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My First Experience of a Pre-1955 Holy Triduum

Recently, I bumped into a friend who expressed her surprise that 2019 was the first time I had ever attended the pre-1955 (i.e., ancient or unreformed) Holy Week liturgies. She was under the impression that someone who travels, reads, thinks, and writes a good deal about the sacred liturgy would surely have done this long before now.

It wasn’t for lack of interest or awareness. Ever since I read Gregory DiPippo’s epic series at New Liturgical Movement, I knew that the Holy Week liturgies, rich with symbolism and ceremonial, had been heavily altered by Pope Pius XII in the early 1950s. As I read more, I discovered to my horror that the liturgical rupture we rightly blame on Paul VI had its most notorious “precursor” in Pius XII’s unprecedented act of inorganic revision, done under cover of the excuse that the liturgies needed to be “restored to their original times of day” [1]. As more and more resources became available, and I saw more photos each year, and read of new places adopting the old old form, my desire to participate in the authentic Roman liturgy of Holy Week grew and grew.

But I was not yet, so to speak, my own man. Holy Week was always the most demanding time of year for me as a choir and schola director for over two decades. Year after year, I had to bounce back and forth between the ’62 missal and the ’69 missal — stuck in the 1960s, one could say, as are most Catholics (for now), even those who frequent the Latin Mass. For Holy Week 2019, however, I was no longer in charge of a choir and schola, happily living only a mile away from an oratory of the Institute of Christ the King Sovereign Priest. This made all the difference.

What a difference it makes. While I had read all about the pre-1955 Holy Week, never was it more deeply true that no amount of reading can substitute for experience, for the encounter with the reality. Liturgy is, after all, not a theory or an experiment; it is the action of Christ the High Priest, an action we enter into. I had expected to be impressed; I was blown away. I had expected to be bewildered; I was dazzled and provoked. I had expected to see the Roman Rite in its pre-modern richness; I saw a revelation of glory.

I realize that many learned books and articles have been written about these old liturgies and that nothing short of a book could begin to do them justice [2]. This is my disclaimer as to why I will ignore so much that is worthy of note. Instead, I will simply share a few of the things that struck me most about the pre-1955 rites. (All of the photos in this article were taken by parishioners at the very liturgies I attended, at St. Mary’s in Wausau, Wisconsin. A considerable gallery of photos is publicly available here.)

Palm Sunday

The Palm Sunday liturgy left me speechless with wonder at its richness — and perplexed, not to say horrified, that Pope Pius XII altered it past recognition.

The Missa Sicca or “dry Mass” [3] at the beginning, with an Epistle, Gradual, and Gospel, then a Preface leading into the blessing of the palms — all of this, mind you, prior to the procession with palms, the entrance after knocking at the doors, and the Mass of the day, with the chanting of the Passion according to St. Matthew — was the most perfect exemplification of the Catholic principle of sacramentality I have ever seen. Here is the Preface:

It is truly meet and just, right and availing unto salvation, that we should always and in all places give thanks unto Thee, O Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, Who dost glory in the assembly of Thy Saints. For Thy creatures serve Thee, because they acknowledge Thee as their only Creator and God; and Thy whole creation praiseth Thee, and Thy Saints bless Thee. For with free voice they confess that great Name of Thine only-begotten Son before the kings and powers of this world. Around whom the Angels and Archangels, the Thrones and Dominions stand; and with all the host of the heavenly army, sing the hymn of Thy glory, saying without ceasing: Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts …

The first prayer of blessing after the Preface has an astonishing rhetorical kinship with Eucharistic consecration:

We beseech Thee, O holy Lord, almighty Father, everlasting God, that Thou wouldst vouchsafe to bless X and hallow X this creature of the olive tree, which Thou didst cause to shoot out of the substance of the wood, and which the dove when returning to the ark brought in its mouth: that whosoever shall receive it may find protection of soul and body; and that it may be to us, O Lord, a saving remedy and a sacrament of Thy grace [tuae gratiae sacramentum]. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son, who liveth and reigneth …

(One might add that this prayer is the ultimate response to traditionalists who get hung up on any use of the word “sacrament” that is not limited to the seven sacraments!)

