Here is the last article I dashed off for The Wanderer about the Sunday after Ascension Thursday in the 1972 Missale Romanum:
What Does the Prayer Really Say? Sunday after Ascension Thursday (1962 Missale Romanum)
During Pope Benedict’s apostolic visit to the USA I followed very carefully the Holy Masses he celebrated and pondered the question: What does this prayer really say? I am not so concerned with the texts or their translations. What most interested me was the liturgical style, the manner of celebration which the 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist and Pope Benedict in Sacramentum caritatis called ars celebrandi. Necessarily such a consideration had to focus intensely on the choice of music, which the Second Vatican Council calls pars integrans, an “integral” or better “integrating part” in the liturgy.
The Mass at Nationals Stadium near Washington, D.C., betrayed the worst tendencies of liturgy and liturgical music that have devastated our Church since the liturgical reforms of Vatican II began to go off the rails. The Mass and music, seemingly inspired by the laudable theme Benedict himself proposed repeatedly during his visit – that of a new anointing by the Holy Spirit for the renewal of the American Church and our whole nation – were blatantly so focused on how wonderful and diverse we all are that there was little room left for the true purpose of liturgical worship: an experience of mystery… awe at transcendence. The in-your-face multiculturalism left little room for anything else. Of course there were ways in which people who attended were moved by the moment! They were inspired by being with Peter and praying with him together with many others. But from what I can tell the wider reaction, especially in the Catholic blogosphere, was shock. It struck me that for his first visit to the United States as Pope, perhaps someone could have read at least something of what Papa Ratzinger has written consistently about liturgy and music over the last few decades.
After that profound disappointment, I was genuinely pleased by what the Archdiocese of New York organized for the Holy Father’s Masses in St. Patrick’s Cathedral and then in the Stadium in the Bronx (I avoid naming the associated team in conjunction with the Pope). The music chosen was elegant, the liturgical movement dignified. The fact that a Mass was celebrated inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral underscored how cathedrals are for Mass while stadiums are for baseball. For the Mass in the Bronx, there was none of the silly pandering to the false assumption that young people need edgy “tunes” at Mass or they won’t be engaged, or that every possible ethnic group ever to tread the Land of the Free had to receive a musical head nod. Limit youth to the ephemeral, and they will walk away thinking that anything having to do with the Faith can change with the times. Pigeon-hole peoples by musical styles during Mass and you risk being condescending or insulting.
In the balance, after experiencing those three papal Masses, what did the prayer really say? I was left with the impression, shared by others in the Catholic blogosphere such as WDTPRS’s friends over at The New Liturgical Movement, that perhaps the liturgical tide has begun to shift. The sharp contrast between the first Mass at Nationals Stadium and then, well, everything after that, brought me hope.
Since Pope Benedict ascended to the See of Peter, he has been making changes to the papal ceremonies. Nationals Stadium reminded me of the old days of former master of ceremonies H.E. Archbishop Piero Marini, and Masses riddled with what are now seen as clichés left over from the goofy years of liturgies so oozing with stuck-in-the-moment “relevance” or apse-backward inculturation that they entirely rupture the aim of Catholic worship. The New York Masses were fresher, informed with Benedict’s ideal of liturgical continuity with our tradition. They revealed also his new spirit of the liturgy, which he has been gently proffering for decades, which the new master of ceremonies Msgr. Guido Marini has been patiently implementing item by item. Benedict’s new and fresh liturgical continuity, now profoundly accelerated by the fruits of Summorum Pontificum, are springing forth in cathedrals and parishes throughout USA and in the world. Ad orientem worship is slowly turning congregations away from themselves and toward the Lord. Latin is no longer so stigmatized. People are exploring again the advantages of silence, of Gregorian chant, of polyphony. Communion received on the tongue and kneeling is more and more seen as the appropriate physical response to the reality of the Most Holy Eucharist.
Sure there is a lot yet to be done, and some traditional Catholics might have wanted even more. But once upon a time I would have been thrilled to hear a Palestrina Sicut cervus or some Gregorian chant. After the Holy Father left Washington, we had a steady stream from our Church’s magnificent treasury of integrating sacred music. In the contrast, I think, is the lesson about what the Holy Father’s Masses really say for the future of Catholic worship.
This time following Easter can be confusing. In the post-Conciliar, Novus Ordo calendar by all rights we ought to be observing the 7th Sunday of Easter. However, some years ago the Holy See allowed that conferences of bishops could (they don’t have to… nor I believe do individual bishops) transfer the celebration of Ascension Thursday to the following Sunday. I call this chimera “Ascension Thursday Sunday”. I know, I know, … the bishops hope to expose more people to the mystery of the Ascension of the Lord. Since Ascension Thursday has always been and still is (as per the 1983 Code of Canon Law c. 1246) a Holy Day of Obligation, they also may have wanted to lift the burden of going to Mass twice in a week. This same calendrical tinkering occurs in the Novus Ordo with Epiphany which properly ought to be twelve days after Christmas (“Twelfth Night”).
