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"The local church should be conscious that church worship is not really the same as what we sing in a bar, or what we sing in a convention for youth."
— Francis Cardinal Arinze (2005)

What does Cicero have to do with the Breviary?
published 16 April 2018 by Guest Author

Editor’s Note: We were delighted to receive this (unsolicited) guest submission from a young college student. This subject is of particular interest to the committee creating the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal—a publication doing something unique and remarkable with the ancient hymn texts. Therefore, if you like this topic, fasten your seat belts!

89505 Pope Urban VIII HEN POPE Emeritus Benedict XVI promulgated Summorum Pontificum ten years ago, he expressed a hope that the celebration of both forms of the Roman Rite would be an opportunity for the two forms to mutually enrich each other. To some extent, this hope has borne fruit. There is a relatively small but growing movement to celebrate Mass in the Ordinary Form maintaining elements from the Extraordinary Form that are compatible with the 1969 rubrics, such as facing ad orientem and maintaining priestly digits. I think many who have attended such Masses would agree with me that these elements truly “enrich” the Ordinary Form. But could the Ordinary Form enrich the Extraordinary? Enter the Italian Renaissance.

The Renaissance was a revolution that was not only artistic but also linguistic. At the time, Latin was the universal language of educated Europeans. At the same time that artists looked to Greco-Roman models for inspiration, humanist scholars began to eschew the lexical and grammatical features that characterized Patristic Latin and instead to turn to pre-Christian Rome. The most extreme of these scholars even refused to use any word or grammatical construction not found in the writings of Cicero. Caesar and Livy were not good enough for them. Not all went to such extremes, but the humanists generally agreed that Christian writings could not be the standard of “good Latin.”

In 1623, Maffeo Barberini was elected pope and took the name Urban VIII. Himself a classical scholar by training, he was troubled that liturgical hymns did not always follow ancient rules of grammar or poetry composition. Accordingly, he set a group of Latin scholars to the task of rewriting the hymns of the Roman Breviary. They made approximately 952 “corrections” to the ancient hymns, and two verses from the Breviary hymn “Rex Sempiterne” illustrate the difference in style:

Ancient Version|
UI MUNDI in primórdio
Adam plasmásti hóminem:
Cui tuae imágini
Vultum dedísti símilem.

3. Quem diábolus decéperat
Hostis humáni géneris:
Cujus tu formam córporis
Assúmere dignátus es.
Ancient Version|
2. At the beginning of the world
you made the man Adam
to whom you gave a countenance
similar to your image;

3. Whom the devil, the enemy
of the human race, had deceived;
and whose form of body
you deigned to assume.
1632 Edition|
ASCÉNTE qui mundo faber
Imáginem vultus tui
Tradens Adámo, nóbilem
Limo jugásti spíritum.

3. Cum livor et fraus daémonis
Foedásset humánum genus,
Tu, carne amíctus, pérditam
Formam refórmas ártifex.
1632 Edition|
2. When the world began
You created Adam and gave him
the image of Your own likeness,
joining a soul of noble destiny
with slime of the earth.

3. But when an envious, deceitful enemy
had covered mankind with the filth of sin,
You clothed Yourself in man’s flesh and,
a creator once again, gave man
back the beauty he had lost.

Immediately, there was an outcry. Some of these hymns were over a millennium old, and many Catholics were unhappy to be replacing hymns written by Church Fathers with hymns written by Latin scholars. All monastic orders that had been allowed to maintain their own breviaries after Trent uniformly rejected the new hymns. However, diocesan clergy had never been allowed to use the Breviarium Monasticum and were required to pray the Breviarium Romanum, which after 1632 contained Urban VIII’s revised hymns. Until 1985.

By the time the Liturgy of the Hours was promulgated in 1985, it was universally acknowledged that Urban VIII’s reforms had not been a good idea. Accordingly, the new LOTH eliminated them and officially restored the ancient hymns to the liturgy. 1 However, since those who pray the new Liturgy of the Hours generally do so in the vernacular, these hymns have gone largely unacknowledged, except by those monastic orders, such as the Carthusians, who pray the Breviarium Monasticum anyway and therefore never gave up the ancient hymns in the first place.

Now, the rubrics do not allow “mixing and matching” in the liturgy. Clergy must either pray the 1961 Breviary with Urban VIII’s hymns or the 1985 Breviary. Here is where my proposal comes in: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the ancient hymns could be restored to the Extraordinary Form, allowing those who are loath to give up the more complete psalter of the 1961 Breviary to sing hymns written by St Ambrose and St Gregory the Great? In this case, perhaps the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms could truly be a source of enrichment.

We hope you enjoyed this guest article by Miss Sophia Decker.

Photo: “Urban VIII Consecrates St Peter’s Basilica”


1   It should be noted that the Vatican II restoration under Dom Anselmo Lentini also modified the ancient hymn texts in a reprehensible way. If mutual enrichment is to occur, the “corrections” by Lentini’s team must be fixed. This fact is probably overlooked because the Urbanite revisions have been condemned so universally, and the 1891 quote from M. Ulysse Chevalier sums up the matter succinctly: “The Jesuits have spoiled the work of Christian antiquity, under pretext of restoring the hymns in accordance with the laws of metre and elegant language.” —Ed.