptionality of its patrimony and decided to create—in addition to its numerous liturgical, social, educational, and welcoming activities—a department of Cultural Heritage that will continue to educate, study, and safeguard its patrimony.

2) The Franciscans are opening a new museum called Terra Sancta Museum. What is the motivation for the project? 

Jerusalem is a city where Jews, Christians, and Muslims live together. Jews and Muslims already have their own museums that manifest their presence in the Holy City. But Jerusalem is also a holy city for Christians. However, native Christians are not very numerous, barely 1% of the total population. Nevertheless, many millions of pilgrims come each year, showing thereby that Jerusalem is the city of the Resurrection of Our Savior, to which Christians from all over the world are attached. The creation of the Terra Sancta Museum will render a debt of justice to Jerusalem. The ensemble of these museums and cultural sites will show that Jerusalem is a universal city for all people, and thus also for Christians.

The Terra Sancta Museum will be composed of two sections, now in the construction phase: the archeological section and the historical section.

  1. An archeological pilgrimage through the Holy Place, the archeological section will help visitors understand, by means of extraordinary pieces—frescos, ceramics, Byzantine mosaics, coins, capitals, vases found in tombs from the bronze age, sarcophagi, jewelry, lamps, ossuaries, etc.–the succession of different historical periods. It will also include collections originating in Egypt and Mesopotamia. This section will support the legitimacy of the sanctuaries venerated for centuries by the Franciscans and so many pilgrims. This archeological section is also provided with a multimedia room that presents the Way of the Cross (biblically, historically, and spiritually) and serves as an introduction to the pilgrims before they take the Via Dolorosa. This section covers the first Christian millenium.
  1. The historical section will gather together documents and images from the archives, from rare collections of painting and sculpture, but especially all the sumptuous presents that flowed here from the royal courts of Europe throughout history. Jerusalem drew the attention of all the Christian powers, anxious to leave a sign of there presence there. Chalices, candelabras, ciboria, works in solid gold, processional crosses, and rich liturgical ornaments…the works of art exhibited in this section will certainly attract the admiration of the public. This second section covers the second Christian millenium.


3) What sort of objects will be on display, is there a “theme”?

On the day of Pentecost, the Church was born in Jerusalem: this was the universal Church of Jesus Christ, but also the local Church of Jerusalem. Since its beginnings and up to the present day, Jerusalem has kept its dimensions as a church both local and universal. The historical section of the museum is divided into two parts that put these two aspects of the Church on display.

Introduction: the first room presents up front the central theme—the Resurrection of Our Lord—by means of a Neapolitan bas-relief in silver from the early 18th century. It is because Christ’s resurrection happened in Jerusalem that Christians come here on pilgrimage. The next room will serve as a transition to the presentation of the second millenium. It will illustrate the birth of the Church with its different rites—the various eastern Churches will also present icons from their patrimony—until the arrival of St. Francis in the Holy Land.

First Part: the arrival of the Franciscans, the recovering of the sanctuaries and the rebirth of the local Church that disappeared after the Crusades, the return of pilgrimage, the return of the local Arab Christian community and a presentation of its patrimony.

Second Part: western pilgrims (universal Church) and their presence in Jerusalem. A Spanish room, the pharmacy where the Franciscans treated Jews, Christians, and Muslims; a Portuguese room, a French room, an educational room to present the Latin liturgy to Christians who do not know it well and to non-Christians who do not know it at all; an imperial room; a room of the Italian peninsula (Genoa, Venice, Naples, Sicily, Lombardy, Papal States…).

Conclusion: today.

Franciscan friars dressed in liturgical ornaments offered by the French king Louis XV prepare to celebrate a mass at the Church of the Saint Saviour Convent, the headquarters of the Franciscans in the Holy Land, in the Old City of Jerusalem, on February 23, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Thomas COEX)
Franciscan friars dressed in liturgical ornaments offered by the French king Louis XV prepare to celebrate a mass at the Church of the Saint Savior Convent (Source)

4) Some people might think it is strange that the Franciscans possess such a rich treasury. Is there a contradiction between serving the poor and having beautiful liturgical objects? Shouldn’t the Franciscans sell some of these objects and give the money to the poor, who are very needy, particularly in the Holy Land?

