Hispano-Mozarabic rite preserves a millennium of cultural history in Spain

  • The Mozarabic liturgy is celebrated in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, on the Feast of San Ildefonso.
  • Toledo, largely surrounded by the Tagus river that set its boundaries, is still surprisingly like the late medieval city it was when capital city status was transferred to Madrid in 1561. It remains the center of Mozarabic Catholic life today.
  • The Mezquita Cristo de la Luz in Toledo, Spain was constructed as a mosque under Arab rule and converted afterward into a church.
  • The entrance to the Mozarabic church of Santas Justa y Rufina, along an ancient, narrow street, attests to the history of the city of Toledo, including this ancient arch partially replaced.
  • The oldest parts of Toledo show signs of its Visigothic and Arab history.
  • The Mozarabic cross outside a home in Toledo signals that a Mozarabic family lives there.
  • In Latin, "A Mozarabic family lives here."
  • The enormous cathedral offers a relatively small space for Mass goers between its gated capilla mayor, the main altar on the left, and the choir, on the right.
  • The choir occupies the central space of the great Cathedral of Toledo, Spain.
  • The Mozarabic litury is celebrated in the Cathedral of Toledo, Spain, on the Feast of San Ildefonso.
  • The Mozarabic cross on the symbol of membership in the Hermandad Mozárab, the Mozarab Brotherhood, is worn on special occasions.

For more than a millennium, the Western Roman Catholic Church has centralized its worship at the Eucharist around the Roman rite, the Mass that can make Catholics who go to church in a country they don’t know at least recognize “the same Mass,” as many would put it, even where they might not understand the language. There are, however, two long-standing exceptions to that liturgical centralization, one of which is the Hispano-Mozarabic liturgical tradition of Spain.

Toledo, an ancient Spanish capital city famous for its enduring medieval layout, as home to El Greco, and for its layered Christian, Muslim and Jewish heritage, is the center for Mozarabic practice and Mozarabic community.1 

Mozarabs are a minority in Toledo, and Mozarabic liturgy is not the dominant form of Catholic worship in the city, but it has endured. Membership in the Mozarab community, while hereditary, has found its purpose in the last two centuries in particular through the practice of the Mozarabic liturgy. In interviews with Mozarab Catholics in Toledo, it quickly became apparent how much the attachment to this form of worship is shaped as a story of heritage and memory, even though, for many of them it is a recovered heritage and memory. Every interviewee, when asked what was most important to tell about praying this form of the liturgy, dove immediately into its history, recounting the history of its preservation. History was primary.2 The history that these Mozarab Christians recounted dates to the Visigothic kingdom, which had its capital in Toledo from 542 to 711 AD when it was conquered by the Arabs. Some churches were converted to mosques, but during centuries of Arab rule, some Christians, though they adopted the cultural ways of the Arabs, remained Christian despite having to pay significant taxes to do so. When the northern Spanish Christians reconquered Toledo in 1085, they apparently dubbed these culturally Arabized Christians “Mozarab.” “Arab-ish” is the translation one member of the community offered, because they “spoke, ate, and dressed like Arabs, but kept practicing the Catholic faith.”

The Mozarabic story centers in particular around the practice of a liturgy as old as any in the Catholic Church. At the time of the Christian reconquest, the Western Church had been working to unify liturgical practice continent-wide around a single Roman rite. The new Christian ruler, Alfonso VI, brought the Roman rite to the rest of his kingdom to “Europeanize” it, and intended to supplant the Spanish liturgy in newly conquered Toledo as well. Mozarab Christians resisted the change, arguing that it sustained them through almost four centuries of Arab rule, and in 1101 were granted a perpetual royal right to preserve the liturgy for those families in Toledo in six designated parishes. Toledo henceforth became a city that was primarily Roman rite in its worship but that guaranteed the continued existence of Hispano-Mozarabic worship.3  

The Mozarabic liturgy has been preserved primarily for members of that community, but today it can be performed in any parish in Spain, though this is not common. 

The Mozarabic community

Membership in the Mozarabic community is defined genealogically, and also requires membership in one of the city’s Mozarabic parishes, even for members who live outside of Toledo. Hence, a leader of the Hermandad Mozárab, the city’s Mozarab confraternity, could confidently report to me that there are about 2,500 Mozarab families. An interviewee, a genealogist, shared several editions of books that listed the names of all of those people grouped by family. Aside from the historic lineage of their ancestors, their confraternity membership, and the liturgy that binds them, Mozarabs today are not, as they describe it, a distinct cultural group and are not different in any noticeable ways from other inhabitants of the city. Asked whether Mozarabs tried to marry within that community, a community leader said that people just “find who they naturally find.”

Interviewees also referred to an invisible but extended living Mozarabic community, “people who don’t know they are Mozarab,” and discussed how genealogical work could help expand their membership. As is true in much of the world, some of the members are more regularly committed, and many, it was said, “just show up for the major occasions” like the Corpus Christi and Good Friday processions. Being seen at such events, it was said, was important in Toledo.

