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Ambrosian rite


The Ambrosian Rite is one of three surviving distinct liturgical rites in regular use in the Latin Church, the other two being the Mozarabic Rite and the Roman Rite. Today, it is the principal liturgical rite of the Archdiocese of Milan, as well as the neighboring Italian dioceses of Bergamo and Novara, and the Swiss diocese of Lugano.


The beginnings of the Ambrosian Rite have been much discussed. Many questions that have arisen have not always received conclusive answers. What was St. Ambrose’s role in the history of the rite? Is the rite of Greek inspiration, or is it fundamentally of Western character?

Witness of St. Ambrose. The Ambrosian Rite has been called Ambrosian not because St. Ambrose originated it, but because he was the most illustrious of the bishops of Milan and thus personifies the traditions of his see. The attribution to him of the rite’s beginnings is found for the first time in an eighth-century Cursus Scottorum (contained in Ordo Rom. 19; M. Andrieu, Les ‘Ordines Romani’ du haut moyen-âge, 5 v. [Louvain 1931–61] 3:225) and even more clearly in WALAFRID Strabo (d. 849) ‘‘Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, arranged the order of Mass and other services for his church and for other churches in Liguria; the Milanese church maintains it to this day’’ (De rebus eccl. 22; Patrologia Latina, 217 v. [Paris 1878–90] 114:944).

In about 396, Ambrose wrote that Dionysius, his predecessor who was sent into exile in 355, had asked God to let him die far from Milan so that he would not have to see the Christian traditions of his clergy and people overthrown and trampled upon by the infidels (Epist. 63.70; Patrologia Latina, 16:1260). Ambrose is here referring to the government of the Church of Milan by the Arian Auxentius (d. 374), who had come from the East.

Elsewhere Ambrose affirmed that his Church followed the leadership of Rome in all things: ‘‘cuius (id est ecclesiae Romanae) typum in omnibus sequimur et formam’’ (De sacramentis 3.1.5). By means of such conformity to the liturgy of Rome, he attempted to defend the legitimacy of certain special customs in Milan, for example, the washing of the feet of the newly baptized.

From these two passages of St. Ambrose one must conclude that (1) the liturgy of Milan in the fourth century was substantially the same as that of Rome, and therefore that Milan received it from Rome; (2) the Arian Bishop Auxentius introduced many changes into Milan’s worship, and that he was perhaps the source of certain affinities of the Ambrosian Rite with that of the Greeks; and (3) in certain instances the practice of Milan differed from that of Rome (e.g., the feet of the newly baptized are washed; there has never been fasting on Saturday in Milan although there was in Rome: Augustine, Epist. 36.32; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 34:62).

Innovations Ambrose made in the liturgy of Milan were the use of the antiphon, the singing of hymns, and perhaps a new arrangement of the vigils [A. Paredi, La liturgia di S. Ambrogio (Milan 1940) 152–155]. The use of both antiphons and hymns spread from Milan to other Churches of the West (Augustine, Conf. 9.7) and finally to Rome itself. The few peculiarities in Baptism and the Eucharist referred to in the De sacramentis of the fourth century concord substantially with the Milanese service books coming from the ninth to the eleventh centuries [L. L. Mitchell, ‘‘Ambrosian Baptismal Rites,’’ Studia Liturgica 1 (1962) 241–253]. As for the Canon of the Mass, it must be remembered that the De sacramentis offers only a fragment quoted from memory in a discourse, and therefore one should not make too much of differences between it and the text of the canon found in Milanese liturgical books of the Carolingian era.

Origins. The thesis proposed by L. Duchesne in 1889 [Christian Worship, Its Origin and Evolution (5th ed. London 1949) 93–94], that the Ambrosian Rite was of Greek origin imported to Milan by Auxentius, is untenable if one admits, as everyone now does, Ambrose’s authorship of De sacramentis. Nor is there any probability in the recent thesis that Rome adopted the primitive Mass Canon from Milan. Just as all the churches of the West received the faith and Scriptures from Rome, so also from the same sources must they have accepted the first simple and essential liturgical formulas and rites. The fourth and fifth centuries, however, witnessed a phenomenal development in the liturgy everywhere. In the same way as other shepherds, the bishops of Milan—Eustorgius (until c. 350), Dionysius (until 355), Ambrose (d. 397), Simplicianus (d. 401), and Eusebius (d. 460)—made adaptations, composed new prayers, introduced new rites to meet the pastoral needs of their flocks. Very probably the first Milanese service book was systematized and edited shortly after the death of Simplicianus, for he is the last bishop of the diocese to be given a proper Mass in the oldest extant Milanese Missals (9th–11th centuries). In that first service book many prayers could have been the traditional, common Latin compositions, not newly composed ones.