The Franciscans have no treasury. It is the treasury of the Holy Sepulcher, the patrimony that belongs to the Holy Sepulcher. The donors have not given anything to us; they have offered gifts to the sanctuary. In our capacity as guardians of the Holy Places we have the duty to preserve the patrimony that has been deposited with us. There have been difficult times in our history, times of crisis, economic crisis. Unlike the treasuries of the medieval cathedrals, the treasury of the Holy Sepulcher has never been exchanged for money because we are convinced that it does not belong to us.

The apostolic works of the Franciscans in the Holy Land are the fruit of the generosity of Christians around the world. Already in the time of the Acts of the Apostles, the Church of Jerusalem owed its substance to the generosity of others (Acts 24:17; 2 Cor. 8:9).

The offerings collected around the world for the Holy Land—in particular the Good Friday collection—are not earmarked for the museum or for the restoration of any artifacts but exclusively for the building up of the living Stones who are the local Christians who live around the sanctuaries (salaries, schooling, scholarships, construction of houses for struggling families…) and for the preservation of the sanctuaries.

This is the reason why we humbly ask those who interested in art, liturgy, and culture to help us economically in our worthwhile enterprise.

5) About the liturgical objects in particular: What is the importance of beauty and quality in the liturgy in general, and for the Franciscans of the Holy Land in particular? Did St. Francis have anything to say about this?

St. Francis always invited his friars to be Catholics, which meant inviting his friars “to celebrate the Divine Office according to the use of the holy Roman Church” (Rule of St. Francis, III, 1). For this reason, the friars have contributed to the diffusion of the missal of the Roman Curia. In many of his writings St. Francis strongly urges his friars to give special attention to the liturgy, to liturgical books, sacred vessels and vestments that all the friars must consider “very precious” (Letter of Francis to the Ministers of the Order, 3). In humility, we have tried to obey the order of our Holy Founder.

Here is a letter of St. Francis written to the clergy:

  1. Let us attend, all clerics, to the great sin and ignorance, which certain men have concerning the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the most holy Names and His written words, which sanctify the Body.
  2. We know, since there cannot be a Body, unless first it is sanctified by the word. For we have and see nothing corporally of the Most High Himself, in this age, except the Body and Blood, Names and words, through which we have been made and redeemed from death and life (1 Jn 3:14). However, all those who minister such holy mysteries, should consider within themselves, most of all those who minister illicitly, how vile are the chalices, corporals, and altar linens, where the His very Body and Blood are sacrificed. And by many in vile places He is placed and abandoned, borne about in a wretched manner and consumed unworthily and ministered to others indiscreetly. Even His Names and written words are sometimes trodden under foot; since the bestial man does not perceive the things that are of God (1 Cor 2:14). Is not our piety stirred concerning all these things, when the pious Lord Himself offers Himself into our hands and we handle Him and consume Him each day with our mouth? Or are we ignorant that we must one day fall into His Hand? Therefore, let us correct quickly all these things and the others; and wherever the Most Holy Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been illicitly placed and abandoned, let Him be removed from that place and let them be placed in an honorable place. [All these things all the clerics are bound to observe above everything even to the end of the universe. And those who will not have done this, let them know that they must render an account before the Lord on the day of judgement (cf. Mt 12:36). This has been written so that it may better be observed; let them know themselves to be blessed by the Lord God, who would have it copied.]