Authors like Alexander Schmemann, Aidan Kavanaugh, and David Fagerberg like to talk about “the sacramental cosmos,” but there are no texts anywhere in the Roman tradition that convey the idea of sanctified creation better than the ones in the old Palm Sunday liturgy. The third prayer of blessing underlines the mystical significance of what the ancient Hebrews did and what we are now doing:

O God, who, by the wonderful order of Thy disposition, hast been pleased to manifest the dispensation of our salvation even from things insensible: grant, we beseech Thee, that the devout hearts of Thy faithful may understand to their benefit what is mystically signified by the fact that on this day the multitude, taught by a heavenly illumination, went forth to meet their Redeemer, and strewed branches of palms and olive at His feet. The branches of palms, therefore, represent His triumphs over the prince of death; and the branches of olive proclaim, in a manner, the coming of a spiritual unction. For that pious multitude understood that these things were then prefigured; that our Redeemer, compassionating human miseries, was about to fight with the prince of death for the life of the whole world, and, by dying, to triumph. For which cause they dutifully ministered such things as signified in Him the triumphs of victory and the richness of mercy. And we also, with full faith, retaining this as done and signified, humbly beseech Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord, that in Him and through Him, whose members Thou hast been pleased to make us, we may become victorious over the empire of death, and may deserve to be partakers of His glorious Resurrection. Who liveth and reigneth…

The fact that such texts were suppressed precisely when liturgists were waxing eloquent on this theme is more than a little perverse [4].

Holy Thursday

The Holy Thursday Mass did not seem to me to be so very different from the subsequent versions of Holy Thursday (1955 and 1969), at least in their ideal realizations. In this respect, it is more like the Mass of Easter Sunday morning, which even with the 1969 missal can be celebrated much as it is done in the ancient rite (although in 99% of cases, it is not, thanks to the plague of optionitis), and not at all like Palm Sunday, Good Friday, or the Easter Vigil, where the ancient, Pacellian, and Montinian rites are all extremely different.

One thing that was quite new to me at this evening Mass was the omission of the Mandatum or ceremonial washing of the feet — a custom that had migrated into the Mass only in the mid-20th century, and where it has caused all manner of debate and distraction. Instead, the Mandatum was done as a paraliturgy after Mass, in the church basement, where a temporary altar had been set up with candles.

Once the altars upstairs had been stripped of their altar cloths in imitation of the humiliating treatment of Christ in His Passion, everyone proceeded downstairs. Thirteen men sat in a row of chairs (the canon had explained in his homily at Mass that the number 13 goes back to a vision of St. Gregory the Great). The priest, deacon, and subdeacon entered, with acolytes. The ceremony began with the solemn chanting of the Gospel, which was the same as at Mass: John 13:1–15. Then the priest donned an apron and washed the men’s feet while the choir sang Ubi caritas. The priest returned to the altar, chanted a number of versicles, and sang a collect; all bowed and left.

Having seen this now, I would say the washing of feet works far better outside Mass than during Mass [5]. Although I am usually all in favor of complexity, it has always seemed to me too much to try to give equal attention, within one and the same liturgy, to the institution of the Eucharist, the institution of the priesthood, and the commandment of charity. When the Mandatum is done on its own after Mass, it gives it a special place, a special dignity; one can focus more directly on the lesson of the high serving the low. It also matches better the idea that first we worship God for love of Him, and then, with His grace, we go out into the world to love others made in His image.

Good Friday

The pre-1955 Good Friday liturgy was a powerful experience. I don’t think I could limit it to any one thing in particular; it was the cumulative force of all the elements.