So great was the prestige of St. Ambrose that not only his writings but also the prayers and chants of his church were known in other areas. The developments of the fourth and fifth centuries, particularly Ambrose’s innovations, made these variations from Roman practice more obvious. Ambrose alluded to Roman criticism of Milanese peculiarities (De sacramentis 3.1.5–6), and this criticism mounted. Innocent I (d. 417) wrote to the bishop of Gubbio, censuring those who followed liturgical usages of churches other than Rome (Epist. 25 ad Decentium; Patrologia Latina, 20: 551–561). The very customs criticized were to be found in the Milanese service books, which shows that at that time Milan’s liturgy was already being imitated by other churches, even those near Rome. Furthermore, seventh-century Gallican service books such as the Bobbio Missal and the Missale Gothicum contain prayers clearly of Milanese derivation. On the other hand, it has not been proved that Milan borrowed any prayers from the Gallican books.

Hence Duchesne’s thesis can be accepted in the sense that Milan was the center from which a Gallican type liturgy took its origin. By Gallican is meant a Latin (not Eastern) liturgy different from that of Rome in certain particulars [see J. A. Jungmann, The Early Liturgy (Notre Dame, Ind. 1959) 227–237].

Development. Aside from the addition of the Communicantes and Nobis quoque peccatoribus, which were probably adopted from Rome about 570 [V. L. Kennedy, The Saints of the Canon of the Mass (Vatican City 1938) 197], the rite tended to be stable partly owing to the exile of Milan’s bishops and officials at Genoa from 569 to 649. Its stability was also due partly to the isolation Milan brought upon itself during the schism involved in its (and Aquileia’s) refusal to accept the decision of Vigilius (d. 555) and Pelagius (d. 561) confirming the Second Council of Constantinople’s condemnation of the THREE CHAPTERS .

Toward the end of the eighth century, however, the Ambrosian Rite probably underwent a revision. All the oldest extant codices (of Milan, Bergamo, Vercelli, and Biasca) enjoy an amazing uniformity in both prayer texts and the arrangement of the sanctoral cycle. Such uniformity cannot be explained without admitting a revision of Milan’s Sacramentary, a revision that introduced many new formularies for new feasts, taking them chiefly from the eighth-century Gelasian Sacramentary, basically a Roman book.

A few decades after the revision of the Sacramentary, possibly in the last half of the ninth century, the Milanese Office also received a definitive arrangement. While the chant texts of the Mass use the Vetus Latina version of the Psalms, the Office follows the Old Roman Psalter, that is, St. Jerome’s correction of the Vetus Latina [A. Nohe, Der Mailänder Psalter (Freiburg 1936)]. Between the fourth and ninth centuries there must have been two successive reforms of the Office, one due to Greek influence, another to the Benedictines [H. Schneider, Die altlateinischen biblischen Cantica (Texte und Arbeiten 29–30; Beuron 1938) 99–126].

These revisions coincide with the limitation of the geographical ambit of the rite during the Carolingian reforms. A tradition going back at least to the eleventh century claims that Charlemagne intervened in the fortunes of the Ambrosian Rite. According to Landulf the Elder (Hist. Mediolanensis 11.10; Patrologia Latina, 147:583), the emperor tried to abolish the rite by imposing the Roman books and chant. On the other hand, a Cassinese poem (manuscript 318 in the archives of Monte Cassino) says that Charlemagne merely restricted the use of the rite and its chant to the Diocese of Milan. It is not true, however, that Nicholas II (d. 1061) or Gregory VII (d. 1085) attempted to suppress the rite. Also legendary is the alleged attempt of Cardinal Branda da Castiglione (d. 1443) to do the same [A. Paredi, La biblioteca del Pizolpasso (Milan 1961) 60].

