Friday, February 28, 2020

The Lent We Have Lost: Those "Ancient Masses"

Pope Saint Pius X's early 20th-century reforms of the Divine Office and (much less radical, but still substantive) reforms of the Missal mattered - not, obviously, to each individual (in many cases unlikely even to be aware of them) but to the Church collectively. In his Apostolic Constitution Divino Afflato (November 1, 1911) Pope Saint Pius X radically reformed the Divine Office and, as part of that larger impulse of liturgical revitalization, directed ut insacra Liturgia Missae antiquissimae de Dominicis infra annum et de Feriis, praesertim quadragesimalibus, locum suum recuperarent ("that in the sacred liturgy those most ancient Masses of the Sundays during the year and of the weekdays, especially those of Lent, recover their rightful place.")

Admittedly, only a small minority attend daily Mass, although more do so during Lent than at any other time of the year, but their Lenten experience (and through them that of the wider Church) has long been enriched by the Church's use of distinctly ancient Lenten liturgical formularies. When I was growing up, daily Mass during Lent was very much encouraged  in our parochial school ghetto environment, and many of us did so. And, with the assistance of  translations in the then very popular Missals made for laypeople, we were able to enter into the intended spirit of the Church's ancient Lenten observances. With the liturgy now celebrated in the vernacular, that ancient experience of Lent logically should be even more accessible - except that Pius X's aspiration that those most ancient Masses especially those of Lent recover their rightful place has since been undone.

In the Roman Rite, the traditional Lent of the 2nd millennium of the church's history began with Ash Wednesday and the three following days, all relatively late additions to the Lenten liturgy, which introduced the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving and the proper spirit in which to practice them. Ash Wednesday in particular recalled the largely long forgotten focus of the Lenten season on the reconciliation of penitents, signifying a kind of contemporary identification with and imitation of the experience of becoming a penitent. The first and second weeks, beginning with the recollection of Christ's temptation in the desert on the First Sunday, focused heavily on fasting and penitence. These themes got amplified in the third and fourth weeks with their greater emphasis on the preparation and purification of catechumens for baptism. Although the ancient catechumenate was also by then largely long forgotten, the Lenten liturgy kept its memory alive and encouraged contemporary Catholics to identify with that foundational experience of conversion in their own penitential journey, Then in the last two weeks the focus shifted to the contemplation of Christ's passion and death. Although a distinctive semi-season of its own, those two weeks of Passion Time tended to be anticipated already at Lent's beginning in non-liturgical popular devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, which (perhaps as a compensation for the disappearance of the catechumenate and the order of penitents) could give all of Lent an alternative Passion-oriented element.

A full appreciation of what Saint Pius X called those most ancient Masses of the traditional Lenten season is inseparable from the Roman stational liturgies. In the early Church and even up to the papacy's abandonment of Rome in the Avignon period, the people assembled on the greater Sundays and feasts of the ancient Roman calendar at a designated "stational" church where the Pope celebrated the Mass. During Lent this practice eventually became a daily one. So, in addition to the great papal Basilicas and other more important churches, the Lenten stations featured many of the smaller and more obscure Roman churches. Until 1970, each Lenten Mass reflected this connection with its stational church. For example, on the Thursday of the 3rd week the station was at Saints Cosmas and Damian. They were physicians, and the Gospel of the Mass was Luke 4:38-44, which highlighted Jesus' healing ministry. On the Saturday of that week the station was at Santa Susanna. So the Old Testament reading at Mass was Daniel's account of Susanna's more famous Old Testament namesake. Knowing the reason why readings had been assigned to each day did not necessarily matter to everybody, but for those who took note it connected them in yet one more tangibly helpful way to our ancestors in the faith and to the witness of so many of our obscure but important martyrs, whose memory may be more rather than less relevant for the Church's future.

Eight years ago, I got to spend part of Lent in Rome and so had the privilege of joining many other English-speakers in the early morning tradition of Mass at the Roman stational churches (organized by the students at the North American College), an experience I wish everyone could have and one certainly not to be forgotten. 

As I wrote at the time: There is something so very special about going to these venerable Roman churches in the early pre-dawn darkness, walking literally in the steps of centuries of Christians who have visited those same churches on those same days, celebrating Mass surrounded by the relics and memories of martyrs, then emerging in the early morning light to continue one’s daily work. It is a true experience of the communion of saints! As the Italian Humanist Petrarch (1304-1374), describing his experience as a pilgrim in Rome in the Holy Year 1350, wrote: “How inspiring for a Christian to journey to that city which is like a heaven on earth, sanctified by the remains of martyrs beyond number, drenched in the precious blood of those early witnesses to the Truth.”

While not everyone could spend Lent in Rome, that experience was once shared (in what we would nowadays call a virtual way) with everyone who was disposed to it through the experience of daily Mass during Lent.

Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me and with no obvious benefit to anyone that I am aware of, the contemporary Roman liturgy has largely reorganized the lenten liturgies, separating them from their ancient themes and from the memory of their ancient locations. So, for example, while Daniel's story of Susanna still gets read in Lent, it is read on a day other than the day when Santa Susanna is the stational church!

As with fasting, there is if anything even less likelihood of Pius X's aspiration that those most ancient Masses especially those of Lent recover their rightful place happening again in my lifetime. So it is even more truly a case of "The Lent We have Lost."

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