The following story from www.chiesa.com will strike many bells for those of us who have being following the liturgical follies of the Roman Curia. It is particularly relevant to the new translation of the Roman Missal into English.
ROME, February 1, 2010 – Since early this year, the Vatican congregation for divine worship has had a burning issue to resolve. At the risk of having to contradict itself.
The issue concerns the new lectionary for the Mass of the Ambrosian rite, the rite that is used in the archdiocese of Milan and in some areas of the neighboring dioceses of Bergamo, Novara, Lodi, and Lugano, the last of these being in Italian-speaking Switzerland, for a total of almost 5 million faithful.
The case has been assigned to the Vatican congregation by a cardinal who is highly competent in the matter: Giacomo Biffi (in the photo), born and raised in Milan, a theologian and eminent scholar of Saint Ambrose and of the rite named after him. In the 1970's, he was co-author of a first edition of the Ambrosian lectionary, updated according to the guidelines of Vatican Council II.
This valued first edition, in use in Milan beginning in 1976, was followed by a second in 2008, produced by the local 'congregation of the Ambrosian rite' and presented with great fanfare as 'definitive' by Cardinal Dionigi Tettamanzi, the current archbishop of Milan and therefore 'head of the rite.'
As is required, before it went into effect this second edition of the Ambrosian lectionary had to pass scrutiny by the Vatican congregation for divine worship, which gave it group approval unusually quickly.
The prefect of the Vatican congregation was Cardinal Francis Arinze, now retired, and the secretary was Archbishop Albert Malcolm Ranjith Patabendige Don, now at the head of the diocese of Colombo in Sri Lanka.
But when Cardinal Biffi – who lives in Bologna, where he was archbishop from 1984 to 2003 – saw this new lectionary enter into use in his Milan, he was stunned.
And he fired off this curt judgment, dripping with pungent sarcasm, which he added to the latest reprinting of his autobiography:
'It's got everything: empty and sometimes misleading archaisms, adventurous ceremonial innovations, unfounded and mistaken theological perspectives, wrongheaded pastoral proposals, and even a few strange linguistic gaffes.
'It is a far-reaching endeavor, unquestionably audacious and ambitious: more audacious than wise, more ambitious than enlightened.
'It will live long in the appalled memory of our Church.'
But Biffi didn't stop there. Last December he again took pen and paper and summarized in eight chapters his 'critical observations on the new Ambrosian lectionary,' and sent the whole thing to the Vatican congregation for divine worship.
In the meantime, the leadership of the congregation had changed, with the new prefect Cardinal Antonio Cañizares Llovera and new secretary Archbishop Joseph Augustine Di Noia.
The subtitles that follow are the ones that Biffi used to introduce each of his eight critical observations.
1. THE 'DERAILMENT'
The first criticism is of a general nature. Logic required, Biffi writes, that the new lectionary should have been produced according to the 'general norms for the organization of the liturgical year' of the missal in force.
But no. These norms were ignored. The new lectionary 'goes off the rails' and strikes out on its own, as if it aimed at starting, 'on the sly,' a general liturgical reform according to its own taste.
2. ABOUT SAINT MARTIN
For starters, the new Ambrosian lectionary gives a second name to Advent: 'Lent of Saint Martin.'
Biffi objects that this is an 'empty and misleading archaism.' Useless because the name has gone unused for at least a thousand years, and misleading because it leads to confusing Advent, which is a 'time of joyful expectation,' with Lent, which has a completely different meaning, as well as with a saint who has nothing to do with it.
Moreover, the new lectionary puts the beginning of Advent on the first Sunday after November 11 (instead of after the 12th, as in the previous edition), with the result that it can sometimes happen that there are seven Sundays before Christmas, instead of six.
The six Sundays of Advent are a distinctive feature of the Ambrosian rite and of various Eastern rites, compared to the Roman rite, which has four. So how do they deal with the seventh, the creators of the new lectionary?
'They could think of nothing better,' Biffi writes, 'than to invent a 'pre-Christmas Sunday not of Advent', which no one had ever heard of before, in part because it seems like a contradictory concept: 'pre-Christmas' cannot be anything but 'preparation for Christmas', and a Sunday of preparation for Christmas is, in essence, a Sunday of Advent.'
3. A DEFECTIVE THEOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE
The new lectionary divides the liturgical year into three seasons: of Christmas, of Easter, and of Pentecost.
Biffi objects that the Church has never considered Pentecost a 'separate mystery,' but the last day, the fiftieth, of the Easter season, which extends to seven weeks.
So the Roman liturgy is right to call the following Sundays not 'Sundays after Pentecost,' but simply 'Sundays of ordinary time' or 'per annum.' And the previous Ambrosian lectionary did the same.
