Who Is the Author of the Presanctified Liturgy?

With the beginning of Great Lent, the church calendar is enriched by one of the most remarkable works of the Byzantine liturgical art the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts. During each celebration of this liturgical service, the name of its supposed author St Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome is pronounced at the dismissal. However, is the ascription of this Eastern-spirited service to a Western saint and the Western liturgical tradition really justified? 

Ancient Attributions

The most ancient manuscripts, as well as the modern editions of the Presanctified Liturgy, make no mention of its compiler’s name, and the service is called simply the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts (hereinafter the Liturgy). The practice of attributing the service to one or another saint appeared as late as in the 12th century. Very often in the Greek Euchologia of the 12th-16th centuries, one can see the name of St Herman of Constantinople (+ 730). The less widespread inscriptions with the name of St Epiphanius of Cyprus (+ 403) appeared after the XIV century. The name of St Gregory the Great begins to appear only in the XV century making the tradition of attributing the compilation of the Liturgy to Pope Gregory I the youngest of all. Two 16th century manuscripts of the Liturgy mention the name of St Gregory the Theologian rather than Gregory the Great (Alexopoulos. 2009). 

The situation is a little different with the Slavic manuscripts, making no account of St Herman and only mentioning St Epiphanius of Cyprus in a number of the 14th-16th century manuscripts. Starting with the XVI century the influence of the Greek scholarship triggers the reattribution of the Liturgy to the holy pontiff in the Slavic books, previously commonly ascribing it to St Basil the Great. (Slutskij. 2009). The ancient Georgian translations of the Liturgy also attribute it to St Basil the Great. A vivid evidence of the gradually spreading attribution of the service to the Roman bishop is contained in one of the surviving Service Books (Service Book BAN. 21. 4:13), originating from Kiev Metropolia: The Order of the Divine Presanctified Service of our father among the saints St Epiphanius of Cyprus, ascribed by others to Pope Agatho, while the Athonites say it to be an elaboration of Gregory the Pope.” The authority of the Holy Mount Athos has always been very high among any Orthodox; therefore, the Athos opinion eventually became dominant.

Synaxarion Error

Nonetheless, the question remains: where did the tradition of attributing this Lenten service to the famous Roman saint come from? The question becomes even more relevant in view of the fact that such a liturgy is not characteristic of the Western rite, where the practice of celebrating full Mass (i.e. including the prayer of Anaphora) on weekdays of Great Lent was established precisely at the time of the pontificate of the holy Diologist. In fact, we can say that the Roman practice under St Gregory was generally the opposite of that of the Eastern Churches, which, following the decisions of the ancient Councils, did not serve the Eucharist on Lenten days, partaking of the Presanctified Gifts. After the worship reform done by the pontiff, the difference in Lenten worship between Western and Eastern Christians became even more noticeable.

 In the XII century the Byzantians began to wonder why Roman Christians celebrate full Mass on weekdays during Great Lent, ignoring the rules of the ancient Catholic decrees. A request was made by the emperor, resulting in the “Clarification” (Δήλωσις), a document compiled by the patriarch of New Rome Michael II the Oxeian (1143-1146), indicating the authority of St Gregory as the first to introduce such a practice. According to the well-established opinion (Malinovsky. 1850, Μωραΐτης. 1955, Zheltov. 2004, Parenti. 2010), the appearance of St Gregory’s name in the manuscripts of the Liturgy was influenced by a mistake in the Synaxarion of Constantinople, misinterpreting the Δήλωσις of the Byzantine Patriarch Michael.  The first edition of the Synaxarion still corresponded to the facts reporting that it was St Gregory who established in Rome the practice of celebrating full Masses on the weekdays of Great Lent. However, an unfortunate mistake crept into some of the later editions of the Synaxarion, turning that message into the opposite statement that he established the liturgy that we (the Byzantians) celebrate during the Lenten days” (SynCP. Col. 532), i.e. L.P.D. Apparently, the Byzantians’ memory and understanding of the Western liturgical tradition were rather vague during the late 6th century, particularly in view of their antagonism with the Latins.

Additionally, the aforementioned “Clarification” pointed to the Liturgy being part of a tradition, more ancient than the times of Sts Basil the Great and John Chrysostom, and to one of its prayers belonging to St Athanasius the Great (RegPatr, N 1021). Based on the authoritative testimony of St Simeon of Thessaloniki, a prominent 17th century hierarch Dositheos II Notaras, Patriarch of Jerusalem asserted that “The Presanctified Liturgy was inherited from the successors of the Apostles and is not the creation of Gregory the Dialogist.” St Nicodemus the Hagiorite agreed with this opinion and included the refutation of the Roman bishop’s authorship in the authoritative collection of canons titled Pidalion (Πηδάλιον. Σ. 183). 

As a result, the attribution of the Liturgy to St Gregory the Great was gradually rejected by the Greeks, hence the name of the Roman saint not being mentioned during the dismissal in Greek churches. Russian Old Believer practice also follows Greek custom, while in the modern Russian tradition, St Gregory’s name is not in the title of the service (in standard editions), but is still remembered during the dismissal, which appears as a kind of a compromise option.

About the author

Reader John Nichiporuk,
Master of Theology specializing in Biblical Studies; a member of The Catalog of Good Deeds team

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