Home > Archives > 01/02 - 2011 > Mozarabic, or “among the Arabs”
from issue no. 01/02 - 2011

The history and value of the ancient Hispanic-Mozarabic rite

Mozarabic, or “among the Arabs”

An interview with Monsignor Juan Miguel Ferrer Grenesche, Undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, on the liturgical rite that was born in the 4th century in the Iberian Peninsula, particularly in regions of the ancient Visigoth kingdom of Toledo: not only did it safeguard the people’s faith from Arianism, but it was also practiced during the centuries of Arab domination. Come to us with its very rich collection of prayers for the celebration of Mass, its history is also a lesson in the inculturation of the faith in a specific geographic area

Interview with Juan Miguel Ferrer Grenesche by Roberto Rotondo

The <I>El transparente</I> altar (1730), by the sculptor Narciso Tomé, in Toledo Cathedral

The El transparente altar (1730), by the sculptor Narciso Tomé, in Toledo Cathedral


Every day in the Cathedral of Toledo in Spain, Mass is celebrated and Lauds are recited according to the ancient Hispanic-Mozarabic rite. It is a liturgy of the Catholic Church born in the 4th century in the Iberian Peninsula – more precisely in the regions of the ancient Visigoth kingdom of Toledo – which not only protected people’s faith from Arianism, but was practiced during the centuries of Arab domination (Mozarabic, in fact, means “among the Arabs”). Come down to us with its very rich collection of prayers for the celebration of Mass, its history is also a lesson in the inculturation of faith in a specific geographic area, to such an extent that many people believe one cannot understand the spiritual roots of Spain, especially Spanish Marian devotion, without taking account of this ancient rite.
We asked Monsignor Juan Miguel Ferrer Grenesche, Doctor in Liturgy, Undersecretary of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, a leading expert in the Mozarabic rite, to chart the history of this liturgical treasure. Monsignor Grenesche Ferrer, born in Madrid in 1961 and ordained priest in Toledo in 1986, was Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Toledo before being appointed to the Curia in Rome

Monsignor Ferrer, why is the Mozarabic rite so priceless?
JUAN MIGUEL FERRER GRENESCHE: Because of the distinctive features of the Eucharistic liturgy, which are the tendency to preserve old forms, the simplicity of the initial rites, the abundance of “fixed antiphons and chants” or nearly fixed, for example, the hymn of peace, the hymn “ad accedentes” for Communion, the antiphon for the prayer after Communion, the blessing in preparation for Communion, the strongly Christocentric calendar and the great preponderance of celebrations of the martyrs.
The great euchological variety of Mozarabic rite is often spoken of, that is the large number of the Eucharistic prayers ...
If in Rome some parts of the Eucharistic prayer are variable, in Spain the whole Eucharistic prayer, the prayers and admonitions of the Ordo Missae are so. But another factor is the initiation-participatory character. The congregation intervenes constantly, above all listening to the prayers (usually large, but structured according to specific rhetorical rules to gain God’s hearing but also that of the people) with invocations and chants (especially the Amen uttered 33 times in every Mass and the Alleluia.)
The solemn breaking of bread is to be understood similarly – in which the sacred species is divided into nine parts, placed in the shape of a cross on the paten, while the main stages in the mystery of Christ are retraced – and the cadenced mode of recitation of the Our Father by the priest with the subsequent Amen of the congregation after each of his phrases.
A further distinctive feature of the Mozarabic rite is the integration of elements from other liturgical traditions. The taste for the preservation of the old forms has not prevented the rite from embracing over the centuries contributions from different parts of the Christian world without losing sight, however, of its original features: the likely influence of Byzantine chant and ceremonial – witnessed in a large area of the peninsula, from Murcia to Malaga, in the late 6th and 7th century – or the welcome given to Alexandrian liturgical elements – including the Eucharistic prayer – probably arriving from Rome and Milan at the time of St Ambrose and St Leo the Great; the acceptance of certain progressive elements from Rome, especially from the 11th century on, such as the Gloria, the oratio post Gloriam, the Completuria and subsequent assimilation of rubrics and liturgical art.
What lay behind such richness?
The fact that the Fathers of the Hispanic Church, also through the writing of numerous treaties (including those of Isidore of Seville, Pacianus of Barcelona, Ildelfonsus and Julian of Toledo), preferred to concentrate their teaching not in theological works which at that time would have found few readers, but in the liturgy, which the whole congregation could enjoy. Hence the establishment of a euchological patrimony of extraordinary theological and spiritual value difficult to match. The main theological and spiritual thrust of their works was the overcoming of paganism and the superiority of the truth and of Christian worship; life as “sequela Christi” after the example of the martyrs; the balance between asceticism and love for creation, taking account of the Priscillian declarations; the indisputable affirmation of the divinity and humanity of Christ against Arianism and hang-overs of Docetism, and a very strong Marian devotion focused on the virginal motherhood of Mary; the worth and grandeur of monasticism without contempt for marriage; the clear presence of the Holy Spirit in the life and worship of the Church. Among the teachers who most influenced their thinking it would be right to mention St Jerome, St Leo the Great, St Ambrose, St Augustine and St Gregory the Great
What were the fundamental historical stages in the development of the Mozarabic rite?
The golden age came between the 6th and 8th centuries, but I would start from the early 4th century, with two episodes – to me of paramount importance – to grasp the process of the Christianization of the Hispanic peoples. The first was the Council of Elvira (306), near present-day Granada, which brought together a number of bishops of the area but also from the interior of the peninsula, such as Melanthius, bishop of Toledo, the ancient capital of Carpetana, where the faith was already rooted and the structure of the Church was established in all its elements. The second: the feast of the martyrs. As in other parts of the Empire, under Diocletian the already established Christian communities filled with martyrs and they overcame the ordeal giving strong evidence of consistency and steadfastness in the faith, just before winning “tolerance” and, within a short time, the “official” status.
The 4th century is important because it is the century of the birth of the “exegetical-theological schools”, and was also to be that of the great doctrinal controversies and Council statutes that anticipated the rise in the next century of the written liturgies and later still of liturgical books proper. The 5th century, in fact, was to be that of theological and pastoral literature, of the great codifications of the councils and of the birth of “Rites” as global expressions of faith, with an exegetical-theological tradition, canonico-disciplinary ordinance, a spirituality and some liturgical books of their own, resulting in a development phase in which all the elements of a genuine process of inculturation of the faith in the various contexts of the ancient world converge. That was also the case in Hispania romana.

