500 Years Young

If you don’t know what the Sarum Use is, you can be forgiven. After all, it’s been nearly extinct for the past half a millennium.

The Sarum Use is a form of the Roman Rite that hasn’t been a common thing since before the English Reformation, which happened before the Tridentine Mass was codified with the papal bull of Pius V, Quo Primum, in 1570. Sarum was, however, the predominant use throughout England and other places in the British Isles between the time of William the Conqueror (11th C.) and the innovations of the Reformation (16th C.). Needless to say the Sarum Use is rarely celebrated these days, inside or outside England, but on Saturday, February 1st, 2020, at St. Patrick’s Church in Philadelphia, 700 people gathered to pray First Vespers of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary according to the nearly 1,000-year-old Sarum Use.

700 people attended First Vespers of the Purification

The Dominican church of St. Patrick, at a mere 110 years old, is young compared to the liturgy it housed that night, but the beautiful edifice nonetheless provided the perfect setting. The pews were full for the unique event, which was the fruit of the combined efforts of many different clerics, sacred musicians and liturgists that came from as near as Philly itself and as far away as Nebraska to lend their expertise. Leading the charge was project director James Griffin of St. John the Baptist, an Ordinariate parish in Bridgeport, PA, who described just how unusual of an occurrence this was.

“This is extremely rare,” he said, speaking to the Missive directly after the event. “As far as I know, this was the first public celebration of the Sarum Use in an American Roman Catholic Church.”

The officiating priest was Fr. Jason Catania, pastor of St. Barnabas Ordinariate Church in Omaha, NE, with Fr. Robert Pasley, rector of Mater Ecclesiae Chapel in Berlin, NJ, assisting. Fr. Carl Gismondi, FSSP, pastor of St. Mary’s Church, our apostolate in nearby Conshohocken, and Fr. Scott Allen, FSSP, chaplain of the Carmelite convent of St. Joseph and St. Anne, attended in choir, and parishioners from St. Mary’s participated in the ceremonies.

Sarum was how English Catholics worshiped for centuries

The word Sarum comes from the Latin rendering of “Salisbury,” a reference to Salisbury Cathedral, whence the use developed. It was first established by St. Osmund, 2nd bishop of Salisbury, and it became the model for liturgical worship throughout the country, eventually taking its place as the predominant form in England, Wales and some places in Scotland and Ireland. It is a use of the Roman Rite as opposed to a separate rite: though the two terms are often used interchangeably, a use refers to a mode of celebration particular to a place or group, whereas a rite denotes a far bigger cultural and liturgical divide. There are only seven rites listed by the Catechism: Roman, Byzantine, Armenian, Alexandrian, Chaldean, Maronite and Syriac, whereas many uses exist within these rites, examples of Roman Rite uses including the Ambrosian, Mozarabic, Dominican and of course, Sarum(1). While we may have heard of and had the privilege of attending such uses as the Dominican, Sarum fell into disuse as a result of the spiritual and political upheavals of the English Reformation and the outlawing of Catholic worship that it brought. But Sarum was, essentially, the way of worship of English Catholics for centuries.

The role of the verger is to clear the way for clergy & choir

You may be wondering at this point what the Candlemas Vespers looked and sounded like, and how it differed from a normal Roman celebration of the same Hour. Observing the order of ceremonies, several elements were immediately striking. The participants were led down the aisle by a verger, a sacristan holding a rod that clears the way (in this case, symbolically) for the singers and clergy. Also notable were the rulers of the choir, singers who, holding staffs (or “staves”) throughout the ceremony, perform leading roles in the chanting. The number of rulers depends on the feast day, four being designated for the feast of the Purification. The rite of incensation, which occurs after the Magnificat, was also unique, involving two priests incensing the high altar simultaneously and the use of not one but two thurifers.

Musically speaking, an element that particularly stood out in the Sarum version was the inclusion of the Responsory, a piece found in both Sarum and other medieval liturgies.

“Unique to Sarum and the other medieval usages but is not present in the Roman Rite are many of the responsories, like the responsory that we sang tonight by Thomas Tallis, Videte Miraculum,” said Mr. Griffin.

As explained in the evening’s program:

The Sarum Use and other medieval liturgies often answered the Scripture lessons of the Divine Office with a “responsory,” similar to the Gradual or Psalm that follows the first lesson of the Mass.

Thomas Tallis, a English Catholic composer who served under four monarchs during the time of the Reformation, is a familiar name to most sacred musicians, but it is a real rarity, as Mr. Griffin explained, to hear this piece sung in its original liturgical context rather than in a concert setting or during a Mass.

Peter Carter (front) and James Griffin (back) during Vespers; you can see their staves beside them

Leading the musical side of things was Peter Carter, music director at St. John the Baptist Church in Allentown, NJ, which celebrates the Latin Mass every Sunday at 12:30. During Vespers, he was liturgically one of the rulers of the choir and functionally the choir director. He finds in the Sarum Use a unique connection with our own heritage here in America.

“We’re speaking English now in America and we’ve benefited from English heritage, we’re part of that by extension,” he said, echoing a sentiment also expressed by Mr. Griffin. “And so in that sense the Sarum Rite, being the Catholic rite celebrated across most of England, is part of our heritage in that way as well.”

For Mr. Carter, the Sarum Use is an opportunity to see the liturgy as the English martyrs experienced it during the time of the Protestant Reformation, and is a natural fit for Latin Mass attendees.

“It goes hand-in-hand I think with an appreciation for the traditional Latin Mass, because this is what the Church looked like at the time of 1500,” he said. “We had different rites that were expressing diversity in the Church in a way that still had intense unity in belief, but the expression had slight variations according to local custom.”

We will hopefully see more Sarum events in the future

Such an extraordinary event as Candlemas Vespers in the Sarum Use begs the question as to whether we will see anything like it again. When asked, Mr. Griffin responded in the affirmative.

“I’m creating a new liturgical institute with a specialty in medieval usages which we are calling the Durandus Institute for Sacred Liturgy and Music,” he said. “I hope with the support of all those who came, and supported financially or materially, that we will be able to do more great liturgical events like this in the future.”

We’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for such events. In the meantime, you can enjoy the official video below and the photos by Allison Girone. But don’t expect to see a historical re-enactment of niche scholarly interest, or a rusty artifact loaned from a museum. The Sarum Use is a real liturgy, and at 500 years young, it showed a vibrancy that can only be attributed to something truly alive. +

  1. See Sarum Use and Disuse: A Study in Social and Liturgical History by James Joseph, a scholarly work available online that provides a plethora of information on the history of Sarum. Mr. Joseph, a seminarian at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, served as one of the altar servers at Candlemas Vespers.

March 7, 2020