Claude De Vert: Preface to Volume 1 of the Explanation (1709)

As we promised in the introductory post, here are excerpts from the Preface to the first edition of volume one of Claude de Vert’s Explication simple, littérale, et historique des cérémonies de l’Église (1709 – 1713).

PREFACE to Volume 2

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[1. Encouragement by Protestant Ministers]

It has been several years since M. Jurieu[1] undertook in one of his books to attack the ceremonies of the Mass and even to subject them to mockery. I found myself charged at that time by M. the Bishop of Meaux, and also by my own interest, to refute this minister, who had used me as a sort of witness and proof of his own ideas. Thus I wrote him a letter[2] on the subject. Since it was clear from certain places in his work that mystical and symbolic explanations were not to his taste and left no impression on him, I thought it best to accommodate myself to his dispositions. In other words, in my response the only explanations I admitted were those that were simple, natural, and historical, against which I judged M. Jurieu would have no objection. It pleased God to grant my attempt so much success, that my letter has remained without response for fifteen years.

But this is not the only effect that this manner of explaining the ceremonies of the Church has produced. It has also pleased a great number of new Catholics. Even several converted ministers were intrigued by my explanations and did me the honor of writing to say (and these are their own words):

“We have always been convinced that in order to give an account of the ceremonies of the Church, especially to new converts, one must make use of common sense, give the facts as simply as possible, and in the end explain things as naturally as possible. We have already experienced the cogency of your natural explanations with two completely opposite sorts of people, namely, with some grudging converts who saw only superstition and mummery in the Church’s rites; and with some old ecclesiastics who would hear nothing about the literal sense or about the traces of ancient customs in the liturgy, recognizing only mystery and speculation in it.”

They said that neither of these groups were able to resist my historical reasons, and the connection I made between the letter and the spirit left them speechless.

They were certain that a full discussion of all these things would be well received by both scholars and the unlettered, and even by stubborn opponents of the Church. M. Jurieu’s brief controversy had not provided the occasion for such a discussion, but the wish and need of the Church compelled me. The attempts that I had already made in my letter had given them so much pleasure that they were impatient for a complete treatment of the subject. Further, in my explanation of the Introit, Kyrie eleison, Collect, Secret, Supra quae propitio, etc., of the mingling of a part of the Host in the chalice, I had said things that no one had yet thought and that promised countless further discoveries.

Moreover these ministers plied me with innumerable questions and difficulties which they implored me to answer. And so this is the occasion and, so to speak, the foundation of the present work that I present to the public.

At the same time another ministers, one of my friends, who had also converted some years ago, but converted sincerely in good faith, through persuasion, intelligence, and knowledge, brought me one of his nephews who was still in the grips of error. […]

He was already very prejudiced against our ceremonies and especially against the exterior cult of our Religion. After having questioned me on many practices, he appeared so content with my responses (all literal and historical) that he said to his uncle (who later told me) that one more meeting with me would be enough to remove all his scruples and doubts.

[Another Successful Conversation with a Protestant Lady….]


[2. Support from Catholic Ecclesiastics]

To these proselytes, and others that I have not named, I could add a large number of Catholics: ecclesiastics and laymen of every state and personality. M. Bossuet, Bishop of Meaux especially (and all know that his name alone is synonymous with knowledge, eloquence, beauty, genius, and zeal for the Church) often did me the honor of urging me, face to face and in writing, to explain and develop all this material to its fullest extent. I did this in two or three conferences. He listened, made objections, gave counsel, and offered his advice on difficult and delicate points. I will always remember how he encouraged me not to attack the Mystical Authors or their reasons, telling me that all I had to do was lay out the facts and establish them soundly, and the truth speak for itself.

But he isn’t the only who encouraged me to work my ideas into a book. M. the Bishop of Chalons sur Saône, so well versed in this discipline, and engaged since the start of his episcopate in the correction of the usages of his church, which he is reforming wholesale and in a manner worthy of his zeal and intelligence: the Breviary, the Missal, the Ritual, and Ceremonial. After approving my Letter to the Minister Jurieu, he asked if:

“I might give a more ample, literal, and historical explanation of the ceremonies of the Mass and in general of the whole Office.”

Others told me:

“The quickest and easiest way to refute every calumny the Heretics advance against the practices of the Church is to trace them back to their origin and institution. Hence we learn the true reasons for the ceremonies, and we see their simplicity. We prove that it was necessity or utility that introduced them, and that they have been preserved either for decency or out of fear of innovation. Because the reasons are simple and natural, we see their connection to the ceremonies immediately. It has been said that the primary reason the ministers of the Protestant religion declaim against the ceremonies of the Catholic Church is that they see these ceremonies only through the mystical reasons that some Catholic authors have given to them, without seeing the natural sense that the same authors presume as the basis of everything they say.”


[On the Usefulness of this Method in Seminary Education]

M. Wateblé (who recently passed away), Superior of the seminary of Beauvais, also asked me many times to share my reflections on this question, assuring me that they would be welcomed in the seminaries of the Congregation of the Mission [….]. He said that, if he had only known these reasons a long time ago, then our seminaries would have embraced them, and this manner of explaining the ceremonies would be held in high regard. This holds as much for the priests of St. Lazare as for the Jesuits, the Fathers of the Oratory, for the congregation of St. Sulpice, and other ecclesiastics who form clergy in the seminaries. In these excellent schools, after having given the seminarians the primitive and fundamental reasons for the ceremonies, we could present them other reasons for their edification, to nourish their piety; I am referring to what I call secondary and subsidiary reasons: spiritual and symbolic ideas and pious moralities. In these holy congregations, in their frequent conferences on the practices and uses of the Church, we could develop the analogy of all these different senses and teach them to join the spirit with the letter, and figurative and allegorical explanations to literal and historical ones.

[The Catechism of Montpellier already does this]


[3. Justification for this Method from the Fathers]

In the interest of justifying this approach with examples and authorities, we see that always and in all times the practices and ceremonies of the Church have been interpreted in their proper, primitive, and necessary sense, and whenever people have understood them, they have given as far as possible simple and natural reasons in preference to those called mystical (mystiques) and figurative (figurées), and often enough even to their prejudice and exclusion. Therefore, my project is neither new nor unique. I am merely following and imitating nearly all of the authors who have ever written on this subject.

St. Jerome, for example, in his Letter to St Paulinus, St. Augustine says that the Host is broken at the Mass in order to distribute it to the faithful, ad distribuendum comminuitur. Behold: another entirely simple and natural reason for the Fraction of the Host, and very different, as we shall see, from the allegorical reasons to which the Protestants accuse us of having reduced this practice.

[Mass on Holy Thursday morning]

St. Isidore (7th c.) and the Rule of the Master written about the same time, teach us that the washing of the altars, which is still practiced today in many Churches on Holy Thursday and Good Friday is done in order to remove the dust and odors that may have collected on the tables throughout the year. In addition, they washed and purified the walls and sacred vessels, so that the whole Church was washed and set in order from the vaults to the pavement in preparation for Easter.

Amalarius, not content with the various mystical reasons given for the custom of reserving only the Body of Our Lord on Holy Thursday, without the Blood, concludes (along with the Bishop of Meaux[3]) that a more simple explanation is that this species is corrupted more easily than bread. Thus we see that this author seems to prefer this reason to the “mystical” reasons. The same author says that the priest washes his hands at Mass in order to clean and purify them from any uncleanness he may have come into contact with by touching the bread received during the Offertory. His testimony is all the more credible because Amalarius certainly cannot be accused generally of preferring simple and natural explanations. Indeed Cardinal Bona reproaches him for his excessive subtilty (quandoque nimium subtiliter). The Ordo Romanus VI, St. Thomas Aquinas, Durandus, the Jesuit P. Scortia, and others give the same reason.


[St. Thomas on the Use of Incense]

Now, what are we to make of St. Thomas’s response to the objection regarding the use of incense in the Church (this irrefragable doctor, who cannot be contradicted with impunity in the Schools of Theology, where he justly bears the excellent title of Angelic)? It is to dispel bad odors: Ut scilicet per bonum odorem depellatur si quid corporaliter pravi odoris in loco fuerit, quod posset provocare horrorem.[4] Dominic Soto, Cardinal Bellarmine, Genebrard, Scortia, Gavantus, M. Meurier, and others whom we cite later on in the work, all adopt the same reason.