From the tenth to the fourteenth centuries one finds at work in the Ambrosian Rite the same forces that brought about the accumulation of private prayers and special devotions as in the Roman liturgical books. The chief difficulty was that during this period no typical edition of Milanese service books was made obligatory by episcopal authority, especially for Office and calendar. Consequently the traditions followed varied according to locality. It was only with Archbishop Francesco Pizolpasso in 1440 that the first decree regulating the calendar appeared [E. Cattaneo, Il breviario ambrosiano (Milan 1943) appendix].

When Pius V in 1568 and 1570 declared the Roman Breviary and Missal obligatory, he made an exception for those rites that had been in existence for 200 years or more. Hence the Ambrosian Rite was allowed to continue, but the archbishop of Milan had to carry out a reform of the liturgical books and eliminate abuses. To this end a commission was appointed by (St.) Charles Borromeo, who had defended the legitimacy of the rite and ensured its juridical existence. Borromeo thus removed the editing of service books from private initiative and had published the first official Calendarium (1567) and Breviary (1582); after his death the Ritual (1589) and Missal (1594) appeared. His chief aim in this reform was to restore the rite to its original state. His commission did not execute his wishes, however, but introduced serious changes contrary to ancient tradition, for example, owing to dogmatic scruples, the Ambrosian form for Anointing of the Sick was replaced by the Roman.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, there was begun a new reform seeking the primitive purity of the rite. By 1964 there had appeared new editions of the Missale Ambrosianum by A. Ceriani in 1901, the Antiphonale Missarum (1935) and Liber Vesperalis (1939) by G. M. Suñol. In 1930 studies were begun by the Benedictines of Maria Laach for a new edition of the Breviary. In 1976, the revised Ambrosian missal (Messale Ambrosiano) and the lectionary (Lezionario Ambrosiano) were published together in Italian. This was followed by the promulgation of the Latin text (Missale Ambrosianum iuxta ritum Sanctae Ecclesiae Mediolanensis) in 1981, and a second Italian edition of the Ambrosian Missal in 1986.

Sources. The oldest extant manuscripts of Milanese service books date to the ninth to eleventh centuries. Besides early references to the rite in the writings and homilies of Ambrose, Gaudentius of Brescia (d. 427), Peter Chrysologus (d. 450), and Maximus II of Turin (d. 465), there is available an eleventh-century commentary on the Milanese Mass, the Expositio Missae Canonicae [ed. A. Wilmart, Jahrbuch für Liturgiewissenschaft 2 (1922) 47–67]. Also edited are the ninth-century Sacramentarium Bergomense (ed. A. Paredi, Bergamo 1962) and the eleventh-century Sacramentary of Aribert [ed. A. Paredi, Miscellanea Bernareggi (Bergamo 1958) 329–488]. M. Magistretti edited a ninth-century Ordinal describing the Church year, Beroldus sive ecclesiae Ambrosianae Mediolanensis kalendarium et ordines (Milan 1894), and a combined Breviary and Ritual, Manuale Ambrosianum (2 v. Milan 1905).


This section gives a description of the chief characteristics of the celebration of the Eucharist, Sacraments, liturgical year, and vestments in the classical Ambrosian Rite. The 1976 reforms of the Ambrosian Rite has retained many of the principal elements of the classical structure, while simplifying and pruning accretions that were added over the centuries.

Mass. Traditionally, the festive celebration of the Mass was preceded by a procession during which antiphons are sung. The procession ended with a short litany. The prayers of the Confiteor began to appear from the thirteenth century on. The Psalm Iudica me Deus, wanted by Charles Borromeo and introduced into the Missale Ambrosianum of 1594 but omitted in the 1618 edition, is no longer said. The 1976 revisions removed these preparatory ceremonies that were incorporated during the medieval period, and the Ambrosian Rite of the Mass begins with the Ingressa or Entrance Antiphon, as was the case in the earliest form of the Ambrosian Rite of the Mass.

