Redding the purple

The biggest decisions that ended up changing the Palm Sunday liturgy happened on a Tuesday evening, on 11 May 1954, in the residence of Cardinal Gaetano Cicognani, Prefect of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, which was in the Pontifical Spanish College. The 40th meeting of the Commission for the General Reform of the Liturgy, formed by Pius XII on 28 May 1948, started at 05:30 that evening, with the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting.

Two matters were in order for this day: the first was the feast of Saint Mary Magdalene; the second, Palm Sunday. After the Magdalene affair, Father Josef Löw, C. Ss. R., distributed to the members a report, which he prepared in collaboration with then-Father Ferdinando Giuseppe Antonelli, O. F. M., containing the historical exposition and the general principles of the reformed rite, that foresees the simplification of the blessing of the palms, and the reappreciation of the primitive notion of a solemn homage to Christ the King, something which by then was no longer very clear. Two new collects, one for the blessing of the palms, and another for the conclusion of the procession, were also prepared and proposed. The structure of the Mass remained intact. The Commission was favourable to the proposal.

Dom Joaquín Anselmo María Albareda y Ramoneda, O. S. B., member of the Commission, then made a distinction between the blessing of palms (the first part, the dry Mass) and the Mass itself (the second part) of Palm Sunday, and proposed, to enact said distinction, situating the entire blessing of palms outside the church, just like the blessing of fire on Holy Saturday. The Commission, however, identified difficulties in implementing this change. Dom Albareda, moreover, proposed using rose vestments in the blessing and procession, considering that there are already two instances in the liturgy for this colour, during parentheses of joy in the midst of sorrow. The conclusion thereby admitted the possible use of either rose or red vestments for the first part of the liturgy.

Msgr. Enrico Dante then proposed simplifying the first part as well, in this way: singing of the Hosanna, blessing of palms using the last of the current collects, distribution, reading of the gospel, procession, final collect. This schema mirrored the prepared and proposed texts, which had abandoned the collects for the blessing of palms, except the last, wherein homage to Christ the King is sufficiently expressed, revised from a stylistic point of view to emphasise said homage. The meeting then ended with the usual prayer at 06:40 in the evening.

Changes on the agreed terms from this meeting were introduced in the next meeting on Tuesday, 25 March 1954. But the next time Palm Sunday came under the liturgical microscope in time for the excision of some lengthening factors was on a Friday evening, 21 October 1955, at 05:00 pm, in the same place, with all members of the Commission present. Again, two matters were in order for this day: first, the examination of the instruction that would later be released together with Maxima redemptionis barely a month later; second, the transfer of the Passion of Saint Matthew from Palm Sunday to Holy Monday. The first matter immediately started after the usual prayer, and the Council members agreed that only peremptory norms should be kept in the decree, while directive norms placed in the instruction. The texts were then reconsidered norm by norm, letter by letter, word for word.

Passing into the second matter, the Commission, considering that ancient tradition of reading the Passion on Palm Sunday, unanimously agreed against transferring the Passion of Saint Matthew to Holy Monday, but the Commission likewise admitted the proposal of reduction presented by then-Father Augustin Bea, S. J., pericoping it from Mt. 26, 36 until Mt. 27, 61, thereby removing a total of 40 verses. With this, the meeting ended with the usual prayer at 07:00 in the evening.

So, now we can map the major items in the synopsis for the Palm Sunday reforms prepared years before by the NLM to their originators: red vestments, abandonment of folded chasubles, omission of the veil on the processional cross, by Dom Albareda O. S. B.; reorganisation and simplification of the entire blessing rite, removal of old readings and prayers, introduction of new prayers, by Msgr. Dante; suppression of old responsories and antiphons, and permission of new hymns in honour of Christ the King, by Fr. Löw, C. Ss. R., and Fr. Antonelli, O. F. M.; reduction of the Passion of Saint Matthew, by Fr. Bea.

Revisiting these processes is an exercise in frustration. The procession of palms on Palm Sunday, interpreted under the reclarified light of a solemn homage to Christ the King, a notion that demands reassertion and revaluation, must be a parenthesis of joy in a period of sorrow. And since the Church allows other colour for such joyous pockets of time, so a less severe colour must be used during the entire blessing of palms, to which is intimately united the procession. The choice is rose or red. Red wins. To reconnect the new colour to the reemphasised element, red must be marketed to the audience as the true purple colour of royalty. But what can be truer than purple except purple itself?

Watch ye, and pray!

One of life’s prudishness that future generations can accuse us of is the moral obligation under which we labour when we feel inordinately repentant for the mistakes of other people. We feel sorry for what the reformers did, because their actions deprived us of the patrimonial riches of the Church, locked safely behind formulations of legality and appearances of abrogation, for quite a long time. The compelling reasons they so thought necessary to alter the age-old rites of the Church exist in an academic utopia built on the foundations of liturgical revisionism and false parallelisms.


Verbale delle 40a, 41a, e 54a adunanze. See: Nicola Giampietro, O. F. M. Cap., Il cardinale Giuseppe Ferdinando Antonelli e gli sviluppi della riforma liturgica dal 1948 al 1970 (Rome 1998), pp. 343–344, 358.


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