[The Paschal Candle]

In the Benediction of the Paschal Candle, the Church herself teaches us that its purpose is to give light during the night: Cereus iste, in honorem nominis tui consecratus, ad noctis huius caliginem destruendam indeficiens perseveret. Thus it is left burning until the morning (flammas eius lucifer matutinus inveniat[5]).


The Council of Trent teaches us (along with the whole tradition) that water is mixed into the wine in the chalice as an imitation of Our Lord Jesus Christ who, we think, did the same: quod Christum Dominum ita fecisse credatur.[6] And why did our Lord dilute his wine at the Last Supper? Because, as St. Thomas and many theologians and scholastics tell us, it was the custom of the place to do so (secundum morem illius terrae).

[4. Conclusion]

The method we have supposed is not novel, its purpose is not unusual or surprising. Rather to the contrary, there are authors who absolutely reject every mystical reason, regarding their different applications as impractical. And the truth is that since everything in ritual and discipline is subject to perpetual change, it is quite difficult to assign mysteries to the Church’s customs and practices. Let us say, for example, that I want the chasuble, which was once entirely round and reached down to the floor, to be a symbol of charity which (according to St. Peter) covers a multitude of sins. Today this vestment is significantly shortened, trimmed and open at the sides. What possible relation could this modern garment have with the proposed mystical reason?

Or again, the Cardinal bishops were once seven in number. They could represent the seven angels or seven Churches of Asia. But now that there are only six, what can they represent? The six wings of the Seraphim? Hence the difficulty or rather the impossibility of allegorizing practices that are subject to such variation.


[Apology for Mystical Reasons]

Thus, following the understanding and taste of all these different authors, I have seen fit to explain the ceremonies of the Mass in their simple, literal, and historical sense, but with this difference, that I do not go so far as some of them. God forbid that I should ever condemn the mystic writers or mystical reasons. On this point I hold to what I said in my Letter to M. Jurieu, and to what I shall say again in the present work. To put it simply, everything I say here about historical reasons is always without prejudice to the mystical reasons. Further, even if I seem to privilege these latter, it is not that I have made my own decisions, but that I have sought the truth, and I will always be happy to learn from not only pastors and superiors, but from the littlest disciples and smallest children of the Church. Quaero non affirmo.


[1] A Protestant leader.


[3] Communion sous les deux especes, pag. 167.

[4] De Vert omits the rest of Thomas’ response, which adds a spiritual explanation: “[The use of incense] has reference to two things: first, to the reverence due to this sacrament, i.e. in order by its good odor, to remove any disagreeable smell that may be about the place; secondly, it serves to show the effect of grace, wherewith Christ was filled as with a good odor, according to Genesis 27:27: “Behold, the odor of my son is like the odor of a ripe field”; and from Christ it spreads to the faithful by the work of His ministers, according to 2 Corinthians 2:14: “He manifesteth the odor of his knowledge by us in every place”; and therefore when the altar which represents Christ, has been incensed on every side, then all are incensed in their proper order.”

[5] Of course, even a cursory fair reading of the Exultet, with its florid descriptions of Christ as the Light of the World, and comparisons of the candle with the Pillar of Fire, would make it one of the strongest arguments against the validity of De Vert’s reductive literal sense.

[6] Again, De Vert neglects the spiritual reason given in the same chapter of Trent: “Monet deinde sancta Synodus, praeceptum esse a Ecclesia sacerdotibus, ut squam ino in calice offerendo miscerent: tum quod Christum Dominum ita fecisse credatur, tum etiam quia e latere ejus aqua simul cum sanguine exierit, quod Sacramentum hac mixtione recolitur; et cum aquae in Apocalypsi beati Joannis populi dicantur; ipsius populi fidelis cum capite Christo unio repraesentatur.”

Claude de Vert’s Simple, Literal, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Mass: A Watershed of the Catholic Enlightenment

Recently we discussed how the Voyages Liturgiques, a layman traveler’s account of French liturgical life in the late 17th century, seemed to favor contemporary reform movements in the Gallican church, shaped by the classical and archeologizing “taste” so characteristic of its age. The author’s “classical ideal” has much to commend it, and the work remains an invaluable witness to the 17th-century Catholic worldview.

Today we shall discuss an author of far greater importance, whose influence on liturgical scholarship and reform was far more consequential. Guéranger called him, more or less justly, “the apostle of the rationalist spirit” and “the voice of his century.“[1]

Not so long ago, we introduced readers to Pierre Lebrun’s commentary on the Mass, his Literal, Historical, and Dogmatic Explanation of the Mass, a work directly provoked by De Vert’s own Simple, Litteral, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Church (1709-1713, 4 voll.). The title of our post (“The Origins of Liturgical Ressourcement”) was perhaps rather tendentious, but it did express something of our conviction that liturgical scholarship in that era had become noticeably estranged from the classical tradition. Sometimes by accident and sometimes by intent, churchmen everywhere had subjected the mind and heart of the Church to modern thinkers’ peculiar standards of reasoning, and proved generally ignorant or contemptuous of the previous tradition, to the point that a fresh representation of the classical tradition in all its vigor was desperately called for.

This had widespread ramifications for Catholic belief and practice, not the least of which was a new approach to the sacred liturgy, manifesting itself in new genres of liturgical commentary that diverged sharply from the medieval and Patristic tradition.

Liturgy and the Catholic Enlightenment

The 18th-century was the dawn of a systematic application of “science” and “reason” in service of wholesale reform of social and ecclesial life. This was a complex and multi-faceted movement that offered many benefits, while also posing many challenges to the Church. Churchmen everywhere participated with enthusiasm in the century of lights, promoting new forms of church government, education, and scientific inquiry. In its more radical manifestations, under the influences of Gallicanism, Febronianism, and Josephinism, local churches everywhere became departments of ascendant nation states, strictly regulated to serve the needs of political economy: religion within the bounds of pure reason.

Behind its splendorous veneer, the Gallican Church was a welter of factions. After Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes (1685), the mass conversion of Protestants caused a sort of “pastoral crisis.” The bishops worked with an already reform-minded Versailles to manage the transition, and the result was a variety of reform projects. Vernacular missals, Mass commentaries, and pastoral tracts were sanctioned and widely distributed. At the same time bishops and cathedral chapters destroyed the great medieval rood screens, alleging among other reasons that they blocked the faithful’s view and posed an unnecessary obstacle to Protestant sentiment. These efforts were all linked by the new enthusiasm for universal knowledge, a zeal to illuminate all “superstition” and “mystery” with the light of reason.

Catholic Classicism. It was the high tide of Classicism, a turning back toward the forms and sources of antiquity (such as they were available or understood, at times very poorly). Jungmann explains:

“The desire was to get free from all excess of emotions, free from all surfeit of forms; to get back again to ‘noble sim­plicity.’ As in contemporary art, where the model for this was sought in antiquity and attained in classicism, so in ecclesiastical life the model was perceived in the life of the ancient Church. And so a sort of Catholic clas­sicism was arrived at, a sudden enthusiasm for the liturgical forms of primitive Christianity, forms which in many cases one believed could be taken over bodily, despite the interval of a thousand years and more, even though one was far removed from the spirit of that age.”[2]

High esteem for St. Augustine and the “golden age” of the Fathers led some to idealize an imaginary liturgy of the 5th century–imaginary since we have no liturgical books that go back that far, and only a few scattered references to liturgical customs in the writings of the Fathers. The Gallican Church especially had a marked archeologizing tendency. Many viewed medieval developments with suspicion, disparaged the cult of the saints and other traditional devotions, moved for drastic simplification of church decoration, and tried to return to what they perceived to be the most “primitive” and classical Church practices.

