The Parisian Greek Mass

One of our favorite television shows was James Burke’s Connections. It was—and is—a great program, essentially a Wikipedia rabbit hole avant la lettre. Essentially, Burke would trace the often labyrinthine developments that led some some simple, everyday object or concept. The stories were often fascinating, helped along by Burke’s engaging persona. We want to remember that the Discovery Channel presented Connections, back in the days before Discovery discovered that there was money to be made in compelling real-life dramas.

Earlier this weekend, we read, at New Liturgical Movement, Gregory DiPippo’s longish, interesting piece about the Greek Mass said at the Abbey of St. Denys outside Paris. The story behind the Mass is interesting: Dionysius the Areopagite was a judge of the Areopagus of Athens converted to Christ by St. Paul (Acts 17:34). According to tradition, Dionysius then became the first bishop of Athens. He later went to Rome, where Pope Clement sent him north to convert the Gauls. He became, then, the first bishop of Paris. (Where Dionysius became Denys.) His evangelization did not go down so hot with the pagan priests, who managed to convince the Roman authorities to kill Dionysius and his companions. One explanation for the name of Montmartre is that it is where Dionysius and his companions were martyred. His feast day is October 9. There were likely three Dionysii—the Areopagite, the bishop of Athens, and the bishop of Paris—over a couple hundred years.

Fast forward several hundred years. DiPippo notes that the Byzantine emperor Michael sent the Holy Roman Emperor Louis a collection of writings purportedly by Dionysius. Few—if any—people today think that the author of these works was Denys or even the Areopagite. Instead, the view is that he was an anonymous Neoplatonist using the Areopagite’s name. So there were really something closer to four Dionysii. This being the ninth century, there were not a lot of Frenchmen running around with great Greek. So, Dionysius’s works were translated, and they caught on. DiPippo notes that St. Thomas Aquinas, for example, who cites Dionysius throughout the Summa, knew him in a Latin translation. We note that, as late as 1490–92, Marsilio Ficino translated the Mystical Theology and the Divine Names into Latin, together with his not-always-hugely-helpful Neoplatonic commentary. (Harvard brought out a nice, two-volume set earlier this year.) Michael Allen explains in his introduction to Ficino’s translations that Dionysius was important to the Neoplatonists because, if Dionysius was who he was supposed to be, then there was among the Apostles—remember Paul converted Dionysius—an advanced Platonism, and the Neoplatonic tradition gets rescued from its evident paganism by a secret Christian origin. Or something like that; Renaissance thinkers did not have Dan Brown, so they couldn’t call something “a Dan Brown story.” To make this long story short, after the introduction of these works, Dionysius became even more strongly associated with Greek learning and culture.

So, DiPippo tells us, the monks of St. Denys’s Abbey honored their founder by translating the Roman Mass for the octave day of Denys’s feast—that is: October 16—into Greek. That’s right: the Roman Mass, not an eastern Liturgy, but in Greek. This was, therefore, the very opposite of a vernacular translation. But their hearts were in the right place. What better way to honor one of the preeminent Greek thinkers of all time—so they thought—than by saying Mass in his memory in his tongue? DiPippo tells us that the tradition developed in the 12th century. We would be interested to know how that dating is derived. Apparently, the monks continued to say the Greek Mass for Denys’s octave until the Revolution. The date on the printed edition, brought out in Paris by De Hansy, is 1777, which would have been at the very tail end of the tradition. There must be something in the air about this Mass. Father John Hunwicke hosted earlier this summer posts by a friend of his, who addressed the Greek Mass of St. Denys at considerable length, presenting a transcription not only of the propers but also of the ordinary of the Mass.

The Mass makes for fascinating reading (even with our rudimentary Greek), as translations often do. It really does appear that the monks began with Latin and translated it into Greek, resisting the schoolboy’s (novice’s?) impulse simply to crib extant Greek texts where available. For example, some of the commenters at Father Hunwicke’s place point out that the Greek Credo (Pisteuo?) contains a Filioque translation. Fascinating stuff like that. Not being any judge of Greek composition, we wonder how the translation of the Mass sounds in Greek. We suspect that the great eastern Liturgies are probably more elegant, but we would expect native Greek speakers to produce more elegant Greek than a bunch of French monks. (We have long coveted a copy of the Pléiade edition of Shakespeare, not because our French is so good that we work more naturally in it, but because we want to see how the quintessential English author sounds in French.)

How would James Burke sum it up? St. Paul converted an Athenian judge named Dionysius, who later went to Rome. When in Rome, St. Clement sent him to Paris to convert the Gauls. He became known as Denys, the first bishop of Paris, and he did such a good job that pagan priests got the Romans to martyr him. Later, a Neoplatonist used his name to write a series of theological books in Greek. In the ninth century, the Byzantine emperor made a gift of these books to the Holy Roman emperor, and Dionysius became associated with Greek Neoplatonic thought. But no one could read Greek. In order to understand Denys, his works were translated into Latin often for the next few centuries. But, to commemorate Denys, some Parisian monks in the 12th century translated the Roman Mass, which was in Latin, into Greek. And so they celebrated it in Greek on his octave day for five hundred years, until the Revolution. Just before the Revolution, in 1777, a Parisian printer brought out an edition of the Mass. And, in the Year of Our Lord 2015, two separate blogs on the Internet posted two lengthy articles about it.

Probably not as compelling as some of Burke’s summaries. It is sort of amazing to us, however, that this one setting of one Mass that was said one day a year, which probably was not hugely well known outside Paris, received serious attention in the summer of 2015. What is even more amazing is that the story of this one Mass encompasses almost the whole of Christian history—and, by extension, the history of the West. You can begin this story at New Liturgical Movement or Father Hunwicke’s blog and travel back to St. Paul preaching in Athens, taking any number of detours along the way.

We think that’s pretty neat, James Burke or not.