When it comes to Holy Week, there is a chronological milestone separating two ritual variations locked in perpetual disagreement. That milestone is 1955. When it comes to the misa de aguinaldo, a similar milestone exists. That milestone is 1956. The effects of these milestones are still felt today, albeit the former is more pronounced in communities attached to the usus antiquior, while the latter, rather curiously, produced an incident that would later be a minor concern to the modern Filipino liturgical clique. Let us understand why such happened to a tradition that “we Filipinos have owned as a distinguishing mark of our faith”.
The misa de aguinaldo came to the archipelago with the Spaniards. Its natural proclivity to exuberance and solemnity many times arrested the attention of ecclesiasts to such a point that the Franciscans labouring in the Philippine vineyard, friars who belonged to the strict Alcantarine family, arguably the most beloved of all the religious corporations during the colonial era (a fact that encouraged Rizal to rank P. Dámaso Verdolagas, one of the antagonists of the Noli, among the sons of Saint Francis, if only to taint the reputation of the Minorites), banned its celebration in their mission churches as early as 1655. In 1680, in the wake of the rescript of the Sacred Congregation of Rites deploring the musical abuses in the misa de aguinaldo, the archbishop of Manila forbad its celebration. Only for his priests to resume after his death (or probably during the years he was banished from his see).
So the misa de aguinaldo survived, more or less, in parishes and cathedrals able to support the demands of the celebrations: nine days with misas cantadas, very early in the morning when the sun has not yet risen, in the light of beeswax candles, accompanied by a músico or a banda. We qualify this survival with barely. When the Spaniards left, the custom was practically dead in many places. American priests tried to resuscitate it, but made little success. All those anecdotes about all of our Catholic ancestors waking up early to hear Mass at ungodly hours nine days before Christmas—for three centuries!—should now retire to the realm of myth.
But the Philippine Church clung to her traditions. The efforts of American priests had not entirely been in vain, for these stirred that desire amongst the clergy to recover and reclaim what once was a widespread custom. The misa de aguinaldo ceased in many churches, but it did not disappear from all churches. There was local discontinuity, but there was also national continuity in general, albeit in a reduced and limited ambit. Churchmen, aware of the hiatus, began wondering whether celebrating the misa de aguinaldo was still permissible, whether recourse could still be had to the notion of immemorial custom, later framed in canon 63 § 2 of the 1917 CIC (canon 76 § 2, 1983 CIC). The rescript issued by the Sacred Congregation of Rites to Vilnius, therefore, in 1906 presented an opportunity for the Philippine Church to uphold her privilege.
This reckoning created a conflict. The 1906 rescript mentioned that Rorate Masses celebrated nine days before Christmas are allowed because they are so celebrated for a grave cause (pro re gravi). However, Spanish liturgical guides consistently denied that the misa de aguinaldo ever was for a grave cause, in their bid to qualify the 1677 rescript reproving the abuses committed in the misa de aguinaldo. Moreover, the 1586 brief of Pope Sixtus V, which attached an indulgence to the celebration of the misa de aguinaldo in Augustinian churches in the West Indies—as well as to pious prayers “for the exaltation of Holy Mother Church, for the propagation of the Catholic faith, and for the constancy of those newly converted to the faith in the aforesaid faith” in a separate preceding clause—did not categorise the misa de aguinaldo as a votive Mass pro re gravi. The reason why the misa de aguinaldo was celebrated, says the brief, was to honour the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin.
After the 1906 rescript, Filipino liturgists embraced the pro re gravi thesis. The rediscovery of the zeal for the misa de aguinaldo slowly ignited thereafter a sincere discussion of the manner and the time of its celebration, and the appurtenances pertinent thereto. Significant interest, however, in the misa de aguinaldo became only apparent again in the 1940s, based on the number of queries submitted to the Boletín Eclesiástico. The questions ran the gamut from the possibility of celebrating the Masses in the afternoon to the indispensability of the misa pastorela in the celebrations. All these questions signified one thing: a hiatus in the custom. One can judge the severity of this hiatus by considering that the queries practically continued well into the 1960s!
In 1953, the bishops of the Philippines decided to take matters in their own hands. What never before then had been done, they did. Where the misa de aguinaldo took no precedence over the Sunday or the feast of Saint Thomas (as these two conversely took no precedence over the misa de aguinaldo), the bishops acquiesced to the latter precedence. Moreover, probably in an attempt to dignify the pro re gravi thesis, they defined the res gravis for the celebration, namely, for the constancy of the Filipinos in the faith, and for the preservation of religion in the archipelago.
