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A History Of The Mass And Its Ceremonies In The Eastern And Western Church -Rev John O'Brien A.M.

On particular occasions of the year there are added immediately after the Gradual certain rhythmical pieces of composition called by the several names of Proses, Jubilations, and Sequences. They are denominated Proses because, though written like verse, yet they are destitute of the qualifications that are looked for in regular metrical compositions, for they are formed more with a view to accent than quantity—a very striking characteristic of the poetry of the early ages of the Christian Church. The name Jubilations was given them from their having been for the most part employed on occasions of great solemnity and rejoicing; and that of Sequences, or Sequels, from their following the Alleluia (Bona, p. 326). Formerly it was customary to prolong the singing after the last note of the Alleluia for quite a considerable time, without using any words whatever, but merely the notes themselves. This was what received the name of the Pneuma, or breathing; and, strictly speaking, it was the origin of what we now call Jubilations or Sequences (ibid.)

For a considerable time every Sunday in the year, except those of the penitential season, had a Sequence of its own, as may be seen from any ancient missal, and the rite observed at Lyons keeps up this custom yet. But as a great deal of abuse crept in on account of having to use such a multiplicity of Sequences, and as many were carelessly written, the Church thought it well to subject the entire number to a rigid examination, and retain only those which were remarkable for their rare excellence. The principal step in this matter was first taken by the Council of Cologne, held in A.D. 1536, and its measures were seconded by that of Rheims in 1564; so that of the entire number which obtained in the Church up to these dates five only were deemed worthy of a place in the Mass, viz.: 1, the “Victimæ Paschali,” proper to Easter; 2, the “Veni Sancte Spiritus,” proper to Pentecost; 3, the “Lauda Sion,” proper to Corpus Christi; 4, the “Stabat Mater,” proper to the Feast of the Seven Dolors of B.V.M.; 5, the “Dies Iræ,” proper to Masses for the dead. In addition to these it may be well to add that which the Friars Minor were allowed to retain on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, the first lines of which begin thus (Gavantus, p. 355):

Lauda, Sion, Saivatoris

Jesu Nomen et Amoris.”

Authors of the Sequences.—Much variety of opinion exists regarding the authors of these Sequences, but as we are unable to settle the question, we shall simply name those to whom they have been attributed from time to time.

The first, or the “Victimæ Paschali,” is, we believe, by the vast majority of critics accredited to a monk, Notker by name, of the celebrated monastery of St. Gall, in Switzerland, who flourished in the ninth century, and attained to much renown by his talent for writing sacred poetry. According to some, he is said to have been the first who caused this species of composition to be introduced into the Mass; and, if we are to believe Durandus, he was encouraged in this by Pope Nicholas the Great (858–867). Others ascribe its introduction to Alcuin, the preceptor of Charlemagne. The “Victimæ Paschali” is also sometimes attributed to Robert, King of the Franks.

Veni, Sancte Spiritus.”—This beautiful hymn is generally accredited to the Blessed Hermann, usually styled Contractus, or the Cripple, from the deformity of his limbs. As the early history of this remarkable man is very interesting, we presume that the reader will not think it amiss if we give a brief sketch of it, as it bears much upon our subject: “Hermannus Contractus, the son of Count Weringen, in Livonia, was, at the age of fourteen, sent to the monastery of St. Gall to be educated. He was lame and contracted in body, and made little progress in learning on account of his slowness of mind. Hilperic, his master, seeing how bitterly he bewailed his misfortunes, pitied him, and advised him to apply himself to prayer, and to implore the assistance of the Immaculate Virgin, Mother of God. Hermannus obeyed his master, and about two years after thought he saw the holy Virgin one night whilst he was asleep, and that she thus addressed him: ‘O good child! I have heard your prayers, and at your request have come to assist you. Now, therefore, choose whichever of these two things you please, and you shall certainly obtain it: either to have your body cured, or to become master of all the science you desire.’ Hermannus did not hesitate to prefer the gifts of the mind to those of the body, and such from this period was his progress in human and divine science that he was esteemed the most learned of his contemporaries. He excelled them all in philosophy, rhetoric, astronomy, poetry, music, and theology; composed books upon geometry, music, and astronomy, the eclipses of the sun and moon, the astrolabe, the quadrant, the horologue, and quadrature of the circle; wrote commentaries on Aristotle and Cicero; translated some Greek and Arabic works into Latin; composed a chronicle from the creation of the world to the year 1052, a treatise on physiognomy, and several hymns, amongst-which the ‘Salve Regina,’ ‘Alma Redemptoris,’ and ‘Veni, Sancte Spiritus’ are enumerated. He died in 1054, aged forty-one years” (Dublin Review, vol. xxx., June, 1851; Gavantus, ii. p. 166). The “Veni, Sancte Spiritus” is also ascribed to Pope Innocent III., to St. Bonaventure, and to Robert, King of the Franks.

