Rorate Caeli

“Poetry is perhaps a little too much for our rather practical spirit”: Saint Alphonsus and the odore suavitatis

Today in the traditional calendar of the Roman Rite is the feast of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori, the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists), and Doctor of the Church. [1] In the Secret prayer for Saint Alphonsus (addressed to the Son), one will notice a lovely poetic echo of the offertory prayers from just a few moments before in the Mass (addressed to the Father): [2]

Order of Mass: Offérimus tibi, Dómine, cálicem salutáris, tuam deprecántes cleméntiam: ut in conspéctu divínæ maiestátis tuæ, pro nostra et totíus mundi salúte, cum odóre suavitátis ascéndat. Amen.


[We offer to you, O Lord, the chalice of salvation, beseeching your mercy: that it may ascend before your divine majesty as a sweet fragrance, for our salvation, and for that of the whole world. Amen.]

St Alphonsus, Secret: Cælésti, Dómine Iesu Christe, sacrifícii igne corda nostra in odórem suavitátis exúre: qui beáto Alfónso Maríæ tribuísti et hæc mystéria celebráre, et per éadem hóstiam tibi sanctam seípsum exhibére.


[O Lord Jesus Christ, enkindle our hearts with the celestial fire of this sacrifice for a sweet fragrance: just as you granted that Saint Alphonsus should celebrate these mysteries and by them offer himself to you as a holy sacrifice.]

This “sweet fragrance” is frequently mentioned in the scriptures. In the Pentateuch, the phrase is used in connection with the sacrificial offerings of the old covenant (see Genesis 8:21; Exodus 29:18, 25, 41; Leviticus 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, 9; 3:5, 16; 4:31; 6:15, 21; 8:21, 28; 17:6; 23:13, 18; Numbers 15:3, 7, 10, 24; 18:17; 28:2, 6, 8, 13, 24, 27; 29:2, 6, 8, 13, 36). In the book of Sirach, the personification of Wisdom is described as “a sweet fragrance like the best myrrh” (24:20; see also 24:23; 35:8; 39:18). In the Prophets, this “sweet fragrance” of sacrifice is contrasted with the “stench” of the idolatry of Israel that will bring punishment from the Lord (see Isaiah 3:24; Ezekiel 16:19; 20:28, 41). In the New Testament, Saint Paul points, as the Old Testament foreshadowed, to Christ the “fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2; see also 2 Corinthians 2:15-16), and also describes the assistance given to him by the church in Philippi as “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God” (Philippians 4:18).

In the traditional Roman Rite, the Church uses this image not just in the Order of Mass itself, but in various prayers, readings and chants throughout the liturgical year: 

 Perhaps the most important occasion for the odore suavitatis is the Easter Vigil, towards the end of that most glorious chant, the Exsultet: “Therefore, O Lord, we pray you that this candle, hallowed to the honour of your name, may persevere undimmed, to overcome the darkness of this night. Receive it as a sweet fragrance [in odórem suavitátis accéptus], and let it mingle with the lights of heaven.”


 Our Lady of Lourdes (11 February), Secret: “May the sacrifice of praise which we offer you, O Lord, by the merits of the glorious and Immaculate Virgin be as a sweet fragrance to you [sit tibi in odórem suavitátis] and obtain for us the health of body and soul for which we yearn.”


 Saint Robert Bellarmine (13 May), Secret: “O God, we offer these sacrificial gifts to you as a sweet fragrance [Hóstias tibi, Dómine, in odórem suavitátis offérimus]; grant that, taught by the counsels and example of blessed Robert, we may with joyful heart run the way of your commandments.”


 Saint Jerome Emiliani (20 July), Secret: “Most merciful God, who having destroyed the old man, was pleased to create in blessed Jerome a new man in your own likeness, grant by his merits that we, renewed in like manner, may offer this sacrifice of propitiation as a sweet fragrance unto you [hanc placatiónis hóstiam in odórem tibi suavíssimum offerámus].”


