Sacred Music

Why Do We Chant the “Lamb of God” Prayer in Latin at Our Masses?

From Father Baer: There are at least two questions here: What is the history and significance of the “Agnus Dei” (the Lamb of God prayer in Latin)?  And then a larger question: Why do still have Latin in our Masses?

Variations of the “Agnus Dei” go back to the earliest centuries of the Mass.  Taken from the words of St. John the Baptist (John 1:29) and the cries of the two blind men (Matthew 9:27), the triple prayer was set at various places within the Liturgy, and often had more extended additions, or “tropes,” than our current version.

And why in Latin?  There are some Catholics who think that the Second Vatican Council eliminated the use of Latin in the Mass.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  To read what Vatican II and subsequent Church documents actually say about this matter, along with a short history of the “Agnus Dei” at Mass, please look for the new “Sacred Music Corner” link on our Transfiguration Website.

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Latin in the Mass since Vatican II:

At the Second Vatican Council, on December 4, 1963, Pope Paul VI promulgated Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy. This document declared that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites” (36.1). The Council Fathers then added:

“But since the use of the mother tongue, whether in the Mass, the administration of the sacraments, or other parts of the liturgy, frequently may be of great advantage to the people, the limits of its employment may be extended. This will apply in the first place to the readings and directives, and to some of the prayers and chants” (36.2).

This concession was later extended to the whole Mass.  The second (1975) edition of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal states:

“Since no Catholic would now deny the lawfulness and efficacy of a sacred rite celebrated in Latin, the Council was able to acknowledge that ‘the use of the mother tongue frequently may be of great advantage to the people’ and gave permission for its use. The enthusiasm in response to this decision was so great that, under the leadership of the bishops and the Apostolic See, it has resulted in the permission for all liturgical celebrations in which the faithful participate to be in the vernacular for the sake of a better comprehension of the mystery being celebrated” (12).

Permission to use the vernacular, then, was extended because of a great good: “a better comprehension of the mystery being celebrated.” But such permission does not remove the Council’s directive that “the use of the Latin language is to be preserved in the Latin rites.” Nor does such permission for the use of the vernacular imply that the celebration of the current rite in Latin is in any way forbidden.  Thus, the Code of Canon Law (1983) teaches, “The Eucharist may be celebrated in the Latin language or in another language provided the liturgical texts have been legitimately approved” (928).

In Sacrosanctum Concilium, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council also teach, “Steps should be taken so that the faithful may also be able to say or to sing together in Latin those parts of the Ordinary of the Mass which pertain to them” (54).

In the same document, the Council Fathers also teach the following:

“The Church acknowledges Gregorian chant as especially suited to the Roman liturgy: therefore, other things being equal, it should be given pride of place in liturgical services. But other kinds of sacred music, especially polyphony, are by no means excluded from liturgical celebrations. … In the Latin Church the pipe organ is to be held in high esteem, for it is the traditional musical instrument which adds a wonderful splendor to the Church’s ceremonies and powerfully lifts up man’s mind to God and to higher things. But other instruments also may be admitted for use in divine worship, with the knowledge and consent of the competent territorial authority” (116, 120). 

The History of the “Agnus Dei” in the Mass:

"Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), qui tollis peccata mundi (Who takes away the sins of the world), miserere nobis" (have mercy on us)/”dona nobis pacem”)grant us peace).”

This prayer and the rubrics accompanying it have undergone various changes in different ages and different places. The formula appears to have been directly taken from the very ancient chant of the "Gloria." In the text of the Roman and Ambrosian rites: "Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis; Qui tollis peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram; Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis", containing all the words of the original formula of the Agnus Dei, we find the immediate sources of its text: the declaration of Saint John the Baptist (John 1:29), supplemented by the cry of the two blind men (Matthew 9:27).  Its symbolism is traced in the Book of Revelation through the more than thirty references to "the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world" (13:8); "the blood of the Lamb" (12:2); "they that are written in the book of life of the Lamb" (21, 27), etc.  We also trace it back to the I Peter 1: 19): "the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb unspotted and undefiled.”