WDPTRS remains suspicious that when expectations are lowered, people get the idea that Holy Days of Obligation just aren’t very important. Maybe none of it is important.
The other problem is, frankly, the arrogant novelty of displacing so ancient a Christian feast. We read in Holy Scripture that nine days, not six, intervened between the Lord’s physical ascent to the Father’s right hand and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Ascension Thursday was fixed at the 40th day after Easter from about the end of the 4th century. In the Latin West, St. Augustine of Hippo (+430) called it Quadragesima (“fortieth”) Ascensionis. In the Greek East, St. Gregory of Nyssa spoke of it in 388. That’s only a 16 century tradition. Eastern Christians haven’t transferred Ascension. What must they think of us?
But let’s be more positive. With the third, 2002 edition of the Missale Romanum we have once again a Mass for the Vigil of Ascension. This wasn’t in the 1970 or 1975 editions. Moreover, there are now proper Masses for days after Ascension until Pentecost, most having alternative collects depending on whether or not in that region Ascension is transferred to Sunday. Nine days? Six?
Today’s prayer survived the Consilium’s scissor and gluepot ministrations to live in the 2002 Missale Romanum as the alternative Collect for Mass on the day of Ascension. Rather, the Collect rose to new life in the 2002 edition. It wasn’t in the 1970MR or 1975MR. We can spin this positively: someone considered Ascension Thursday Sunday important enough to merit special attention. In a sense it was brought into greater continuity with the pre-Conciliar Missale Romanum!
Today’s Collect is ancient, and is found in the Liber sacramentorum Gellonensis.
COLLECT – (1962MR):
Concede, quaesumus, omnipotens Deus:
ut, qui hodierna die Unigenitum tuum Redemptorem nostrum
ad caelos ascendisse credimus;
ipsi quoque mente in caelestibus habitemus.
Our hard working Lewis & Short Dictionary can have a little rest today, I think. There is nothing especially noteworthy in the vocabulary. Let us therefore move on to a straight-forward…
Grant, we beseech You, Almighty God,
that we, who believe Your Only Begotten Son our Redeemer,
to have ascended on this day to heaven,
may ourselves also dwell in mind amongst heavenly things.
Bl. Abbot Columba Marmion, OSB (+1923), wrote in Christ in His Mysteries that “of all the feasts of Our Lord … the Ascension is the greatest, because it is the supreme glorification of Christ Jesus.” Then, speaking about the very Collect we are looking at today, Bl. Columba says, “This prayer first of all testifies to our faith in the mystery in recalling the title ‘Only-begotten Son’ and ‘Redeemer’, given to Jesus, the Church shows forth the reasons for the celestial exaltation of her Bridegroom;—she finally denotes the grace therein contained for our souls. … The mystery of Jesus Christ’s Ascension is represented to us in a manner suitable to our nature: we contemplate the Sacred Humanity rising from the earth and ascending visibly towards the heavens.”
Of course it is not only Christ’s humanity but our humanity that ascended into heaven. Preaching on 1 June 444 St. Pope Leo I “the Great” said, “Truly it was a great and indescribable source of rejoicing when, in the sight of the heavenly multitudes, the nature of our human race ascended over the dignity of all heavenly creatures, to pass the angelic orders and to be raised beyond the heights of archangels. In its ascension it did not stop at any other height until this same nature was received at the seat of the eternal Father, to be associated on the throne of the glory of that One to whose nature it was joined in the Son.”
Leo says in another sermon of 17 May 445, “This Faith, reinforced by the Ascension of the Lord and strengthened by the gift of the Holy Spirit, has not been terrified by chains, by prison, by exile, by hunger, by fire, by the mangling of wild beasts, nor by sharp suffering from the cruelty of persecutors. Throughout the world, not only men but also women, not just immature boys but also tender virgins, have struggled on behalf of this Faith even to the shedding of their blood. This Faith has cast out demons, driven away sicknesses, and raised the dead.” The knowledge that our humanity is now enjoying heaven can work wonders for us in the hour of need. Keep this in mind in time of trial.
We Catholics know that what was not assumed, was not redeemed (St. Gregory of Nazianzus). Our humanity, body and soul, was taken by the Son into an unbreakable bond with His divinity. When Christ rose from the tomb, our humanity rose in Him. When He ascended to heaven, so also did we. In Christ our humanity now sits at the Father’s right hand. His presence there is our great promise and hope. It is already fulfilled, but not yet in its fullness. That hope informs our trials in this life.
When the Lord ascended to heaven He did not lose touch with us His people in this vale of tears. St. Augustine in s. 341 talks about Christ’s presence in every word of Scripture as Word equal to the Father; or as the mediator in the flesh dwelling in our midst; or Christ as the Head and Body together as in a spousal relationship, Christ and His Church intimately bound.
This means that Christ is not insensible to our sufferings. Our faith in this unbreakable bond of Head and Body calls us to be clean and worthy of this saving intimacy.