Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A New Face on Marian Feasts

Minor and major Marian feasts proliferated after the issuance of the Tridentine Missal under Saint Pius V. The Dominican friar who became Roman Pontiff was himself a part of that expansion, publishing Quo primum tempore and his edition of the Missale Romanum in 1570 and then adding the Feast of Our Lady of Victory the very next year to commemorate the Blessed Virgin's intercession on behalf of the Christian navy at Lepanto.

Pius V's Missal and Breviary follow a very sleek, elegant version of the Roman kalendar. Did he go a step too far in stripping out medieval feasts like those of Ss. Joachim and Anne? Perhaps, but his kalendar does maintain an elegant balance of the temporal, the ferial, the Dominical, the penitential, and the festive. There is never too much or too little of anything. His kalendar retained the two major Marian feasts of the day (Annunciation and Assumption) as well as a handful of Christologically important, albeit less popular feasts (Visitation, Conception, and Nativity of the Blessed Virgin). Additionally, there were two feasts commemorating Marian miracles, first Our Lady of the Snows and a year later Our Lady of Victory (the Rosary).

Consider that after these feasts, seven days plus an additional seven for the octave of the Nativity of the Virgin, took up a fraction of the entire year and yet each of them possessed a Double feast, substantial enough to supersede the Sundays per annum on which they fell, all except Annunciation and the Conception of Our Lady, since in traditional rubrics no day may supersede an Advent or Lenten Sunday.

What followed after Pius V was a long flourishing of new Marian titles, feasts, and devotions. Among them:

  • Our Lady of Lourdes
  • Our Lady of Mount Carmel
  • Our Lady of Ransom
  • Immaculate Heart of Mary
  • Our Lady of Sorrows (September)
  • Our Lady of Sorrows (Passiontide)
  • Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen
  • Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary
Almost all of these new feasts followed the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary in both the Mass and Office, albeit with some exceptions in the orations and concessions granted to religious orders. What is strange is not the character of the new feasts, but the new face given to the older ones.

Commentary has been made on this blog of Pius XII's mutilation of some parts of the Office and of the entire Mass for the Assumption of Our Lady. Papa Pacelli discarded the entire Gaudeamus omnes Mass, replete with one of the most beautiful collects in the Roman Missal, in favor of something he had a commission create after he confirmed the teaching of the Assumption by solemn proclamation. Yes, it has a predictable Gospel and an insipid Introit melody, but there is more to Pius XII's Assumption feast, but to look at it we must first look back a century earlier.

In 1854 Pius IX, following consultation with all bishops of the Church (one of the last pontiffs so to do), taught "that the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin."

The Mass of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin, called the Immaculate Conception before the Dominican Pope Saint Pius V, was restored to its pre-Tridentine title. The Mass itself, formerly the exact same formulary as that of the the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin only with "conception" swapped for "birthday" in the collect, was revised into the current Gaudens gaudebo Mass. The Office underwent a more modest change, retaining the psalms and hymns from the Common of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but with a notable change to the lessons. 

Traditionally, Marian feasts read from the Wisdom literature at Mattins, either Sirach, the Canticle of Canticles, or the Book of Wisdom. The revision introduced a then-novelty by reading Genesis and a Papal Bull.

The first nocturne of the Immaculate Conception reads Genesis chapter 3, recounting the Fall of Man and God's foreboding to the Serpent "I shall put enmity between you and the Woman, and her seed and yours. She shall crush your head and you shall lurk under her heel." Indeed, given the versicle at first Vespers and Lauds (v. Immaculata Conceptio est hodie Sanctae Mariae Virginis r. Quae serpentis caput virgineo pede contrivit), one might be inclined to believe Genesis was chosen simply to arrive at that last verse. 

While there is nothing inherently wrong with reading Genesis on a Marian feast and drawing to the faithful's attention the typology of between Eve and Our Lady, it is a marked departure from the Wisdom literature wherein the Blessed Virgin is said to be considered part of God's plan from the beginning and one who rests in His dwelling place. The luscious Mattins for the Assumption begin with sensual undertones ("thy breasts are sweeter than wine"), comparing the Virgin's intimacy with God to that of a man and woman in the act. In this Genesis reading, without the broader context provided by the older liturgical texts, Our Lady almost seems a standalone figure, a tool of God much like a prophet or soldier crushing evil on her own accord rather than due to her maternal bond to the Godhead.