<I>The Annunciation</I>, Mozarabic miniature, <I>Tratado de San Ildefonso</I> acerca de la virginidad de Maria, fol. 66

The Annunciation, Mozarabic miniature, Tratado de San Ildefonso acerca de la virginidad de Maria, fol. 66

What changed with the barbarian invasions?
The Barbarian invasions, or rather, the gradual assumption of political and social power in the Roman Empire of the West by new peoples, broke off or slowed this process in different geographical areas. But the problem was not so much that the barbarians destroyed everything, as the fact that they reopened the Arian question. In addition, by fragmenting the political unity of the old Empire, they caused the migration of peoples that led to economic decline, with repercussions on intellectual and artistic efforts that hampered the making of books and the building of churches.
At the beginning the Arian question caused great difficulty for the Hispanic Catholic bishops because the Visigoth kings they were subject to gave ever more hearing and protection to the Arian bishops, which divided communities and threatened the loss for the people of the true faith. But this was also a moment of reflection for the Catholic bishops who, after the conversion of the Visigoth kings to Catholicism, began to compose their own liturgical texts so that the passage of people from Arianism to Catholicism was a real conversion and that the real Faith belonged to all, Visigoths and Hispano-Romans. This was the spring that triggered the shaping of the rite and here one has to speak particularly of Ildefonsus of Toledo, who composed many masses and celebrations for the liturgy of the Hours, but who also developed a whole pietas around Mary Virgin and Mother – Virgin because mother of God and mother because she is the mother of Jesus Christ. This was also against the Arian heresy which denied the divinity of Jesus.
But it was between 589, when the Third Council of Toledo was held, and 711 that the golden age of the rite already known as “Hispanic” occurred. Between 589 and the middle of the 7th century, in fact, there came a period of great writing of texts and codification in books, so that, already after the Fourth Council of Toledo (633), one can speak of a solemn and complete definition of the rite, in a process that continued until its abolition at the Council of Burgos in the year 1080.
The period was marked almost entirely by Arab domination. How was the Mozarabic rite able to survive and develop?
It’s difficult to give a general answer because the situation was not the same everywhere in Spain. We are also speaking of a very long period of time: the Muslims arrived in the early 8th century and left Granada at the time of the discovery of America. But we can say that at first they could not much influence customs and beliefs, because they were a military and political minority and limited themselves to keeping the situation under control.
The problems came, however, from some Christians of Visigoth origin, who were not really converted to Catholicism, and who, thanks to the presence of the Arabs, conceived of reverting to their Arianism by becoming Muslims. That phenomenon meant that there was a difficult period for Catholicism. The bishops tried to explain to the Muslims in what the true Catholic faith consisted, rejecting the accusations of polytheism and idolatry, but this policy of dialogue did not have a great result, because the Muslims hardened their stance and some Mozarabic Christians ended up by adopting erroneous notions such as those of Elipandus of Toledo.
There were also attempts, like the one that centered on Cordoba, to convert Muslims to Christianity, and it resulted in persecution: it was the epoch of the martyrs of Cordoba, who went to martyrdom throughout Andalusia.
Was it the Gregorian reform that marked the end of the Mozarabic rite as the rite throughout Spain, giving way to the Roman Rite?
No, it was a much longer and complicated process. Even before the Gregorian reform an approach to Europe at the political level had been set going by the Catholic kingdoms of northern Spain. Europe was post-Carolingian and Cluniac and the kings of Aragon and Castile felt that the adoption of the Roman rite would help their project of integration with the rest of Europe.
The monks of the Roman rite thus began to settle in Spain under the patronage of the kings and so the two rites, the Roman and Mozarabic, began to be both present. Until the above-mentioned Council of Burgos in 1080, when, under the leadership of the crown of Castile, the Roman rite became the official one. From that time onwards, as Aragon and Castile reconquered lands from the Arabs, the territories were returned to the Roman rite and bishops were appointed from among French monks of the Roman rite. So the Roman rite returned to be predominant in Spain and in the end essentially only Toledo retained the privilege of celebrating the Mozarabic liturgy in the six parishes already existing in the city when in 1085 Alphonsus VI conquered the city and expelled the Arabs.
And then?
The survival of the Hispano-Mozarabic rite, limited to the ancient parishes of Toledo, had more or less happy moments up to the reign of the Catholic Kings and the episcopate of Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (1495-1517). When he took on the project of re-editing the liturgical books, the ancient liturgy certainly was in a critical condition of decay, with a lack of assets, lack of adequate training of the clergy and the dispersion of the faithful. Cisneros’ efforts assured the survival of the rite and linked it particularly with the cathedral of the primate, through the creation of the Mozarabic Chapel of Corpus Christi, while ensuring the dignity of the old rite by allowing celebration in some other significant places, such as the university of Salamanca. Cisneros’ books (missal and breviary) enabled the conservation of the euchology, their readings and the ritual structures of a part of Spanish tradition (which soon took the name of “Baetica” or Andalusan tradition, to be preserved in Cisneros’ books under the name “printed” version) for the Mass and the liturgy of the Hours. These books authorize the integration, which was taking place, of some Romano-Toledan elements, especially in the rubrics, calendar, site of celebrative space and furnishings for worship.
The church of San Miguel de Escalada, thirty kilometers from León, was founded in 913 by monks fleeing from Cordoba. The Moorish horseshoe arches of the portico are typical of Mozarabic architecture

