A 17th Century Defense of Rood Screens

Chapelle de Kerfons, 15th century.
Photo: Edwin Rae (Source)
The following is a chapter taken from Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thiers' Dissertation on Rood Screens, a 17th-century essay defending the importance of rood screens in French churches. In this chapter, the author explains the principle of tradition from the point of view of the Fathers of the Church, and argues that removing rood screens from churches is an unwarranted breach with inherited sacred custom.

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Chapter 29

Destroying the jubés is against the written laws, the holy Fathers, and the Council of Trent.

There is an excellent saying of St. Augustine, actually from St. Ambrose, that does not favor the conduct of the ambonoclasts. St. Monica having accompanied her son to Milan, where he had been attracted by the reputation of St. Ambrose, she found something that caused her some distress, namely that there the people did not fast on Saturday as they did at Rome and in Africa. St. Augustine perceiving her perplexity consulted St. Ambrose to find out what he had to say about the matter. St. Ambrose responded that he had nothing to say to her except what he himself practiced, because if he knew of anything better he would certainly do it. For the rest, he fasted on Saturday when he was in Rome, but that when he was in Milan he did not fast, because the people of Rome fasted on Saturday and the people of Milan did not. “Cum Romam venio, ieiuno Sabbatho, cum haec sum, non ieiuno. In the end whatever Church one finds oneself in one must always follow the customs of that place so as not to scandalize anyone or be scandalized in turn: Tu ad quam forte Ecclesiam veneris, eius morem serva, si cuiquam non vis esse scandalo, nec quemquam tibi.

Those who have removed the jubés from our churches have taken a position entirely opposed to the teaching of St. Ambrose. St. Ambrose says that we must preserve the established customs of the churches in their entirety. The ambonoclasts want to abolish them entirely. St. Ambrose claims that abolishing the churches’ received customs gives scandal. The ambonoclasts imagine that abolishing these customs will edify the faithful. St. Monica held faithfully to his teaching. The ambonoclasts abandon it without scruple. St. Augustine respected this teaching like an oracle descended from Heaven: Ita semper habui tamquam eam caelesti oracule susceperim. The ambonoclasts reject it. St. Augustine adopted this teaching and commends all wise and prudent Christians to practice it as the best and surest guide: Hac disciplina ulla est melior gravi prudentique Christiano, quam ut eo modo agat quo agere viderit Ecclesiam ad quam forte devenerit. The ambonoclasts act entirely to the contrary. Behold the respect they have for the teaching of the holy Fathers and Doctors of the Church.

Veil (Hurlbutt)

Angel parts the veil. Exposition du Lévitique, by Raoul de Flay. Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des manuscrits, Latin 11564, fol. 2v.

For ultimately this Holy Assembly wished the churches to preserve their own customs. This is clear from many of its decrees. We can take for example the decree pertaining to benefices that require residence; the daily distributions of the cathedral and collegiate churches; the Mass in the vernacular; the accounts of churches and other religious places; wedding ceremonies; dignities and prebends of cathedral churches; procedures of ecclesiastical courts; and visits of chapters exempt from the jurisdiction of their Ordinaries.

Now, if there is ever a case when we should have regard for the customs of churches, it is in the current matter at hand. There is nothing in the jubés contrary to the Catholic faith or good morals. On the contrary, those who destroy them are making a visible assault on the constant teaching of the holy Fathers concerning ecclesiastical uses and customs. [...]

On the basis of this principle, St. Augustine was against changing even one word of the Psalms, for fear of going against the custom of those who sang in his church. In St. Augustine’s day in the Church of Africa,  Psalm 131 was read publicly with the words Super ipsum autem floriet sanctificatio mea, instead of the Vulgate’s Super ipsum autem efflorebit sanctificatio mea. St. Augustine was perfectly aware that floriet was a solecism. But he openly claimed that he did not dare to change for the sole reason that it had become the custom to sing it this way: “The only thing that stands in the way of correcting it is the singers’ custom.” Such was the force of custom in Augustin’s mind.

Further, we witness the high esteem in which ancient practices are held by the chief churches of Rome, such as St. Peter, St. John Lateran. St. Mary Major and others, when they refused to receive the new hymns reformed under Pope Urban VIII by the three Jesuits Famianus Strada, Tarquinius Gallucius, and Jerome Petruccius. Today they still chant the old hymns.

In the same spirit, St. Thomas teaches that human laws should not be changed lightly, even when something better could be substituted in their place; and Cardinal Baronius says something truly remarkable about the Nicene Creed: It was the ancient custom of the Roman Church not to sing the Creed at Mass. Abbot Berno of Reichenau, or Auge la-Riche in the Swiss diocese of Constance, observes that it was not sung before his time, i.e. before the year 1014. When Emperor Henry I demanded to know the reason for this practice from several Roman priests, they responded that it was because the Roman Church had never been infected by any heresy, remaining firm in the faith she had received from St. Peter, and that therefore the Creed was more necessary for people who had held opinions contrary to the faith, but not for Rome. The emperor was not satisfied this response, and made so many overtures to Pope Benedict VIII that he finally caused the Nicene Creed to be chanted in solemn public Masses. Baronius was too wise to blame either Benedict VIII’s condescendence or Henry’s enthusiasm for the chant and recitation of the Nicene Creed. He approves of both customs: Placent ista. Nevertheless he cannot restrain himself from saying that he would have preferred that Rome had held to its ancient practice than bowed to novelty: Sed nobis gratius, si veneranda antiquitati annorum ille magis delatum fuisset, quam novitati. The ambonoclasts, by contrast, embrace a novelty in order to abolish a custom that is authorized by the consent and testimony of every century, and to introduce a change in the Church that the holy Fathers warned might cause scandal. 

Besides the the motive of avoiding scandal, we should also never change Church customs out of consideration for the disorder that these sorts of changes cause. This is what St. Augustine warned against when he said: “Ipsa mutatio consuetudinum etiam quae adiuvat utilitate, novitate perturbat.” Consequently, a change that is not useful is harmful due to the unfruitful disorder it produces: “Quapropter quae utilis non est, perturbatione infructuosa consequenter noxia est.”

This is certainly the sort of change that has been imposed in the churches where the jubés have been knocked down. The only advantage we have gotten from it is that our churches look more clear and open. As if being clear and open was really a part of these churches’ beauty, as if this clarity and openness had to be done with prejudice to Tradition, with prejudice to our august ceremonies and our most ancient customs.

(For more translated excerpts from this treatise, follow the blog Canticum Salomonis.)

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