The chant for the Ingressa corresponds to the Roman Introit, but has neither verse nor Gloria Patri. After the Gloria in excelsis there is threefold Kyrie eleison. Traditionally, on the Sundays of Lent, instead of the Gloria in excelsis, there are special litanies sung by the deacon; all the people answer ‘‘precamur te’’ or ‘‘Kyrie eleison’’ as a response. Since the altar, as a rule, is kept turned toward the people, the celebrant never turns around for the Dominus vobiscum, even when the altar is not actually turned toward the people. The first oration is called ‘‘super populum.’’

The readings follow. In festive and Sunday Masses there are three readings, the first of which is usually taken from the Old Testament and the second from the New Testament Epistles. The Psalmellus follows the singing of the Old Testament, while the Alleluia Verse follows the Epistle. The Sequence has never been accepted in the Ambrosian Rite, as is the case with the Roman Rite. After the Gospel the homily or Tractatus always follows.

The Preparation of Gifts begins with a triple Kyrie eleison and an antiphon ‘‘post evangelium,’’ remnants probably of the ancient litany prayer. An invitation by the deacon follows: ‘‘Pacem habete,’’ probably a remnant of the ancient practice of giving the kiss of peace before the Offertory. There follows the Oratio super sindonem, sung after the table-cloth (sindon) has been set on the altar. (This corresponds in the Gelasian Sacramentary to the second oration, which was later abolished in the Gregorian Sacramentary.) The ceremony of the laity’s offering the bread and wine was always maintained throughout the centuries, although it fell into disuse in the medieval Roman Rite. During this ceremony there takes place the singing of the Offertorium, or offertory chant. The private prayers of the celebrant during the Offertory are found already in the Missals of the eleventh century. While the Credo is not spoken of in the eleventh-century Expositio missae canonicae, it is found in all the ancient Missals of the rite. In Milan it is sung after and not before the Offertory prayers, a practice that is still maintained in the 1976 revision. The prayer Super oblata, ends the Offertory; it is recited or sung aloud.

While the Ambrosian Rite still enjoys the ancient variety of Prefaces, each Mass having its proper Preface, the Ambrosian Canon as cited by St. Ambrose (De sacramentis 4.5.21–23, 6.26–27) is in substantial agreement with the most ancient Roman Canon found in the Gelasian Sacramentary. Milan, however, never accepted modifications introduced later into the Roman Canon.

Prior to the 1976 revision, the Ambrosian Rite of the Mass had three Eucharistic prayers, the first being a variant of the Roman Canon, and the other two were specific Eucharistic prayers for Holy Thursday and the Easter Vigil. All three ancient Eucharistic prayers have been retained in the 1976 revision, with the addition of Eucharistic Prayers II, III and IV from the Roman Missal (1969).

One unique peculiarity of the Ambrosian Rite is the practice of the celebrant washing his hands (lavabo) before the words of consecration without saying anything. It is not known how old this practice is, but in the books of the thirteenth century the Lavabo comes after the celebrant has received the offerings. The 1976 revision maintains the lavabo at this unique position, rather than the more ancient practice after the celebrant receives the offering, a practice that has always been part of the Roman Rite and attested to in the Ordo Romanus Primus. The Elevations date from the thirteenth century. Immediately after the second Elevation, the celebrant extends his arms straight out while he says the first words of the Unde et memores. The Fraction of the Host has been kept before the Lord’s Prayer, as it probably was in the Roman Mass before the time of Gregory the Great (d. 604). During it the Confractorium is sung by the choir.

Communion under both species seems to have been preserved for a long time, far longer than the Roman Rite of the Mass. In fact, in eleventh-century manuals the formula for giving Communion to a person baptized in case of sickness is ‘‘Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi sanguine tinctum. . . .’’ The Communion chant is called the Transitorium. After the Postcommunion Prayer we find another triple Kyrie, probably the remnant of an early Byzantine-style postcommunion litany. Unlike the Roman Rite, the ancient dismissal of the Ambrosian Rite of the Mass is ‘‘Procedamus cum pace’’ (Let us go [proceed] in peace), to which the assembly responds ‘‘In nomine Christi’’ (‘‘In the name of Christ’’).

Sacraments. The ceremonies of Baptism differ from those of the Roman rite only in their order and the practice of immersion. The ancient Milanese ritual for Anointing of the Sick was replaced at the time of Charles Borromeo by the Roman ritual. The differences in administration of the other Sacraments are very slight.