 Saint Rose of Lima (30 August), Collect: “Almighty God, giver of all good things, who willed that Saint Rose, imbued with the dew of heavenly grace, should bloom in the Indies with the beauty of virginity and patience, grant to us your servants that, following her sweet fragrance, we may merit to become a pleasant fragrance of Christ [in odórem suavitátis eius curréntes, Christi bonus odor éffici mereámur].” [3]


 Ephesians 5:1-9 is read on the 3rd Sunday of Lent each year; see v. 2: oblationem et hostiam Deo in odorem suavitatis.


 The paraphrase and summary of Sirach 44:16-17 + 45:3-20, which speaks of the odorem suavitatis [4], is read on the feast days of St Titus (6 February), St Martin (11 November) and St Gregory Thaumaturgus (17 November), as well as being the lesson for the Mass Statuit ei Dominus in the Common of a Confessor Bishop.


 Sirach 24:23-31 is the lesson for various Marian feasts, including Our Lady of Mount Carmel (16 July), the Vigil of the Assumption (14 August), the Immaculate Heart of the B.V.M. (22 August), the Most Holy Name of Mary (12 September), the Motherhood of the B.V.M. (11 October), plus various others Marian celebrations in the pro aliquibus locis section.


 The “sweet fragrance” also occurs in the offertory chants for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost (fecit sacrifícium vespertínum in odórem suavitátis Dómino Deo), Saint Andrew (30 November: Diléxit Andréam Dóminus in odórem suavitátis), Saint Paul of the Cross (28 April: et hóstiam Deo in odórem suavitátis), as well as the Alleluia chants for Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus (3 October: quasi Líbanus odórem suavitátis habéte) and Saint Rita of Cascia (22 May, pro aliquibus locis: quasi myrrha elécta dedi suavitátem odóris).

We can see from the above that, in terms of Mass propers, this image of the “sweet fragrance” is for the most part a later addition to the Roman Rite. However, we do also see it in other, older prayers within the liturgical tradition, some dating from the 8th century. For instance: 

Let your holy word descend, we pray, almighty God, upon these gifts which we offer to you; let the inestimable spirit of your glory descend; let the gift of your venerable pardon descend, that this oblation may be a spiritual sacrifice, accepted as a sweet fragrance; may we, your servants, through the blood of Christ, be protected by your invincible right hand. [5] 

O God, true hope of believers, O God, eternal glory of the saints, by whose mercy sinners obtain forgiveness, we humbly beseech you, O Lord, that you may favourably look upon and make holy these sacrifices, and accept them as if they were incense burning with a sweet fragrance. [6]

These gifts, O holy Father, are offered by my hands, who am not even worthy to invoke your name; yet, because these oblations are offered through the holy and sanctifying name of your Son, may they ascend unto you like incense with a sweet fragrance. [7]

However, this beautiful image, both scriptural and traditional, did not fare well in the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms. As Fr Carlo Braga wrote in 1970, in relation to the collect for Saint Rose of Lima (which we have mentioned above), “Poetry is perhaps a little too much for our rather practical spirit”, and thus the image of the odorem suavitatis disappeared from this prayer. [8] It has, of course, also disappeared from the new prayers for the “preparation of the gifts” of the novus ordo, since the traditional offertory prayers were abolished in the reforms. 

And when we compare today’s Secret for Saint Alphonsus with its edited form in the post-Vatican II Missal, we start to see a pattern:

Cælésti, Dómine Iesu Christe,

sacrifícii igne corda nostra in odórem suavitátis exúre:

qui beáto Alfónso Maríæ tribuísti et hæc mystéria celebráre,

et per éadem hóstiam tibi sanctam seípsum exhibére. (1962 MR)


[O Lord Jesus Christ, enkindle our hearts with the celestial fire of this sacrifice for a sweet fragrance: just as you granted that Saint Alphonsus should celebrate these mysteries and by them offer himself to you as a holy sacrifice.]

