Motu Proprio et Catena Aurea

As many are already aware, on 7 July Pope Benedict XVI released a letter entitled Summorum Pontificum (unofficial translation here, translation of the accompanying explanatory letter here), given motu proprio, that is, “of his own accord,” and not necessarily in consultation with any others. It is a decree of the Roman shepherd to all his flock. In it, Pope Benedict essentially derestricts a particular edition of the Tridentine Latin Mass, particularly (and only, by the way) that of Blessed Pope John XXIII promulgated in 1962. Since 1970, a newer edition of the Mass, called the Novus Ordo, the official edition of which is Latin but which is also more often celebrated in various approved vernacular translations, has been the standard, with the Tridentine Mass celebrated outside Rome in only a relatively few places which have received special permission for it. Pope Benedict’s motu proprio and explanatory letter make clear that the older mass was never abrogated, and encourages its use by making it easier for individual priests to celebrate it, and for groups of parishioners to request it. He charitably avoids blaming any of his subordinate bishops for being too stingy in their permission to allow celebration of the older form of mass, some of whom would apparently rather have clowns dancing through the sanctuary than ever allow an ancient form of the mass to be celebrated in Latin. The liturgical world for such people begins in 1970, while for many, they likely felt it ended. This recent derestriction of the older mass will hopefully be taken up by many in the months and years ahead. May their lives be greatly enriched by it!

Some of my readers no doubt wonder, “Why does he care? He’s Orthodox!” Well, I grew up Roman Catholic, and I dimly remember the old mass, though once I was old enough, I was an altar boy in the early seventies, when the bearded priests in sandals with guitars liked to have mass in the school gyms, all this with the new mass. I thought it wretched (the flippancy, not the mass!), and I was just a kid. How awful the older faithful must have felt! Just thinking about it, putting yourself in their shoes, is enough to break your heart. Anyhow, that wasn’t all. It also seemed that as the new way of doing things became more established, the old Catholic institutions, neighborhoods, and family traditions just started dying and disappearing. I don’t think anyone is nuts who thinks that there’s a link between those events. Anyhow, aside from all that, there is a patristic link here, and that’s why I’m writing this.

One thing that happened with the introduction of the Novus Ordo mass by Pope Paul VI was the change of the liturgical calendar. For whatever reason, feast days were shifted, and the lectionary readings changed from a cycle of one year of readings to a three-year cycle. Formerly, using a Tridentine Missal, one could find a wealth of context in which the readings were expanded and interpreted through hymnography and commentary, through the inclusion of Patristic sermons, and references to all these elements of the mass in external works could be quickly located, for even such mundane things as dating historical letters or sermons which mention readings or hymns recently sung. These readings, roughly the same for about 1000 years, were well-known, and sermons and other helps were established according to their patterns for the use of the pious and scholars (which in the past were not necessarily separate, mind you!). One of these is the Catena Aurea, the Golden Chain, compiled by St Thomas Aquinas, which arranges scholia, or short commentary passages, of various Greek and Latin Church Fathers on the four Gospels. Other compilations of sermons of different Fathers, called sermonaria, were compiled from late antiquity through the middle ages, and even up into the modern period. All of these were arranged according to the old Roman festal calendar, the same used in the Tridentine Mass. Familiarity and use of these magnificent Patristic resources is therefore both easier and more encouraged when one is immersed in and familiar with the older Tridentine Mass. For one reason, they are arranged for readings that exist in the older lectionary’s scheduled readings, but the new lectionary is entirely different. It is seldom that the passages covered actually coincide exactly, and when they do, they do not follow the same order. One great work that I mentioned recently, The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers: A Manual of Preaching, Spiritual Reading and Meditation, translated and edited by Father M. F. Toal and originally published in the fifties, is precisely this kind of work. This four-volume set is arranged according to the old Roman liturgical calendar, and although on the front endpapers of each volume of the edition published in 2000 are printed a “Table of Sermons that contain all or part of the Sunday and Holy Day Gospels in the Vatican II Lectionary,” 102 out of 198 of the listed readings show “none” as the location in the volumes. (For comparison’s sake, only 3 of the readings included in the Roman calendar and thereby the Toal commentary are not reflected in the Eastern Orthodox lectionary in whole or in part.) That is, more than half the new three-year cycle includes Gospel readings that were not in the old lectionary, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes these older resources less easily adapted and thereby less immediately useful and valuable in the new context, despite the fact that they are extremely valuable resources. This shows the near futility of utilizing those works, the patrimony of centuries, in the new system. Along with every Gospel reading for the old Roman calendar, one of the great things included in the Toal volumes is the first English translation of St Thomas Aquinas’ Catena Aurea into English. The passages from the Catena Aurea are followed by lengthy passages of commentary by such luminaries of the Church as St Ephrem the Syrian, St Basil the Great, and St Augustine.