Liturgical year. The Ambrosian Rite has never observed a fast on Saturdays, not even during Lent. The arrangement of the Gospel pericopes seems to be a pre-Gregorian type and is common to Milan, Benevento, and Spain. Advent has six Sundays beginning with the First Sunday after the feast of St. Martin (November 11); the Sixth Sunday is the great feast of Mary, which antedates the determination of March 25 as the feast of the Annunciation. The Milanese custom of blessing homes at Christmas rather than at Easter was already practiced in the eleventh century.

Traditionally, no saints’ feasts are permitted during Lent. Ancient Ambrosian liturgical usage dictated that the Fridays of Lent were always aliturgical: neither Mass nor reception of Communion was allowed. On Holy Saturday a text of the Exsultet is used, which if not actually written by St. Ambrose, is certainly older than the Roman text. At the very beginning of the Holy  Saturday Mass the celebrant announces the Resurrection by singing three times: ‘‘Christus Dominus resurrexit’’; the people respond thrice with ‘‘Deo gratias.’’

Liturgical vestments. The deacon’s stole is always worn outside the dalmatic as in Spain and Gaul before the Carolingian reform. Red is the color used for vestments during Holy Week and for Eucharistic functions.

Bibliography: A. PAREDI, ‘‘Messali antichi ambrosiani,’’ Ambrosius 35 (1959) 1–25. P. BORELLA, Il rito Ambrosiano (Brescia 1964). P. BORELLA, ‘‘L’evoluzione dei riti sacramentali nell’ antica liturgica ambrosiana,’’ Liturgie (München 1963) 48–59. O. HEIMING, ‘‘Kleinere Beiträge zur Geschichte der ambrosianischen Liturgie,’’ Archiv für Liturgiewissenschaft 12 (1970) 130–147 (Pt. I); 13 (1971) 133–140 (Pt II). E. CATTANEO, ‘‘Tradizione e il rito ambrosiani nell’ambiente lombardo-medioevale,’’ Ambrosius Episcopus, 2 (Milan 1976) 5–47. A. M. TRIACCA, ‘‘Liturgie ambrosienne: amalgame hétérogène ou ‘specificum’ influent,’’ in Liturgie de l’église particulière et liturgie de l’église universelle (Rome 1976) 289–327. A. M. TRIACCA, ‘‘Mater omnium viventium: contributo metodologico ad una ecclesiologia liturgica dal nuovo Messale Ambrosiano,’’ in In ecclesia (Rome 1977) 353–383. A. M. TRIACCA, ‘‘La ‘méthexis’ dans l’ancienne liturgie ambrosienne: contribution des sources eucologiques ambrosiennes,’’ in L’assemblée liturgique et les différents rôles dans l’assemblée (Rome 1977) 269–305. A. M. TRIACCA, ‘‘L’eucologie ambrosienne dans la structure du nouveau Missel de la ‘Sancta Ecclesia Mediolanensis,’’’ in Gestes et paroles dans les diverses families liturgiques (Rome 1978) 301–328; ‘‘‘Ecclesia Mater omnium vivetium’: liturgie ambrosienne et ecclésiologie universelle,’’ in L’église dans la liturgie (Rome 1980) 295–323; ‘‘La structure trinitaire des ‘Preces Eucharisticae’ dans la liturgie ambrosienne (hier et aujourd’hui),’’ in Trinité et liturgie (Rome 1984) 301–384; ‘‘Le ‘sanctoral’ de la liturgie ambrosienne: des données à théologie liturgique,’’ in Saints et sainteté dans la liturgie (Rome 1987) 325–356; ‘‘Teologia dell’anno liturgico nelle liturgie occidentali antiche non romane,’’ in L’anno liturgico (Genoa 1988) 307–363. V. A. LENTI, ‘‘Liturgical Reform and the Ambrosian and Mozarabic Rites,’’ Worship 68 (1994) 417–426; ‘‘The Revised Ambrosian Divine Office,’’ Studia Liturgica 29 (1999) 116–126. A. WARD, ‘‘Holy Week in the Ambrosian Liturgy,’’ in Hebdomadae sanctae celebratio (Rome 1997) 187–235.


New Catholic Encyclopedia. 2003. Vol. 1. P. 342-346.

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