The church of San Miguel de Escalada, thirty kilometers from León, was founded in 913 by monks fleeing from Cordoba. The Moorish horseshoe arches of the portico are typical of Mozarabic architecture

What were the most important moments in modern times?
With the end of the eighteenth century post Trent scholarly spirit and the genius of the “Enlightenment” came together in a new edition of the missal and breviary at the behest of Cardinal Francisco Antonio de Lorenzana (1772-1800). This became the universally circulated version through publication in the series by Migne (Patrologia Latina 85 and 86). In the nineteenth century the interest of scholars in the “Mozarabic” question was to culminate with the editions of the French Benedictine Férotin, which highlight the richness of the Mozarabic manuscripts of northern Castile, stimulating the discovery of another Hispanic tradition (the one that goes by the name of “manuscript”). Such was the fervor that these rediscovered manuscripts aroused that suspicion arose about the ‘authenticity’ of the tradition in the books printed in his time by Cisneros, that then recovered its status thanks to the studies undertaken after Vatican II by the great scholar of the rite, Dom Jordi Pinell, and his students of Sant’Anselmo in Rome and other scholars in Spain.
Thus in the current Hispano-Mozarabic missal, published according to the principles of the Constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium and under the direction and patronage of the Cardinal Archbishop of Toledo Marcelo González Martín, the riches of both traditions, print and manuscript, have been brought together, using the proposal of two cycles of celebrations where necessary.
And today?
One can say that since the 8th century the rich patrimony of the Hispano-Mozarabic euchological rite has never been as accessible as now. The demonstration is the number of doctoral dissertations published in recent decades in the field, as also the various occasional celebrations of the rite in all regions of Spain and locations and circumstances known to all: it is enough to mention, among others, the celebration presided over by Pope John Paul II in St Peter’s Basilica (1992), the one presided over by the Archbishop Primate of Toledo, Cardinal Francisco Álvarez Martínez, also in St Peter’s, during the Great Jubilee Year 2000, at the invitation of the organizing committee, or, finally, the one presided over by the Auxiliary Bishop of Toledo, Bishop Joaquín Carmelo Borobia Isasa in Quebec, Canada, during the International Eucharistic Congress in 2008.
So it’s not just a treasure for scholars and the learned...
In fact it’s a rite for a minority. But after the Council it was decided to open up this treasure to other Catholics in Spain and the world and give ample opportunity to celebrate this Mass or the liturgy of the Hours in the Mozarabic rite, with permission from the bishop, even in places where there is no Mozarabic community.
Of course it remains a liturgy not celebrated with a great number of faithful, but the door is open, so people who like to approach the mystery not only through theoretical study but in an experience as vital as that of celebration can find this wealth in the Mozarabic rite.

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