A Letter to the Clergy

  1. Let us attend, all clerics, to the great sin and ignorance, which certain men have concerning the Most Holy Body and Blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the most holy Names and His written words, which sanctify the Body.
  2. We know, since there cannot be a Body, unless first it is sanctified by the word. For we have and see nothing corporally of the Most High Himself, in this age, except the Body and Blood, Names and words, through which we have been made and redeemed from death and life (1 Jn 3:14). However, all those who minister such holy mysteries, should consider within themselves, most of all those who minister illicitly, how vile are the chalices, corporals, and altar linens, where the His very Body and Blood are sacrificed. And by many in vile places He is placed and abandoned, borne about in a wretched manner and consumed unworthily and ministered to others indiscreetly. Even His Names and written words are sometimes trodden under foot; since the bestial man does not perceive the things that are of God (1 Cor 2:14). Is not our piety stirred concerning all these things, when the pious Lord Himself offers Himself into our hands and we handle Him and consume Him each day with our mouth? Or are we ignorant that we must (one day) fall into His Hand? Therefore, let us correct quickly all these things and the others; and wherever the Most Holy Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ has been illicitly placed and abandoned, let Him be removed from that place and let them be placed in an honorable place. [All these things all the clerics are bound to observe above everything even to the end of the universe. And those who will not have done this, let them know that they must render an account before the Lord on the day of judgement (cf. Mt 12:36). This has been written so that it may better be observed; let them know themselves to be blessed by the Lord God, who would have it copied.]

6) What is the most beautiful piece in the collection? [Attach a photo]

It is difficult to say which one is the most beautiful piece: de gustibus non disputandum…That said, one must admit that the Neapolitan throne given by King Charles de Bourbon and Maria Amalia of Saxony is very beautiful. It is composed of a throne that seats either a superb cross in lapis-lazuli or an extraordinary monstrance.

The throne consists of a niche surrounded by rocailles, with a marbling done in sapphires that accompany, at the summit, grape vines adorned with grapes made of rubies. The whole is surmounted by a closed royal crown terminating in a starry globe supporting a shining cross at the summit. Many other precious and semi-precious stones, such as emeralds and garnets, enrich this composition.

7) The most historically interesting piece? [Attach a photo]

During construction work at the end of the 19th century, the friars discovered in 1906 the 250 pipes of an organ from the time of the Crusades. Of course, this organ does not play any longer, because only the pipes remain, but it is the oldest known organ in the world. Along with the organ was found a carillon of 13 bells from the same period. It is thought that the organ and bells were buried in the 1=4th century by the Franciscans who wanted to protect them from destruction by the Muslims at that time. The ensemble of these instruments is obviously important for the history of music.

8) Are any of them still used regularly in liturgical celebrations?

On of the characteristics of the Terra Sancta Museum is that the works on display will not be imprisoned behind hermetic glass but will continue to be used to give glory to our Lord. We have no desire to build a museum of the past. Our intention is to continue to celebrate the liturgy using this age-old patrimony.

For example, each year, on Good Friday, during a liturgy that is unique to the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, we celebrate the Funeral of Christ by visiting the different sites of the Passion, reading the relevant Gospel text at each stop.

The Custos and four deacons wear the cope and dalmatics donated by Queen Isabella II of Spain. The nails, the crown of thorns and the instruments of the Passion are placed upon four silver-gilt plates offered by the Spanish King Charles II. On the other hand, it is the Holy Roman Empire and Poland who gave the “pokal,” 16th century vases containing the ointments that are used for the Embalmment of Christ in the Stone of Unction.


9) There are many cathedrals in Europe that possess ancient vestments and exquisite liturgical objects, but often they do not use them. The Franciscans do. Why?

When these objects came to us, they were not locked in the glass cases of museums, or strong boxes in the cupboards of the sacristy. We consider them in no way primarily as works of art but as liturgical objects.

I see two ways of preserving an artifact. The first is to place it in a secure location, hidden and untouchable. The second is to use it. An object that is alive is not forgotten. Because we need it, we look for it, we find it, eventually we restore it, and in this way it is preserved. I think this second  way of preservation is not understood by “civilian” museums. So our museum will be something very different.