Seeing the bold attempt, but perhaps judging it coy in its approach, tentative in its agenda, and modest in its scope, officials of the dicastery responsible for reviewing and amending the submitted decrees—the Sacred Congregation of the Council—furthered the changes. They reconciled the misa de aguinaldo to the general rubrics. Where the misa de aguinaldo required both Gloria and Credo, they only secured the position of the Gloria. Where the misa de aguinaldo admitted no commemoration, they allowed such commemorations This produced a commotion in the Filipino liturgical establishment of that era. How can a Congregation not charged with the duty of making decisions on liturgical matters categorically issue what it thinks to be modifications to a longstanding liturgical tradition? was a question asked during this time. The reaction, as would be revealed later, tended towards deferential acceptance of the res gravis proposed by the First Plenary Council of the Philippines, but quiet disregard for the modification of the Sacred Congregation of the Council. Between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo, Filipinos still preferred the former. In a way, if only on paper, the combined actions of the Plenary Council and the Sacred Congregation reduced the misa de aguinaldo to lay state. This defrocking became formal when the Vatican recognised in 1956 the decrees of the First Plenary Council.
Naturally, when John XXIII issued Rubricarum instructum on 25 July 1960, and the Sacred Congregation of Rites promulgated Novum rubricarum the following day, Filipino bishops had to review the standing of the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo. At that time, there was no bishops’ conference yet. What we had then was the Catholic Welfare Organisation, presided at that time by the archbishop of Cebu. Mons. Julio Rosales, therefore, sent a dubium to Rome asking about the status of the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo. The Sacred Congregation of Rites promptly responded, placing the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo under an indult of five years starting in 1961. Out of the frying pan and into the fire.
The Dominicans dedicated a lengthy treatise to this subject, after the quinquennial indult was granted. Nobody gives a second glance to it perhaps because it was written in the language of the Church: Latin. The consuetudo, proper to the celebration of the misa de aguinaldo, that was changed by the Plenary Council and the Sacred Congregation, they called modificata and correcta. They would point out that the dubium was, in theory, unnecessary: because while narrating the permissions granted on the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo, as well as affirming its antiquity, Mons. Rosales actually described the celebration according to the manner of the ‘old’ misa de aguinaldo; and because the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo was actually in harmony with the reformed rubrics vis-à-vis the pro re gravi thesis. This non-necessity engendered the unusual scenario wherein the Sacred Congregation of Rites granted an indult based on an incorrectly-detailed request. Ultimately, the Dominicans concluded that while the dubium was not necessary, the quinquennial indult had to be applied and ought to be renewed according to the prevailing norms.
Under this strange new arrangement, the indult should have been up for renewal by the end of 1965. But we all know what happened in the interim: Vatican II. What with the missa normativa, the embarrassingly hurried cut-and-paste edition of liturgical texts, their equally posthaste translations, amid the muted whys and drowned hows of the faithful, the environment of the latter 60s, gravid with sincere apprehensions and blind denials, harboured such uncertainty that, in the pandemonium that it encouraged, nobody from the CWO remembered to renew the indult. Not that the renewability of an indult had an expiration date, but it was probably too late when the new Filipino liturgical establishment remembered the indult, that it decided to sweep the whole thing under the rug of oblivion, and just assume that the new order had already justified the continuation of the ‘corrected’ custom.
Having to rely on conjecture in this subject is a humbling exercise. Whatever really happened in those tumultuous years following the closure of the Council, while the liturgical reform sailed the high seas, still escapes us. The Dominican treatise left a caveat that, while the ‘new’ misa de aguinaldo was now time-bound by an indult, the right of bishops to order votive Masses had not been abrogated, implying that, if ever the indult should not be renewed or granted again, Filipino bishops could order a similar set of nine-day votive Masses analogous to the original misa de aguinaldo.
Indeed, the 50s and the 60s orphaned Christendom from so many venerable ancient customs and praiseworthy old traditions. Fortunately, for us, the ‘old’ misa de aguinaldo, untouched and untampered, has proven itself at peace in its own timeline parallel to the prevailing liturgical calendar. The Sacred Congregation of Rites already provided a simple solution to the occurrence of first-class liturgical days within the duration of the misa de aguinaldo, and it is not the omission of one of the Masses, but the celebration of the Mass mandated in the calendar more solemnly than the misa de aguinaldo. Following this, the tradition we inherited from our forefathers remains a wellspring of devotion for us to honour the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin, as we await the birth of our Saviour.
Ut in omnibus laudetur Dominus.