HE INTERNET is replete with theories about the 1960s reform of the liturgy. The documents of Vatican II have been posted in translation, excellent commentaries (e.g. by Fr. Robert Skeris) have been posted online, and those who were involved in the actual work of reform—such as Ferdinando Cardinal Antonelli (d. 1993) and Father Louis Bouyer (d. 2004)—have revealed how slapdash and hurried many of the decisions were.
But two liturgical realities are frequently overlooked:
(1) the Psalter created in the 1940s under Pope Pius XII;
(2) the Urbanite revision of the hymns in 1631AD.
The new Psalter by Pius XII (which soon died out) would have massively changed every liturgical book in existence, and would have required at least 10-20 years to implement. (We have scanned a 2,000 page book by Solesmes Abbey which uses the Pius XII Psalter, and you will be hearing more about this later.)
(1) Pope Pius XII Psalter
It is remarkable to observe how infrequently liturgical blogs and journals speak of the 1940s version of the Psalter, which was supposedly created directly from Hebrew MSS. The prime mover for this Psalter was Augustin Cardinal Bea (d. 1968), the personal confessor of Pope Pius XII. This was a massive change, because—in a very real sense—the Psalter is the liturgy itself! It is a matter of debate whether the Versio Piana was ever imposed upon the Church; some insist it was, while others say it was optional. In any event, I personally know priests who were forced to use it—but it was abandoned after a few years. (Father Michael Irwin told me he couldn’t understand it!) We have scanned a remarkable book, published by the Abbey of Solesmes in the 1950s, which uses the Psalter of Pius XII, and in the coming months we will have much to say about this book.
Without question, this gargantuan modification to the ancient liturgy by Ven. Pope Pius XII helped “pave the way” for further reform during Vatican II Council.
(2) Urbanite Corruption of the Hymns
Father Adrian Fortescue explained 1 the whole matter very well, perhaps better than anyone. While Pope Urban VIII left a few hymns intact, many were utterly destroyed: even the meter was changed! In some hymns, the Urbanite reform left less than 5% of the original poetry. A new publication, the Saint Jean de Brébeuf Hymnal (2018), carefully explores and explains the actions of Pope Urban VIII, providing hundreds of examples. (In particular, the color-page section is fabulous in its treatment of the Urbanite reform.) Dr. Aaron James, who has a double doctorate, recently the following vis-à-vis the Brébeuf hymnal:
Anyone who has engaged seriously with the texts of the ancient Office hymns knows the great confusion that can be generated by multiple versions of the same texts (particularly as a result of Urban VIII’s 1631 reform of the breviary, which rewrote the hymns to match the Latin prosody of pre-Christian antiquity). The editors navigate this difficult terrain with assurance; indeed, the editors’ explanation of the Urbanite reform and its impact on English translators is a model of clarity, and contains information this reviewer has not encountered elsewhere.
The Brébeuf hymnal had access to some of the world’s greatest experts in Latin, and the book provides many literal translations of ancient Catholic hymns which can’t be found anywhere else. Here’s an example of the Pre-Urbanite Ad Cenam Agni Providi hymn:
The book I mentioned earlier—the one published by Solesmes Abbey in the 1950s using the Pius XII Psalter—also had scholars create literal translations of the hymns. Here’s an example of the Urbanite Ad Cenam Agni Providi hymn (which changed the title to “Ad Regias Agni Dapes”):
I think we can agree that the Brébeuf hymnal literal translations are excellent, while the Solesmes Abbey version isn’t too shabby either!
NOTES FROM THIS ARTICLE:
1 Father Fortescue writes: “In the seventeenth century came the crushing blow which destroyed the beauty of all breviary hymns. […] Attempts to reform them had been made before, but so far they had been spared. Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644) was destined to succeed in destroying them. He appointed four Jesuits to reform the hymns, so that they should no longer offend Renaissance ears. […] These four Jesuits, in that faithful obedience to the Holy See which is the glory of their society, with a patient care that one cannot help admiring, set to work to destroy every hymn in the office. They had no concept of the fact that many of these hymns were written in meter by accent; their lack of understanding those venerable types of Christian poetry is astounding. They could conceive no ideal but that of a school grammar of Augustan Latin. Wherever a line was not as Horace would have written it, it had to go. The period was hopelessly bad for any poetry; these pious Jesuits were true children of their time. So they embarked on that fatal reform whose effect was the ruin of our hymns. They slashed and tinkered, they re-wrote lines and altered words, they changed the sense and finally produced the poor imitations that we still have, in the place of the hymns our fathers sang for over a thousand years. Indeed their confidence in themselves is amazing. They were not ashamed to lay their hands on Sedulius, on Prudentius, on St. Ambrose himself. […] No one who knows anything about the subject now doubts that that revision of Urban VIII was a ghastly mistake, for which there is not one single word of any kind to be said. Now all the points which shocked him, as not being classical, are known and established as perfectly legitimate examples of recognized laws. It was as foolish a mistake to judge poetry of the fourth and following centuries by the rules of the Augustan age, as it would be to try to tinker prose written in one language, to make it conform with the grammar of another. There are cases where these seventeenth-century Jesuits did not even know the rules of their own grammar books.”