10) The Franciscans celebrate the Latin rite in the Holy Sepulcher largely in the Latin language, side by side with the Greeks, Armenians, Copts, and Syrians. Do you think there is an ecumenical importance to the Franciscans’ Cultural Patrimony and to their liturgical ethos?

Pilgrims coming to the Holy Sepulcher are often unpleasantly surprised by the situation they find there. The multiplicity of communities inside the same church appears to be a symbol of division. As one who lives there, I can say that ecumenical relations in the Holy Sepulcher are some of the best in the world.

In Jewish theology, Jerusalem is the center of the world. It is the same for Christian theology. A map of the 16th century presents the world in the form of a pearl. Jerusalem is at its heart, and the three petals represent Europe, Asia, and Africa. Christ’s Church was born in Jerusalem, but following the stoning of St. Stephen, the first Christians were afraid and fled from the Holy City and in this way the world received the Gospel. Many different cultures with no relation with one another accepted the Gospel, and so different churches and rites were born.


In a sort of centrifugal motion, the Church left Jerusalem and went out into the world. Subsequently, in a centripetal motion, pilgrims and different communities the whole world over returned to Jerusalem. To go back to the idea of the world map, at the Holy Sepulcher there are two African communities (Copts and Ethiopians), two Asian (Armenians and Syrians), and two European (Byzantine and Latin). The world and the entire Church of Christ (though, it is true, without ecclesial communion) is assembled around the Tomb of the only Resurrected One. Each of these Churches prays according to its tradition and culture. The Greeks pray in Greek, the Armenians in Armenian, and the Latins in Latin…Each Church deploys the riches of its liturgical and musical patrimony. Therefore, it is perfectly natural that the Franciscans prayer the Liturgy of the Hours, the conventual Mass, and the daily process entirely in Latin. Nevertheless, the numerous pilgrims who come to celebrate in the various chapels that belong to us (there are about 20 Masses per day) celebrate in general in their language and in the multiplicity of rites known in the Catholic Church.

11) How can people contribute to the Museum project or donate to the Franciscans in the Holy Land?

We need every kind of help possible. The first way is to support us in prayer and to spread news about our project. We are also grateful to anyone who contributes economically to the realization of this great work. For more instructions, you may consult the site ATS pro Terra Sancta  where you will find a presentation of the project, as well as  to make a donation online.  

Above all, all are invited to come to the Holy Land: a liturgical pilgrimage to the Land of Jesus allows you to gather the benefits of the whole liturgical year in just a few days.


Members of the scientific committee of the Terra Sancta Museum. Historical Section

Beatrix Saule, President of the scientific committee, Honorary Head Curator at the Château de Versailles.

Brother Eugenio Alliata ofm, Director of the Archaeological Museum of Studium Biblicum Franciscanum.

Michèle Bimbenet-Privat, General Curator of the Department of Decorative Arts of the Louvre Museum.

Jacques Charles-Gaffiot, Art historian.

Benoit Constensoux, Art historian, Galerie Kugel.

Andreina Contessa, Art historian, General Director of the Historical Museum of Miramare Castle in Trieste.

José Manuel Cruz Valdovinos, Professor of Art History, Complutense University of Madrid.

Thomas Gaehtgens, Art historian, Director of the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Gael De Guichen, Adviser to the Director-General of ICCROM.

Barbara Jatta, Art historian, Director of the Vatican Museums.

Brother Stéphane Milovitch ofm, Director of Cultural Heritage of the Custody of the Holy Land, Liturgist.

Przemysław Mrozowski, Honorary Director of the Royal Castle in Warsaw.

Maria Pia Pettinau Vescina, Art historian, Specialist in ancient fabrics.

Paulus Rainer, Conservator of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, previously Director of the Kunstkammer.

Danièle Veron-Denise, Honorary Chief Heritage Curator, Specialist in liturgical and profane embroidery.

Raphaëlle Ziade, Head of the Byzantine Department at the Petit Palais, Musée des Beaux-Arts de la Ville de Paris.