Enlightenment. It was also the age of Enlightenment, which valued simplicity and strove everywhere for “the elimination or radical restructuring of institutions seemingly little more than unproductive relics from the past.”[3] Everywhere feudal forms of administration gave way to modern bureaucracy; traditional exegesis was rapidly replaced by historical-critical scholarship; and even among very devout Catholics, Scholasticism was largely ousted by enthusiasm for Descartes and the New Learning, which some saw as a powerful ally for religion.[4]

English agnostic literature also exerted powerful influence. Geoffrey Hull (“The Proto-History of the Roman Liturgical Reform”) cites a contemporary ecclesiastic’s bitter complaint about the spirit of the age:

“Such is the frailty of human nature that involuntarily and without even suspecting it, people are taking on the tastes, fashions, language and idiom of the country and age in which they live… Our century is the age of Anglomania. It is the dominant strain in the agnostic movement, which rails against the superstition of the populace, the credulity of the devout, the excesses of the cult of the Blessed Virgin and the Saints, the despotism of the Pope, the neglect of Sacred Scripture and the Church Fathers, and so on. They would deprive religion of all its flesh if they could, leaving just the skeleton. To this end they abolish, polish, simplify, reduce to nothing the little that has been preserved.”[5]

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Bishop Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet

Gallicanism. In France, all these movements took place in the wider context of Gallicanism, a cluster of claims about the French Church’s right to self-governance and independence from Rome and about the inviolability of her perennial customs. Gallicanism meant that the French liturgy was largely out of the Pope’s control, so that bishops were free to carry out liturgical revisions under the pretext of exemption from Roman jurisdiction.

Amidst seismic shifts in European thought and culture, the Church adopted new strategies of apologetics, trying to showing that the faith could measure up to the new standards of reason. Many Catholics–sometimes called “Enlightened Catholics”–advocated for adopting the new historical, scientific, and administrative methods, seeing them as the only hope for the Church’s continued relevance. Not until late in the next century would the Roman Church’s stance toward all these different movements coalesce and harden,[6] so that there was much freedom and openness of discussion at this time about the proper role of the new methods and forms, a freedom that rarely tolerated the periodic papal interventions.

In Scripture studies, many began to adopt historical methods that would later come to be known as Wissenschaft. Sensible to its dangers, they also saw that it could bear good fruit for the Church.

In the realm of liturgy, the 17th and 18th centuries saw the rapid production of new rites (Neo-Gallican) to replace traditional missals and breviaries. Bishops hired scholars who employed historical methods to reconstruct “primitive” liturgical rites[7] more suited to the tastes of their age. The reformers introduced major rearrangements of offices, and as a working principle eliminated nearly all non-Scriptural texts from the Mass and Office, replacing them with new compositions by contemporary Latin literary figures. Much the same would happen in the 20th century, when the hymns and over 70% of the Roman collects were rewritten.

Claude De Vert, O. Cist.

Claude De Vert, a monk and officer at Cluny (1645 – 1708), finds his place in this drama. He became interested in liturgical rites after a trip to Rome where the splendor of the ceremonies left a lasting impression. He wrote some minor works before he finally began his major work, the Explication simple, littérale et historique des cérémonies de l’Église (Paris, 1709-1713). The immediate provocation, he explains in a preface, was a pamphlet controversy with the Protestant minister Pierre Jurieu over certain Catholic ceremonies, and over the allegorical interpretation of the Mass.

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Pierre Jurieu

Encouraged by Reformed ministers and Catholics ecclesiastics (among them Bossuet) to expound his insights at greater length, he became convinced that a thoroughgoing rational presentation of the divine worship would have a widespread appeal for contemporary Protestants and Catholics alike. Specifically, it would settle Protestant disgust for sacrament and mysticism, while also assuaging agnostics’ doubt and flattering the modern “taste” for historical inquiry. As others were already doing in other disciplines, so in liturgy, De Vert sought for a common standard of “reason” that could settle confessional disputes and measure up to the requirements of modern reason.

For De Vert, the “mystical,” symbolic, or spiritual explanation of divine offices, such as that purveyed by the medieval commentary tradition, is pernicious mystification and bad scholarship.

Related imageasically, each ceremony serves a simple, physical, hygienic convenience or reflects a simple historical accommodation. Incense dispelled bad odors. Immersion baptism was a hygienic practice meant for cleaning newborn babies. The chasuble was an ordinary Roman garment. The rood screen simply amplified a lector’s voice, a purpose just as easily achieved by a small lectern. The commixing of water and wine in the chalice is a simple imitation of historic Jewish practice. “Mystical” reasons are added later.

The principle is thoroughgoing: in no case can a spiritual-symbolic reason be the first cause for the institution of a ceremony. At best, a symbol can be edifying. For example, full-immersion baptism borrowed (for decency’s sake) the pagan practice of cleaning newborns in large baths. The hygienic practice was later exploited by St. Paul, who saw in it a fortuitous allegory for our death and rising in Christ. The Pauline allegory edifies, but it is entirely extraneous and fortuitous to the original institution.

At worst, symbolism is a sort of death mask that one imposes on a ritual whose original, simple, natural, and historical reason is no longer understood. Symbol petrifies the ritual by linking it necessarily to an unchanging dogmatic truth; since the truth cannot change, the ritual cannot change. In this way ritual becomes un-elastic, unable to respond to the Church’s contemporary needs: especially the needs of a learned class with no “taste” for mysticism. Symbol is the rigor mortis of ritual, freezing it forever and rendering it useless for Christian progress.

The learned man’s job is to scatter the clouds of mystical obfuscation to reveal the (simple, physical, historical) rational structure underneath: like an architect renovating a Gothic church for modern use–removing votives and side-altars, taking down rood screens, etc.–to reveal to clear view the clean geometrical lines of the fabric.

If the Church is to have a liturgy that is sensible and adapted to the present moment, She must remove the offending edifice of allegorical-mystical commentary once and for all.[8] Once symbol is chased away, and the liturgy appears in all its rational simplicity, it will no longer be a stumbling block to Protestants or the Enlightened: it can stand as a beacon of good sense, whose rational simplicity we can contemplate with admiration.

Further, significantly, it can once again pliably evolve and adapt to urgent contemporary needs. Ceremonies instituted for transient historical reasons should be allowed to change when modern historical circumstances call for it.

De Vert was not the first to apply historical methods to the study of Church offices. The 16th and 17th centuries had been the age of collectors and editors of liturgical sources. Historical explanation began to crowd out the mystical, and “application of the historical-critical method gradually exhausted all straightforward interest in researching its spiritual meaning.”[9] By our author’s day, historical commentary had already become a genre parallel to the historical-critical turn in Scripture studies, and largely borrowing the same methods: the faith-based search for the totus Christus behind the letter of the Old Testament yielded to (supposedly) neutral, scientific studies of Scripture from various points of view. The same happened in liturgy at this time.

So Dom Edmond Martene, in his “De antiquis ecclesiæ ritibus libri 4” (Rouen, 1700-1702), observed that earlier authors had appealed to “mystical reasons” which were “a style of writing distasteful to the learned men of our age” (rationes tantum mysticas adhibuerunt, quod scribendi genus saeculi nostri studiosis minus sapere solet). and in his own work he resolved that, “setting aside the mystical explanations that anyone may consult in the published sources, I shall present all the rites of the Church from a historical perspective.”[10] Note that Martene does not so much challenge the legitimacy of the spiritual senses, as politely excuse himself from the task of spiritual exegesis. He is writing history, not theology. It is a genre choice.

In other words a new genre is being born, and the ground is being laid for a new scientific study of liturgy, posthabitis rationibus mysticis. If the Carolingian age witnessed the founding of the expositiones missae as a genre–though one largely in continuity with Patristic commentary–the early modern period saw the foundation of the “scientific” commentary, often predicated on a rejection of the former. Henceforth, neglect or outright contempt for the allegorical tradition became de rigeur–even if it was not unopposed, and De Vert’s prefaces document this change coming about in his conversations with contemporary scholars.

