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Agnus Dei

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– Vol. VIII, No. 9: December 2002 – January 2003

Worthy is the Lamb

by Susan Benofy

Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches, wisdom and strength, honor and glory and blessing!

Revelation 5:12


This is the cry of a countless multitude worshipping the Lamb of God, described in the Book of Revelation. The Lamb, of course, is Christ, whom John the Baptist called "The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world" (John 1:29) at the beginning of His public life. The Lamb, slain, yet triumphant, is an image of the Risen Christ.

The image of the Lamb, worshipped in the heavenly Liturgy described in Revelations, has been incorporated into the Mass in three places: 1. in the Gloria (Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis… [Lord God, Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us…]); 2. at the beginning of Communion, when the priest elevates the host and chalice (Ecce Agnus Dei, ecce qui tollit peccata mundi [Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world]); and 3. a repeated invocation at the fraction, the breaking of the consecrated bread for Holy Communion (Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis… [Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us]).

This repeated invocation of Christ, the Lamb of God, has been part of the Mass since at least the seventh century. In the earliest times, the Agnus Dei chant accompanied the rather elaborate fraction rite. By the ninth century, after deepened understanding of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist led to the universal use of unleavened bread, the Agnus Dei chant became a triple repetition concluding with the phrase "dona nobis pacem" (grant us peace), except at funeral or Requiem Masses that substituted "dona eis requiem" (grant them rest) for the miserere. The Agnus Dei also seems to have been sung during Communion.

Jesuit liturgical historian Joseph A. Jungmann, SJ, in his 1949 history of the Mass, comments:

The ceremony which had previously been so carefully built up now disappears, either because the breaking has been taken care of beforehand … or because the particles intended for the Communion of the faithful were already prepared in the desired shape and size — a thing which was not the rule till the eleventh century.1

The Agnus Dei continued in this triple-repeated form for centuries. In the Roman Missal of 1970, this chant was designated at the fraction, and the rubrics stated that the repetitions could continue "as often as necessary to accompany the breaking of the bread":

Agnus Dei: during the breaking of the bread and the commingling, the Agnus Dei is as a rule sung by the choir or cantor with the congregation responding; otherwise it is recited aloud. This invocation may be repeated as often as necessary to accompany the breaking of the bread. The final reprise concludes with the words, grant us peace.

(1970 General Instruction of the Roman Missal, §56 e)

"We need new words and actions"

Thus, it is clear, though the reformed rite permitted more than three invocations of Agnus Dei, it continued to specify the text. Nevertheless, almost as soon as the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) was released in a preliminary version in 1969, some liturgists suggested changes to the Communion rite — in particular to the ancient text of the Agnus Dei.

In a 1969 book on Liturgy for small groups, Father Robert Hovda and Gabe Huck objected to the "vertical" theology and "individualistic" piety evident during the Communion Rite and advocated "new words and actions":

[I]t would seem we need new forms — words and actions — to counter such a strong "tradition". We need words that unmistakably and unequivocally express the significance of a group of persons, individuals, sharing commonly in this broken bread and poured-out wine.2

Both Father Hovda (a priest of the diocese of Fargo) and Huck worked for The Liturgical Conference in 1969, and their strenuous emphasis on the "horizontal" dimension of the Eucharistic celebration had a strong influence on parish liturgies. (Huck later became director of Liturgy Training Publications of the Archdiocese of Chicago.)

The replacement of the Agnus Dei with "new forms" became a serious enough problem that an inquiry was directed to the Holy See’s Congregation for Divine Worship. The question and reply were published in 1975 in the Congregation’s journal Notitiae:

QUERY: May the singing of "Shalom" replace the singing of the "Agnus Dei"?

REPLY: No. The Ordinary of the Mass in all its parts must be followed as it appears in the Missal. Some slight adaptation is countenanced in the "Directory for Masses with Children" no. 31. What is established for children, however, is not transferable to other assemblies. (p. 205)

What part of "no"…?

