The Destruction of the Ancient Cistercian Rite

Although in promulgating the Tridentine books St Pius V made it clear proper liturgical uses of proven antiquity were to survive,[1] a centralizing Spirit of the Council of Trent nevertheless did lead to the suffocation of many such venerable uses. The Cistercian use is one example, and Archdale King here tells the turbulent story of its vicissitudes in the wake of the Pian reform.

An excerpt from Liturgies of the Religious Orders by Archdale A. King, The Bruce Publishing Co., 1955.

The beginning of the Canon, from a Missal used at Rievaulx (BL MS Add. 46203, f. 49).

The continued existence of the traditional rite of the Order was never threatened by the reforming activities of St Pius V (1566-1572). The bull Quo primum tempore (1570) expressly approved the use of liturgies which would show a continuous usage of at least two hundred years, and that of the Cistercians had been in existence for four hundred. It was not, therefore, a privilege that the Pope granted when he confirmed the Cistercian use, but rather a right that he respected.[2] The constitution Ex innumeris curis (1570), which was addressed to the Cistercians, affirmed that the Order should preserve its liturgy intact both for Mass and Office. It desired “the whole Order to celebrate the holy Sacrifice of the Mass and all the offices of the day and night according to the rite proper to the Order.”[3] Two years previously, the same holy Pontiff had informed the Congregation of Castile in the bull Intra cordis (25 October 1568) that his liturgical reform concerned only those churches and religious houses in which the Office should be, or had been, celebrated according to the rite of the Roman Church. Pius IX (1846-1878), recalling his saintly predecessor, said that it was altogether lawful (jure inde ac merito) for the illustrious Cistercian family to maintain intact its liturgical tradition:[4] an opinion confirmed by the Congregation of Rites on 8 March 1913.

Such indeed may be Rome’s views on the question, but there had been, three centuries before, a general abandonment of Cistercian liturgical formulas at the behest of religious who desired “novelty” rather than tradition.[5]

A depiction of the celebration of Mass in the Opusculum of Jacobus Anglicus, a 14th-century Cistercian at Oxford (BL MS Royal 6E VI, f.246b).

As early as 1573 Wettingen and Marienstadt had already adopted the Roman rite as exemplified in the books of the Pian reform, although in that very year we find the abbot of Cîteaux, Nicholas I Boucherat, visiting houses in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and Luxemburg, in all of which he impressed upon the religious their duty to maintain the rite proper to the Order.[6] His successor, Edme de la Croix, was invited by the general chapter of 1601 to write a treatise on the Cistercian liturgy, but the “landslide” could not be averted. Several houses had already discontinued the O Salutaris after the consecration and the psalm Laetatus sum after the Pater noster in the Mass. The chapter of 1601 had made it clear that the old rite was to be maintained,[7] but love of novelty proved too strong, and the “reforming” work was accelerated.

The reading of the Gospel at the traditional Cistercian Mass celebrated in Hauterive.

Two abbots of Cîteaux stand out in respect to the so-called “reform”: Nicholas II Boucherat (1604-1625), under whom the axe was laid at the root of the traditional rite, and Claude Vaussin (1643-1670), who gathered up the fragments that remained in the liturgical books at present in use.

The general chapter of 1605 passed a number of disquieting measures which legalized various Roman practices. Nicholas II seems to have been authorized to draw up a statement on the traditional rite, but the statutes that were passed showed clearly the trend of events, and we find by way of a preface: Ut Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae, quoad fieri potest, conformetur, deinceps… The concessions included the suppression of the Alleluia in the time of Septuagesima, use of the Roman martyrology until a new Cistercian edition is forthcoming, suppression of the daily Mass for the dead on Sundays and feasts of sermon and of the Apostles, the adoption of all the Roman feasts in the calendar, and permission for those in Poland and Prussia, who say Mass outside the enclosure, to follow the Roman ordo missae.[8]

A first move in the alteration of the liturgical texts appears to have come from the Congregation of Lombardy and Tuscany, which produced a Romanized breviary at Venice in 1608, in which the three last days of Holy Week were simply and solely the Roman office. The book received the approbation, not only of the general chapter of the Congregation, but also of the abbot of Cîteaux. Changes became well-nigh universal in the Order, and the general chapter of 1609 is forced to admit that the uniformity of rite prescribed in the Charter of Charity exists no longer, save in a few houses: quod tamen paucis in monasteriis observatur.