So, in honor of Pope Benedict’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, here is Toal’s translation of the Catena Aurea for the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, when the Gospel Reading is Matthew 7.15-21 in the old Roman lectionary. As St John Chrysostom said at the end of his exile, Glory to God for all things!

V. 15 Beware of false prophets
CHRYSOSTOM, Op. Imp. 19: Earlier the Lord had told the Apostles they should not pray, give alms, or fast, before other men as hypocrites do. And that they may know that all these things can be done out of hypocrisy He says: Beware of false prophets.

AUGUSTINE, Sermon on the Mount, 2, 24, 78: When the Lord said that they are few who enter the narrow gate and the strait way, lest heretics, who sometimes pride themselves on their fewness in numbers, should put themselves in this place, He immediately adds: Beware of false prophets.

CHRYSOSTOM, Hom. 24 in Matt: Because it is said that the gate is narrow, and that they are many who block the way that leads to it, He adds: Beware of false prophets. And so that in this they might exercise great caution He reminds them of what happened in their fathers’ time, using the phrase, false prophets. For then such things happened.

CHRYSOSTOM, Op. Imp. on Mt. Hom. 19: What was written a little later; namely, that the prophets and the Law prophesied until John (Mt. xi. 13) was said because there would be no prophecy regarding Christ after He came. Prophets there were and are; but they do not prophecy of Christ, they interpret what was foretold of Christ by the ancients: that is, the Teachers of the Churches. Nor can any one interpret the meaning of prophecy unless through the Spirit of prophecy.

The Lord therefore, knowing that there would be false teachers, warns them of the various heresies to come, by saying: Beware of false prophets. And as these would not be obvious unbelievers, but persons cloaked with the name of Christian, He did not say: Look well at them, but, Beware. For where a thing is certain it is seen; that is, it may readily be seen. But when it is uncertain it is looked at, or watched carefully. And again He says, Beware: for to know whom to shun is a firm safeguard of security. He does not warn us to beware as though the devil will introduce heresies against God’s will, and not by His permission. For since He will not choose His servants without trial, He permits them to be tempted. And as He wills that they should not suffer through ignorance He therefore warns them.

And so that no heretical teacher may say, that He did not say here they were the false prophets, but rather the teachers from both Gentiles and Jews, He goes on to add: Who come to you in the clothing of sheep. For Christians are spoken of as sheep; and the sheep’s clothing is their outward pretence of Christianity and pretended religion. There is nothing that so menaces what is good as pretence. For evil that is hidden under the outward appearance of God is not guarded against, since it is not known.

And that heretics may not here say that He is speaking of those who are true teachers, but also sinners, He adds this: But inwardly they are ravening wolves. Catholic teachers, though they have been sinners, are not spoken of as ravening wolves, but as servants of the flesh: for they do not seek to destroy other Christians. He therefore is manifestly speaking of heretical teachers: for it is to this end that they put on the garb of Christian; that they may rend Christians with the evil fangs of their seductions. And of these the Apostles said: I know that after my departure, ravening wolves will enter in among you, not sparing the flock (Acts xx. 29).