The liturgy opened with two chanted lessons and two chanted tracts, which gave me ample time to enter deeply into the mystery of the day. The message transmitted was loud and clear: you are here to revere the Cross, so stop squirming, don’t look at your watch, and settle in for the long haul. I appreciate how the ancient liturgy simply dictates to you its own terms.

The chanting of the Passion by the priest, deacon, and subdeacon followed, with those absolutely perfect tones: the confident, commanding bass melody for Christ; the skipping-along, matter-of-fact narrator; and the eerie high-pitched “ring tone” of the one who speaks for Peter, Pilate, the Jews, the crowd, and every other shady character. When the Passion was finished, the readers split up, and the deacon prepared to chant the  “proper” Gospel of the day in a special tone, recounting the burial of Christ. The silence after the Passion and the special treatment paid to the burial seemed highly fitting.

The great intercessions with their red-meat language (so unlike the Gerber baby food of the Paul VI missal) brought home the seriousness of our religion, the uncompromising faith of the early Church in the one Redeemer of mankind — not the Abu Dhabi fantasyland of postconciliar interreligiosity and ecumenism:

Let us pray also for heretics and schismatics: that our Lord God would be pleased to rescue them from all their errors; and recall them to our holy mother the Catholic and Apostolic Church.… Almighty and everlasting God, who savest all, and wouldst that no one should perish: look on the souls that are led astray by the deceit of the devil: that having set aside all heretical evil, the hearts of those that err may repent, and return to the unity of Thy truth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son…

The intercessions being completed, the veneration of the Cross began with a shoeless procession of ministers who genuflected three times on their way to the sanctuary: once at the far end of the Church, a second time in the middle of the aisle, and a last time right before the Cross, lying, strangely enough, on a comfortable cushion — reminiscent of the cussinus or cushion on which missals used to rest at the altar, as if a royal personage on his divan [6]. Never before have the Reproaches and the Crux fidelis chants made so much sense: the procession takes a lot of time with a church full of people. It is well for us that it takes time, that it burns our time like incense.

The strangest aspect of the venerable Good Friday liturgy is the treatment of the Sanctissimum. Only one large host has been reserved from the night before (not a large ciborium of hosts). The veiled Host is carried in procession accompanied by the mighty hymn Vexilla Regis. The first two verses set the tone:

The royal banners forward go
The Cross shines forth in mystic glow,
Where Life Himself our death endured,
And by His death our life procured.

Where deep for us the spear was dyed,
Life’s torrent rushing from His side,
To wash us in that precious flood,
Where mingled water flowed, and blood.

The priest incenses the Blessed Sacrament, places the Host on the corporal; prepares a chalice with wine and water; incenses the oblation and the altar; washes his hands (I am not including every detail); and says “Pray, brethren, that my sacrifice and yours may be acceptable to God the Father Almighty” — but with no response forthcoming. He chants the Lord’s Prayer in the ferial tone, mixes a particle of the Host into the unconsecrated wine, elevates the Host with one hand for all to see and adore, and then receives the Host with the usual prayer, and the wine in the chalice without the usual prayer. A friend suggested that the Good Friday liturgy is symbolizing the states of the Passion: Christ is brought back from the place of reservation (Christ kept in captivity during His trial), then He is lifted up on high (the crucifixion), before going down into the earth (the entombment). Abruptly, the liturgy is ended with the priest bowing before the altar and departing in silence. The Real Presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament is no more to be found in the church, in the tabernacle, on the altar, even in the congregation: He is gone. The desolation of Good Friday reaches its peak; the total surrender of the Son has been enacted, and we await the Resurrection and the renewal of the glorious sacrifice of the Mass.