A final attempt was made to save the traditional liturgy, and restore the broken unity: intermissam unitatem restituere cupiens. The general chapter ordered a revision of the liber usuum,[9] with John Martienne, abbot of Cherlieu, as editor, and also the insertion of the ordinarium missae at the beginning of the missal, together with a repeal of the permission to celebrate Mass according to the Roman ordo missae.[10] Ancient Cistercian missals did not have a ritus servandus in celebratione missarum,[11] and it was prescribed for the first time in 1609: Ritus missarum juxta Ordinis consuetudinuem celebrandarum excure et accurate descriptus ac initio Missalium de caetero praeponendus. The decree was never put into force, save later in the Congregation of Castile, and the ordo missae in the missal of 1617 was taken from the Roman rite.[12]

The forces of the liturgical “modernists” were too strong for the traditionalists, and the Romanizing of the liturgy proceeded without serious interruption.

In 1611, religious of the Order were permitted to say private Masses according to the Roman rubrics, and in the same year the general chapter of the Italian Feuillants (Congregation of St Bernard), held at Pignerol in Piedmont, decided to “reform” their breviary. Other members of the Order wished to adopt the monastic breviary, which had been authorized by Pope Paul V in 1612.

Permission was given by the general chapter and the abbot of Cîteaux for Mass to be celebrated juxta ritum romanum, and in 1617 a breviary and a missal appeared for the use of the whole Order. It was the last time that a liturgical book was to have so wide a circulation. The breviary was largely the same as the Lombard breviary of 1608, with the Roman office for the Triduum sacrum in place of the Cistercian office. The traditional rite was, in the main, preserved, but the book lacked harmony and unity. As for the missal,[13] the Roman rubrics were amplified, prayers before and after Mass were added, and the ritus celebrandi inserted: Ritus celebrandi Missam secundum usum Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae in gratiam illorum religiosorum Ordinis nostri Cisterciensis, hic inserti, quibus eorundem utendorum a RR. D. nostro Generali Cisterciensi aut Capitulo ejusdem Ordinis generali facta fuerit potestas.

The repudiation of the traditional rite was consummated in the following year (1618), and the general chapter formally adopted the Roman ritus celebrandi:

Henceforth it is ordered that both conventual and private Mass will be celebrated according to the Roman rite and ceremonies by all abbots and monks without exception. Wherefore, let the psalm Judica me, Deus, the Confiteor, and other things be said as described in the Roman rite. The Missal and Office of the Order, however, shall be retained, except that the psalm Laetatus sum and the collects associated thereto shall be omitted.[14]

The same general chapter ordered, also, the text of the lectionary to conform to that of the Roman breviary.

Hard and unjust things were said about the ancient liturgy, and in 1622 St. Francis de Sales, when acting as president at the general chapter of the Feuillants, openly advocated the adoption of the reformed Roman breviary. He said that the “offensive, childish, and obscure” parts of the old Cistercian texts were incompatible with the dignity of the Church.[15]    In 1623, the general chapter of Cîteaux discussed the question of the correction of the breviary, but it was decided that no substantial changes were to be made: ita tamen ut essentialia remaneant.[16] In 1626 the traditional psalter was replaced by a form of the Sexto-Clementine Vulgate.[17] Liturgical unrest was in the air, and editions of the breviary appeared in 1627, 1641, 1646, and 1648: precision, order, and harmony were sadly lacking. A new edition of the missal, sponsored by Cardinal Richelieu, commendatory abbot of Cîteaux, was printed in 1643. Feelings ran high, and the authority of the general chapter was considerably weakened by the existence of independent Congregations.