The Mozarabic community’s rights and liturgy were challenged over time in the Church and by the state, but for 700 years, the community’s identity and rights were protected under royal law, and they had their own parishes in Toledo. The lists of who was entitled to these rights was carefully recorded in Mozarab parish registries and tax records. In the 19th century, when the monarchy was abolished, those rights and registries were abolished. A number of registries were lost in the 1930s Civil War, and all of the Mozarabic chaplains are said to have been killed.  Identification of membership in the community became a matter of family lore, though by the 1960s genealogists were researching and elaborating it again, this time in published booklets, and in 1966 the Hermandad Mozárab was restored.4The Hermandad Mozárab—officially, The Illustrious and Ancient Brotherhood of the Knights and Ladies of Our Lady of Hope of the Imperial City of Toledo—is a hub for the community, providing devotional opportunities, processions, and care for Mozarabs in need. It is chartered through the archdiocese.

There are two Mozarabic parishes in the city today, combining the six small, extant churches said to have endured under Arab rule—Santas Justa y Rufina (originally built c. AD 554), San Lucas (c. 625); San Sebastián (c. 601); and San Marcos (634), Santa Eulalia (559), San Torcuato (c. 700).5 The parishes are not territorial, but are for any Mozarab who registers there, whether living inside or outside Toledo. The cathedral has a celebrated 16th-century Mozarabic chapel in the front corner, but Mozarab parishioners belong first to one of the parishes.

The Mozarabic community and its liturgical traditions seem consistently, over a long arc of history, to have been in danger of dying out, but then in recovery mode. In the 16th century that was the mission of Cardinal Cisneros; 1960s-’90s it was the work of genealogists and liturgical scholars who returned to the sources to reform the liturgy. Today, recovery entails identifying families who “don’t know they are Mozarab” or debates over what constitutes the most authentic form of liturgy and chant.

The Mozarabic community does not have its own hierarchy or separate clergy. The archbishop of Toledo, who is the Primate of Spain, is in charge of matters related to Mozarabic worship, and assigns Mozarabic parish chaplains and canons of the cathedral. These priests need not come from the Mozarabic community.

Mozarabic liturgy

The Mozarabic liturgy is intimately intertwined with the community and its purpose.6 Except for the liturgy, it seems likely that the community would not have been reconstituted at several times in its history when it was diminishing, particularly not in the 1960s, when communal memories of membership largely belonged to the elderly.7

One interviewee, who was happy to sing examples from the liturgy, indicated that what he appreciated about the liturgy was the degree to which it focused on praise and thanksgiving, repeatedly “exalting the deeds of God, exalting the Glory of God… giving thanks, constantly.” Another, though, lamented that non-Mozarab people even in Toledo often find the Mass too long, and don’t understand it.

The Mozarabic liturgy as celebrated today was revised several times in history and was last revised in 1991, with an eye not toward updating, but toward carefully returning to practice as described in original sources and being more faithful to that. After almost a decade’s work, a new missal and lectionary were published. Renewal of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation, marriage and funerals also took place then, but ordination, Sacrament of the Sick, and penance were not addressed, nor were there active rituals to renew for each. The funeral reform was never approved.8 

Chant was integral to the Mozarabic liturgy as originally practiced, and chant is often used in it today, including in the video posted here. Though Gregorian forms are sometimes substituted today, the original form and style of the chant has been lost, and scholars puzzle over how to interpret the notations on the ancient extant chant books they have.9

The Mozarabic rite follows its own liturgical calendar, with divisions for Advent, Christmas, Lenten, and Easter seasons that those accustomed to the Roman rite would recognize, despite variations. Mozarabic Advent lasts six Sundays. Mozarabic Lent does not include Ash Wednesday, but begins on the Sunday after what is celebrated in the Latin church as Ash Wednesday and lasts through Good Friday; believers abstain from meat in Lent, a transition that is ritually acknowledged.10 The saints celebrated throughout the year tend to come from the earliest 500 years of the Church and to be martyrs.11 In Toledo, that calendar is still overridden by certain feasts of the Roman calendar that take preference when there is a conflict.12 The readings, not the same as in the Roman lectionary, stay the same each year or change on a two-year cycle, rather than three.