Saint John the Apostle carries these themes forward in the fourth and fifth chapters of the Book of Revelation.  One can see here a foreshadowing of the Mass — the Lamb upon the Altar as upon a throne; the clergy as twenty-four elders seated around the Lamb, clothed in white vestments; the chanting of the "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus"; the incense arising from golden censers, and the music of harps; and in the midst of all, "a Lamb standing as it were slain.”  The longer “Gloria in excelsis” is found in a slightly different form in the "Apostolic Constitutions" and in the appendices to the Bible in the "Codex Alexandrinus" of the fifth century. It first appears in use at Rome in the first Mass of the Nativity. Pope St. Symmachus (498-514) extended its use in episcopal Masses. The distinct and condensed formula of the “Agnus Dei” itself, however, was not apparently introduced into the Mass until the year 687, when Pope Sergius I decreed that during the fraction of the Host both clergy and people should sing the “Agnus Dei.”

In the Liturgy of St. James, the priest when signing the Bread, shortly before communicating himself, says: "Behold the Lamb of God, the Son of the Father, who takes away the sin of the world, sacrificed for the life and salvation of the world." The formula is thus said but once. At about the same part of the Mass in the present Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, the priest divides the Holy Bread into four parts, "with care and reverence" (in the language of the rubric) and says: "The Lamb of God is broken and distributed; He that is broken and not divided in sunder; ever eaten and never consumed, but sanctifying the communicants.”  While the Roman Liturgy no longer contains any chant for the fraction of the Host, the “Agnus Dei,” although not properly a prayer, occupies that place.

The words of the "Liber Pontificalis" (“a clero et a populo decantetur”) suggest  the formula had been sung by the choir alone, as was the case in the ninth century.  Originally the celebrant did not recite it himself, as his other functions occupied his attention.  But by the thirteenth century, the introduction of this feature must have become common.  Some priests recited it with their hands resting on the altar, others with hands joined before the breast.

Originally recited or sung but once, its triple recitation was prescribed in some churches — for example, in that of Tours  -- before the year 1000.  About the same time the custom was introduced of substituting "dona nobis pacem" for the third "miserere nobis" (although, by way of exception, the third "miserere" was said on Holy Thursday, perhaps because on that day the "kiss of peace" is not given).  One reason for the substitution of "dona nobis pacem" might be found in its appropriateness as a preparation for the "kiss of peace" which follows, although Innocent III ascribes its introduction to disturbances and calamities affecting the Church.

As in the case of the "Kyrie Eleison" and other texts of the Ordinary of the Mass (e.g. the Gloria, Sequence, Credo, Sanctus, Hosanna, Ite, missa est), the words of the “Agnus Dei” were often considerably extended by tropes. These additions were prefaces or concluding sentences or phrases, sometimes bearing a strict connection with the meaning of the text, sometimes constituting practically individual compositions.

Two other uses of the “Agnus Dei” may be noted. First, before giving Holy Communion, whether during or outside of Mass, the priest holds a particle up for the faithful to see, saying, "Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi. Domine non sum dingus,” etc. The use of the formula in this connection appears to be of comparatively recent date. Originally the formula used was simply "Corpus Christi,” "Sanguis Christi,” to which the faithful answered, "Amen.”  Second, at the end of litanies the formula appears as follows: "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Parce nobis, Domine" (Spare us, O Lord). "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, Exaudi nos, Domine" (Graciously hear us, O Lord). "Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis" (Have mercy on us).  Thus, for the Litanies of the Saints and for that of Loreto; the Litany of the Most Holy Name of Jesus adds the word “Jesu” to the last word, and substitutes “Jesu” for “Domine” in the previous two endings.

Regarding the musical settings of the “Agnus Dei” in the Mass. Originally, the melody was plainsong, simple and syllabic at first, and subsequently developed into richer forms.  We use a popular plainsong version at our Transfiguration Masses.

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