The Congregation’s advice was not heeded, however, despite this further clarification of what was already quite clear in the text of the GIRM. Composers inserted new "invocations" in their settings of the chant to accompany the fraction rite. They were encouraged in this practice by many articles in which the actual rubric about extending the Agnus Dei chant was considerably expanded. For example, this interpretation in an article by liturgist-musician Father Edward Foley, OFM Cap., of the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago:

The inherent litany structure of the Lamb of God should be respected. This is an eminently useful form for expanding the manifold meanings of a text that calls to mind the suffering servant imagery of Isaiah, the expiatory character of Christ’s death, and the memorial of Jesus as the paschal lamb of the new covenant. To achieve such expansion, the General Instruction of the Roman Missal makes it quite clear that in this litany … the invocations maybe repeated as often as necessary to accompany the breaking of the bread [GIRM, 56]. Thus the cantor intones any number of intercessions, each ending with the response "have mercy on us". The assembly joins in this plea. 3

Though he cites the rubric permitting repeating the "intercession", Father Foley imposes his own interpretation: that the cantor intones "any number of intercessions" — evidently a number of different intercessions as a means of "expanding the manifold meanings" of the text.

Liturgists who advocate adding different intercessions generally attempt to justify their preference in one of two ways:

1. The Agnus Dei is a litany.

This is essentially what Foley said above. It is said even more emphatically by David Haas in a book published earlier this year. After saying the Lamb of God is a litany, Haas says:

In a good litany the movement and progression of the dialogue moves beyond the specific intonations and results in a communal act of worship and awe. This requires that the length of the litany be substantial, as two or three invocations will not accomplish this. The specific text of the litany is not as important as is the repetition of the response, which in and of itself becomes a prayer of intercession.4

The reader is left to conclude that only the form — not the text — of a litany is significant. But a litany is simply a prayer in the form of a series of invocations, each followed by a petition. The text may be prescribed or left undetermined in its details. The litany form is ancient, appearing in the Old Testament in such texts as Psalm 136 and the canticle of the three young men in the fiery furnace.

Three prayers of the Mass have the form of a litany. The Kyrie and Agnus Dei have a prescribed text and we see from this that the form of the prayer is a litany. In the case of the Prayer of the Faithful, however, the litany structure is prescribed, but the precise petitions and response are not. The fact that a particular prayer in the Missal happens to be in the form called a "litany" is not a warrant for replacing prescribed words with some set of freely chosen invocations and responses.

2. The alternate texts are "tropes", and troping is a traditional practice in the liturgy.
This, like the reasoning above, merely introduces a technical word as a description and treats it as if it were automatically a justification of what is done.

Professor Peter Wagner, author of a standard history of the Gregorian chant, explains tropes:

The tropes … may be described as introductions, insertions, or additions to the liturgical chant. The result is always an extension of the original text, and often also of the original melody.5

Tropes arose during the Middle Ages, and Wagner tells us that those added to the Ordinary of the Mass are "characteristic productions of the pious gladness and sacred poetry of the Middle Ages" (p. 246). These tropes were often amplifications meant to connect the otherwise unchanging texts of the Ordinary of the Mass more closely to the specific feast being celebrated.

Some tropes were fairly simple, putting words to melodic passages known as "melisma", such as the long series of notes to which the final syllable of Kyrie or Christe is sung.6 Some tropes became so extensive, however, that they were actually longer that the original chant, which almost seemed to be an interpolation in the trope. Others grew into independent hymns. A few of these hymns remain in the Mass as the Sequences prescribed on particular feasts, such as the Victimae Pascali for Easter. Except for these sequences, the tropes were eliminated in the reform that followed the Council of Trent. They were not restored by Vatican II.

It is particularly odd that liturgists would choose a practice of the Middle Ages as justification for their alterations. Liturgists do not share the medieval "pious gladness", and generally scorn practices of this era. Adamant opposition to kneeling and to any sign of adoration of the Eucharist are characteristic of contemporary liturgists’ approach to medieval piety. In fact, the current use of "tropes" does not correspond to the traditional usage.

Rather than proposing additions to the Agnus Dei to bring out the meaning of a particular feast, modern liturgists propose replacing the specific invocation with others that could be used for any feast or season.

Furthermore, the Agnus Dei is neither the only text to which tropes were added during the Middle Ages, nor is it the only "litany" in the Mass.

The Kyrie (Lord, Have mercy) is also in the form of a litany, with invocations and response. Generally, however, liturgists do not argue that this permits substituting other invocations for the Kyrie – in fact, most of them would prefer to drop the Kyrie altogether.