Cælésti, Dómine, Spíritus igne

corda nostra cleménter exúre,

qui beáto Alfónso Maríæ tribuísti et hæc mystéria celebráre,

et per éadem hóstiam tibi sanctam seípsum exhibére. (1970/2002 MR)


[Be pleased, O Lord, to enkindle our hearts with the celestial fire of your Spirit, just as you granted that Saint Alphonsus should celebrate these mysteries and by them offer himself to you as a holy sacrifice.]

In fact, in the reformed Missal, almost all the uses of this phrase have disappeared. The phrase odórem suavitátis occurs only twice: in the Exsultet (long and short forms), then once more in the spoken Communion antiphon for the 30th Sunday per annum. And, of course, the texts of the Offertory chants have been removed from the post-Vatican II Missal entirely, relegated to the Ordo cantus Missae, a basically optional book that almost no-one uses—so these texts are now almost never read or sung by anyone at all. As far as the Mass lections go, although a couple of passages where the “sweet fragrance” is mentioned have been taken up into the reformed weekday lectionary [9], the yearly Sunday Lenten reading from Ephesians 5:1-9 has vanished, with Ephesians 4:30–5:2 now read every three years on the 19th Sunday per annum in Year B, and 4:32–5:8 read every two years on Monday of Week 30 per annum in Year II. The respective lessons from Sirach in the traditional Missal are nowhere to be found in the reformed lectionary, not even as options in its voluminous Commons. 

Poetry, imagery, word play—all apparently “a little too much” for the men of the 1960s. And the minimising of the odore suavitatis is by no means the only example of this sort of thing; Dom Anselmo Lentini, an otherwise learned and able chap, considered that word play was not suitable for ‘modern man’, so changed some of the Breviary hymns to get rid of it. [10] Fr John Hunwicke, commenting recently on Lentini’s work, wrote that “it is telling… that even the very best of those who hacked away at the Liturgy during that most terrible decade [of the 1960s] could have been so blinded and limited by the fashions of their age.”

"Iglesia de Iesu", San Sebastián (Spain), inexplicably built 2007-2011

It becomes ever clearer that the post-Vatican II reformed liturgy is tied to the spirit of its age in a way no other liturgy that came before it has ever been. The reason beautiful biblical phrases like odore suavitatis seem to have been, for the most part, systematically removed from the modern Roman Rite is because the ‘experts’ thought that ‘modern man’ was too practical for poetry. And this hyper-pragmatism has serious theological and liturgical ramifications—if poetry was thought largely surplus to requirements, then is it really that much of a surprise that, for example, so many modernist/brutalist churches were built (and are still being built!), or that so many existing churches were wreckovated, or that so many 'old' vestments were thrown away and replaced with (expensive) mass-produced polyester monstrosities? 

As Saint Alphonsus wrote in The Holy Eucharist, “When Jesus comes to dwell in a soul in the Holy Communion, oh, how clearly does she see and know her own nothingness by the bright light which the king of heaven brings with him! … How sweet is the odour which she breathes forth to her beloved king! and for this reason he invites her to unite herself to him in closer and closer bonds.” Contrary to the opinions of the Consilium, we need more “sweet fragrance” in our lives, not less! Rather than the narrow, rationalist pragmatism of the modern liturgy, in the traditional liturgy of the Church we can find the fullness of liturgical expression, in which we can “taste and see that the Lord is sweet” (Psalm 33:9).


[1] In the post-Vatican II calendar, his feast was moved to yesterday (1 August), his date of death—though Coetus I seem to sheepishly blame the rubrics of the novus ordo for the subsequent deletion of the Holy Maccabees from the universal calendar! See Calendarium Romanum (Typis Polyglottis Vaticanis, 1969), p. 132: “The memorial of the Holy Maccabees, although very ancient and almost universal, is to be left to particular calendars: up until 1960 they were only commemorated on the feast of St Peter-in-Chains; now, the memorial of St Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori is on 1 August and, according to the rubrics, another memorial cannot be kept on the same day” (Memoria Ss. Machabaeorum, quamvis antiquissima et fere universalis, Calendariis particularibus relinquitur: usque ad annum 1960 fiebat solummodo eorum commemoratio in festo S. Petri ad vincula; nunc vero die 1 augusti fit memoria S. Alfonsi Mariae de’ Liguori et, iuxta rubricas, altera memoria servari nequit eadem die).