Golgotha: The temple veil is torn, attributed to Vicomte Ludovic Napoleon Lepic, 1873

One almost has the sense that these authors thought they were part of a new Dispensation, performing a second “unveiling” of the Christian religion: as Christ had lifted the veil and dispelled the shadows of the Old Testament cult with his light, so De Vert banishes the shadows of Christian primitivism to reveal the truth of the rites in their bare historical reality, denuded of all mystery. To use the words of Guéranger, De Vert comes as the apostle of a new, more rational dispensation.

Enduring Relevance

If his eulogist can be considered any fair judge, the Explication was a game-changing event, a watershed in the brave project of Enlightenment:

“We can say with confidence, that this book has changed the whole picture. The physical causes for the institution of ceremonies were smothered underneath mystical and allegorical ones. A false piety had fooled itself and others, losing sight of the true reasons: we had the shadow instead of the body. Dom de Vert came with his torch in hand to dispel these thick shadows. This book has made the scales fall from the eyes of innumerable people, and now no other way of thinking is possible” (Elegy for Dom De Vert, Explication…, vol. 3, xxxi – xxxii)

De Vert’s method is not to be simply discounted outright. He is right to point out the primacy of the literal sense. But he is wrong to imagine that the literal reason for a ceremony can never be symbolic. Hence Lebrun:

The true literal and historical sense of a writing or a ceremony is that which the author or institutor had in mind, and it is often a figurative sense, of symbol and of mystery. If we consider the scepter of kings and the crosier of bishops and abbots in a coarse and material fashion, we might say that it is given to them for support while walking, because this is the more ordinary use of staves and because in fact in ancient times bishops and abbots availed themselves of staves in their travels. But since we are seeking the reason for the institution of the ceremony of the pastoral staff, we would distance ourselves from the true sense of the Church if we gave, as a reason of institution, the ordinary usage of support while walking; for the scepter and the crosier are given to both young and old to be used only in actions of magnificence and ceremony. The proper and historical significance of the scepter is to be the symbol of the power of the king in all his dominions, just as the pastoral staff is given by the Church to bishops and abbots to mark their authority in their diocese and in their monasteries, and because as pastors they have the crook to protect their flock and to chastise those who trouble its peace and good order. The Church herself teaches us these symbolic senses in her pontificals[11].”

Nor is the new scientific approach unhelpful. It would be absurd to dismiss the benefits of progress in knowledge of the historical origin of rites. In many cases it really does dispel superstitions about the meaning of liturgical ceremonies.

Nevertheless, De Vert’s willful misreading of liturgical texts, cherry-picking from sources, and deafening silence about the witness of Christian tradition to the primacy of the spiritual sense is really not to be forgiven, and can only be seen as a prejudiced effort at reconstruction for political purposes. He uses history amateurishly. He first equates the meaning of a practice with its historical origin, then he dismisses it out of hand. (In this sense, he does not fit the mold of either an antiquarian or a Biblicist, but rather sings a more secular strain.)

On the other hand, in early modern liturgical scholarship no less than in physics and in Scripture, new methods were being devised and tested whose precise value and limits had not yet been (and perhaps have never been) definitively decided. The whole early modern period presents a strange (to us) spectacle of halting attempts and half-baked methods. A very charitable reading of De Vert would excuse his too-radical application of New Learning, chalking it up to the excessive enthusiasm (and poor theological formation) of his generation.

All told, M. de Vert’s work gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th-century Catholic scholarship, and into the cradle of the modern historical method, when no less than a Benedictine monk attempts to give an entirely literal explanation for the origins of liturgical prayers and ceremonies. All imaginary causes–allegory, mysticism, etc–are dismissed as “bad taste,” for this is “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.”

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Scipione de’ Ricci, Bishop of Pistoia

The high-water mark of the pre-Revolutionary project to re-interpret and re-fashion the liturgy (like Scripture) in the light of new historical awareness, to simplify the Church’s liturgical life and bring it more in line with modern tastes, was the Synod of Pistoia in 1786, which put many Enlightened liberal reforms into place. Though De Vert was certainly not the only or even the main ideological influence behind this synod, his work is a particularly clear and thorough exposition of the radical wing of the new liberal, Enlightened Catholic worldview, and a sort of arch-nemesis to Prosper Guéranger and the Romantic and ultramontane reaction.


This week we will translate the prefaces of voll. 1 and 2 of De Vert’s work, the Simple, Litteral, and Historical Explanation of the Ceremonies of the Church (Tome 1)(Tome 2)(Tome 3)(Tome 4), in which he explains and justifies the new rational method of liturgical commentary. The other two volumes are without prefaces.

We hope the translation will give insight into that turbulent century, the cradle of modernity, the origin of so much of what has come to be taken for granted in later scholarship. In the end, despite his serious defects as a theologian, De Vert is a useful source of information about contemporary French liturgy, and (in our opinion) a case study of how the historical method can be misapplied when allied with dubious preconceptions.

Preface to Volume 1 (1709)
Preface to Volume 2 – Coming Friday


[1] “The rationalist spirit of which Dom Claude de Vert, the voice of his century, was the apostle, contributed to the clergy’s neglect of religious aesthetics. To the eyes of a spiritualist religion, only one thing can elevate form, and that is mysticism. But since this rationalism deprived the ceremonies of their proper objective—viz. to sanctify visible nature by making it serve the expression of the invisible world—it is easy to understand how the clergy, already deprived of the poetic elements of the ancient liturgy, could reach such an indifference to art with respect to worship” (Institutions Liturgiques, vol. II, Ch. XX,, 387).

[2] Missarum Sollemnia, vol. 1, 152.

[3] John O’Malley, Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontone Church, 30.

[4] For example, Cardinal Melchior de Polignac (1661 – 1742) wrote his famous Anti-Lucretius, an elaborate scientific-didactic poem showing that God’s agency can be clearly perceived and worshipped in the works of nature uncovered by science and Cartesian philosophy. He argued that modern science only makes the works of God’s hands stand out in clearer relief.

[5] Marie-Madeleine Martin, Le latin immortel (Chiré-en-Montreuil: Diffusion de la Pensée Française, 1971), 173.

[6] Not that Rome took no interest in Gallican developments. Jansenism and all its works was repeatedly condemned, and Rome lodged protests, usually in vain, against some liturgical experimentation. See our post on Vernacular Translations of the Missal.

[7] As Geoffrey Hull, Alcuin Reid, and László Dobszay among others have argued, the Neo-Gallican rites were the real forerunners of the 20th century Novus Ordo. Their architects were guided by similar principles, and achieved similar results.

[8] See our post on Lebrun for a more extensive discussion of De Vert’s method.

[9] See Claude Barthe, “The Mystical Meaning of the Mass in the Middle Ages,” in The Genius of the Roman Rite, 179 – 197, 193.

[10] De antiquis ecclesiae ritibus, vol. 1, Preface: His igitur attente consideratis, alicuius opellae pretium visum est, si quantum per imbecilles ingenii mei vires licet, posthabitis rationibus mysticis, quas apud editos scriptores quisque consulere potest, universos ecclesiae ritus more historico hic repraesentarem

[11] A stab at De Vert’s stubborn insistence that the Church herself teaches his simple, natural method.

The Jubé (5): That Removing Jubés Mutilates Our Churches

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 26
Chapter 27

It is still little understood why the jubés in French churches were so quickly and methodically replaced in the 17th and 18th centuries, but one of the reasons the “ambonoclasts” of the time gave to justify removing screens was that they were “regarded as useless ornaments, irregular protrusions, and inconvenient obstacles which rob the faithful of a view of the holy altars and prevent them from contemplating the most august Mysteries at their leisure.”

In other words, an aesthetic complaint–they obstructed a clear view of the interior and its main lines–combined with a “pastoral concern”–that they excluded the laity. Fr. Thiers takes on the first of these objections in this chapter.

Chapter XXVIII:
Destroying the jubés mutilates our churches

One of the principal reasons that ought to arrest the immoderate and benighted zeal of the jubés declared enemies is that they cannot remove them from churches without rendering them imperfect, and I daresay, mutilated. For a thing is imperfect and mutilated when it lacks one of the parts that it should have and of which it ought to be composed. Now it is certain that, generally speaking, the jubés are an integral part of churches, especially of great and ancient churches.

