The First of Two Parts
by Michael Davies
The second part of this essay appeared in the Fall 2002 issue of The Latin Mass, and was reproduced on this blog on December 13, 2006, under the title of "True and False Liturgical Reform: Part II."
The word liturgy is derived from a Greek composite word (leitourgia) meaning originally "a public duty, a service to the state undertaken by a citizen." From this we have leitourgos, "a man who performs a public duty," "a public servant." At Athens public services would be performed by the wealthier citizens at their own expense, such as the office of the trierarchus, who provided a war-ship for the state. The meaning of the word liturgy was extended to cover any general service of a public kind.
In the Septuagint, the most influential Greek version of the Old Testament, it is used for the public service of the temple (e.g., Ex. 38:27; 39:12, etc.). Thence it comes to have a religious sense as the function of the priests, the ritual service of the temple (e.g., Joel 1:9; 2:17, etc.). In the New Testament this religious meaning has become definitely established. In Luke 1:23, Zachary goes home when "the days of his liturgy" are over. In Hebrews 8:6, Our Lord Jesus Christ is designated as the leitourgos of the New Law, who has obtained for us "a better liturgy," that is, a better kind of public religious service than that of the Temple. So in Christian use liturgy meant the public official service of the Church, that corresponded to the official service of the Temple in the Old Law.1
The Sacrifice of the Mass
This article will address only the Mass, the Eucharistic sacrifice, the most important of our liturgical rites. The Eucharist is the center of Christian life just as Christ is the central figure in the Christian religion. As well as being a sacrifice it is the greatest of all the sacraments, as it contains Christ Himself, while in the other sacraments Christ acts and applies the merits of His Passion for a particular purpose. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that all the other sacraments are ordained to this sacrament as to their end.2 It not only symbolizes or represents the Passion and death of Christ, but also contains it. The Mass is the Sacrifice of the Cross, a fact that St. Thomas illustrates by quoting St. Ambrose: "In Christ was offered up a sacrifice capable of giving eternal salvation; what then do we do? Do we not offer it up ever day in memory of His death?"3 "The Passion of the Lord is the Sacrifice we offer," wrote St. Cyprian.4 Not only is the Sacrifice of the Cross made present in the Mass, and the Divine Victim of that sacrifice offered to the Blessed Trinity, but just as Our Lord offered Himself upon the Cross He is the true High Priest of every Mass and offers Himself through the ministry of the priest at the altar. "Christ is offered today," writes St. Ambrose, "and He Himself as priest offers Himself in order that He may remit our sins."5 Monsignor George Smith observes:
Truly, really and substantially present upon the altar under the appearances of bread and wine, Christ our High Priest offers Himself, the infinite Victim, to His Father through the ministry of His priests. This indeed a sacrifice unto the odor of sweetness, which Christ, God and man, offers to His Father an infinite adoration, a prayer of unbounded efficacy, propitiation and satisfaction superabundantly sufficient for the sins of all mankind, thanksgiving in a unique manner proportionate to God's unstinted generosity to men.6The First Four Centuries
The first source for the history of the Mass is the account of the Last Supper in the New Testament. It is because Our Lord told us to do what He had done, in memory of Him, that Christian liturgies exist. No matter in what respect there are differences in the various Eucharistic liturgies, they all obey His command to do this, namely what He Himself had done. A definite pattern for the celebration of the Eucharist had developed within decades of the death of Our Lord, a pattern that was carried on well past the conclusion of the first century, and that can still be discerned clearly in the finalized Roman Mass of 1570.
The early Christians assembled for divine worship in the house of one of their number that possessed a large dining room -- a coenaculum, as the Vulgate puts it. This was because, as a persecuted minority, they could erect no public buildings. Our knowledge of the details of the liturgy increases from the earliest Fathers and with each succeeding century. There is a gradual and natural development. The prayers and formulas and eventually the ceremonial actions develop into set forms. There are varying arrangements of subsidiary parts. Greater insistence on certain elements in different regions produce different liturgies; but all go back eventually to the biblical pattern.
Liturgical books were certainly being used by the middle of the fourth century, and possibly before the end of the third. The only book known with certainty to have been used until the fourth century was the Bible, from which the lessons were read. Father Adrian Fortescue, England's great historian of the Mass, explains that Psalms and the Lord's Prayer were known by heart; otherwise the prayers were extempore. There was little that could be described as ceremonial in the sense that we use the term today, but everything would evidently have been done with the greatest possible reverence. Gradually and naturally certain gestures and practices became established customs; in other words, liturgical actions became ritualized. The Lavabo or washing of hands is an evident example. In all rites the celebrant washes his hands before handling the offerings, an obvious precaution and sign of respect. St Thomas Aquinas remarked: "We are not accustomed to handle any precious things save with clean hands; so it seems indecent that one should approach so great a sacrament with hands soiled."7 The washing of the hands almost inevitably came to be understood as a symbol of cleansing the soul, as is the case with all ritual washing in any religion. There were originally no particular prayers mandated for the washing of hands, but it was natural that the priests should say prayers for purity at that moment, and that eventually such prayers should find their way into the liturgical books. What prayer could be more appropriate than Psalm 25, Lavabo inter innocentes manus meas? All ritual grew naturally out of these purely practical actions, just as vestments evolved out of ordinary dress. The only distinctly ritual actions we find in the first two centuries are certain postures, kneeling or standing for prayer, and such ceremonies as the kiss of peace, all of which were inherited from the Jews. It is easy to understand that the order, the general outline of the service, would become constant almost unconsciously. People who do the same thing continually, naturally do it in much the same way. There was no reason for changing; to reverse the order suddenly would disturb and annoy people. A younger bishop, when his turn came to celebrate, could do no better than continue to use the very words (as far as he remembered them) of the venerable predecessor whose prayers the people, and perhaps himself as deacon, had so often followed and answered with reverent devotion.