[2] See also, at High Mass, the prayer at the incensing of the offerings: “Through the intercession of blessed Michael the Archangel standing at the right hand of the altar of incense, and of all his elect, may the Lord vouchsafe to + bless this incense, and to accept it as a sweet fragrance. Through Christ our Lord. Amen” (Per intercessiónem beáti Michaélis Archángeli, stantis a dextris altáris incénsi, et ómnium electórum suórum, incénsum istud dignétur Dóminus bene+dícere, et in odórem suavitátis accípere. Per Christum Dóminum nostrum. Amen).

[3] See also the Secret prayer for Saint John Baptist de Rossi (23 May, pro aliquibus locis), also used for Saint Joseph Cafasso (27 June, pro aliquibus locis): Oblátum tibi munus, quǽsumus, Dómine, in odórem suavitátis ascéndat: et, sancto Ioánne Baptísta Confessóre tuo intercedénte [intercedénte beáto Iosépho Confessóre tuo], nos córpore et mente puríficet.

[4] In the Clementine Vulgate text, Sirach 45:20 reads: Ipsum elegit ab omni vivente, offerre sacrificium Deo, incensum, et bonum odorem, in memoriam placare pro populo suo; see also 2 Corinthians 2:15 (quia Christi bonus odor sumus Deo).

[5] E. Moeller, J.M. Clément & B.C. ‘t Wallant (eds.), Corpus orationum (CCSL 160-160M; Brepols, 1992-2004), n. 1071: Descendat, precamur, omnipotens deus, super haec, quae tibi offerimus, verbum tuum sanctum, descendat inaestimabilis gloriae tuae spiritus, descendat antiquae indulgentiae tuae donum, ut fiat oblatio haec hostia spiritalis, in odorem suavitatis accepta; etiam nos famulos tuos per sanguinem Christi tua manus dextera invicta custodiat. This oration occurs in two manuscripts: the Gallicanum Vetus (8th century), and the Fulda Sacramentary (10th century).

[6] CO 2186 a: Deus, spes vera credentium, deus, gloria sempiterna sanctorum, pro cuius miseratione indulgentiam consequuntur peccatores, precamur te, domine, suppliciter, ut propitius respicias et sanctifices sacrificia ista et quasi incensum flagrans in odore suavissimo accipias. This prayer occurs in five manuscripts, including the 8th century Sacramentorum Engolismensis.

[7] CO 2888: Haec tibi, pater sancte, licet meis manibus offerantur, qui nec invocatione tui nominis dignus sum, tamen, quia per sanctum atque sanctificatum filii tui nomen oblationes offeruntur, sicut incensum in conspectu tuo cum odore suavitatis adscendant. This prayer occurs in eight manuscripts, including the 8th century Sacramentorum Gellonensis. For other orations that use the phrase odore suavitatis or similar, see: CO 340, 797, 1055, 2079, 2864, 2896, 2925, 3578, 3614, 3645, 4000, 4640, 5885, 5890.

[8] Carlo Braga, “Il «Proprium de Sanctis»”, Ephemerides Liturgicae 84.6 (1970), pp. 401-431, at p. 424. My English translation of this Italian-language article can be found at New Liturgical Movement, in five parts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

[9] Genesis 8:6-13, 20-22 is read on Wednesday of Week 6 per annum in Year I, and Philippians 4:10-19 is read on Saturday in Week 31 per annum in Year II.

[10] See, e.g., Hymni instaurandi Breviarii Romani (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1968), p. 111, where Dom Lentini explains that two stanzas of the hymn for the Office of Readings of Ascension have been omitted because “they have concepts that are either obscure or revealed later or expressed with excessive wordplay (caro…)” (conceptus habent vel obscuros vel postea exhibitos vel nimio lusu verborum (caro…) expressos).