The International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), proposing a rearrangement of the Opening Rites of the Mass a few years ago, gave six possible options for the Opening Rite, only one of which included the Kyrie. (This was in ICEL’s proposed revision of the Sacramentary recently rejected by the Holy See.)

Nor do liturgists usually propose "troping" the Kyrie. This may be because the GIRM already allows for this, but specifies precisely what may be done:

As a rule each of the acclamations is repeated twice, though it may be repeated more, because of different languages, the music, or other circumstances. When the Kyrie is sung as a part of the penitential act, a trope may be inserted before each acclamation. (§52)

This makes it clear that the new trope is not a to be a replacement for the invocation, but an addition to it. Furthermore, it applies only in the case where the Kyrie is sung as part of the penitential act.

A clear inference also is that if the GIRM allows "troping" a particular text, it says so. There is no provision for "troping" the Agnus Dei; surely a further indication that there was no intention to permit replacing or adding to the traditional invocations.

In the 2000 Institutio Generalis Missalis Romani, the statement on the Agnus Dei itself is essentially unchanged. Significantly, however, it is preceded by a new statement: that the fraction rite should not be overemphasized or unnecessarily prolonged, and that the breaking of the bread should be done only by the priest and deacon. Further, a new paragraph in IGMR 2000, § 366, refers explicitly to the Agnus Dei:

It is not permitted to substitute for the chants found in the Order of Mass, e.g., at the Agnus Dei.

What could be more clear?
These added provisions in the 2000 Missal are not so much changes from the earlier edition, as clarifications of what was intended all along. There has never been any authorization for substituting other chants for the Kyrie, Gloria, etc. And no one except the priest is mentioned as doing the fraction rite.

Both of these "new" restrictions have provoked a strong negative reaction from the liturgical establishment. Considerable attention was focused on restrictions on the use of extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion, and a number of adaptations to reverse these restrictions were proposed. Although changing the Agnus Dei was not the subject of much debate by the bishops, the effort to introduce "troped" settings of the Agnus Dei into parishes continues apace, judging from the letters sent to Adoremus recently.

Why do the rubrics insist on repetition of the single invocation? And why are liturgists so determined to substitute new titles for "Lamb of God"?

Image of Sacrifice

The image of the Lamb is very important in Scripture, as we mentioned above.

In the account of the Crucifixion in Saint John’s Gospel, Jesus is compared to the Paschal lamb, and the Epistle to the Corinthians says: "For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed" (I Cor 5:7).

The Book of Revelations contains more than 36 references to the Lamb. For example, "the Lamb that was slain from the beginning of the world" (13:8); several references to "the blood of the Lamb", and the acclamation "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain" (5:12). These repeated references to the paschal lamb and the lamb of sacrifice inevitably recall Christ’s passion.

According to Jungmann, the Agnus Dei is an element introduced into the Roman rite from the East. There, since the sixth century, the breaking of the consecrated bread was considered a reference to Christ’s Passion, and the sacrificial gifts were called the "Lamb". Jungmann emphasizes the reverence and adoration evident at the Agnus Dei:

From all that has been said we can see at once that the address to the Lamb of God patently does not refer to Christ simply, but rather to Christ present in the Eucharist as a sacrificial offering…. In the interval between consecration and Communion this hymn represents a reverential and, at the same time, humble greeting of Him who has been made present under the form of bread. We might compare it to what occurred some five hundred years later when, under the impulse of a new wave of Eucharistic devotion, the silence of the consecration and the breaking of the bread was broken by the introduction of … hymns like Ave verum corpus and O Salutaris hostia. An indication of the close kinship between these two scenes is to be found in the fact that the beginnings of the more recent rites of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament were introduced in the twelfth century at the Agnus Dei, and then gradually transferred to the elevation. (vol. 2, p. 335)

One begins to see that "tropes" for the Agnus Dei are not inspired by a sudden sympathy with medieval practices, but are part of liturgists’ project of "relocation of transcendence"7 in the Communion Rite. All these innovations are aimed at redirecting our attention from the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species, to ourselves as the "Body of Christ".