The limitation of communion to the priest has a curious double effect. On the one hand, the man who (liturgically speaking) most visibly represents Christ is still enclosed within the mystery of His perfect oblation by receiving, and thus bringing to completion, the sacrifice, even if we must call it a “dry sacrifice,” like the Missa sicca spoken of earlier. On the other hand, for everyone else, it is the Adoration of the Cross that takes center stage. The acolytes, the deacon and subdeacon, the faithful are all coming up to commune with the Cross. This is what “replaces” Holy Communion today. Of course, in a certain sense, we encounter the Cross every time we receive the Holy Eucharist, but under the sacramental veils of bread and wine, our union with the Cross is invisible, something we can easily lose sight of. Once a year, Good Friday makes the Cross stand out visibly; it gives the Cross, as such, one day on which to be the sacred sign we touch and kiss.

In its medieval elaboration as codified in the Tridentine books (i.e., pre-1955), Good Friday had come to be seen as the one day of the year when we truly live through the desolation the Virgin Mary and the apostles lived through: a vivax representatio, not a mera commemoratio. The Church could hardly have come up with a better way of doing this than depriving us of sacramental communion. The one who has died and been laid in the tomb is away from us. Instead, the liturgy focuses our adoration on the life-giving Cross by which He won our salvation and bids us pray for the entire world’s ongoing conversion.

The pre-1955 Good Friday liturgy was far more like a Mass than the glorified communion service of Pius XII and the Novus Ordo — yet it seemed like a tragically incomplete Mass, one could even say a hollow Mass. This uncomfortable strangeness was accentuated by the combination of great solemnity and stark simplicity, made possible by the level of ceremonial detail contained in this pre-1955 rite, much of which was later jettisoned.

At the start, the lessons and lengthy tracts are chanted without anything preceding them; at the end, the priest silently receives the Host — and then the liturgy just stops, as if it’s been beheaded or electrocuted. (It’s true that Vespers was chanted afterward, but that seemed like a distinct addendum, not really part of the same rite.) Or perhaps like a play interrupted in mid-act, before the actors are done with their lines, and with the plot at loose ends. Although Jesus says, “It is finished” in the Gospel, the liturgy transmits the strong feeling “it is not finished.”

I see this as a typically marvelous liturgical paradox: on the day that vividly confronts us with the historical event by which our Redemption was objectively completed, the liturgy itself, through which we subjectively touch Christ’s mysteries, is allowed to be the most incomplete in feel. One cannot but regret that the 1960s liturgical reformers in their rationalism insisted on adding typical structural features (e.g., opening prayer, closing prayer) that greatly diminished how strikingly different this day was meant to feel precisely because it is the vivax representatio of the most horrible and shattering day of reality, where the maximum of disorder redounded to the restoration of order.

Easter Vigil

The pre-1955 Easter Vigil was sublime. My overwhelming impression was: now everything finally makes sense! What had appeared to me before (in the ’55 or ’69 rites) as an arbitrary collection of rituals here coalesced into a single act of worship, having the unity of a man’s walking with continuous steps toward a goal. The liturgy came across as a mighty recapitulation of all the mysteries of Christianity, from God’s inner nature to the revelation of the Trinity to the Incarnation of the Word to the bloody Redemption to the glorious Resurrection.

The liturgy had a majesty to it, a mounting series of joined but unconfused symbols, which the orations and lessons and ceremonies brought forth at a stately, leisurely pace: fire, candle, water, all directly addressed in words of power. It is the Church taking command of the rudiments of creation and literally ordering them to serve Christ and the salvation of souls.

I was particularly impressed by what seemed like two equivalents of a “missa sicca” or dry Mass implanted in this liturgy: first, the Preface, preceded by the usual dialogue, leading to the consecration of the candle; second, the same structure for the consecration of the water. In both cases, it is much clearer than in the ’55 and ’69 rites that we are starting with worldly elements and setting them apart for God, asking Him to make them in some sense Himself: to make them sacraments or sacred signs of His grace [7].

