It is practiced among some five million Catholics in the greater part of the Archdiocese of Milan, Italy (excluding, notably, the areas of Monza, of Treviglio, of Trezzo sull'Adda and a few other parishes), in some parishes of the Diocese of Como, Bergamo, Novara, Lodi and in about fifty parishes of the Diocese of Lugano, in the Canton Ticino, Switzerland.
Although at various points in its history the distinctive Ambrosian Rite has risked suppression, it survived, and was reformed, after the Second Vatican Council partly because the then Pope, Paul VI was sympathetic, having been the Archbishop of Milan. In the 20th century it also gained prominence and prestige from the attentions of two other scholarly Archbishops of Milan: Achille Ratti, later Pope Pius XI, and the Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, both of whom had been involved in studies and publications on the rite before their appointment.
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 (on the site of San Vittore al Corpo), 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 something of a gap in the history of the Milanese Rite, though it is said (Cantù, Milano e il suo territorio, I, 116) that St. Simplician, the successor of St. Ambrose, added much to the Rite and that St. Lazarus (438-451) introduced the three days of the Litanies. The Church of Milan underwent various vicissitudes and for a period of some eighty years (570-649), during the Lombard conquests, the see was actually removed to Genoa in Liguria. Mgr. Duchesne and M. Lejay suggest that during that time the greatest Roman influence was felt, and they would trace to it the adoption of the Roman Canon of the Mass.
In the eighth-century manuscript evidence begins. In a short treatise on the various cursus or forms of the Divine Office used in the Church, 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). The passage is quite ungrammatical but so is the whole treatise, though its meaning is not obscure. According to a not very convincing 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 Philip Mary 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 toss 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.
This much we may confidently affirm, that though both the Missal and the Breviary have been subjected from time to time to various modifications, often, as might be expected, in a Roman direction, the changes are singularly few and unimportant, and the Ambrosian Rite of to-day is substantially the same as that represented in the early Manuscripts. Indeed, since some of these documents come from places in the Alpine valleys, such as Biasca, Lodrino, Venegono and elsewhere, while the modern rite is that of the metropolitan cathedral and the churches of the city of Milan, some proportion of the differences may well turn out to be local rather than chronological developments. The arguments of the two principal theories are necessarily derived in a great measure from the internal evidence of the books themselves, and at present the end of the controversy is not in sight.
The question resolves itself into this: Is the Ambrosian Rite archaic Roman, or a much Romanized form of the Gallican Rite? And this question is mixed with that of the provenance of the Gallican Rite itself. Some liturgiologists of a past generation, notably Dr. J. M. Neale and others of the Anglican School, referred the Hispano-Gallican and Celtic family of liturgies to an original imported into Provence from Ephesus in Asia Minor by St. Irenæus, who had received it through St. Polycarp from St. John the Divine. The name Ephesine was applied to this liturgy, and it was sometimes called the Liturgy of St. John. The idea was not modern. Colman, at the Synod of Whitby in 664, attributed the Celtic rule of Easter to St. John, and in the curious little eighth-century treatise already mentioned (in Cott. Manuscript Nero A. II) one finds: "Johannes Evangelista primum cursus gallorum decantavit. Inde postea beatus policarpus discipulus sci iohannis. Inde postea hiereneus qui fuit eps Lugdunensis Gallei. Tertius ipse ipsum cursum decantauerunt [sic] in galleis." The author is not speaking of the Liturgy, but of the Divine Office, but that does not affect the question, and the theory, which had its obvious controversial value, was at one time very popular with Anglicans. Neale considered that the Ambrosian Rite was a Romanized form of this Hispano-Gallican - or Ephesine Rite; he never brought much evidence for this view, being generally contented with stating it and giving a certain number of not very convincing comparisons with the Mozarabic Rite (Essays on Liturgiology, ed. 1867, 171-197). But Neale greatly exaggerated the Romanizing effected by St. Charles Borromeo, and his essay on the Ambrosian Liturgy is somewhat out of date, though much of it is of great value as an analysis of the existing Rite. W. C. Bishop, in his article on the Ambrosian Breviary (Church Q., Oct., 1886), takes up the same line as Neale in claiming a Gallican origin for the Ambrosian Divine Office.
But Louis Duchesne in his "Origines du culte chrétien" put forward a theory of origin which works out very clearly, though it is almost all founded on conjecture and a priori reasoning. He rejects entirely the Ephesine supposition, and considers that the Orientalisms which he recognizes in the Hispano-Gallican Rite are of much later origin than the period of St. Irenæus, and that it was from Milan as a centre that a rite, imported or modified from the East, perhaps by the Cappadocian Arian Bishop Auxentius (355-374), the predecessor of St. Ambrose, gradually spread to Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He lays great stress on the important position of Milan as a northern metropolis, and on the intercourse with the East by way of Aquileia and Illyria, as well as on the eastern nationality of many of the Bishops of Milan. In his analysis of the Gallican Mass, Duchesne assumes that the seventh-century Bobbia Sacramentary (Bibl. Nat., 13,246), though not actually Milanese, is to be counted as a guide to early Ambrosian usages, and makes use of it in the reconstruction of the primitive Rite before, according to his theory, it was so extensively Romanized as it appears in the earliest undeniably Ambrosian documents. He also appears to assume that the usages mentioned in the Letter of St. Innocent I to Decentius of Eugubium as differing from those of Rome were necessarily common to Milan and Gubbio. Paul Lejay has adopted this theory in his article in the "Revue d'histoire et littérature religeuses" (II, 173) and in Dom Cabrol's Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie" [s. v. Ambrosien (Rit)].