The constant liturgical changes in the time of Nicholas II had produced the greatest confusion, and it was left to Claude Vaussin, who was elected in 1645, to produce liturgical books that would be definitive and permanent. The general chapter of 1651 accepted the principle of a new reform, and appointed a commission for the purpose.[18] The Romeward trend had gone too far to admit of a return to the status quo ante, and the Congregation of Rites had encouraged houses to adopt the Pian books which were considerably shorter than those of the Order. In the first place, Dom Claude was faced with the problem, how was it possible to harmonize the Cistercian consuetudines with the Roman rubrics? The result would necessarily be a hybrid, which has been well described by a Cistercian abbot of our own times: What was carried out was not a reform but a deformation of the traditional liturgy that transformed it into a hybrid that came to be called the Cistercian-Roman Rite, the modern Cistercian rite, or the reformed rite.”[19] It would, however, be unjust to the memory of Claude Vaussin to lay the responsibility for the actual hybrid liturgy at his door, and it was thanks to him that the Order has preserved a vestige of the traditional rite.[20]

Vaussin, Claude
The Lord Claude Vaussin, Abbot of Cîteaux and defender of Cistercian custom.

The liturgical commission presented its conclusions to the general chapter of 1654,[21] and two years later (1656) the breviary was published: Breviarium cisterciense juxta Romanum. The monitum at the beginning of the book expresses the intentions of Dom Claude to maintain the Benedictine ordo of the Office and to safeguard the groundwork of the ancient Cistercian rite.[22] The missal appeared in the following year (1657): Missale cisterciense juxta novissimam Romani recognitum correctionem.[23] The ordo Missae Romanus was introduced, together with the ritus celebrandi of the Roman missal, the general rubrics (verbatim) and a new classification of feasts, while retaining the old vocabulary. A certain amount of confusion and difficulty was caused, as the ritus celebrandi was not always in agreement with the Cistercian consuetudines, and it became evident that a ceremonial of ritual was a vital necessity.

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The first edition of Vaussin’s missal.

Such was the Vaussin compromise, but, notwithstanding its tacit approval by Rome, it was in jeopardy at the hands of those whom nothing short of the actual Pian rite would satisfy. The Congregations of Lombardy and of the Feuillants bitterly attacked the new books. Hilarion Rancati, abbot of S. Croce in Gerusalemme (Rome) and John Bona, abbot of S. Bernardo (Rome), had prepared “reformed” books for the use of the Order, and it was particularly galling that they should have been forestalled by the abbot of Cîteaux. Rancati, who was a consultor to the Congregation of Rites, demanded an examination of the breviary of 1656 on the ground that its compilers had acted without the approval of the Holy See. In January 1660 the Congregation submitted the breviary to Cardinal Franciotto, but it was agreed not to give a decision till the procurator of the abbot Cîteaux had arrived. Notwithstanding this, however, a new decree suspended the breviary of Vaussin (24 July), and directed Cardinals Franciotto and d’Este to produce another edition. Rancati had won the first round, and there was the possibility that his breviary would be approved for the Order.  John Bona, who wanted neither the breviary of Vaussin nor that of Rancati, seeing that there was little hope of his own book being accepted, thereupon proposed the adoption of the monastic breviary of Paul V.

A decree was obtained from the Congregation of Rites to the effect that, while the use of the ancient breviary was forbidden, the various 17th-century reforms were also ultra vires. The Order, says the decree, was committed to the monastic breviary, with the addition of the offices of our Lady and of the dead. The procurator of the abbot of Cîteaux attempted to intervene, but a second decree, issues on 23 July of the same year (1661), merely repeated the injunction of 2 July. A year’s grace was permitted before the monastic breviary became obligatory, but the Feuillants and the Congregation of Lombardy and Tuscany adopted it immediately, and also the missal of Pius V; while the rest of the Order continued with the books of Claude Vaussin. The abbot of Cîteaux was profoundly attached to the Cistercian rite, and he applied through his procurator for an extension of the reprieve. On 3 June 1662 the Congregation of Rites directed that he could keep his liturgical books usque ad Capitulum generale in quo possit deliberari super provisione novorum codicum. The Pope disapproved of this concession,[24] but the abbot of Cîteaux was determined to continue the struggle and, in order to facilitate the retention of the books, he resolved to make the liturgical reform part of the general reform of the Order.

