Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Fate of Septuagesima in the New Liturgy

One of the riches of the traditional Roman liturgy is the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima. This is a season during which the faithful are provided the opportunity to devoutly prepare themselves spiritually and even physically for the coming penitential season. During Septuagesima, it is the tradition to anticipate the penances of Lent with some preparatory penances of the same nature (i.e. fasting and abstinence). 

Dr. Lauren Pristas provides a brief historical overview of Septuagesima in her book on the Roman collects. The tradition of a devotional, pre-Lenten preparatory season is very ancient, dating back to the 5th century. Initially, it lasted only a few days before Lent itself began. But by the end of the 6th century, during the reign of Pope Gregory the Great, the same three weeks of Septuagesima which we now know in the Tridentine missal had become established as part of the liturgical year. A similar tradition exists in the Eastern rites.

In the new missal of Pope Paul VI, the preparatory, pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima has been completely eliminated, on the grounds that it would be difficult for the faithful to understand why Septuagesima, like Lent, is a penitential season. But in fact, as Dr. Pristas stresses, the traditional understanding of the difference between Septuagesima and Lent is that the latter is a season of obligatory penance, whereas the former is a season of simply devotional penance, for the faithful to prepare themselves for the obligatory penances of Lent. This distinction was overlooked by the authors of the new missal. And so they paid no regard to the eminent fittingness of a period of spiritual preparation for the coming penitential season. Consequently, they opted to suppress this season altogether. 

Along with this suppression came the loss of a beautiful set of collects which were prayed at the three Sunday Masses of this season. These prayers express a humble anticipation of the purgative processes of Lent, referring explicitly to the sinfulness of man and his deserved punishment, the need to be freed from the bonds of sin, the insufficiency of man’s own efforts, and the need for God’s protection. There is also a reference to St. Paul in the collect of Sexagesima Sunday, on which the Teacher of the Gentiles is specially honored. All three of these prayers are lost in the Novus Ordo. 

In what way was this loss of a centuries-old tradition conducive the genuine spiritual benefit of the Church?

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