CHRYSOSTOM, Hom. 24 in Matt: Yet He seems to imply that the false prophets are not the heretics, but those who put on the cloak of virtue, while in heart they are corrupt. So He therefore says:

V. 16. By their fruits you shall know them etc.
For often you will find goodness of life among heretics; but among those I speak of this is never the case.

AUGUSTINE, Sermon on the Mount, 2, 24, pars. 80, 81: And for this reason it may rightly be asked: What fruits does He wish us to seek for? For many hold as fruit certain things that belong to the sheep’s clothing, and in this way they are deceived by the wolves. As for example: fasting, alms, prayer, which they practice before men who seek to find favour with those to whom such things seem difficult. These practices therefore are not the fruits by which, He warns us, they are to be known. For such actions, done with a right intention, are part of the clothing of the sheep. When they are done with evil purpose, in deception, they clothe none other than wolves. But sheep must not for this hate their own clothing; because it sometimes conceals a wolf. What the fruits are by which we may know an evil tree the Apostle then teaches us: The works of the flesh are manifest, which are fornication, uncleanness. And what the fruits are by which we shall know a good tree, the same Apostle makes known to us, saying: But the fruit of the Spirit is charity, joy, peace (Gal. v. 19, 22).

CHRYSOSTOM, Op. Imp: The confession of his faith is also part of the fruits of man. For he who cries out according to God, with the voice of true humility, and true confession of faith, is a sheep. But he who utters blasphemies against the truth, and howls against God, is a wolf.

JEROME: And what is here said of false prophets can also be understood of all who say one thing in word and manner and another in deed. Yet it seems to be said more particularly of heretics, who are seen to clothe themselves with continence and fasting as with a sort of garb of piety, but inwardly their spirit is poisoned; and so the hearts of simpler brethren are deceived.

AUGUSTINE, as above, 2, 12, par. 41: But we can guess from their works whether they practice these outward things for a particular purpose. For when under certain trials these very things begin to be taken from them, or denied them, which they have either obtained or hoped to obtain under this veil, then of necessity it will appear whether it is a case of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or a sheep in its own clothing.

GREGORY: The hypocrite is also kept hidden through the peace the Church enjoys; and so he seems to our eyes clothed in the garb of true piety. But should a trial of faith arise, at once the ravening soul of the wolf throws off its sheep’s clothing; showing by persecution how great is his hatred of the good.

CHRYSOSTOM: in Hom: Hypocrites are easily detected; for the way they are bidden to walk is painful to them. And a hypocrite does not readily choose what is painful. And so that you may not say that it is impossible to know them He gives us proof from human experience, saying: Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

CHRYSOSTOM: Op. Imp: The grape contains within it the mystery of Christ. For as the cluster has many grapes joined by the wood of the stalk, so Christ has many faithful joined by the wood of the Cross. The fig however stands for the Church, which holds the multitude of faithful in the sweet embrace of charity, as the fig contains so many seeds within its single covering.

The fig therefore stands for: charity in its sweetness, unity in its joining of many seeds. In the grape we have a figure of patience, in that it goes through the winepress; of joy, in that wine rejoices the heart of man; of sincerity, because it is unmixed with water; and of sweetness, in that it is delectable.

The thistles and thorns are heretics. As a thistle or a thorn has prickles on every side, so the servants of the devil, on whatever side you consider them, are filled with perversity. Such thorns and thistles can never bring forth the fruits of the Church. And what He has said under the figure of the fig and the grape, of the thistle and the thorn, He shows to be true in all cases, when He says:

V. 16: Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit . . .
AUGUSTINE, as above, 2, 23, par. 79: In this place we must be on our guard agains those who say that the two trees refer to the two natures; the one of God, and the other which is not of God. These must be told that the two trees are no help to them. For it is clear to any one who reads what precedes this and what follows it that here he is speaking of mankind.