Lauda Sion.”—All are unanimous in ascribing this to the “Angelic Doctor,” St. Thomas Aquinas, who, at the request of Pope Urban IV., composed it for the solemnity of Corpus Christi, of which we have already spoken at length.

Stabat Mater.”—A good deal of dispute has arisen regarding the author of this sublime pro0duction, some ascribing it to Pope Innocent III., some to Jacoponi (1306)—sometimes called Jacobus de Benedictis, a Franciscan monk—and others to St. Bonaventure. We follow the majority, however, in ascribing it to Pope Innocent III. To our mind Jacoponi’s claims to this hymn are not very strong; and if there were no other reason to justify our opinion but that founded on his hymn for Christmas morning, beginning with

Stabat Mater speciosa

Juxta fænum gaudiosa

Dum jacebat parvulus,”

we think that would be sufficient.

Dies Iræ”—The authorship of the “Dies Iræ” seems the most difficult to settle. This much, however, is certain: that he who has the strongest claims to it is Latino Orsini, generally styled Frangipani, whom his maternal uncle, Pope Nicholas III. (Gaetano Orsini), raised to the cardinalate in 1278. He was more generally known by the name of Cardinal Malabranca, and was at first a member of the Order of St. Dominic (see Dublin Review, vol. xx., 1846; Gavantus, Thesaur. Sacr. Rit., p. 490).

As this sacred hymn is conceded to be one of the grandest that has ever been written, it is but natural to expect that the number of authors claiming it would be very large. Some even have attributed it to Pope Gregory the Great, who lived as far back as the year 604. St. Bernard, too, is mentioned in connection with it, and so are several others; but as it is hardly necessary to mention all, we shall only say that, after Cardinal Orsini, the claims to it on the part of Thomas de Celano, of the Order of Franciscans Minor, are the greatest. There is very little reason for attributing it to Father Humbert, the fifth general of the Dominicans, in 1273; and hardly any at all for accrediting it to Augustinus de Biella, of the Order of Augustinian Eremites. A very widely circulated opinion is that the “Dies Iræ” as it stands now is but an improved form of a Sequence which was long in use before the age of any of those authors whom we have cited. Gavantus gives us, at page 490 of his Thesaurus of Sacred Rites, a few stanzas of this ancient Sequence, which we deem well to place before the reader:

Cum recordor moriturus,

Quid post mortem sim futurus

Terror terret me venturus,

Quem expecto non securus:

Terret dies me terroris.

Dies iræ, ac furoris,

Dies luctus, ac mæroris,

Dies ultrix peccatoris,

Dies iræ, dies illa,” etc., etc.