The second nocturne of the Immaculate Conception introduces another peculiarity at the time, namely the reading of papal documents as liturgical texts. The sermons of Ss. Leo and Gregory the Great figure prominently in the Mattins lessons throughout the year, but they are mainly in the liturgy for their exegesis on the Gospels of the day and the memorable sanctity of the men themselves rather than because they were popes of Rome. Pius IX's declaration of the dogma in the Vatican basilica forms the sixth lesson in the Mattins of the feast. It reads much like the hagiographies of the sanctoral feasts, recounting the events in a praiseworthy and straightforward manner. 

Pius IX also turned the Immaculate Conception into an octave. Whereas Genesis was read at Mattins of the feast day itself, the occurring Scripture is read instead throughout the octave. However, the second nocturne is occupied with excerpts of Ineffabilis Deus. Readers with more resources are open to correct me, but this appears to be the first time papal documents were read as liturgical, prayerful texts simply because they came from the Roman Pontiff. The texts allude to the consultation of the bishops, the preface of the Mass of the day, the Roman Church's unique devotion to Our Lady, the the Pontiffs' efforts to guard the Virgin's reputation from the assaults of heretics. It is stuff worth reading, but only a Marian feast would one not prefer to read about Mary?

In a case of strange bed fellows—Pius IX a liberal turned arch-reactionary and Pius XII an outward conservative with a liberal demeanor—Papa Pacelli repeated many of his predecessor's steps in re-crafting the Office of a feast, in this case that of the Assumption. The first nocturne of the older feast, again, read the exotic words from Wisdom literature and spoke of Our Lady's intimacy with God. The second nocturne, from Saint Athanasius in the Tridentine books and Saint John Damascene in post-Tridentine editions, recounts the handing down of the tradition of the Assumption and what exactly transpired with the Apostles, the singing of the angels, and the finding of Our Lady's belt. 

"They cut me off!"
Pius XII once again removed the Wisdom texts and substituted Genesis, although unlike Pius IX he only used the snippet with the familiar "I will put enmity between you and the Woman" rather than the entire thing. Awkwardly, the text then switches the passage about the General Resurrection from Corinthians read at Requiem Masses.

Two of the three texts from Saint John of Damascus remain in the second nocturne, but the third lesson is excised in favor of a description of the events surrounding Pius XII's dogmatic definition of an already clear teaching. Pius XII eliminated the octave of the Assumption, along with that of the Immaculate Conception and most others in the Roman kalendar, four years later, meaning the rich texts of Saint John describing the tradition of the Assumption and the actual events themselves, read later in the octave, never appear. Whereas in 1949 a priest would in fact read about the entire event of the Assumption, a priest in 1959 could go the entire liturgical year and never encounter a description of the Assumption, just Pius XII's word that it happened. In liturgically solemnizing the doctrine he eliminated the liturgical evidence for it, contrary to Pius IX who at least expanded the liturgical tradition around the Immaculate Conception.

Pius IX's changes to the Office are noticeable, but hardly jarring. They did set a precedent followed a century later by another Pius. In both cases texts from Genesis are adapted to the feast giving the Blessed Virgin a character unique from the texts previously read on those days and still read on other Marian days. The result is an aesthetic not necessarily at odds with a traditional of Mary, but distinct from the received liturgical outlook.


  1. What is the historical context of the proclamation of the dogma of the IC? Correct me if I'm wrong but I thought dogmas were only defined when dealing with heresies. Was there any heresy going on at the time that merited proclaiming this dogma?

    1. It was a medieval controversy which had been generally settled, but not officially accepted. The Dominicans and others debated the matter due to the misunderstanding of conception as something distinct from animation (that the soul and movement of the body are later than its physical inception). Scotistic thinkers, Eastern Scholastics and others favored the immaculate *conception* and so did Alexander VI, who called thinking over wise "impious", but no official condemnation came out against the contrary opinion. Indeed, one could reasonably read S Pius V's rebranding of December 8 as an expression of his Dominican roots.

      The Reformation happened and Mariology took a backseat for quite a while as theologians defended the Sacraments, traditional teachings on grace and salvation, and other disputed matters. In the 19th century a contingent of bishops asked Pope Gregory XVI to settle the issue officially as a matter of Church teaching, but the pope was disinclined which reflects the generally unassuming approach he took to Church government. Pius IX took up the issue again and wrote the the bishops of the world to re-consult their opinions before proclaiming it a dogma of the faith. I think in its time it was the extra jewel in Our Lady's crown that Pulex alludes to below.

  2. The papal texts, so far I remember, do not mention any particular heresy. The purpose of the definition was to honor Our Lady (to put, so to say, another jewel into her crown), to boost popular devotion, and to generally/generically counteract the evil tendencies of modern times.

    1. But as they say(at least when it comes to revising Liturgical Texts);The road to Gehenna is paved with Good Intentions.