AUGUSTINE, City of God, 12, 4


  1. Does the motu proprio bring with it a permission to use the old lectionary instead of the new? I would find this surprising. (I have attended one Tridentine rite Mass since my childhood, and it seemed to me that the readings were from the new lectionary.)

  2. I think on (brief) reflection my previous post makes no sense. The rite and the lectionary are not so easily separated. (Or are they?) But if that is right, I am fairly troubled by the thought of a substantial set of Catholics using a different set of readings every Sunday — and will the feasts be different for Tridentine rite Catholics too? That seems hard to understand.

    Any Catholic who regularly attends a Tridentine rite Mass can easily answer the factual questions here. I am genuinely interested but also troubled by the possible answers, as noted above.

  3. I am not sure why the Tridentine rite Mass which you attended used the new lectionary, but this is definitely the exception, not the norm. Those using the 1962 missal also use the 1962 lectionary and follow the calendar employed in 1962. This, of course, means that they are often times celebrating various feasts and fasts at different times of year than those following the 1970 missal and the revised 1970 calendar.

  4. Greg DeLassus

    Thanks. I was probably mistaken about what readings were used. The whole Mass was pretty new to me (though I have some vague memories from my childhood). And my memory may be incorrect as well, as this was a couple of years ago.

    But that does raise an interesting, and to me somewhat troubling set of questions. That is, I can see here an argument that the widespread use of the 1962 missal would contribute to disunity. There is a certain element of unity brought about by celebrating the same feasts and fasts on the same days, and reading the same set of readings, and this would go lacking under widespread use of the 1962 missal.

  5. I could also see how such a discrepancy between the two communities in the one Roman rite might create a disunity. That is the obvious argument against it. On the other hand, it seems to me that this could be fairly easily cleared up simply by standardizing the two calendars. In other words, one could imagine a world wherein some folks attended a Mass that was celebrated according to the 1962 rubrics and others attended a Mass celebrated according to the 1970 rubrics, but both used the same calendar and lectionary. This would involve only minor work to make the necessary revisions. On the other hand, if the Tridentine indult simply remains (as it is presently) a very small exception to the much larger Novus Ordo rule, I am not sure that the matter rises to the level of importance necessary to justify even that small effort.

  6. Hi guys (good to “see” you again, Greg). I don’t think the unity issue is that stark. After all, the 1962 calendar is that of Rome, which hasn’t changed, and all other national calendars are allowed a certain amount of flexibility. I personally can’t accept the idea that a major feast would be “moved” from its actual calendar day to the nearest Sunday, which I’ve heard is quite common. That’s entirely unheard of in Orthodox circles, where, as I’m sure is similar to Roman Catholic practice, there is much variety between parishes and national churches in which saints are celebrated on any given day.

    There is absolutely no way to mesh the 1962 and 1970 lectionaries. The former is a one-year cycle (which I’ll put up on my website soon) and the latter is a three-year cycle (see this page, and look under “Modern Western Lectionaries” for a comparison table for the readings between the 1970 lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the 1979 Episcopal Lectionary). Much more of the New Testament is read over the three years with the 1970 lectionary, of course, but in individually shorter pericopes.

    Unity lies in communion, not in rite. This is the same for us Orthodox, where we have Western Rite (using an adjusted form of the liturgies included in the 1928 Book of Common Prayer), and where we have whole swaths of the Orthodox world using what is called the Revised Julian Calendar (currently in sync with the Gregorian calendar, but with different intercalation rules for leap years which will result in a difference in a few hundred years) and others using the old Julian Calendar, which is still used by the majority of Orthodox. The two calendars are 13 days apart. Aside from some schismatic groups who think the calendar more important than anything else, we’re all still in unity of communion.