For this reason St. Germanus, Patriarch of Constantinople, explaining the main parts of the church in his Meditation on Church Matters, includes the jubé. Symeon of Thessalonica, in his book Interpretation of the Christian Temple and its Rituals, published in Fr. Goar’s Euchologe, also places it among the parts of a church. William Durandus, speaking of the church and its parts at the beginning of his Rationale,[1] mentions the jubé explicitly. The Ceremoniale Episcoporum numbers the jubé among the things necessary for Solemn Masses: Ambones ubi epistola et evangelia decantari solent.[2] Hospinien[3] and Fr. Boulanger,[4] in their treatises on temples, did not neglect the jubés. Neither did M. Allatio in his second letter to Fr. Morin, Des Temples des Grecs d’aujourd’hui.[5] Fr. Goar[6] and M. de Schelstrate[7] gave them a place in the plans they made of eastern churches. Fr. Morin gives them ample treatment in his book De antiquis Christianorum Ecclesiis,[8] and mentions them elsewhere.[9] Finally, Fr. Cabassout very explicitly affirms, in his Diatribe de la situation, des parties, et de la forme des anciennes Eglises, that the jubé is the third part of the church: Tertia ecclesiae pars ambon dicebatur.[10]

I am well aware that there are a number of churches without jubés, of which, therefore, jubés are not an integral part. But I also know that this does not justify the conduct of the ambonoclasts. For these churches are either cathedral churches, parish churches, collegiate churches, churches belonging to regulars, or private chapels. I maintain that of those churches that do not now have jubés, some either had them formerly, or if they never had them, that there is a reason for it. Let me explain.

a) Cathedral Churches

I know of no great, ancient cathedral that does not have a jubé. But if there are some that lack a jubé, it is because they have been destroyed by fire, damaged during war, or demolished by the heretics. The new cathedrals that do not have jubés are:

1) Those that have all been built, repaired, for renovated recently by architects who do not know the rules of the Church, or did not want to be bound by them and thought the jubés completely useless. So there is no jubé in the new Cathedral of Besançon, though there was a very beautiful one in the ancient cathedral, which was demolished in our time.

2) Those that were formerly Huguenot churches, as that of La Rochelle;

3) Those that were erected over what used to be monastic churches, where there was no jubé originally. Jubés could very well have been built in such cathedrals after they changed their state and character, but the prelates and canons who governed them either were not willing or generous enough to make the expense, or did not find the space suitable for one, or had some other reason for not building a jubé.

Whatever the case may be, we must grant this in justice to the cathedrals, that they are incomparably more attached to ancient practice than other churches are, that they are less prone to make innovations, and that they preserve their jubés more religiously.

b) Parish Churches

The great, ancient parish churches too formerly had their own jubés, and there are many today where jubés may be found. The parishes of Rome, which later become the cardinals’ titular churches, are a good example. St. Sylvester had one built in the church of San Lorenzo;[11] Sixtus III beautified the jubé of the church of St. Mary Major with porphyry;[12] and Sergius I built the jubé of the church of Ss. Cosmas and Damian.[13]

Since there were formerly stational masses in the parish churches of Rome, there must have been jubés in these churches because the Ordo Romanus, which explains the ceremonies that were observed in these Solemn Masses, notes expressly that the Gospel is chanted in the jubé.

Image result for Église Saint-Pierre-le-Rond
View of the (later) screen at Saint-Pierre-le-Rond, Sens (Source)

In Sens there are jubés in the parish churches of Saint-Hilaire, Sainte-Colombe-la-Petite, Saint-Pierre-le-Rond, and Saint-Maurice. In Rouen there are jubés in the churches of Saint-Maclou and Saint-Vivien. Finally, there are jubés in innumerable other parish churches of various dioceses and cities where the piety of the people, the zeal and enlightenment of pastors and bishops have devotedly preserved them.

Church of St. Maclou (destroyed in 1944) (Source)

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At St. Maclou, the flamboyant staircase of the former jubé was transferred to the back of the nave, where it served as a staircase to the organ loft (Source)

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The jubé at St. Vivien, Rouen, was destroyed in 1761 and replaced three years later with this Baroque arrangement (Source)

But it is not surprising that most small parish churches have never had jubés. For there would have been no use for them, since they were served by only one priest and it would not have been quite convenient for him to leave the the altar to go sing the the Epistle and Gospel on the jubé. Additionally, High Masses were often not sung in these churches for lack of cantors. When they were sung on certain solemn days, the priest could chant the Epistle and Gospel in a loud voice and be understood by the people, who were not numerous nor far removed from him. Centuries have passed and the situation is no longer so: there are scarcely any little parishes today where the Mass is not chanted at least on Sundays and solemn feasts.

As the number of faithful has increased, vicars and priests have been added to many parishes, and if they have not had jubés built it is not because they are not necessary to perform the divine offices well, but either because the arrangement of the space does not permit it or because neither the priests nor the people have had the means.

Nevertheless, there are still a large number of jubés to be seen in the churches of large towns and villages that fire, war, and heresy have spared, and which have not been exposed to the reckless and irregular renovation of the new ambonoclast architects.

c) Collegiate Churches

We can make the same judgment about collegiate churches as about the cathedrals. All the great ancient collegiate churches have their jubés, with the exceptions however that we made when speaking about cathedrals.

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The jubé at St. Etienne, Lyon (Source)

There are jubés in the collegiate churches of Saint-Étienne and Saint-Just in Lyon, and there was once one in St. Nizier before the Huguenots demolished it in 1585. There are jubés in the collegiate church of Saint-Martin de Tours, Saint-Symphorien, and Sainte-Balsamie of Reims, of Saint-Pierre in Mâcon, Saint-André in Chartres, in Monbrison, in Saint-Quentin in Vermandois, etc.

d) Churches of the Regular Orders

With respect to the churches of the Regular Orders, we must make distinctions with respect to time periods and the different institutes in order to know whether they once had jubés, and if they had them, where they are today.


In the West it seems that religious went a long time without building jubés, as much because their churches were small in the beginning—nothing more than oratories as St. Benedict calls them several times in the rule—as because it was long forbidden to celebrate public masses in them, i.e., mass at which seculars were permitted to assist, and seculars were for a long time not at liberty to enter.

Nevertheless, it is not impossible that the monks of St Benedict, among others, had jubés in their churches before that time [the mid-12th century, before which religious were not permitted to administer the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist to the faithful, to hold public assemblies, or to say public Masses in the churches of their monasteries]. There were jubés in the Abbey of St Gall in Switzerland in the 9th century, in the Abbey of St Medard in Soissons in the 10th century, and in the Abbey of St Josse in Picardy in the 11th century, as we have already seen.

Pope Victor III, after the middle of the 11th century, while still Abbot of Monte Cassino, made a jubé to be built which in truth was made of nothing more than wood, but embellished with sculptures and gilding. Cardinal Leo, bishop of Ostia, who reports it, states that the lessons of Matins and the Epistle and the Gospel at Mass where read thereupon on the main feasts of the year.

There were also jubés in the churches of nuns of the Order of St Benedict from the 8th century. Chrodegang, bishop of Metz, ordered a very beautiful one to be built in Metz in the church of Saint-Pierre-le-Vieil, also called de Haut-moutier, or de Marmoutier, where there were once three hundred nuns, according to the observations of M. de Sainte-Marthe.

Finally, there are still jubés in the Abbatial Churches of Saint-Denys in France, of Saint-Cornille in Compiégne, of Saint-Rémi and Saint-Nicaise in Reims, of Saint-Pére in Chartres, of Saint-Faron in Meaux, of Saint-Ouen in Rouen, of Saint-Taurin in Evreux, in Fécan, etc.

1) The monks of Cluny, who appeared in 910, have jubés in their churches, but in very few of them, because there were few Cluniac monasteries where public masses were said, given the fervor of their institution.

For the same reason, many other religious congregations that came thereafter and also fight under the Rule of St Benedict have no or almost no jubés in their churches.