As late as 1576 the “Dies Iræ” was forbidden to be said by the Dominicans of Salamanca, in Spain. Maldonatus, also, the great Jesuit commentator, objected to its use in Masses for the dead, for the reason that a composition of that kind was unsuited to mournful occasions. Others, too, made similar complaints against it. To repeat what learned critics of every denomination under heaven have said in praise of this marvellous hymn would indeed be a difficult task. One of its greatest encomiums is that there is hardly a language in Europe into which it has not been translated; it has even found its way into Greek and Hebrew—into the former through an English missionary of Syria named Hildner, and into the latter by Splieth, a celebrated Orientalist. Mozart avowed his extreme admiration of it, and so did Dr. Johnson, Sir Walter Scott, and Jeremy Taylor, besides hosts of others. The encomium passed upon it by Schaff is thus given in his own words: “This marvellous hymn is the acknowledged masterpiece of Latin poetry and the most sublime of all uninspired hymns. The secret of its irresistible power lies in the awful grandeur of the theme, the intense earnestness and pathos of the poet, the simple majesty and solemn music of its language, the stately metre, the triple rhyme, and the vocal assonances, chosen in striking adaptation—all combining to produce an overwhelming effect, as if we heard the final crash of the universe, the commotion of the opening graves, the trumpet of the archangel summoning the quick and the dead, and saw the King of ‘tremendous majesty’ seated on the throne of justice and mercy, and ready to dispense everlasting life or everlasting woe” (see Latin Hymns, vol. i. p. 292, by Professor March, of Lafayette College, Pa.) The music of this hymn formed the chief part of the fame of Mozart; and it is said, and not without reason, that it contributed in no small degree to hasten his death, for so excited did he become over its awe-enkindling sentiments while writing his celebrated “Mass of Requiem” that a sort of minor paralysis seized his whole frame, so that he was heard to say: “I am certain that I am writing this Requiem for myself. It will be my funeral service.” He never lived to finish it; the credit of having done that belongs to Sussmayer, a man of great musical attainments, and a most intimate friend of the Mozart family (Dublin Review, vol. i., May, 1836).

The allusion to the sibyl in the third line of the first stanza has given rise to a good deal of anxious enquiry; and so very strange did it sound to French ears at its introduction into the sacred hymnology of the Church that the Parisian rituals substituted in its place the line “Crucis expandens vexilla.” The difficulty, however, is easily overcome if we bear in mind that many of the early Fathers held that Almighty God made use of these sibyls to promulgate his truths in just the same way as he did of Balaam of old, and many others like him. The great St. Augustine, has written much on this subject in his City of God; and the reader may form some idea of the estimation in which these sibyls were held when he is told that the world-renowned Michael Angelo made them the subject of one of his greatest paintings. In the Sistine Chapel at Rome may yet be seen his celebrated delineation of both the sibyl of Erythrea and that of Delphi. In the opinion of the ablest critics it was the first-mentioned, or the Erythrean sibyl, that uttered the celebrated prediction about the advent of our Divine Lord, and his final coming at the last day to judge the living and the dead. This prediction, it is said, was given in verse, and written as an acrostic on one of the ancient designations of our Divine Lord in Greek—viz., ἰχθύς, ichthus, a fish, referring to our spiritual regeneration through the efficacy of the saving waters of holy Baptism established by our Saviour for our sakes. The letters of this word when taken separately form the initials of the sacred name and official character of our Divine Lord, thus: “Ι” stands for Jesus; “Χ” for Christ; “Θ” for Theos, or God; “Υ” for Υἱός, or Son; and “Σ” for σωτήρ, or Saviour—that is, “Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Saviour.” The part of the sibyl’s response which referred particularly to the Day of Judgment was written on the letters of Soter, or Saviour. It is given as follows in the translation of the City of God of St. Augustine (edited by Clarke, of Edinburgh, 1871):

Sounding, the archangel’s trumpet shall peal down from heaven

Over the wicked who groan in their guilt and their manifold sorrows;

Trembling, the earth shall be opened, revealing chaos and hell.

Every king before God shall stand on that day to be judged;

Rivers of fire and of brimstone shall fall from the heavens.”

There are in all twenty-seven lines.