The use of the single invocation "Lamb of God" repeated several times emphasizes that Jesus Christ is our paschal sacrifice — as well as affirming His Real Presence in the Eucharistic species and the sacrificial character of the Mass. If "Lamb of God" is just one among several titles invoked, this clear focus is lost.

Though most of the attempts at introducing alternate invocations for the Agnus Dei have come from independent groups or publications, some efforts have a more official character.

Change proposed by BCL

In 1978 the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy (BCL) reported that a Subcommittee on Music had been formed. Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who had just been appointed to the Milwaukee See, was elected chairman. (Before he became a bishop, Weakland had chaired the BCL’s original music advisory board in the mid-1960s. He was appointed to the BCL in November 1977, and served as BCL Chairman from 1978 to 1981. He remained on the Music Subcommittee.)

The BCL Newsletter reported in its July-August 1979 issue that the Music Subcommittee had met in June to review existing projects and to plan new ones. Among the new projects was to change the Agnus Dei:

The need for texts for the Lamb of God was seen as particularly important, following the directive of the General Instruction, n. 56e, to use this musical movement to accompany the fraction rite. Because of the varying length of the rite, which has come to involve not only the breaking of the bread, but also the pouring of the wine into chalices from flagons, the present structure of the Lamb of God was thought to need expansion. The threefold movement no longer seems adequate to a rite which now takes considerably longer. Flexibility in the text and music was seen to be necessary for a better understanding of the fraction rite itself as a moment of prayer in which the assembly participates. The setting commissioned by the Music Subcommittee will allow for such flexibility, and, it is hoped, will further creativity.

Composers are being commissioned for this and other music. Following a lengthy review process, the music may appear sometime in early 1980. (pp. 169-170, emphasis added)

The claim that the "threefold movement no longer seems adequate" is irrelevant; the GIRM already allowed for as many repetitions as needed. The real reason for the "flexibility" proposed here is to place greater emphasis on the participation of the assembly, reasoning essentially identical to that of Huck and Hovda ten years earlier.

There is no record in the BCL Newsletter that this projected setting of the Agnus Dei was ever published. In fact all mention of the Music Subcommittee disappears shortly after this. Apparently the Subcommittee was disbanded. Even if no text was actually published, however, the project gave official encouragement to composing alternative texts — contrary to the requirements in the GIRM.

"Ecumenical texts" proposed

A later attempt to approve alternative texts partially succeeded.

In June of 1995 the US bishops, as part of their vote on ICEL’s proposed revision of the Sacramentary (ICEL’s term for the Mass prayers), approved a set of "ecumenical texts" composed by the International Consultation on English Texts (ICET), an ecumenical group in which some ICEL translators participated. These "ecumenical texts" included translations of the prayers of the Ordinary of the Mass: the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei.

The ICET Agnus Dei uses alternate invocations: "Jesus, Lamb of God: Have mercy on us. Jesus, bearer of our sins: Have mercy on us. Jesus, redeemer of the world: Give us your peace".

Though these proposed texts were approved by the US Bishops, the ICEL Sacramentary revision, including these texts, was rejected by the Holy See.

But this rejection has by no means stopped the production of new compositions of "troped" versions of the Agnus Dei. For example, the most recent issue of Today’s Liturgy (Advent-Christmas-Epiphany), a magazine and liturgy planning guide published by Oregon Catholic Press (OCP), contains a newly revised Mass by Owen Alstott.

Alstott’s revised "Lamb of God" has been transformed into a litany that includes ten additional invocations – all of them unrelated to the image of the Lamb of God, and its response omits the "sins of the world". One of them reads: "O Morning Star, who guides us on our journey". The response for each of the new invocations is "hear us as we pray".

Even when the first two and the last invocation are all "Lamb of God", the focus on sacrifice and on the Passion of Our Lord present in the prescribed liturgical text is seriously weakened by the addition of new titles. This is especially true if the new version of the Agnus Dei is combined with the illicit use of unleavened bread and ceramic vessels, numerous lay ministers, etc.

Such alterations to the Mass are, in effect, reversing the development of a deeper awareness of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharistic species that Jungmann noted occurred from the ninth century onward. He had observed that increased understanding of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist led to increasingly reverent handling of the Eucharistic elements, individual hosts to avoid fragments, and a sense of adoration expressed in words and actions.