The liturgy began outside the church with the blessing of the fire — not of the candle, but just the fire itself, symbol of the eternal divine nature. From this fire was lit the trikirion or three-branched candlestick that represents the Trinity, or perhaps better, the progressive revelation of the Trinity in salvation history, as one by one the candles are lit in procession to the sanctuary. (Please note, however, that traditional liturgies, like the books of Sacred Scripture, are always “polysemous,” with many layers of overlapping meanings. There is no one right or wrong interpretation of the trikirion. Another author, for example, writes: “The deacon takes up the triple-branched reed, whose staff represents the bronze serpent which Moses fashioned on a rod to heal the Israelites in the desert, and whose three candles mystically symbolize the three days in the tomb, as well as the three Marys approaching the tomb on Easter morn.”)

This procession culminates in the Exultet, the text of which makes sense only in the pre-1955 context, when the actions described in the Exultet are actually performed on the candle then and there. The deacon places the five incense nails into the candle, symbol of “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8), and then lights it from one of the three candles of the trikirion: the second Person taking flesh to save us. From this point onward, all flames in the church are taken from this lit candle.

The twelve prophecies have a compelling directionality to them. They are preoccupied with water, light, fire, and sacrifice, with an underlying theme of resisting and overcoming the devil (made explicit in the prayers surrounding the blessing of the font). The first half or so hinge on major figures: Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, with David touched on. The second half shift to the calling of Israel, old and new. The final reading, wonderfully strange, is the tale from Daniel 3 of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to worship the giant idol and being thrown into the fiery furnace. It is sung to a special tone, surprisingly lyrical and joyous.

The antiphon Sicut cervus — Palestrina’s setting of which is probably the single most popular and beloved work of polyphony — then makes perfect sense as the accompaniment to the procession that moves from the sanctuary to the baptistery (or, in lieu of that, a font at the back of the church). Having heard all these prophecies, it is time to make their promises really and truly present in the regenerating water, so that new Christians can be buried and raised with Christ. Whereas in the 1955 ceremony the water to be blessed is bizarrely up at the sanctuary, so no procession takes place to the baptistery, in the pre-1955 rite, the formal procession to the font with the Paschal candle at its head makes it clear that the candle is the column of fire at the Red Sea, and that Israel is about to be delivered from captivity through the life-giving waters of baptism.

As for the exorcising and sanctifying of the water, my words could never do justice to the difference between the old prayers — the same, fortunately, in pre-’55 and ’55 — and their newer abridgements and replacements in 1969. To be perfectly honest, the magnitude of the difference is like that between a teddy bear and a grizzly bear, or a toy car and a Lamborghini, or a comic strip and Fra Angelico. It’s that huge. Take these prayers as examples:

May He by a secret mixture of His divine virtue render this water fruitful for the regeneration of men, to the end that a heavenly offspring, conceived by sanctification, may emerge from the immaculate womb of this divine font, reborn a new creature: and may all, however distinguished either by sex in body, or by age in time, be brought forth to the same infancy by grace, their mother. Therefore may all unclean spirits, by Thy command, O Lord, depart far from hence: may the whole malice of diabolical deceit be entirely banished: may no power of the enemy prevail here: let him not fly about to lay his snares; may he not creep in by stealth: may he not corrupt with his poison.

May this holy and innocent creature be free from all the assaults of the enemy, and purified by the destruction of all his wickedness. May it be a living fountain, a regenerating water, a purifying stream: that all those that are to be washed in this saving bath may obtain, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, the grace of a perfect cleansing. …

Do Thou with Thy mouth bless these clear waters: that besides their natural virtue of cleansing the body, they may also prove efficacious for the purifying of the soul. … Here may the stains of all sins be washed out; here may human nature, created in Thine image, and reformed to the honor of its Author, be cleansed from all the filth of the old man: that all who receive the Sacrament of regeneration may be born again new children of true innocence. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, Thy Son: Who shall come to judge the living and the dead, and the world by fire.

