St. Dominic began his religious life as a canon of the cathedral chapter of Osma where the solemn celebration of the liturgy was a central feature of his daily life. When he gathered around him the first friars of the order, he instilled in them this same love and care for the celebration of the liturgy. (It was said of St. Dominic that he celebrated Mass with great devotion; one of the early friars later testified that during the Canon of the Mass, “we always saw his face bathed in tears, so much so that all those present were themselves moved to weep.”) In its early years, however, St. Dominic’s young Order had no liturgy proper to itself. At first, they probably celebrated a variant of the Roman Rite in use in the region of Toulouse, where the first house of the Order was established. After St. Dominic dispersed the first friars throughout Europe in 1217 and following the extremely rapid growth of the Order that ensued, it became apparent that the fraternity and spirit of this new Order of Preachers – not to mention the frequent travels the friars undertook – demanded a uniform Dominican liturgy.
Establishing the Dominican Rite
At some point before 1235, that is, at some point within the first twenty years of the Order, some kind of liturgy proper to the Dominican Order was in existence. Probably, its basic form was taken from one of several branches of the ancient Roman Rite then in use. Over the next twenty years, revising and refining this liturgy in view of the needs and spirit of the friars became the focus of a concerted effort by the Order. A commission of four friars was appointed in the mid-1240s to undertake this work, but it was Blessed Humbert of Romans, the fifth master of the Order, who gave the Dominican Rite its final form. As the historian William Hinnebusch puts it, Humbert’s work – both in the liturgy and in other areas – has exercised “a marked influence on the Dominican character.” Humbert had a unique grasp of the spirit of the new Order, which he crystallized in his works. (In addition to the Dominican Rite, his commentaries on the Rule of St. Augustine and the Constitutions of the Order were regarded for many generations as a semi-official description of the spirit of the Order.)
By command of the General Chapter of Paris in 1256, an exemplar of Humbert’s revision of the Dominican liturgy (containing fourteen liturgical books, including a missal, breviary, antiphonal, and gradual) was kept in Paris, and every province of the Order was obliged to send money to procure copies of them. The Order’s legislation enjoined strictly and with great detail the manner in which these copies were to be made and corrected. A manuscript version of this exemplar remains in the Dominican archives at Santa Sabina to this day. Pope Clement IV approved this liturgy in 1267. The Dominican Missal of Humbert’s 1256 revision remained largely unchanged until 1965.
The Unique Spirit of the Dominican Liturgy
As this brief history shows, for most of its existence, the Dominican Order has had its own proper liturgy, its own chant tradition, and its own liturgical calendar. This liturgy was not developed for the sake of being exceptional or exclusive, but rather to express the spirit and respond to the needs of an Order of Preachers. At its core, it represents a rather ancient branch of the Roman Rite. In other important respects, however, it captures and expresses the spirit of the early generations of the Order – for example, in its unique theological perspective on the mystery of religious consecration in its prayers on the feast of the Presentation, or in its prayers for the Church through the intercession of St. Dominic mandated as a part of every ordinary Sunday Mass. The Dominican Rite’s relative sobriety and simplicity likewise gives evidence of the antiquity of its sources. It has nourished the greatest saints of the Order, many of whom – including St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, and St. Vincent Ferrer – have written extensively of the Dominican Rite’s unique beauty and theological depth. It is therefore a genuine source of the tradition of the Order, and a privileged means by which to enter into the original spirit of St. Dominic’s friars.
The Dominican Rite and the Second Vatican Council
When the Second Vatican Council issued its document on the liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, it began by affirming its intention to preserve the integrity of all liturgical rites then existing alongside the Roman Rite:
[I]n faithful obedience to tradition, the sacred Council declares that holy Mother Church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal right and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in the future and to foster them in every way (Sacrosanctum Concilium 4).
Following the 1968 General Chapter at River Forest, the Master of the Order requested permission from the Holy See to adopt the reformed Roman Rite. In a rescript issued in 1969, the Congregation for Divine Worship granted the Order’s request, but added that the Dominican Rite could still be celebrated by a friar who obtains permission from either the Master of the Order or his Prior Provincial.
The Dominican Rite Today
In 2007, Pope Benedict issued Summorum Pontificum, a motu proprio that gave a general permission to priests, whether diocesan or religious, to celebrate Mass in the Extraordinary Form – that is, according to the Roman Missal of 1962. In doing so, the Holy Father affirmed that the normal form of celebrating Mass would remain the Novus Ordo, but he also exhorted the readers of his accompanying letter: “Let us generously open our hearts and make room for everything that the faith itself allows.” He continued:
In the history of the liturgy there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful. It behooves all of us to preserve the riches which have developed in the Church’s faith and prayer, and to give them their proper place.
In heeding the Holy Father’s words – and in light of Sacrosanctum Concilium no. 4 – it would seem that the Dominican Rite, an important part of the heritage of the Order and the Church, would merit preservation alongside the ordinary form of the Novus Ordo Mass.
In light of the above, a question arises: after the motu proprio, should Dominican priests who celebrate in the Extraordinary Form celebrate the Dominican Rite, since Dominicans generally did not celebrate the Roman Rite before 1969?
The Liturgical Commission of the Province of St. Joseph studied this question, concluding that it would seem more fitting that a Dominican who desires to celebrate an older form of the Mass would do so according to the Order’s own liturgical tradition rather than stepping outside it, and that this be done in a way that is properly integrated into our fraternal life. It is clear that the Prior Provincial or the Master of the Order may grant permission for such celebrations pursuant to the 1969 rescript from the Congregation for Divine Worship.
After the issuance of Summorum Pontificum, a series of questions about whether that document applies to other Latin rites was propounded to the Ecclesia Dei Commission (the Commission of the Holy See charged with the authority to oversee the application of the motu proprio). In May of 2009, after a query originating in the Archdiocese of Milan about the Ambrosian Rite, the Commission indicated that Summorum Pontificum applied not only to the Roman Rite, but to all of the Latin rites, and therefore that priests of Milan could celebrate the Mass according to the Ambrosian Rite of 1962. In subsequent correspondence, they further clarified that this also held good for the Dominican Rite of 1962.
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