A brief of January 1662 declared the reforming activities of Cardinal de la Rouchefoucauld and the other commissaries who had been authorized by the Holy See to be null and void, and an assembly for the general reform of Cîteaux was summoned to the supreme tribunal of Rome. The judges were to be no longer members of the Congregation of Rites, but a commission of cardinals. The supplica presented by the Cistercian procurator was astutely worded, with the question of the liturgical books made part of the general reform. The ruse succeeded, and the Pope (Alexander VII) ordered a supersederi to the immediate execution of the decree prescribing the adoption of the breviary of Paul V and the missal of Pius V.

On 19 April 1666 the famous constitution for the reform of the Cistercian Order, In Suprema, was issued. One of the articles gave pontifical approbation to the ensemble of the Cistercian rite: prout hactenus consuevit Ecclesia cisterciensis. The liturgical reforms of Claude Vaussin were saved. “The Order of Cîteaux, thanks to the clever diplomacy of Claude Vaussin, preserved its own rite, if not in integrity, at least in a measure which still gave a richness to the Order.”[25]

The brief, among other things, directed:

  1. All should follow strictly the form established by St Benedict, which has always been observed in the Cistercian Order.
  2. Only those Roman usages should be adopted which the Order of Cîteaux has been accustomed to use.
  3. The Order is to practice the uniformity which is required by the Charter of Charity and the constitutions of Blessed Eugenius III and St Pius V, in conformity with the traditions of Cîteaux, Mother of all the churches of the Order.[26]

Papal approbation was accorded to the reformed books of Claude Vaussin because they contained the liturgical customs in use at Cîteaux: it was not the Cistercian rite as found in any particular book.[27]

In Suprema heralded an era of stabilization after a long period of confusion, agitation, and struggle. There was, however, a certain liturgical codification still to be achieved, as the Order had retained its traditional liber usuum or consuetudines. The general chapter of 1667 deliberated on the practical application of the points made in the decree of reform, and decided not to make any further alterations in the breviary, which was to be followed by all professed monks of the Order.[28] The brief Ecclesiae catholicae of Clement IX (26 January 1669) renewed the approval of Alexander VII (In Suprema), and confirmed the previous decisions of the general chapter.[29] A century later, we find Clement XIII, who wished to encourage a reform, of which the abbey of Salem in Swabia was the centre, repeating word for word the brief of Alexander VII.[30] Again in 1871 (7 February), Pius IX, in the brief Quae a sanctissimis, used almost identical terms.

We have seen how much of the traditional Cistercian rite was sacrificed on the altar of “novelty”, but as Fr Colomban Bock says, “When one sees with what levity a Cistercian of the stamp of Cardinal Bona has encouraged the suppression of the Cistercian rite and clung without regret to this line of action, one is filled with a profound gratitude for the work realized by Claude Vaussin, who was and will ever remain one of the shining glories of the Order of Cîteaux.”[31]


As we have seen, the reformed books of Claude Vaussin were adopted by the houses more or less directly under the jurisdiction of the abbot of Cîteaux, while a different breviary was used by the French Feuillants, and the Roman missal and monastic breviary of Paul V by the Feuillants of Italy. Some of the houses of the Common Observance in Italy have also the monastic breviary, and when their chapter wished to adopt the reformed Cistercian book, the Congregation of Rites (31 May 1907) refused to permit a change.