The liturgy as a whole was set off by so many delightful “irregularities,” such as the triple Alleluia chant followed by a verse and a Tract (!), no Offertory antiphon, no Agnus Dei, and a truncated Vespers with Magnificat instead of a Communion antiphon. The cumulative effect of such things is to transmit in a subtle but powerful way that this liturgy is different from all others, and we should sit up and take notice. The strangeness of it is an incentive to a deeper interior participation. Might it be confusing to the faithful? Yes, for sure—and that is good. The mortal conflict of Life and Death is not a tea party.

The whole Vigil liturgy — one vast hymn of praise to the might of God revealed in the creation of the world, the creation of the old Israel, and the creation of the new Israel — possessed a cosmic sweep, a historical rootedness, and an immersion into mystery that I have never seen before, in a seamless interconnection that had none of those embarrassing modular joints or ceremonial caesuras typical of the work of Vatican committees from 1948 onward.

There is no doubt in my mind that the pre-1955 Easter Vigil is the crown jewel of the Tridentine rite and that we must do everything we can to recover it. I am also, again as with Palm Sunday, speechless that any reformers could dare to take away something like this.

A priest who has celebrated both forms of Holy Week (the pre-’55 and the ’55) told me recently: “The old liturgical rites drive home the integral and essential connection between the sacrifice of the Cross and the Eucharistic sacrifice. The new [Pacellian] versions systematically downplay this. The old liturgies are coherent in what they contain and when they present it; the new versions are piecemeal and chaotic. In fact, some of the same people who worked on the ‘renewed’ Holy Week later worked on the Novus Ordo, and when they got around to fixing some of the problems they themselves had introduced, they blamed the problems not on their bungling of the work, but on the ‘old liturgy’! How’s that for mendacious?”

Thanks be to God: not only is the usus antiquior coming back to our churches, but the authentic rites of the usus antiquior are returning as well, not their neo-Tridentine replacements. At the end of seventy years of liturgical captivity, beginning around 1948 with Pius XII’s creation of a liturgical reform commission, we are in a position to say with the psalmist: “Who shall give out of Sion the salvation of Israel? When the Lord shall have turned away the captivity of his people, Jacob shall rejoice and Israel shall be glad” (Ps 13:7). Amen, alleluia!


Originally published on May 1, 2019. This post has been updated.

[1] Prior to Pius XII’s changes, all the Holy Week liturgies were celebrated early in the day, a position they had occupied for some centuries after the Middle Ages. The liturgists, rightly or not, wanted to change their times: an evening Mass for Holy Thursday, a mid-afternoon liturgy for Good Friday, and a nighttime liturgy for the Easter Vigil. Whatever the merits or demerits of these time changes, it is clear that they did not require any change whatsoever in the actual content of the liturgical rites. Thus, today, when the pre-1955 rites are utilized, they are generally done at the later times of day.

[2] In addition to the links given above, see the excellent series at The Rad Trad, accompanied by well chosen photographs: “Palm Sunday: In the Presence of the Lord”; “Good Friday: Mass of the Pre-Sanctified”; “He Descended into Hell: Holy Saturday.” Unfortunately, this site appears to carry no analogous article for Maundy Thursday. Good editions of (most of) the liturgies for Holy Week, both pre-’55 and ’55, may be found at this site.

[3] A “dry Mass” is a liturgical rite that follows the basic structure of the Mass but culminates in a consecration of something other than the bread and wine of the Holy Eucharist.

[4] For more thoughts along these lines, see Claudio Salvucci, “‘Palm’ Sunday and the Sanctification of Creation.”

[5] See my article “How the Cistercians Can Help Us Disentangle the Washing of the Feet” for further thoughts along these lines.

[6] See Martin Mosebach, The Heresy of Formlessness (Brooklyn: Angelico Press, 2018), 127. Some places still use cushions rather than metal stands for the missal.

[7] Obviously, not sacraments of the New Law in the strict sense, which confer the grace they signify; but sacraments more broadly speaking, signs of something sacred that occasion graces for us.

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