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“The scholar who lives only for his subject is but the fragment of a man; he lives in a shadow-world, mistaking means for ends.”
— Msgr. Ronald Knox (1888-1957)
What Are The Mass Propers? Installment no. 1
published 16 November 2011 by Corpus Christi Watershed

The extreme beauty and unbelievable antiquity of the Catholic liturgy defies description. In a special way, then, let us pause and thank our Lord Jesus Christ for sending us Pope Benedict XVI, who has done so much to help restore the Sacred liturgy.

How truly difficult it is to know where to start a series on the Catholic liturgy, which is so astounding and fascinating on so many different levels! We will be exploring the Mass Propers (a.k.a. Graduale Propers) in great detail, and will look at many mediæval MSS. However, at the beginning, perhaps an appropriate place to start would be the Gelasian Sacramentary.

A “Sacramentary” contained only the celebrant’s part of the liturgy. We have become more accustomed to books like this over the last forty years: that is to say, liturgical books arranged according to the person who uses them (whether priest, deacon, cantor, lector, etc.). However, before the Second Vatican Council, books tended to be arranged according to the service at which they were used. It would not be incorrect to say that, after Vatican II, we have adopted the “more ancient” form of arranging books, which, incidentally, the Eastern Rites never stopped doing. The ancient Sacramentaries contained not only the “presidential” Mass prayers, but also the prayers said by the bishop/priest at other services, such as ordination, baptism, blessings, exorcisms, etc. (AF, 116-117). Both practices have advantages and disadvantages. One reason the ancient practice developed as it did becomes obvious when one considers how rare paper (dried animal skin?) and literacy were during those times.

A very important Sacramentary is called the “Galesian Sacramentary.” This is a Roman book (with Gallican additions) that exists in several manuscripts. For instance, there are copies of this book at St. Gall and Rheinau, but the oldest version seems to be the one made for use at the abbey of St. Denis at Paris during the 7th or 8th century. The book is now in the Vatican library (AF, 119). The origin of the book is much discussed, as we would expect. Suffice it to say that some scholars think the book was composed in the 7th or 8th century, while others think that it was originally composed much earlier. For those who are not aware, it is not always easy to figure out when the “original” manuscript was written: scribes merely copied what came before them, adding things along the way. Incidentally, we run into this same problem a lot with ancient musical treatises. However, musicologists have the annoying tendency to keep changing the names of treatises based on their current guess of who “wrote” the original. By the time they change the attribution the 9th or 10th time, I stop caring . . . We can be glad that the Gelasian Sacramentary is always called by this name, in spite of the various theories about its origin. By the way, the different “editions” or “copies” of the manuscript have their own variations, additions, and subtractions. Furthermore, sometimes a mediæval monk has “corrected” the manuscript (for instance, crossing out words, moving them, etc.). This was sometimes done to bring it into conformity with later Sacramentaries. It is not hard to understand why corrections were made, because (as mentioned) paper was a rare commodity back then and hand copying books took forever!

The “Canon” of the Mass is sometimes called the “Eucharistic Prayer.” After the Council, the Church allowed a few additional Eucharistic prayers, but for the greater part of two millennia, there was only one in the West: the “Roman Canon.” It would be an understatement to say that the Canon is “very ancient.” It might be closer to the truth to say that the Canon is (perhaps) the most ancient part of the Mass, in the sense that the exact same words have remained unchanged for such a long time. (Obviously, the majority of the Western Mass texts have remained unchanged for centuries, but the Canon is a special case.)

Let us see how the “Gelasian” Canon compares with the version in our present books. The MS is from the “St. Gall” copy of the Gelasian Sacramentary (made around the year 800).

Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater,
To you, therefore, most merciful Father,
per Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus,
we make humble prayer and petition through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord:
uti accépta hábeas et benedícas hæc dona, hæc múnera, hæc sancta sacrifícia illibáta . . .
that you accept and bless these gifts, these offerings, these holy and unblemished sacrifices . . .

The reader will notice the frequent abbreviations (dñm ñm = “Dóminum nostrum”) and the various freedoms (“haec” is spelled as “haec” and “h&c”). Also, the formation of letters by scribes in the 8th century differs from ours in the 21st century (e.g. the letter “s” looks like an “f”).

Because of the great antiquity of the Roman Canon and the important place it has in the history of Salvation over the last two millennia, it would be wonderful if priests would frequently choose the Roman Canon (a.k.a. “Eucharistic Prayer no. 1”) when saying Mass. In the past, it was very difficult to choose this option, as the English translation of the Roman Canon was poorly done. This can be seen by even a cursory look:

Te ígitur, clementíssime Pater, per Jesum Christum, Fílium tuum, Dóminum nostrum, súpplices rogámus ac pétimus, uti accépta hábeas et benedícas hæc dona, hæc múnera, hæc sancta sacrifícia illibáta . . .
We come to you, Father, with praise and thanksgiving, through Jesus Christ your Son. Through him we ask you to accept and bless these gifts we offer you in sacrifice. (“Lame-duck” translation by ICEL)

In less than two weeks, the Catholic Church in the United States will begin using a more accurate translation (called for in a 2001 Papal document). Let us pray that priests will take the opportunity of a more faithful translation to choose the Roman Canon more frequently.

What Are The Mass Propers? is an ongoing series dedicated to exploring the Catholic Liturgy. Although this series will focus on the Graduale Propers, other subjects will also be included. The views presented here do not necessarily represent the views of Corpus Christi Watershed. Comments, advice, and criticism are welcome, and can be E-mailed. E-mails will be read, but cannot always be answered (due to time constraints). To learn more about how Watershed is helping spread the love of Propers, please visit the Vatican II Hymnal website. “AF” refers to Adrian Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (1912).

Pictures of ancient manuscripts appearing in this blog come from various sources. The author has collected his own color photographs of manuscripts from libraries and monasteries in the United States and Italy. A Canadian chant scholar who has been taking photographs of MSS since the 1960’s has generously made his collection available as well, and the author is grateful. Some photographs also come from online archives hosted by libraries and universities the world over. All photographs are used with permission.