Diffusion of the Ambrosian Rite
There is no direct evidence that the rite was in any way the composition of St. Ambrose, but his name has been associated with it since the eighth century at least. It is probable that in his day it took a form which included the principal characteristics distinguishing it from other rites but has since been subject to various revisions from time to time. St. Ambrose succeeded the Arian bishop Auxentius of Milan, during whose long episcopate (355 to 374) it would seem probable but unverified that Arian modifications may have been introduced into a rite the period of whose original composition is unknown. It would be sufficient cause to attach St. Ambrose's name to the rite if St. Ambrose expunged these hypothetical unorthodoxies and issued corrected service books.
According to St. Augustine (Confessones, IX, vii) and Paulinus the Deacon (Vita S. Ambrosii, § 13), St. Ambrose introduced innovations, not indeed into the Mass, but into what would seem to be the Divine Office, at the time of his contest with the Empress Justina for the
Portian Basilica, which she claimed for the Arians. St. Ambrose filled the church with Catholics and kept them there night and day until the peril was past. And he arranged Psalms and hymns for them to sing, as St. Augustine says, "secundum morem orientalium partium ne populus mæroris tædio contabesceret" (after the manner of the Orientals, lest the people should languish in cheerless monotony); and of this Paulinus the deacon says: "Hoc in tempore primum antiphonæ, hymni. et vigiliæ in ecclesiâ Mediolanensi celebrari cœperunt, Cujus celebritatis devotio usque in hodiernum diem non solum in eadem ecclesia verum per omnes pæne Occidentis provincias manet" (Now for the first time antiphons, hymns, and vigils began to be part of the observance of the Church in Milan, which devout observance lasts to our day not only in that church but in nearly every province of the West).
From the time of St. Ambrose, whose hymns are well-known and whose liturgical allusions may certainly be explained as referring to a rite which possessed the characteristics of that which is called by his name, until the period of Charlemagne (circ AD 800), there is a gap in the history of the Milanese Rite. However, St. Simplician, the successor of St. Ambrose, added much to the rite and St. Lazarus (438-451) introduced the three days of the litanies. (Cantù, Milano e il suo territorio, I, 116) The Church of Milan underwent various vicissitudes and for a period of some eighty years (570-649), during the Lombard conquests, the see was moved to Genoa in Liguria.
In the eighth-century, manuscript evidence begins. In a short treatise on the various cursus entitled "Ratio de Cursus qui fuerunt ex auctores" (sic in Cott. Manuscripts, Nero A. II, in the British Museum), written about the middle of the eighth century, probably by an Irish monk in France, is found perhaps the earliest attribution of the Milan use to St. Ambrose, though it quotes the authority of St. Augustine, probably alluding to the passage already mentioned: "Est et alius cursus quem refert beatus augustinus episcopus quod beatus ambrosius propter hereticorum ordinem dissimilem composuit quem in italia antea de cantabatur" (There is yet another Cursus which the blessed Bishop Augustine says that the blessed Ambrose composed because of the existence of a different use of the heretics, which previously used to be sung in Italy).
According to a narrative of
Landulphus Senior, the eleventh-century chronicler of Milan, Charlemagne attempted to abolish the Ambrosian Rite, as he or his father, Pepin the Short, had abolished the Gallican Rite in France, in favour of a
Gallicanized Roman Rite. He sent to Milan and caused to be destroyed or sent beyond the mountain, quasi in exilium (as if into exile), all the Ambrosian books which could be found. Eugenius the Bishop, (transmontane bishop, as Landulf calls him), begged him to reconsider his decision. After the manner of the time, an ordeal, which reminds one of the celebrated trials by fire and by battle in the case of Alfonso VI and the Mozarabic Rite, was determined on. Two books, Ambrosian and Roman, were laid closed upon the altar of St. Peter's Church in Rome and left for three days, and the one which was found open was to win. They were both found open, and it was resolved that as God had shown that one was as acceptable as the other, the Ambrosian Rite should continue. But the destruction had been so far effective that no Ambrosian books could be found, save one missal which a faithful priest had hidden for six weeks in a cave in the mountains. Therefore the Manuale was written out from memory by certain priests and clerks (Landulph, Chron., 10-13). Walafridus Strabo, who died Abbot of Reichenau in 849, and must therefore have been nearly, if not quite, contemporary with this incident, says nothing about it, but (De Rebus Ecclesiasticis, xxii), speaking of various forms of the Mass, says: "Ambrosius quoque Mediolanensis episcopus tam missæ quam cæterorum dispositionem officiorum suæ ecclesiæ et aliis Liguribus ordinavit, quæ et usque hodie in Mediolanensi tenentur ecclesia" (Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, also arranged a ceremonial for the Mass and other offices for his own church and for other parts of Liguria, which is still observed in the Milanese Church).
In the eleventh century Pope Nicholas II, who in 1060 had tried to abolish the Mozarabic Rite, wished also to attack the Ambrosian, and was aided by St. Peter Damian, but he was unsuccessful, and Pope Alexander II, his successor, himself a Milanese, reversed his policy in this respect. St. Gregory VII made another attempt, and Le Brun (Explication de la Messe, III, art. I, § 8) conjectures that Landulf's miraculous narrative was written with a purpose about that time. Having weathered these storms, the Ambrosian Rite had peace for some three centuries and a half.
