Antiphons of Commemorations

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Antiphons of Commemorations

By Father Edward McNamara, LC

ROME, 24 February 2015 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy and dean of theology at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: I understand that all memorials (optional and obligatory) are treated as commemorations during Lent. The format for the concluding prayer at lauds and vespers is: 1) use the daily Lenten collect, omitting the conclusion; 2) add the Benedictus or Magnificat antiphon for the commemorated saint; 3) followed by the saint's prayer with its conclusion. That is clear. However, those memorials (even optional) which might fall during Lent are given antiphons in the Liturgy of the Hours books. I know that these become part of the concluding prayer during Lent, but are these antiphons used outside Lent? Rubrics would indicate that everything from the Proper of the Saints is to be used, but these antiphons seem to be included merely for use in the concluding prayer during Lent — their presence outside Lent would elevate every memorial (obligatory and optional) to a higher level than seems appropriate. — G.P., Charles Town, West Virginia

A: Our reader is correct as to the indications regarding the mode of praying the commemorations during Lent. These are found in the Principles and Norms of the Liturgy of the Hours, Nos. 237-239. He is also correct that during Lent the propers for some saints, for example, St. Casimir on March 4, have special antiphons during Lent that are absent if the celebration falls during ordinary time.

However, the rubrics do not say that these are the Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons but simply the antiphon corresponding to lauds and vespers. It is noteworthy that the usual rubrics of Benedictus/Magnificat antiphon are omitted in the breviary before these seasonal antiphons. Therefore, I do not think that they are used at the Benedictus or Magnificat but are used exclusively at the moment indicated at the end of the office.

Likewise, it is debatable whether this constitutes an elevation of the level of the saint's celebration — and this for at least two reasons.

First, the level of a commemoration of this kind is in itself quite a low ranking. Not only is it always optional, but the saint in question is barely remembered in the liturgical prayers and readings which generally follow that of the day. At Mass, only the collect of the saint is used while all the rest follows the liturgy of Lent, including the use of violet vestments. This is precisely why, when the calendar was reformed in 1969, an effort was made to transfer as many saints as possible outside the Lenten season so as to not impede their celebration.

Second, it is not clear that the presence of these antiphons is a sign of the relative importance of a celebration. It would appear that it is really a question of a particular custom regarding such celebrations during the privileged seasons. This is also true of the Mass during Lent in which the prayers over the people at the end of Mass have been reintroduced for each day of Lent in the third edition of the Latin missal and its definitive official translations such as the new English version.

Even if it were the case that these were Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons, the presence of these antiphons is more an indication of when a saint was canonized or of the historical importance of his devotion than of the importance of his or her celebration.

As a general, but not absolute, rule many ancient saints, whose devotion developed before the formal processes of canonization began, have a Benedictus and Magnificat antiphon. Some earlier saints, because of their historical importance, have very complete offices. Thus, St. Martin of Tours on Nov. 11, as perhaps the first non-martyr to enter the calendar, has a fully developed office, even more than some apostles, even though his celebration is a memorial and not a feast.

Once formal canonization processes began, however, it appears that in most cases the offices of the earlier canonized saints is limited to the second reading and the collect while those canonized in the last century or so are more likely to have these antiphons. Thus, in October the memorial of St. Thérèse of Lisieux on Oct. 1 has such special antiphons, while that of St. Teresa of Avila on Oct. 15 does not. As far as I know, nobody has suggested that the celebration of Teresa is of a lesser category than the younger Thérèse.

Most optional memorials do not have these antiphons; however, even here there are exceptions. St. Martin of Porres, celebrated on Nov. 3 and canonized by Pope St. John XXIII in 1962, has Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons.

Therefore, I think we can safely conclude that the presence or absence of these antiphons does not reflect the category of celebration.

* * *

Follow-up: Antiphons of Commemorations [3-24-2015]

Pursuant to our Feb. 24 piece on Antiphons and commemorations a reader from St. Louis, Missouri, made the following observation:

"I agree on all points with your answers in 'Antiphons of Commemorations.' I did want to bring to your attention a strange anomaly, which I think was probably an oversight on the part of the compilers of the Liturgia Horarum, but which does lend weight to the idea that these optional commemorations are sometimes given undue emphasis. The current breviary does give antiphons and collects on Dec. 29 and 31 for St. Thomas Becket and St. Sylvester I, respectively, so that they may be liturgically commemorated at vespers on those days in the octave of the Nativity. However, for the three feasts which occur during the same octave, no commemoration is allowed at vespers (Dec. 26, 27 and 28, for St. Stephen, St. John and the Holy Innocents). This seems very strange."

At first it would appear to be an anomaly, considering that the octaves of Easter and Christmas usually exclude all other celebrations except, in the case of Christmas, those traditionally associated with Christmastide mentioned by our reader.

However, it is also curious that, rather than the unspecified antiphons given for before the closing prayer for the Lenten celebrations, the breviary offers proper Benedictus and Magnificat antiphons for St. Thomas Becket and Benedictus antiphon for St. Sylvester as the vespers will be that of the solemnity of the Mother of God.

I can only suppose that the reasoning behind this is the following. Unlike Easter, the Christmas
octave is not a movable feast and, therefore, if the general criteria were applied, then these saints could never be celebrated at all. Since there are probably countries and places that have a pastoral interest in celebrating these feast days, then they retained their traditional liturgical elements. It remains true, however, that unlike the other three saints days mentioned by our reader, these are always optional and not obligatory in the universal Church and are not therefore of a higher character.

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