2) The Cistercians have jubés, at least in their great churches, and they chant the Lessons of Matins there, as we have shown in the words of Paris, Abbot de Foucarmont.[14]

3) The Canons Regular, such as those later known as the Canons Regular of St Augustine, also had jubés in their churches, for very ancient ones still exist at present at St. Denis of Reims and Toussaints in Châlon sur-Marne, etc.

4) The Carthusians do not have jubés in their churches because they belong only to themselves. The strict solitude they profess does not allow them to invite laymen in.[15]

5) The Premonstratensians also have them. The jubé of St. Sebastian in Vicogne [destroyed in the Revolution] is one of the most magnificent in all Christendom, and there are a number of others in churches belonging to this order.

6) The Missal of the Mercedarians presupposes that the churches of this Order have jubés.

7) If we took the time, it would be easy to show how the Carmelites, Franciscans, Dominicans, and Augustinians once had and still do have jubés in their churches. They exist in most of their ancient churches, and where they do not, one can find some vestiges of them where indifference for the ancient ceremonies of the Church or some other bad reason has led to their destruction.

8) Since the Barnabites, Theatines, Jesuits, Fathers of the Oratory, and some other new Institutes never, or almost never say High or Solemn Masses in their churches, jubés would be quite useless for them. Thus they ordinarily do not have them. Yet their churches and chapels are not imperfect or mutilated, because they were not built to have jubés, and nothing is imperfect or mutilated unless it lacks one of its essential parts.


[1] Bk. 1. I: []

[2] Bk. 1, c. 12.

[3] Bk. 2. De Origine et Progressu Templorum, ch. 3.

[4] Bk. 1, Opusculum de Templo, ch. 17, 18.

[5] Pg. 171.

[6] Pg. 21, Euchologium.

[7] Dissert. 4 in Concil. Antioch., ch. 4, n. 5, pp. 186-187.

[8] This book was never published. It was once found in the library of the Fathers of the Oratory on Rue Saint Honoré in Paris, but it is not there now, removed for purposes I do not know.

[9] De Poenit., bk. 6, ch. 6, n. 10

[10] Notit. Concilior. 8 (Lyon, 1668).

[11] Anastasius on Sylvester.

[12] Platin. on Sixtus III.

[13] Anastasius on Sergius I.

[14] Du premier esprit de l’ordre de Cisteaux, ch. 1, sect. 2.

[15] This is wrong, or perhaps things changed later, because in fact Carthusians did have lay or converse brothers who would stay outside the rood-screen, whereas the fully professed were within. In the Charterhouse in Fréjus-Toulon the rood screen is still standing.

The Modern Origins of Liturgical Ressourcement: Pierre Lebrun’s “Literal, Historical, and Dogmatic Explanation of the Prayers and Ceremonies of the Mass” (1726)

Canticum Salomonis is pleased to introduce another long-term translation stream, this time taken from the work of the French liturgical scholar and Oratorian Father Pierre Lebrun (1661-1729).

Our 7th February post on Alexander VII’s bull Ad aures nostras introduced us to the period of the first vernacular translations of the Mass. Pierre Lebrun occupies a central place in subsequent French efforts, which largely ignored Alexander’s bull, to educate Catholics about the liturgy.

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Frontispiece of the 1843 Edition of Explication


I. The Work of Father Pierre Lebrun

Fr. Lebrun is praised by no less than Dom Guéranger, whose famously cantankerous sensibility spares some unusually choice words for this Oratorian predecessor:

(1726). Pierre Lebrun, Oratorian, whose find work on the Mass we have already cited many times, is one of the last liturgical writers truly worthy of the name that France has produced. His knowledge was equal to his orthodoxy. L’Explication littérale, historique et dogmatique des prières et cérémonies de la Messe is in four volumes in-8°, published at Paris between 1716 and 1726.

Jean LeClerq has this to say:

“The masterwork of Father Lebrun is his Explication de la Messe which appeared between 1716 and 1726. After two centuries have passed, we must admit that nothing has replaced it, despite some admirable attempts. With Lebrun it is like Jacques Goar: their works are the basis of any serious attempt to address the questions they treated. However, it would be a good thing to reprint Lebrun, taking account the best and most recent theories, new or corrected texts, and the points of detail that have been better clarified and definitively fixed. But a work of this nature would require as much erudition as modesty, which explains perhaps why no one has tried it (Advertisement in Explication de la Messe, Lex orandi 9 (Paris: Éditions du Cerf, 1949).

More recently, the Abbé Quoëx observed that as a Mass commentary, Lebrun’s Explication is a work that “remains unsurpassed and whose amplitude and complexity is well expressed by the title.”

Coming to liturgical scholarship by a curious route–first taking the part in a contemporary controversy in favor of satire–his scholarly interests became closely tied with the evolving political situation of his day. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, high churchmen and servants of the king actively cooperated in a large-scale effort to convert and catechize the Calvinists of France. As Lebrun describes in his Preface (available below), this effort included the publication of vernacular translations of the Mass Ordinary and even of full-length missals. What was once forbidden had become had now become ubiquitous:

Finally, after the editions made by order of the King for the benefit of new converts after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, such a large quantity have been printed every year, with the authority of the bishops, that it is no longer a question at present whether vernacular translations are proper and whether they ought to be read by the people. It is an established fact. We find them in everyone’s hands, and there is nothing more to be done except to give them, by means of an exact explanation, as much or more respect for it than was attempted to inspire in them by the secrecy with which it was kept from them. It is this that compelled many persons of distinction to demand with earnest the work that we here present.

If in the Middle Ages the thirst for Mass explanations had been slaked by the famous allegorical commentators, among them Honorius and Durandus, there had not yet emerged a parallel literature for the modern period. Further, in Lebrun’s eyes the great medieval allegorists, “as able as they were, were not well-versed in antiquity, and […] had not the time to do the necessary research,” or in other words, they did not base their mysticism on knowledge of Patristic literature. Therefore, a new effort was necessary,  nothing less than a comprehensive study of the liturgy and the history of its interpretation, beginning with the earliest sources:

For a long time many learned and experienced men have desired that what is mysterious should not be confused with what is not. But however edifying may be the views that are presented in order to nourish the piety of the faithful, they must cede their place to the chief ideas that have been held by the Church. Whether it was necessity, convenience, or seemliness that was the first cause of the ceremony in question, that we must say; and then rise as high as possible to discover the spiritual reasons the Church has, so to speak, superimposed upon the reason of institution. The most recent ideas that propose themselves must come last in our consideration.

The immediate provocation of the Explication was the printing of Benedictine Claude de Vert’s Explication simple, littérale et historique des cérémonies de l’Église (4 vol., Paris, 1709-1713), which purports to fill this gap. For his part, de Vert’s effort came in response to the Protestant leader Pierre Jurieu’s attack on the ceremonies of the Mass. Finding that “mystical reasons were not to his taste,” Jurieu dismissed Catholic ritual as superstitious. De Vert decided to play along. If only he could show that all Catholic ritual practice, without exception, could be explained in “simple, natural, and historical reasons,” he could satisfy Protestant doubts. Thus, like the introduction of vernacular printed Missals, and even in part the destruction of the jubés, some of the motivation for the turn toward explaining liturgical ritual in a purely historicist, rationalist vein was ecumenical. The task of finding a common ground with Protestants, recently converted en masse after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had become a crucial pastoral concern, and dispensing with mystical explanation altogether was an easy way out of the problem.

M. de Vert’s work gives us a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th century scholarship, and into the cradle of liturgical rationalism, when no less than a Benedictine monk attempts to give an entirely literal, physical explanation for the origins of liturgical prayers and ceremonies. Perhaps inspired by the success of the Cartesian project, which “penetrated into the Temple of nature” and revealed the rational structure behind the changing forms of the universe, de Vert seems to apply a Cartesian method to the piety of the Church, in which the words and ceremonies, once encumbered with fictitious mystical causes, are reduced to their true first physical causes. The words and actions of the rite are viewed as a physical system governed by the laws of physics: physical effects kept in motion by inertia.  All “imaginary” causes–allegory, mysticism, etc–are dismissed as “bad taste,” for this is “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.” The result sounds perhaps just as ingeniously imaginative and entertaining as the medieval allegorists!