  7. I personally can’t accept the idea that a major feast would be “moved” from its actual calendar day to the nearest Sunday, which I’ve heard is quite common. That’s entirely unheard of in Orthodox circles, where, as I’m sure is similar to Roman Catholic practice…

    Kudos to the Orthodox, that. It is left to the discretion of individual bishops whether or not to move the feast, but the majority of U.S. Catholic bishops avail themselves of this option far too often, in my own opinion. The idea that we cannot trouble ourselves to attend (for instance) the Mass of the Assumption on a weekday should be cause for real consternation, not an insoucient “oh well, we’ll just celebrate it next Sunday instead.”

    In any event, I agree that the calendar need not be a source of stark division. The problem is that it can be if enough folks want to make it so. It would be a touch naive to suppose that the divisions between those who go to a Tridentine Mass and those who worship at a Novus Ordo Mass are simply matters of liturgical taste. We Tridentine types (yes, I very much include myself in that category) are regrettably given to make mountains out of molehills for the sake of a well intentioned but (often times) misbegotten suspicion of anything that developed after Vatican II. In point of fact, I do not expect this sort of calendar war to spring up in the wake of the motu proprio, but I would have to say that experience shows that Mr Kremer is not entirely crazy to think of such things.

  8. Yes, of course, it’s a possible problem. God forbid that you should end up with something like the Orthodox calendar fanatical schismatics. Mr Kremer is certainly not crazy to worry about it, but I don’t think that’s as likely to be an issue as it is to simply get bishops and priests to accept Summorum Pontificum.

    I think that you (meaning you and all other “Tridentine types”) will eventually find that not having to fight anymore for your patrimony will lessen the animosity and frustration, however forcibly damped down it may be by charity and faithfulness to less generous bishops. Hopefully, too, the bishops and priest will take the example of the generous spirit of His Holiness Pope Benedict’s order to heart, and reflect that generosity in their supportive implementation of plans for wider usage of the older form, which is certainly “extraordinary” as I recall! One already, unfortunately, sees responses to the motu proprio that run counter to that generosity, with many preferring a “spirit of Vatican II” to the living Spirit of generosity at work in their current Pontiff and his illustrious predecessor. Pray for the best, but at least you no longer have to prepare for or accept the worst!

  9. I’ve just posted a table of the readings in the Tridentine lectionary. You can see how very different it is by comparing it with the three-year cycle of the current post-Vatican II lectionary in the First Reading, Psalms, Second Reading, and Gospel Reading. Those latter are actually comparison tables of the 1970/1998 Roman Catholic lectionary, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the Episcopalian Book of Common Prayer 1979 lectionary. The Roman Catholic readings are in red because the gigantic lectionary volume I was consulting had a red cover, just as my copy of the Revised Common Lectionary has a green cover, and the copy of the Book of Common Prayer I consulted had a blue cover.

  10. It was heartening to reread that selection from the Sunday Sermons of the Fathers. I, like you, have a set of Fr. Toal’s indispensable work on my desk. Unfortunately, I think Regnery was using a little hyperbole when it claimed it was the first English translation of the Catena. As a matter of fact, Cardinal Newman got together a team of translators to work out the very first translation almost 100 years before Fr. Toal’s. Newman’s is a complete translation of the Catena, whereas Fr. Toal’s is of course only for those Gospel selections used in the extraodrinary form.

    You may be interested to know that I am serializing in my blog a part revision and part new translation of the Catena, following the Sunday lectionary of the ordinary form. I’m almost one year into it, which leaves me over two years before I’m finished. I hope I’m not alone in this endeavor, since there are far better translators of medieval Latin out there than me. But it’s a work worth doing in any case.

  11. Thanks for the clarification! I had noticed some time after posting this that there were other translations of the Catena Aurea, so simply assumed that Fr Toal’s emphasis was on the complete translation of the Gospel readings. I wonder how he managed to miss Newman’s translation? How odd.

    Good job on your translation! That sounds like the best of fun! You should get someone to publish that when you’re done. I think it would be immensely useful, and likely quite popular.

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