In the first half of the fifteenth century Cardinal Branda da Castiglione, who died in 1448, was legate in Milan. As part of his plan for reconciling Filippo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, and the Holy See, he endeavoured to substitute the Roman Rite for the Ambrosian. The result was a serious riot, and the Cardinal's legateship came to an abrupt end. After that the Ambrosian Rite was safe until the Council of Trent. The Rule of that Council, that local uses which could show a prescription of two centuries might be retained, saved Milan, not without a struggle, from the loss of its Rite, and St. Charles Borromeo though he made some alterations in a Roman direction, was most careful not to destroy its characteristics. A small attempt made against it by a Governor of Milan who had obtained a permission from the Pope to have the Roman Mass said in any church which he might happen to attend, was defeated by St. Charles, and his own revisions were intended to do little more than was inevitable in a living rite.
Since his time the temper of the Milan Church has been most conservative, and the only alterations in subsequent editions seem to have been slight improvements in the wording of rubrics and in the arrangement of the books. The district in which the Ambrosian Rite is used is nominally the old archiepiscopal province of Milan before the changes of 1515 and 1819, but actually it is not exclusively used even in the city of Milan itself. In parts of the Swiss Canton of Ticino it is used; in other parts the Roman Rite is so much preferred that it is said that when Cardinal Gaisruck tried to force the Ambrosian upon them the inhabitants declared that they would be either Roman or Lutheran. There are traces also of the use of the Ambrosian Rite beyond the limits of the Province of Milan. In 1132-34, two Augustinian canons of Ratisbon, Paul, said by Bäumer to be Paul of Bernried, and Gebehard, held a correspondence (printed by Mabillon in his "Musæum Italicum" from the originals in the Cathedral Library at Milan) with Anselm, Archbishop of Milan, and Martin, treasurer of St. Ambrose, with a view of obtaining copies of the books of the Ambrosian Rite, so that they might introduce it into their church. In the fourteenth century the Emperor Charles IV introduced the Rite into the Church of St. Ambrose at Prague. Traces of it, mixed with the Roman, are said by Hoeyinck (Geschichte der kirchl. Liturgie des Bisthums Augsburg) to have remained in the diocese of Augsburg down to its last breviary of 1584, and according to Catena (Cantù, Milano e il suo territorio, 118) the use of Capua in the time of St. Charles Borromeo had some resemblance to that of Milan.
Important editions of the Ambrosian Missal were issued in 1475, 1594, 1609, 1902 and 1954. The last of these was the final edition in the form of the Ambrosian Rite that preceded the Second Vatican Council, and is now used mainly in the church of San Rocco al Gentilino in Milan.
Following the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council and the preliminary revisions of the Ordinary of the Mass of the Roman Rite, a new bilingual (Latin and Italian) edition of the Ambrosian Missal was issued in 1966, simplifying the 1955 missal, mainly in the prayers the priest said inaudibly and in the genuflections, and adding the Prayer of the Faithful. The eucharistic prayer continued to be said in Latin until 1967. The altars were moved to face the people.
When the Mass of Paul VI was issued in 1969, most Ambrosian-Rite priests began to use the new Roman Missal (only omitting the Agnus Dei), the Roman Lectionary, and the General Roman Calendar (with its four-week Advent). The Ambrosian form of administering the other sacraments was for the most part already identical with the Roman. This made it uncertain whether the Ambrosian Rite would survive. But in promulgating the documents of the 46th diocesan synod (1966–1973), Cardinal Archbishop Giovanni Colombo, supported by Pope Paul VI (a former Archbishop of Milan), finally decreed that the Ambrosian Rite, brought into line with the directives of the Second Vatican Council, should be preserved.
Work, still in progress, began on all the Ambrosian liturgical texts. On 11 April 1976 Cardinal Colombo published the new Ambrosian Missal, covering the whole liturgical year. Later in the same year an experimental Lectionary appeared, covering only some liturgical seasons, and still following the Roman-Rite Lectionary for the rest. Minor modifications of the Ambrosian Missal were implemented in 1978, restoring for example the place of the Creed in the Mass, and the new Ambrosian rite for funerals was issued.
The Ambrosian Missal also restored two early-medieval Ambrosian eucharistic prayers, unusual for placing the epiclesis after the Words of Institution, in line with Oriental use.
In 1984-1985 the new Ambrosian Liturgy of the Hours was published, and in 2006 the new Ambrosian rite of marriage. On 20 March 2008 the new Ambrosian Lectionary, superseding the 1976 experimental edition, and covering the whole liturgical year, was promulgated, coming into effect from the First Sunday of Advent 2008 (16 November 2008). It is based on the ancient Ambrosian liturgical tradition, and contains in particular, a special rite of light ("lucernarium") and proclamation of the resurrection of Jesus, for use before the Saturday-evening celebration of the Mass of the Sunday, seen as the weekly Easter. Pope John Paul II celebrated Mass in Milan using the Ambrosian Rite in 1983, as did Pope Francis in 2017.