Sunday, May 19, 2013

Perspective on the Breviarium Romanum.

Much time is spent analyzing the reform of the Roman Mass. This is understandable given that the liturgy of the Mass is the most common Christian liturgy and subject to the most exposure. By comparison, scant time and attention have been given to the reform of the Breviarium Romanum to the Liturgia Horarum. What has been written is either an overview of the changes, an introduction to the new liturgy of the hours or a polemical piece decrying the old use and overly lauding new divine office.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in the middle.

I recently visited Baronius's website to look up information on their much praised but indefinitely out of print three volume Latin-English Roman Breviary. Baronius, to its credit, included a review from Alcuin Reid. Reid notes, as any careful author should, that one must be careful not too treat the Breviarium Romanum as the pinnacle of canonical prayer, so far as the divine office is concerned. The Breviarium Romanum in force until the promulgation of Paul VI's Liturgia Horarum has its faults. Reid notes,

"Indeed, this reviewer would say that aspects of them were radical, and that to apply the adjective “traditional” to elements of the Pius X Breviary is not possible. They are “authoritative,” certainly, but, for example, to abolish the tradition of praying the Laudate psalms (Pss 148-150) each morning at Lauds—which tradition in all likelihood Our Lord himself observed according to Jewish custom—is no small matter. So too, to retain Pope Urban VIII’s awful revision of the Latin breviary hymns (in both the 1911 and 1961 editions) is hardly “traditional.” The 1963 Breviarium Monasticum, which never suffered these injuries, would be much more deserving of the epithet."
We need, then, to keep some perspective when analyzing the pre-Conciliar Breviarium Romanum. While I would not necessarily agree with Reid's stance regarding the pre-Conciliar Breviary's distance from the tradition, one cannot ignore that it contained elements of departure from antiquity. This being said, Pius X's reforms had, at their heart, the aim of restoring the ancient practice of reciting all 150 psalms in a weekly cursus, something that had been lost in the Roman Office and is the heart of the structure of canonical prayer.

This is to say nothing of the mangled hymns of Urban VIII, a point at which the Liturgia Horarum actually has a leg up on the traditional breviary. A point which quickly becomes moot when one considers the mangled psalter of the the Liturgia Horarium. Dividing the psalter up over four weeks denudes the hours of their contemplative vigor. Removing verses or whole psalms out of consideration for the sensibilities of late 20th century Western culture strips the psalter of its dynamism. Yet, these decisions, as with the decision to restore the ancient texts of the Latin hymns, were in reaction to very real deficiencies in the "Tridentine" books. The secular clergy were bound to a daily office that in toto did not necessarily correspond to the life of a diocesan cleric. The then burgeoning success with vespers, thanks in large part to the liturgical movement, demonstrated that the divine office assuredly had a place outside of the monastery, although some questioned the rationale for making the office obligatory in its full mammoth form.

Be this as it may, when one compares the Breviarium Romanum with its successor, one cannot deny that something has been lost. Rather than simply add options which could abbreviate certain hours, the decision was made to fundamentally alter the essence of the divine office. Reid's observation, however, should pull the astute reader back from the temptation to "divinize" the old office and ascribe if with heraldry it does not entirely merit.

One could argue that beginning with the revised hymns of Urban VIII, the Roman breviary functioned as a sort of forum for all of the more modernizing tendencies in Western Christianity. The old Roman customs ever so gradually disappeared at the behests of the sensibilities of the age, culminating in the full recast of the Roman office after Vatican II.

This is all to say, and I'm not certain Reid would agree with me here (in fact, I assume he would not) that we must be very careful when we lionize the so-called "Tridentine" liturgy as the pinnacle of liturgical development. To be true, my preference is for the old books. This preference is with the qualification that the liturgical movement, at its peak through the 20s and 40s, was correct in its aims at the time. The Roman liturgical books were a treasure that had been corroded through centuries of misuse and neglect. The goal was restoration of the books to an earlier praxis, not a reform of the books to a new sensibility. The hope was that such a restoration would make the liturgy itself, without the cavalcade of pious devotions, an access point for theological breadth and divine encounter. This is all predicated upon the conviction that the Traditional liturgy as it was commonly celebrated was an aberration from the way the Traditional liturgy should have actually been executed and experienced.

Perhaps more so than the Roman Mass, the Roman Office has really taken it on the chin in the process of liturgical reform. Although, when one has the proper perspective, one sees how the Liturgia Horarum cannot be isolated from liturgical tendencies that had already left their mark in the "Tridentine" breviary. Yet, the Breviarium Romanum illustrates what role the Traditonal liturgy should have in our contemporary context. By keeping proper perspective on the Traditional books as they came to us in their "Tridentine" form, we can inform ourselves as to what was lost without going so far so as to enshrine an expression of the Traditional liturgy that itself veered from the oldest documented exemplars of praxis.