The new lectionary, instead, by restoring the expression 'Sundays after Pentecost,' 'demonstrates in this way a poor understanding of liturgical theology.'
4. ARCHAISMS RESTORED
But that isn't all. After fourteen Sundays called 'after Pentecost,' the new lectionary continues with other curious terms fished from the past. In order: a Sunday 'before the Martyrdom of John the Baptist' (August 29), seven Sundays 'after the Martyrdom of John the Baptist,' and three Sundays 'after the Dedication of the Cathedral' (which falls in the third week of October).
In the past, these names were simply calendar designations. The new lectionary, however, characterizes the Sundays before and after the feast of Saint John with a special cycle of biblical readings. This produces, Biffi writes, 'a jumbled system without any pastoral advantage.'
5. MASSES WITH TWO GOSPEL READINGS
There is another innovation that Biffi calls 'the most adventurous.' With the idea that the Mass is a mysterious evocation of the resurrection of Jesus, the new lectionary introduces into the Masses for Sunday that are celebrated on Saturday evening – and only into these – the reading of a passage of the Gospel concerning the resurrection, in addition to the normal reading of the Gospel of the day.
'In this way in Milan, the only example of its kind in all of Christianity, one can find Eucharistic celebrations with two different pages of the Gospel.'
The extra gospel passage is read at the beginning of the Mass, before the Gloria. 'And it does not,' Biffi comments, 'seem like such a bright idea, esthetically and pedagogically.'
6. AN INCREDIBLE ABERRATION
Another point on which the new Ambrosian lectionary acts on its own initiative concerns the feasts of the Ascension and of Corpus Domini.
According to ancient tradition, these fall on a Thursday. But in 1977, when the Italian government abolished them as civil holidays, the bishops' conference ordered that the celebration of Ascension and Corpus Domini be transferred to the following Sunday. This established the 'general norms' of the Roman missal and of the Ambrosian missal currently in force.
But the new Ambrosian lectionary 'recklessly infringes the norms,' Biffi writes. It moves Ascension and Corpus Domini back to Thursday. And it allows only that 'in one or more Masses' on the following Sunday, the priests, if they want to do so 'for pastoral reasons,' may repeat the Mass celebrated three days earlier.
'We realize once again that irrational attachment to archaisms that have lost any relevance today prevents sufficient attention to ecclesial life and to the promptings of basic common sense.
'I also have some doubts that such a adventurous initiative has canonical legitimacy. It would be helpful for the competent organs of the Holy See to clarify this question.'
7. THE SELECTION OF READINGS
In the selection of readings as well, the new Ambrosian lectionary departs from the organization of the Roman lectionary and of its own previous edition.
One of the novelties is the frequent recourse to 'lectio continua': for example, the complete and continued reading of the first, and difficult, eighteen chapters of the prophet Ezekiel during the first four four weeks of Advent.
Biffi objects that the 'lectio continua' can work well in the monasteries, but not for the ordinary faithful, to whom the Church has always preferred to offer more simple and understandable texts, 'religiously more useful and less problematic.'
8. LINGUISTIC GAFFES
Finally, Biffi calls attention to two other bright ideas of the new lectionary.
The first is in the title of the readings. While in the Roman lectionary and in the previous Ambrosian lectionary, it says, for example, 'From the Gospel according to Luke,' to convey that this is a passage taken 'from' this Gospel, the new Ambrosian lectionary says, 'A reading of the Gospel according to Luke.'
With this, the new lectionary, 'infatuated with archaism,' reproduces the Latin formula that says, 'Lectio sancti evangelii secundum Lucam.' But in this way, Biffi comments, it runs into a serious inconvenience: 'to a modern ear, the expression seems to indicate a complete reading, while it is only a passage.'
The second bright idea is in the formula that is often used at the beginning of biblical passages: 'At that time...'
While in the Roman lectionary and in the previous Ambrosian lectionary, this formula is directly connected with the reading: 'At that time, the Lord Jesus entered the temple...' in the new Ambrosian lectionary, the formula is interrupted with a period: 'At that time. The Lord Jesus entered the temple...'
'I don't suppose that there is any Italian literary production in which it is possible to run across a temporal expression that is self-contained, constructed absolutely, without any connection to the rest of the passage. We would like to know on the basis of what reasoning the decision was reached to enrich our beautiful language with this bright idea.'
At the Vatican, the congregation for divine worship has taken Biffi's critical observations into examination, and will soon return to examining them.
But the embarrassment is evident. If it agreed with even one of Biffi's observations, and required corrections for the new Ambrosian lectionary, the congregation would refute itself, for having previously approved the same lectionary in all of its parts.