The “Stabat Mater,” too, deserves more than a mere passing notice, for, in the estimation of able critics, it is one of the most pathetic hymns ever written. Hogarth called it “a divine emanation of an afflicted and purified spirit,” and the encomiums lavished upon it by other men of genius are numberless. As far as concerns its musical merits, the chief credit is due to Pergolesi and Rossini, both of whom immortalized themselves in their rendition of it.

The precise merits of the “Lauda Sion” lie in this: that it is one of the most able theological exegeses that have ever been written on the doctrine of the Real Presence. Every possible objection that could be raised concerning the Blessed Sacrament is comprehended in it.

Sequences of the Oriental Church.—By way of compensating for the entire absence of all instrumental music from the service of the Oriental Church, sacred hymnology is made to act a far more conspicuous part there than it is with us. Not a Mass is celebrated without at least half a dozen of Troparia, as they are called, nearly all of which end with a doxology in honor of the Mother of God, to whom, as we have already said, the Orientals are very devout. To give the reader an idea of the intrinsic beauty of some of the Oriental Sequences, we copy the following, inscribed “for a Sunday of the First Tone.” It, of course, is written and sung in Greek, and the work from which we copy it (Hymns of the Eastern Church, by Rev. Dr. Neale) ascribes it to St. Anatolius, A.D. 458. It refers to that scene on the Sea of Galilee where the disciples are out in a boat and our Lord comes to them walking upon the waters (Matthew 14):

Fierce was the wild billow,

Dark was the night;

Oars labored heavily,

Foam glimmered white

Trembled the mariners,

Peril was nigh;

Then said the God of God.

Peace! it is I.’

Ridge of the mountain-wave,

Lower thy crest!

Wail of Euroclydon,

Be thou at rest!

Sorrow can never be,

Darkness must fly,

Where saith the Light of Light,

Peace! it is I.’

Jesu, Deliverer!

Come thou to me

Soothe thou my voyaging

Over life’s sea!

Thou, when the storm of death

Roars sweeping by,

Whisper, O Truth of Truth!

Peace! it is I.’ ”


After the Epistle and the responses following it have been read, the priest goes to the middle of the altar, and, haying bowed profoundly, recites the prayer “Munda cor meum,” by which he begs of God to purify his heart and lips, as he did those of Isaias of old, in order that he may announce the good truths of the Gospel in a befitting manner. In the meantime the missal is removed by the server from the Epistle to the Gospel side, and so placed that the priest may be a little turned towards the congregation while reading it, and this to preserve a vestige of the ancient custom of reading the Holy Evangel from the ambo in the hearing and sight of all.

The literal or natural meaning of removing the missal at this place is that the Epistle corner of the altar may be entirely free for receiving the gifts presented and placed there by the people at the Offertory, and to make room for the paten, which in former times was much larger than it is now (Romsee, iv. 107; Kozma, p. 182). Mystically, this ceremony is intended to remind us of the translation of the word of God from the Jews, represented by the Epistle side, to the Gentiles, represented by the Gospel side, in accordance with what is said by SS. Paul and Barnabas in the Acts of the Apostles (13:46): “To you it behoved us first to speak the word of God; but because you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold we turn to the Gentiles.” The bringing back of the missal afterwards denotes the final return of the Jews to Christianity at the preaching of Enoch and Elias (Durandus, Rationale, p. 195).

We have said that the Missal is placed at the Gospel side, a little turned towards the congregation, and that this is with a view to preserve a vestige of the ancient practice of reading the Gospel from the ambo. As it may be objected that the Epistle, too, was formerly read there, and why not now be read as the Gospel is? we reply by saying that whenever the Epistle was read from the ambo it was always from an inferior stand to that set apart for the Gospel, generally from the steps themselves, and always facing the altar; for it was not, at its introduction into the Mass, designed so much for the instruction of the people as the Gospel was, nor did it ever occupy the same place of honor, although the honor shown it was very great (Martène, De Antiquis Eccl. Ritibus, f. 24).

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