Some elements that might stand out to those accustomed to the Roman rite are:

  • Greater variety in the texts of the liturgy for different occasions;13
  • Acknowledgement of our sinfulness is integrated into the liturgy, so it does not include a penitential rite early on the way the Roman one does. 
  • The number of readings in the Liturgy of the Word, with variations according to feast and the liturgical season: first from the prophets or wisdom books; second, usually from the psalms or a threni, a biblical song of lamentation; third, from the Epistles or Acts of the Martyrs; fourth from the Gospel. These readings are usually not the same readings as in the Roman lectionary.
  • Following the Liturgy of the Word, a series of prayers of praise, the congregation responds, Amen. This is one example of the way the liturgy is more dialogical than the Roman rite. (This may not be evident in the video, insofar as the congregation’s responses are fairly muted. Nonetheless, interviewees told me that the dialogic character of the Mozarabic liturgy was the element that they most appreciated about it.)  Another example of that is the way that the Lord’s Prayer is recited, by the celebrant, with congregants reciting “Amen” to each section. 
  • The Sign of Peace precedes the start of the Eucharistic celebration, a decision more in keeping with Mt 5:23-24 than in the Roman rite.
  • The Eucharist is celebrated ad orientem, such that the celebrant’s back is to the people. At no point in the liturgy do the worshipers kneel.
  • The Creed, recited after the homily in the Roman rite, is recited just before communion in the Mozarabic rite. 
  • Communion is normally under both species, by intinction, though this was not the case at the liturgy videoed here. 

Celebrating the liturgy on the Feast of San Ildefonso

The largest annual celebration of the Hispano-Mozarabic liturgy takes place each year on the feast of San Ildefonso, the patron of the city of Toledo.  He is known not only for his role in shaping the liturgy, but for an intense devotion to Mary.  He is frequently portrayed with an image of the Virgin descending to put a bishop’s chasuble over his head, having supposedly, until she asked him otherwise, resisted his election as bishop.

The video recorded here shows that liturgy, a vastly more complex undertaking than is normally the case in a tiny parish.  The feast of San Ildefonso is a city holiday. In the video shown here, seats were allocated in the altar area inside the screen for dignitaries, including the President of Castilla La Mancha, generals from the local military academy, and confraternity leaders.

  • 1. The other is the ancient Ambrosian rite of Milan. The Eastern Catholic Churches, united with Rome, also have their own distinct liturgies.
  • 2. This article is based on accounts given by members of the Hermandad Mozárab and a canon of the cathedral in January 2023, referenced using various published sources cited here. Particular thanks are due to Teresa Dolado Martin, who arranged interviews and made up for my Spanish language shortcomings. One legend, recounted by interviewees and elsewhere, is that King Alfonso decided to throw liturgical books for both the Roman and Mozarabic rite into a fire, to see which one might survive.  When the Mozarabic text “miraculously” fell away, he kicked it back in to burn anyway, but ultimately had to relent. 
  • 3. Even in the 11th century, estimates suggest that Mozarabs constituted 15-25% of Toledo’s population; the right to that liturgical practice belonged only to those families. It bears noting that the Mozarabic liturgy did not survive only in Toledo, but that city was the center of its preservation and continuance.
  • 4. The rules for membership are complex and have changed over time, particularly in terms of which daughters inherit the right. They were revised in 2019 for greater gender equality. For more information in English about who gets to be included as Mozarab, see Raúl Gómez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross (Maryknoll, N.Y., Orbis, 2007), 4-7. Gómez-Ruiz’s account is the most extensive English source and served as a source for confirming what I was told in interviews in Toledo. Aside from those whose genealogy gives them rights to membership, there are also a small number of honorary members.
  • 5. The foundation dates are taken from Gómez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross, 24.
  • 6. Gómez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross, 8. The essential role of the Mozarabic liturgy in shaping the community’s identity and ongoing existence is also a key theme in Nathan Chase, “Crisis, Liturgy, and Communal Identity: The Celebration of the Hispano-Mozarabic Rite in Toledo, Spain as a Case Study,” Religions 13, no. 3 (March 2022): 1–27, doi:10.3390/rel13030216.
  • 7. A Mozarabic confraternity leader recounted to me about being a boy at this time and having an elderly woman explain that she was Mozarabic, and wondering what that meant.
  • 8. See Tomasz Bać, “The Renewal of the Ambrosian and the Hispano-Mozarabic Liturgy after the Second Vatican Council,” Ruch Biblijny i Liturgiczny 66, no. 3 (September 1, 2013), doi:10.21906/rbl.66.
  • 9. See chapter 4 in Manuel Rincón Álvarez, Mozárabes y Moarabías (Salamanca: Ediciones Universidad de Salamanca, 2003), 95-97.
  • 10. In-person research on Mozarabs and Mozarabic practice did not include Lent or Holy Week, but Gómez-Ruiz covers this in considerable detail. Gómez-Ruiz, Mozarabs, Hispanics, and the Cross, 68-124.
  • 11. I rely on the liturgical calendar and cycle of readings detailed in Adolfo Ivorra, Liturgia Hispano-Mozarabe (Barcelona: Centre de Pastoral Litúrgica, 2017), 119-244, 429-441.
  • 12. Chase encountered this, as I did. Mozarabic liturgy was not celebrated on those days. Chase, “Crisis, Liturgy, and Communal Identity,” 10-11.
  • 13. Bać, “The Renewal of the Ambrosian and the Hispano-Mozarabic Liturgy,” 211.
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