M. de Vert describes this aspect of his work’s inspiration:

Having heard in passing, more than thirty years ago, from a very intelligent man and besides well-versed in antiquity, that candles were not originally used in the Church for any other reason than for illumination, the idea struck me, and set me on the track of the natural and historical meaning of the ceremonies, and I understood at that moment that all the other practices of the Church must also have had a primitive physical cause and reason for their institution. I thus set myself to investigate the causes and reasons [….] I have drawn my conclusions, formed my opinion, taken my side, and drawn up my system.

The application of this principle is thoroughgoing. Candles are used in Church because they were needed in the dark of the catacombs. Once their practical purpose had ceased, they were kept anyway out of habit. Again, the primitive purpose of incense was to dispel bad odors, and the Baptismal candle was to help the baptizandi find their way to the font! These usages were later “spiritualized,” an consequently ossified even after their physical purpose was forgotten. Again, the reason we kneel at the et incarnatus est is by the physical causation of the liturgical word. This is Lebrun:

If we genuflect at the words of the Credo: Et incarnatus est, that is because a little before we say descendit. “It is quite easy to perceive,” M. de Vert says, “that this ceremony is nothing more than the effect of the impression of the sound and the letter of the word descendit, for genuflection is a sort of descending.” And if in many churches the genuflection is maintained until the word sepultus has been said, do not think that this comes from the desire to adore through this posture of voluntary abasement the humiliations of the incarnate Word. No! It is because we are waiting for a word that tells us us rise, and this word is resurrexit, “for,” he adds in a note, “RESURGERE in its proper sense signifies to rise, to stand erect.

In the Passion reading in the Roman Rite, the faithful prostrate themselves in many places at the death of Christ. Again Lebrun:

Does the Christian people prostrate themselves on the earth in order to adore in the humblest manner possible this precious death that Jesus Christ has suffered for our sins? M. de Vert sees nothing in this ceremony but the attempt to represent a man expiring: “We lay ourselves on the ground,” he says, “and bow our heads in the manner of one expiring and giving up the soul and falling down dead. What’s more,” he adds, “in the Roman Rite a pause is observed here, as if to express, perhaps, the repose of the dead, which is to say, the state of human bodies after death.”

One could call de Vert’s scholarship a scholarship of “enlightened literary taste.” The same early modern sensibility that in philology sought to clear medieval accretions from “authentic classical texts” and in architecture replaced the colors of the Gothic with white Neo-Classical temples, here seeks to reduce the colorful pageantry of the inherited liturgical tradition to clean and quasi-scientific causes that flattered the literary and rational tastes of that generation. As such it received sharp criticism from the parti des dévots, including the bishop of Soissons, Jean-Joseph Languet de Gergy in his Du Véritable esprit de l’Église dans l’usage de ses cérémonies.

Portrait of French bishop and theologian Jean-Joseph Languet de Gergy (1677-1753)

Father Lebrun is quick to point out de Vert’s arbitrary method of procedure and its unsatisfactory results. Beginning with a materialistic a priori is not impartial research, and leads necessarily to the exclusion of the witness of the Church and her tradition, which claim symbolic reasons for many of its ritual practices. In fact, M. de Vert’s rationalism ironically falls into the same error, though on the opposite extreme, as the medieval commentators: that of ignoring the true nature of the literal sense.

The literal sense is not reducible to a physical cause. Rather it is pure and imply that which the author intended when instituting it, and in many cases this is a symbolic, mystagogical purpose:

The true literal and historical sense of a writing or a ceremony is that which the author or institutor had in mind, and it is often a figurative sense, of symbol and of mystery. If we consider the scepter of kings and the crosier of bishops and abbots in a coarse and material fashion, we might say that it is given to them for support while walking, because this is the more ordinary use of staves and because in fact in ancient times bishops and abbots availed themselves of staves in their travels. But since we are seeking the reason for the institution of the ceremony of the pastoral staff, we would distance ourselves from the true sense of the Church if we gave, as a reason of institution, the ordinary usage of support while walking; for the scepter and the crosier are given to both young and old to be used only in actions of magnificence and ceremony. The proper and historical significance of the scepter is to be the symbol of the power of the king in all his dominions, just as the pastoral staff is given by the Church to bishops and abbots to mark their authority in their diocese and in their monasteries, and because as pastors they have the crook to protect their flock and to chastise those who trouble its peace and good order. The Church herself teaches us these symbolic senses in her pontificals.

Of course, Lebrun is not unaware that certain practices or ceremonies only acquired their symbolic senses after their practical use had ceased: as in the case of the maniple. Rather, he admits a variety of causes. His response presents a balanced approach to mystagogical exegesis firmly based in the literal meaning of the text, which both approves and corrects the imaginative methods of the medieval commentators.

He sets himself to discover whether the origins are convenience, seemliness, necessity, or symbol, and admits any combination of these. Nevertheless, he is firm in his conviction that many usages have nothing but a symbolic reason for their institution:

There are some uses that have never had anything but symbolic and mystical reasons. Some persons doubt that this has been the case since their origin, but it will be easy to persuade them, if we consider the the first Christians always had in view the raising of the mind to God; that everything that passed through their hands became, so to speak, symbolic; and that, as the sacraments were instituted under the form of symbols, they were inclined always to spiritualize everything. This is easy to see in the Epistles of St. Paul, in the writings of St. Barnabas, St. Clement, St. Justine, Tertullian, Origen, etc. The ancient author of the Ecclesiastical Hierarchy writing under the name of St. Dionysius, tells us that the symbolic reasons for the ceremonies were kept in secret, and that only the heads of the Church knew them and revealed them to the people on certain occasions.

St. Paul gives nothing but mystical reasons for the practice of praying with heads uncovered which men must observe in church, and the Fathers of the Church who explain the words of St. Paul too give nothing but mystical reasons for this use. It is also for a mystical reason that throughout many centuries the newly baptized were vested in a white robe, and that Constantine, the first Christian emperor, dressed his bed and chamber in white after having received Baptism during the illness of which he died. When the first Christians turned toward the sun as they raised their prayer, it is because they regarded the orient as the figure of Jesus Christ; and when they went to pray in places that were elevated and well lit whenever that was possible, it is because the exterior light represented the light of the Holy Spirit, as Tertullian teaches us.

Contemporary Relevance

Claude de Vert’s materialist and historicist method is more than just a curious museum piece. It is one of the first major efforts in a project, which still endures in areas of the liturgical academy in modern times, that views with suspicion or even contempt the mystagogical tradition of commentary and the symbolic aspects of the liturgical rite. Modern Cartesian literalists apply de Vert’s principle, for example, to vestments: the maniple is nothing but an absurdly glorified handkerchief, and the chasuble just a Roman “business suit” that would have been worn without any mystical connotations by early Roman priests, and so forth. In this sense, Lebrun’s vigorous indictment of the thoroughgoing rationalism of these “grammarians” of his day might apply just as well to modern historical critics in every discipline of theology.

M. de Vert claims that his ideas introduce us to “the taste of learned men, who in every genre of science and literature always come back to the simple and the natural, and thus to the truth.” There is nothing more excellent than such taste, as long as it is retained within its just bounds, just as nothing is more pernicious than a taste that is ruined for not knowing how to restrain itself. We must acknowledge, to the glory and the shame of our century, that we have both conceived good taste, and so often spoiled it; that spirits otherwise capable of good things are given to deplorable excesses even while explaining the word of God. Origen and many ancient interpreters depended too much on allegory, enough to lead their so-called critics to dispense with them entirely. These latter have carried out their design so thoroughly, that it is no longer acceptable to find in Moses, the Prophets, and the other Holy Books, that which Jesus Christ revealed there to his disciples, and that which they later elaborated for the entire Church. These pretended critics are all grammarians at best, whose works are pernicious to the faithful, and useful only to good theologians to help them understand the scope of certain terms. They are strangers in the Old and New Testament, hospites Testamentorum. On the specious pretext of looking for the simple, literal, and historical sense, M. de Vert has allowed himself like them to be blinded, but also like them, he has allowed himself to be duped.