One Cistercian Congregation, the Congregation of Regular Observance of Castile,[32] maintained the traditional rite for both Mass and Office until the 19th century, although love of “novelty” had introduced certain Roman features. […] A missal had been issued for the Congregation in 1589 (Missale Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis), 1606, and again in 1762. In the last-named edition, printed in Antwerp, the following note occurs under the paragraph Ritus servandus:

Since this our Order has always had a special book of ceremonies, vulgarly called Libro de los Usos, which sets out with the greatest clarity the general and particular rubrics necessary to the celebration of the mass, we have therefore deemed that nothing should be inserted here.[33]

An edition of the old missal appeared for the Congregation of Portugal in 1738.[34]

The religious orders were suppressed in Portugal in 1834, and in Spain the following year. Many of the dispossessed religious took refuge in France, and it said that the last Cistercian monk of the Spanish congregation, a monk of Valdigna in the diocese of Valencia, died in 1877 or 1878, and that the old mass died with him, although the Office lingered on in some of the Bernardite convents. This has been the commonly accepted opinion, but a recent history of the abbey of Veruela says that a former monk of that house by the name of Antonio José Viñes returned on a visit in 1877, after its occupation by the Jesuits, and that he was present also at the ceremony of the crowning of Our Lady of Veruela in 1881.[35] A former abbot of Sainte Marie du Désert, speaking of the retention of the old Office by the Spanish convents, says: “The traditional Cistercian rite still, therefore, exists on a corner of the earth, like a spark covered with ash. Will God allow it to be relit?”[36]

God has heard his prayer, and the “spark” has become a steady flame. In the abbey of Boquen in the diocese of St. Brieuc, a house of the Common Observance which was restored in 1936, the Divine Office is recited according to the old Spanish breviary,[37] and the Mass is celebrated with the rite of 1608, collated with that of the 12th century.[38] An indult was received from Rome for the restoration of the traditional rite, although it may be argued that this was unnecessary as it had never been formally suppressed. The monastery of Hauterive in Switzerland, which was restored to the Order in 1938, has been permitted to use the old rite at the conventual Mass on Sundays ad experimentum. Poblet, also, in Catalonia, recovered by the White monks in 1940, is working towards a revival of traditional usages.

Midnight Mass on Christmas Day at Hauterive, 1965. See a short video hereof here.


[1] Dioceses with their own venerable use could only switch to the Roman with the unanimous acquiescence of the bishop and all the chapter canons).

[2] André Malet, La Liturgie cistercienne (Westmalle, 1921), part III, art. III, p. 46.

[3] Ap. Louis Meschet, Privilèges de l’Ordre de Cisteaux (Paris, 1713), p. 167.

[4] Jure inde ac merito inclyta cisterciensis familia… suos retinuit liturgicos libros. Pii IX P. M. Acta, vol. VI, part I (Rome, 1873), p. 383.

[5] Certain esprits, amateurs de nouveautés, et sans estime pour la tradition, poussaient à l’abandon des formules liturgiques cisterciennes pour adopter la nouvelle réforme romaine. André Malet, op. cit., part 2, art. IV, p. 18.

[6] Schneider, L’Ancienne Messe Cistercienne, part 2, XVIII, p. 242.

[7] Cap. Gen. 1601, VI; Canivez, Stat., t. VII, p. 204.

[8] Abbatibus et monachis Poloniae et Prussiae in itinere et extra monasteria Ordinis constitutis, more romano missa celebrare conceditur. Cap. Gen. 1605, LXXXIV; Canivez, op. cit., t. VII, p. 263.

[9] [An account of the customs of the Abbey of Cîteaux including liturgical uses, compiled very early on in the existence of that monastery, according to some by St Stephen Harding, to others by St Bernard. It was kept in its integrity until its last edition in 1643.

[10] Concessio nonnullis abbatibus et monachis praecedenti Capitulo facta ut extra Ordinis monasteria constituti romano ritu celebrare possint revocatur ne per eam solvatur Ordinis uniformitas.

[11] The rubrics for the Mass were in the liber usuum, and only general rubrics as to the nature of the Masses were inserted at the end of the missal.

[12] An ordo missae was produced by Wolfgang Aprilis, a monk of Hohenfurt, in 1576: Canon minor et major secundum usum Sacri Ordinis Cisterciensis.