Most liturgists today diminish Christ’s unique presence in the Eucharist and view the "gathered community sharing a meal" as the key symbol of the celebration of Mass. They object strongly to adoration of the Lamb who was slain as a sacrifice for our salvation. And their view of the Eucharist underlies their promotion of new invocations with more "upbeat" metaphors.

It is hardly surprising, then, that so many Catholics have little understanding of the "Real Presence", as recent studies have shown. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger explains in Feast of Faith:

To speak of the Eucharist as the community meal is to cheapen it, for its price was the death of Christ…. This is why the Church holds fast to the sacrificial character of the Mass.8

Though liturgists are enthusiastic about introducing changes, as in the Agnus Dei, the people often resist the new practices. Liturgists insist that such people need to be "catechized" about the reason for the changes. The problem, however, is that liturgists claim the right to introduce texts and practices of their own devising in place of those prescribed by the Church’s official rite. As Cardinal Ratzinger observes,

[T]he obligatory character of the essential parts of the Liturgy also guarantees the true freedom of the faithful: it makes sure that they are not victims of something fabricated by an individual or a group, that they are sharing in the same Liturgy that binds the priest, the bishop and the pope. In the Liturgy, we are all given the freedom to appropriate, in our own personal way, the mystery which addresses us. (p. 67)

Since liturgists have been incessantly introducing new features into the Mass, "liturgical catechesis" has come to mean explaining liturgists’ latest preferences to an increasingly frustrated faithful. However, as Cardinal Ratzinger indicates, the purpose of liturgical catechesis is to help the faithful to appropriate the mystery. We can hardly be expected to enter into a mystery that is never presented to us.

At the fraction rite the Church intends us to enter into the great mystery of salvation, the triumph of the Lamb who was slain. She presents us, therefore, with the repeated invocation Agnus Dei. Substitute invocations such as "Morning Star", "Radiant Sun" and "Rock of Strength" do not express this particular mystery, and so are not acceptable as alternate invocations. True creativity would help to illuminate the mystery. The substitute invocations offered, in fact, obscure it.

How many Catholics are familiar with the numerous references to the Lamb in Scripture, especially in the Book of Revelations? Homilies dealing with the image of the Lamb and its relation to the Passion of Christ and the text of the Agnus Dei would offer a genuine liturgical catechesis. This would help the congregation truly participate in this ancient prayer and appropriate the mystery. Only when this happens will the Liturgy be what it is meant to be: a "foretaste of the heavenly Liturgy" where "every creature in heaven and on earth" cries:

To the Lamb be praise and honor, glory and might, forever and ever!

(Revelation 5:13)



1 Joseph A. Jungmann, SJ, The Mass of the Roman Rite: Its Origins and Development (Missarum Sollemnia) trans. Francis A. Brunner, C. SS.R. (Allen, Texas: Christian Classics, 1986), from the revised German edition of Missarum Sollemnia (1949) published by Herder Verlag, Vienna, Austria. p. 84.

2. Robert W. Hovda and Gabe Huck, There’s No Place Like People. (Washington, DC: The Liturgical Conference, 1969), p. 65.

3. Edward Foley, OFM Cap., "Planning the Music" from It is Your Own Mystery, p. 35 (Washington, DC: The Liturgical Conference, 1977), cited in Gabe Huck, The Communion Rite at Sunday Mass, 18. (Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1989).

4. David Haas, The Mission and Ministry of Sung Prayer. (Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 2002) p. 56.

5. Peter Wagner, Introduction to the Gregorian Melodies: A Handbook of Plainsong, second edition, translated by Agnes Orme and E.G.P. Wyatt. (London: The Plainsong and Medieval Music Society, 1901) pp. 243-244.

6. A troped Kyrie of this type can be heard on the "Chant" CD by the Monks of Santo Domingo de Silos that was a bestseller several years ago. It is the Kyrie fons bonitatis (Track 17).

7. See It Is Your Own Mystery, p. 4, and Adoremus Bulletin May 2002, p. 3.

8. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, translated by Graham Harrison. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1981) p. 65.


Susan Benofy is Research Editor of and frequent contributor to the Adoremus Bulletin, and an officer of Women for Faith & Family. A Chicago native, she received her doctorate in physics from Saint Louis University, where her husband is a professor of physics. The Benofys live in St. Louis.