Modern Catholic scholarship often largely inherited these prejudices across a variety of disciplines. Especially under the influence of the Biblical scholars, an anti-priestly, anti-cultic, anti-mystical bias found its way into the liturgical movement, [1] and this unfortunately in the same century that witnessed ressourcement, the great recovery of the Patristic and medieval sources. The modern narrative about the allegorists is well captured by Abbé Franck Quoëx:

In the wake of A. Wilmart and liturgists such as J. A. Jungmann, P.-M. Gy, and more recently E. Mazza, critiques have been mounted against the allegorical method of commentary of which Amalarius, more than the inventor, was a sort of “high priest.” They have highlighted the arbitrary constructions and the imaginative piety of these works. They have emphasized the decisive influence of the cleric of Metz on the greater part of the expositiones missae of the Middle Ages, from the Liber de divinis officiis of Remigius of Auxerre to the fourth book of the Rationale divinorum officiorum of Durandus of Mende, and thence on the ritual elaborations of the medieval period and the understanding of the Mass in general until the Reformation and beyond.

Setting aside the question of Amalarius’s influence, real or overstated, claims like these have contributed to throw no little suspicion on the mystagogic approach to the liturgy and, in recent times, to discredit the value and the significance of medieval ritual developments that, grafted onto the ancient Gregorian ordo over the course of five centuries, have produced nothing but a “liturgy encumbered with secondary, not to say superfluous, signs.”

The work of picking up the pieces and restoring a balanced appreciation of the medieval mystagogical tradition has yet to be taken up.

One of the great misfortunes of the 20th century Liturgical Movement, as Alcuin Reid has pointed out in The Organic Development of the Liturgy, is that it did not learn from the mistakes of the early modern period. The rationalizing liturgical trends that crystallized in the Synod of Pistoia (1786) and the neo-Gallican rites was an experiment in “modernization” that was not only roundly condemned but, as we shall see, cogently addressed by faithful Catholics in the 18th century.

Fr. Lebrun’s comprehensive work can serve as a model of liturgical ressourcement that both acknowledges the capacity of liturgy to bear a plethora of symbolic meanings, and respects its historically conditioned manifestations. Its clear, concise, pastoral approach makes it a useful handbook for introducing the Catholic faithful to the Latin liturgical tradition of the West without forfeiting the great benefits of modern historical research. Finally, it is a basic introduction to liturgical sources, not only the textual but also the mystical.

LeBrun intended to write 9 volumes, but only finished three, finally published in 1726 as four volumes. It was reprinted more than a dozen times. No portrait of the author is known to the editors who reprinted the work most recently in 1949, though without editorial comment, along with a short biography.

(Translation of the Preface to follow this week……)


[1] Vatican II: Renewal within Tradition, pg. 133: “Father Bouyer’s constructive critique of the direction that liturgical theory and practice had taken during the post-Tridentine period is expressed with a typical French clarté: ‘Nothing of lasting value, then, can be achieved without a preliminary criticism of both the Baroque and the Romantic mentality, since the false notion of the nature of the liturgy has been formed by both periods.’ Today we would describe the temper of this opinion as overly influenced by a preferential option for the primitive.

Other professionals of his generation shared Father Bouyer’s evaluation of the Baroque and Romantic periods, which include the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries. So it became fashionable to criticize Dom Prosper Guéranger (1805-1875) for his restoration of ‘all the pomp characteristic of the later days of Cluny’ and to praise primitive Benedictinism instead. Saint Francis de Sales (1567-1622) was wrong to tell his beads when he presided at but did not celebrate the Mass. And so forth. Liturgists came to prefer the very remote past to the more immediate past. Modern biblical studies and historical theology, especially patristic studies, began to shape the approach that professionals took to liturgy.”

Theophilus Raynaudus’s Christianum Sacrum Acathistum (3): Section One, cont’d

At the end of the mostly facetious first section of Théophile Raynaud’s work —have we yet discovered whether the treatise is about sanitation, or preaching briefly, or something else?—in which he proffers some reasons why sitting during Mass might be considered acceptable, he makes it clear that his book is directed against sitting during Mass in particular, not against sitting in church in general. 


Likewise Torsellino [1] asserted in his Acts of St Francis Xavier that this saint prayed propped by a chair, according to the account of a priest who observed the holy man when the latter was a guest in his house. Therefore sitting is permitted as conducive to the recollection of soul proper to those attending the sacrifice, for the soul attains tranquillity through the body’s rest.

Besides, no one would be so fussy as to condemn sitting in the temple outside of the sacrifice, whether one goes thither for other divine offices—which are attended in a sevenfold cycle each day—or for private prayer—which is made more pleasing to God because of the place’s dignity, as I reveal elsewhere—or to hear a discourse on the word of God. Of course, in all these cases, it is scarcely open to doubt that there is no shame in sitting. Indeed, why would there be seats in the odea [2] of canons and religious if it were inappropriate to sit while singing praises to God? And why would it not be licit to sit while praying in the temple privately, as long as one sits reverently and modestly and the sitting does not lead to laziness or lead one to sleep; but either to alleviate weakness or to provide tranquillity to the soul, a tranquillity that fosters a sense of piety and is actually necessary? If someone were to contend that such a solace for weakness ought to be prohibited when praying in the temple, he would equally have to prohibit the use of prie-dieux, which those who pray lean upon. And yet it is a completely legitimate custom, and verily one not rejected by any of the wise, that when not only pontiffs and kings, but also minor prelates and princes go into temples, they are provided with a draped faldstool, in which they may kneel and pour forth their prayer.

david roberts - interieur de saint pierre rome - government art collection - 1853-1854.jpg
The interior of the basilica of St Peter’s in Rome, by David Roberts

Gone indeed is that simplicity of yore, whence the kings of Syria (as told in the the story of how Naaman pleaded and was cured of leprosy), when they entered the temple to adore their god Remmon, used to lean upon the hand of some nobleman, such as Namaan, who asked the prophet [Eliseus] whether he might offer this service (merely as a civil duty) to his king, bending his knees with him in the fashion of a worshipper. We likewise read (4 Kings 7) that Joras rendered this same service to the king. But now, and for a long time already, the dignity of either clerical or lay magnates demands that they be supported not by the hand or shoulder of a servant, minister, or obsequious nobleman, but by a covered kneeler. Doing otherwise would be considered quite a violation of decorum. But God, who according to the Pythagoreans is propriety itself, accepts that decorum be kept in this regard, and does not charge with irreverence those who protect what is proper to their dignity in the temple and indeed wheresoever else.


Finally, it cannot be doubted that those assisting at a sermon on the word of God may sit without incurring any fault. That is the use of the universal Church, and to disapprove of it is most insolent folly, as St Augustine declares. Granted that formerly the opposite use was in force in certain places, but custom has mitigated this rigour. And in fact a certain necessity led to this leniency, for who would wish to force the people to hear a sermon standing up rather than sitting, since they are so often protracted beyond due measure? For many preachers ignore the advice of St Francis to his disciples not to speak over an hour to the people, and exhaust their listeners through two hours or even more. For these people to stand for so long would be an unbearable burden and discourage them from listening to sermons.

Granted, sitting may have been deemed less necessary or even inappropriate when listening to the word of God in a time when preachers were very brief. All Fathers were brief, as is proved by the content of their sermons, for which a quarter of an hour or a half hour at most suffices to recite them. They spoke no more than that, following what is written down, putting aside the extra fringes of amplification which some time ago common practice introduced. Listening to sermons eight or ten times more lengthy than were the ancient discourses of Leo the Great, Gregory, and Ambrose, is most tiresome to listeners without the benefit of a seat, and in that sense sitting is rightly not considered objectionable when listening to the word of God in the temple.


[1] Orazio Torsellino (1545-1599, Latinized as Horatius Tursellinus) was a Jesuit historian.

[2] Odeum: in ancient Greece and Rome, a hall or theatre for musical performances. He means the choir stalls here. Another example of Raynaud’s archaizing and at times over-erudite style.