[13] Missale ad usum S. O. Crist. juxta decreta Capituli generalis dicta Ordinis, Romano conformius redditum primo accentibus ornatum et auctum. Paris, chez Sebastian Cramoisy, 1617.

[14] Ordinatur ut deinceps missa tam conventualis quam privata ritu et ceremoniis romanis ab omnibus tam abbatibus quam monachis, absque ulla exceptione celebretur, quare psalmus Judica me Deus, Confiteor, et caetera alia dicentur, prout in ipso ritu romano descripta sunt. Retinebitur tamen in reliqua missale et officium Ordinis, excepto quod psalmus Laetatus sum et annexae collectae omittentur. Cap. Gen. 1618, XIV; Canivez, Stat., t. VII, pp. 332-333.

[15] Louis Lekai, The White Monks, XIV, pp. 182-183.

[16] Cap. Gen. 1623, XLIV; ibid., t. VII, p. 353.

[17] The most recent edition was printed at Westmalle in 1925.

[18] Ad reparandum in officio divino sacri Ordinis uniformitate statuit Capitulum generale ut libri Ordinis corrigantur et imprimantur, ad quod correctionis et impressionis munus deputat…dans eis plenariam potestatem addendi, tollendi et mutandi quae additione, sublatione et mutatione digna judicaverint. Cap. Gen. 1651, XXII; Canivez, op. cit., t. VII, p. 405.

[19] Ce n’était pas une réforme que l’on opérait, mais une déformation de la liturgie traditionelle pour la tranformer en un mélange qui a pris le nom de Rit Cistercien-Romain, rit Cistercien moderne, rit réformé. André Malet, op. Cit., part II, art. IV, p. 20

[20] Ibid., p. 21.

[21] Cap. Gen. 1654, VII; Canivez, Stat., t. VII, p. 418.

[22] Some members of the Order were advocating the adoption of the Roman breviary tout simple.

[23] The missal was reprinted in 1669.

[24] Decree, 8 July 1662

[25] Malet, op. cit., p. 22.

[26] In Suprema, cap. IV, circa cap. VIII usque ad cap. XIX Reg. Bened., De forma officii; Séjalon, Nomast. Cist., p. 596; Canivez, op. cit., t. VII, p. 429.

[27] Trilhe, Mémoires pour le cérémonial cistercien, p. 21.

[28] Cap. Gen. 1667, XXIII; Canivez, op. cit., t. VII, p. 447.

[29] Nomast. Cist, p. 608.

[30] Brief Impositi nobis, 8 August 1760.

[31] La Réforme du Droit Liturgique dans l’Οrdre de Cîteaux, Collect. Ord. Cist. Ref. (January 1952), p. 23.

[32] In 1425 a bull of Martin V excluded the Congregation from the jurisdiction of the general chapter at Cîteaux.

[33] Cum in nostro hoc Ordine semper fuerit peculiaris liber ceremoniarum qui vulgo Usus vocari solet, in quo Rubricas generales et particulares necessariae ad missarum celebrationem maxima cum claritate habentur, idcirco nihil hic inserendum duximus.

[34] Missale Cisterciense ad usum sacrae Congregationis Divi Bernardi in Lusitania et Algarbiorum Regnis, Antwerpiae et Architypographia Plantiniana.

[35] Pedro Blanco Trias, El Real Monasterio de Santa María de Veruela, XI, pp. 284, 290. Palma de Mallorca, 1949.

[36] Le rit Cistercien traditionnel est donc encore sur un coin de terre comme une étincelle couverte de cendre. Dieu permettra-t-il qu’il soit rallumé ? André Malet, op. cit., part II, art. IV, pp. 25-26. Missals may still be seen in some of the convents, says the abbot, but here are no priests to use them.

[37] Breviarium operis Dei ad usum sacri almi Ordinis Cisterciensis per Hispaniam, Madrid, 1826.

[38] Dijon, Bibl. municip., MS. 114 (82). Written between 1179 and 1191.

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.