Handwritten liturgical manuscripts

All of us are familiar with the liturgical books of earlier centuries and, in particular, from centuries predating the invention of the printing press.  The scholarly editions of such works as the Ordines Romani are mainstays of liturgical scholarship. Yet once liturgical books began to be printed, the custom of having handwritten manuscripts fell out of use.  Printed books are simply easier, more economical, more certain and have become the main means of proclaiming liturgical prayers and readings. Sometimes these books were annotated with notes for the presider, and this was even the case before the Post-it note was invented (and which had the initial use of helping tag a hymnal for liturgical use). The twentieth century saw the use of photocopies, mimeographed pages and even occasionally such innovations as disposable liturgical books (such as this loose-leaf Lectionary published by Liturgical Press). In recent years electronic screens, such as iPads are being used in some churches.

Yet recently here I came across a new handwritten liturgical book, prepared for current liturgical use.  Here in the Pontifical University in Maynooth, we own a volume called the “Cardinal Ó Fiaich Memorial Gospel Book.” This book was commissioned from Timothy O’Neill, a modern scribe , who very consciously works in the tradition of the ancient Irish scribes going all the way back to St. Colmcille (Columba). The alphabet is a variation on the Roman alphabet, an insular script, that was used in the writing of the Irish language until the middle of the twentieth century and which developed also into a typescript that was also used in printed material. The Gospel Book was created in memory of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiach (1923-1990), the Primate of All Ireland, who had been Professor of History and President of the Pontifical University. The hand-written manuscript on vellum pages, bound in leather. The late Cardinal was a champion of Irish history and culture and a great number of sponsors came together to sponsor the book. It contains the official Lectionary translation used in Ireland using the Jerusalem Bible version of the Book of Gospels, but it does not contain everything in the 672 pages of the pint version, rather it contains the Gospels for the highlights of the liturgical year and is often used on these days for the celebration of the Eucharist in the seminary community in Maynooth. When not in use in the liturgy, the Book is safely stored in the Russell Library, which stores all the precious books in the Pontifical University’s collection.

I am not aware of any other handwritten liturgical books in liturgical use today. The closest thing I know about is the St. John’s Bible project commissioned by St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, MN, although this is not a ritual edition per se. Maybe readers know of other such books. I include a sample of the pages of the Cardinal Ó Fiaich Memorial Gospel Book, for readers to look at. The vast majority of the readings are in English, but the section for St Patrick’s Day gives the Gospel in Irish. Here St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas are photographed, Please note that there was a deliberate effort to give emphasis to the words of the Gospel and the Gospel design was programmed to highlight the written words and letters and was deliberately written without images.


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