O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
iacentem in praesepio:
Beata Virgo, cuius viscera
meruerunt portare Dominum Christum.
What a great mystery,
what a wonderful sign,
that animals should see the Lord, new-born,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin, whose womb
was privileged to carry Christ the Lord.
∼ From the Roman Breviary, the Matins of Christmas
We’re in Rome, in the year 1572. The great Pope Pius V has passed to glory. Just one year before, the naval forces of the Holy League had crushed the superior fleets of the ever-marauding Turks at Lepanto, giving maritime Europe a chance to breathe free at last. Thereafter Pius designated the first Sunday of October to be the Feast of the Holy Rosary, after the prayers which he had bidden the soldiers to pray.
What else was there to be found in Rome? When the priests prayed, they did so from the revised Breviary that Pius had promulgated in 1570, following the recommendations of the Council of Trent. Theirs was the Mass we know as the “extraordinary rite,” that is, the ordinary rite in the Church for nearly four hundred years. What else? A young poet named Torquato Tasso, a tremendous admirer of that saintly soldier of Christ, was in the midst of conceiving and executing his epic romance of Catholic unity, Gerusalemme Liberata (Jerusalem Delivered). It will be second only to Dante’s Commedia in the illustrious history of Italian poetry.
We’re not yet in the Baroque era, but we are close. Artists have long been pushing beyond the bounds of the Roman and Greek classics they had loved so well. Michelangelo had died eight years before, and Caravaggio was yet but a small boy, but Titian, a hale ninety and over, was painting with the strokes of a French expressionist, three hundred years before their time. Giovanni Pierluigi Palestrina, the greatest composer of choral music who ever lived, was the recently appointed master of the choir at Saint Peter’s. Saint Philip Neri was there in the city too, and men and boys flocked to his “oratories,” private meditations upon Scripture, complete with musical arrangements of scriptural and devotional texts. Thus was born the musical genre we call the oratorio, and from the oratorio, the opera.
With Palestrina at that time was a young Spaniard, a deacon on his way to the priesthood. His name was Tomas Luis de Victoria. No doubt he was learning from the master; he would attend Palestrina’s funeral in Rome in 1594. From that year, 1572, comes his beloved motet O Magnum Mysterium, on the breviary text above. It is a haunting piece, beginning in a minor key with long-held notes, as if in the darkness of the night when Christ was born and laid in the manger. Its mood is one of awe in the presence of grandeur, finally spilling forth into a solemn and joyful run of alleluias. Who would sing it? Boys and men, from treble to bass. Imagine the clear voices of children ringing out within the great vast spaces under the arches and dome of Saint Mary Major, or the Sistine Chapel. It was a truly popular art, performed for the people’s feasts, and impossible to make real without the talents of ordinary lads with good voices, an ear for melody, and enough devotion to the mysteries of faith to bear them up through the long sessions of practice.
That was a phenomenal burst of Catholic creativity, artistic, musical, literary, and ecclesiastical. John of the Cross was in Avila with Teresa and the reformed Carmelites. Lope de Vega was a small boy in Madrid; Shakespeare was a mischievous young fellow in Stratford. Cervantes was already a grown man, fighting at Lepanto. Corneille, Racine, and Calderon were soon to come. Charles Borromeo was in Rome reforming the seminaries. His cousin Federigo would be the cardinal archbishop of Milan, funding the great Ambrosian library, the first truly public library in Europe. Both men were tireless servants of the poor, often putting their own lives in danger to be so. But then, Catholic missionaries were at work all over the world, in the far East, in India, in the jungles of South America, on the American plains, around the Great Lakes; learning the native languages, often defending the natives against other tribes or rapacious Europeans, teaching them to farm, to read, and to worship the living God.
It is four hundred years later.
I’m a boy in the eighth grade of Saint Thomas Aquinas School. There are 45 students in my class, slightly down from our high of 51. The school no longer exists. I have few but strong memories of Latin in the Mass. Latin has faded from people’s consciousness. Irish miners built our church. The mines have shut down, and the last coal breaking plant ceased operation a year or two before. In six years at the school, I’ve learned exactly nothing about Saint Thomas Aquinas.
I have never heard of that beautiful prayer from the Breviary. I have never heard a single piece of choral music by Palestrina, or Victoria, or Lassus, or any other Catholic composer, for that matter. My church had been covered with works of art. Some of it has been whitewashed away. A painting of angels above the sanctuary has been “renovated” to look as if the angels were floating in a bad television cartoon. The marble communion rail with mosaic Eucharistic symbols is gone.
Prayers are gone. They too were renovated into oblivion, I guess. We learned five or six in school, and that was all; the five we say for the rosary, and the Act of Contrition. The order of nuns who taught us, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, are in the midst of collapse, though we children didn’t know that yet.
I could recall the calendars that my grandmother got from De Rosa’s grocery store. They were Catholic calendars, with Sundays and holy days of obligation in red, names of the saints in black for their feast days, the emblem of a fish for each Friday and the weekdays of Lent, and the mysterious Latin word “Feria” for weekdays without a saint and outside of the great octaves. It was time, sanctified; to be replaced by time, blank.
We call those days of Luis de Victoria the Counter-Reformation, but it really was a profoundly Catholic age of renewal and vibrant creativity, a Catholic Reformation. What shall we call what we need now?
I’m not interested in blaming Martin Luther, Lukas Cranach, and Johann Sebastian Bach for the image-smashing and prayer-forgetting and time-flattening that struck my church when I was a boy. They were not responsible. If there’s a thread connecting Bach with the Gather hymnal, it’s too thin and tangled to mean anything, and I’m not going to pursue it.
I’m also not interested in blaming the specific language of the documents of Vatican II. I can’t find anything in those documents that suggested it would be good to bury the breviary, or to fail to introduce children to the Church’s treasury of prayer. If there’s a thread to follow from Sacrosanctum Concilium to whitewash, it’s too circumstantial for me, and I’m not going to pursue it.
There is, however, a thread I will pursue.
Intellectuals are the great image-smashers. Sometimes, when they fall victim to the virus of pride, they scorn anything that cannot be reduced to propositions comprehensible to their capacious three-gallon intellects. And things of the body resist that reduction. The Babe in the manger is not a theological proposition. He is an infant child swaddled against the cold, sucking upon the breast of his mother Mary. It was not given to intellectuals to behold the Child first. It was not even given to the hardscrabble shepherds. After Mary and Joseph, the creatures who enjoyed that honor were the animals in the stable: those sad and innocent animals, nosing about the manger where they were accustomed to eat their hay. Hence that amiable legend of the common people, that on midnight of that first Christmas, the animals spoke; and we can only hope that intellectuals all the world over were struck dumb for once. I too would hold my peace!
The intellectuals despised the piety of the people for being too sweet, which it sometimes was; and replaced the pastries with sawdust. Catholic prayer had been steeped in theological reflection, as in that exclamation that Victoria set to music. Now it would be merely propositional and declarative, a death valley of dry bones. We ended up with a reformation suspicious of Scripture, an enlightenment of slogans, and a democratism rigidly enforced by clerics and religious against the desires of the people. We ended up with neither Palestrina nor Sweet Sacrament; neither John of the Cross nor Alphonsus Liguori. We ended up with bare walls, bad music, forgotten devotions, and empty pews.
So it is time for a truly Catholic Renovation. Roll up the sleeves, people!
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Vision of St. Ignatius of Loyola” was painted by Peter Paul Rubens in 1617-18.