The other theory, of which Antonio Maria Ceriani and Magistretti are the most distinguished exponents, maintains that the Ambrosian Rite has preserved the pre-Gelasian and pre-Gregorian form of the Roman Rite. Ceriani (Notitia Liturgiæ Ambrosianæ) supports his contention by many references to early writers and by comparisons of early forms of the Roman Ordinary with the Ambrosian. Both sides admit the self-evident fact that the Canon in the present Ambrosian Mass is a variety of the Roman Canon. Neither has explained satisfactorily how and when it got there. The borrowings from the Greek service books have been ably discussed by Cagin (Paléographie musicale, V), but there are Greek loans in the Roman books also, though, if Duchesne's theory of origin is correct, some of them may have travelled by way of the Milanese-Gallican Rite at the time of the Charlemagne revision. There are evident Gallicanisms in the Ambrosian Rite, but so there are in the present Roman, and the main outlines of the process by which they arrived in the latter are sufficiently certain, though the dates are not. The presence of a very definite Post-Sanctus of undoubted Hispano-Gallican form in the Ambrosian Mass of Easter Eve requires more explanation than it has received, and the whole question of provenance is further complicated by a theory, into which Ceriani does not enter, of a Roman origin of all the Latin liturgies, Gallican, Celtic, Mozarabic, and Ambrosian alike. There are indications in his liturgical note to the "Book of Cerne" and in "The Genius of the Roman Rite" that Mr. Edmund Bishop, who, as far as he has spoken at all, prefers the conclusions, though not so much the arguments, of Ceriani to either the arguments or conclusions of Duchesne, may eventually have something to say which will put the subject on a more solid basis.
The main differences in the Mass are:
The main differences in the Liturgical year are:
Other differences are:
Important editions of the Traditional Ambrosian Rite Missal have been issued in 1475, 1594, 1609, 1902 and 1954, that has been the last edition before the Second Vatican Council (nowadays used only in the church of San Rocco al Gentilino in Milan).
Following the guidelines of the Second Vatican Council, and according to the Liturgical Movement, the Roman Rite changed quickly and also the way to celebrate the Mass changed quickly in Milan. After the 1965 edition of the Roman Missal, in 1966 was issued a new bilingual (Latin and Italian) edition of the Ambrosian Missal. The rite was still the one of 1955 Missal, but with many simplifications mainly in the secret prayers of the priest and in the genuflections, with the adding of the Prayer of the Faithful. The Eucharistic Prayer continued to be said in Latin up to 1967. In these years the altars were moved to face the people.
When the Mass of Paul VI was issued in 1969, most of the Ambrosian Rite priests started to use it, using the new Roman Missal (only the Agnus Dei was omitted), the Roman Lectionary and the Roman Calendar (even the Advent was four week long), as well as the Roman rites for the other sacraments.
In those year it was not clear if the Ambrosian Rite would have survived. In the promulgation of the documents of the XLVI diocesan synod (1966-1973), Archbishop Cardinal Giovanni Colombo, supported by Pope Paul VI, finally decided the Ambrosian Rite to be maintained, even if reformed according to the post-conciliar spirit. So, a reform, not yet ended, of all the Ambrosian liturgical texts was started, in order not to use the Roman Rite post-conciliar texts. In 1972 was edited the first unofficial New Ambrosian Missal and Lectionary, both of them covering only Advent, Lent and part of the Easter time.
Finally on the 11 April 1976 the new Ambrosian Missal covering all the liturgical year was issued by Archbishop Giovanni Cardinal Colombo. In the same year was issued also an experimental Lectionary, covering only some liturgical times, and still following the Roman 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. In 1978 was issued also the new Ambrosian rite for funerals.
On the 20 March 2008 Archbishop Dionigi Cardinal Tettamanzi issued the New Ambrosian Lectionary, previously confirmed by the Holy See and effective on the first Sunday of Advent 2008, that supersedes the 1976 experimental edition, covering all the liturgical year, and based on the ancient Ambrosian liturgical tradition.
The following are some of the most noted Manuscripts of the rite.
Some editions of the printed Ambrosian service-books: Missals: (Pre-Borromean) 1475, 1482, 1486, 1488, 1494, 1499, 1505, 1515, 1522, 1548, 1560; (St. Charles Borromeo) 1594; (F. Borromeo) 1609-18; (Monti) 1640; (Litta) 1669; (Fed. Visconti) 1692; (Archinti) 1712; (Pozzobonelli) 1751, 1768; (Fil. Visconti) 1795; (Gaisruck) 1831; (Ferrari) 1902. Breviaries: (Pre-Borromean) 1475, 1487, 1490, 1492, 1507, 1513, 1522, and many others; (St. Charles Borromeo), 1582, 1588; (Pozzobonelli) 1760; (Galsruck) 1841; (Romilli) 1857; (Ferrari) 1896, 1902. Rituals: n. d. circ., 1475 (a copy in Bodlwian), 1645, 1736, 1885. Psalters: 1486, 1555. Ceremonials: 1619, 1831. Lectionary: 1660? Litanies: 1494, 1546, 1667. The editions of the Missals, 1475, 1751, and 1902; of the Breviaries, 1582 and 1902; of the Ritual, 1645; both the Psalters, both the Ceremonials, the Lectionary, and Litanies are in the British Museum.