The End of Persecution
Historical factors played a crucial role in the manner in which the liturgy was celebrated. During times of persecution brevity and simplicity would, for obvious reasons, be its principal characteristics. The toleration of Christianity under Constantine I, and its adoption as the religion of the Empire under Theodosius I (379-95), had a dramatic effect on the development of ritual. Congregations increased in size; and benefactions for the building and furnishing of churches resulted in the enrichment of vessels and vestments. Those presenting such gifts would naturally want them to be of the richest and most beautiful nature possible. In a parallel and natural development the liturgical rites became more elaborate, with solemn processions and stress upon the awesome nature of the rite. This elaboration of the liturgy proceeded faster and further in the East than in the West during the fourth century, but the universal change in style was initiated throughout the Christian world by the change from an illegal and private ritual into a state-supported public one. From about the fourth century, complete liturgical texts were compiled. By this time, the old fluid uniform rite had crystallized into different liturgies in different places. These different liturgies all bear the marks of their common descent and follow the same general outline.
The Gregorian Sacramentary
The earliest Roman Sacramentaries are the first complete sources for the Roman rite. These were written in the Latin language, which had gradually replaced Greek as the language of the Roman liturgy. Scholars differ as to the precise time when the transition was complete, giving dates from the second half of the third century up to the end of the fourth. Both languages must have been used side by side during a fairly long period of transition. Of the Sacramentaries the most important is that of St. Gregory the Great (590-604). His achievements during those fourteen years almost defy credibility. Prominent among the many important reforms that he undertook was that of the liturgy. His pontificate marks an epoch in the history of the Roman Mass, which, in every important respect, he left in the state that we still have it.
The keynote of the reform of St. Gregory was fidelity to the traditions that had been handed down (the root meaning of the Latin word traditio is to had over or hand down). His reform consisted principally of the simplification and more orderly arrangement of the existing rite, not the composition of a new one. The Order of Mass as found in the 1570 Missal of St. Pius V (1566-1572), apart from minor additions and amplifications, corresponds very closely to the order established by St. Gregory. It is also to this great Pope that we owe to a large extent, the codification of the incomparable chant that bears his name. From this time forward there is little to chronicle of the nature of change in the order of the Mass itself, which had become a sacred and inviolable inheritance, its origin forgotten. Although the rite of Mass did continue to develop after the time of St. Gregory, Father Fortescue explains: "All later modifications were fitted into the old arrangement, and the most important parts were not touched. From, roughly, the time of St. Gregory we have the text of the Mass, its order and arrangement, as a sacred tradition that no one has ventured to touch except in unimportant details."8 The prayers at the foot of the altar "are in their present form the latest part of all. They developed out of medieval private preparations and were not formally appointed in their present state before the Missals of Pius V (1570)."9
The Protestant Reformation
The first radical reform of the liturgy in more than 1500 years of the Christian faith occurred during the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation, when the principle of fidelity to tradition was rejected in favor of the principle of the destruction of tradition. The founders of the various Protestant sects were, in fact, revolutionaries rather than reformers. Their concern was not to reform the existing order but to introduce a new one that conformed to their heretical beliefs. Monsignor Philip Hughes, in his classic study The Reformation in England, notes that all revolutionaries are motivated by a common spirit: "The mania to ensure that all future history should date from their own reconstruction of primitive glory as they imagined this, characterized these revolutionaries, as it has characterized all the rest, the social and political rebels as truly as the religious…. They were determined to destroy all that lay between themselves and the restoration of primitive Christianity as they conceived this to have been."10
The principal author of the Anglican liturgy was Thomas Cranmer, the apostate Archbishop of Canterbury. His first communion service contained in the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, "The Lord's Supper or Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass," was of an ambiguous nature. Dr. Francis Clark emphasizes this ambiguity in the most authoritative study of the Eucharistic doctrines of the Protestant Reformers yet undertaken:
The first Prayer book of Edward VI could not be convicted of overt heresy, for it was adroitly framed and contained no express denial of pre-Reformation doctrine. It was, as one Anglican scholar puts it, "an ingenious essay in ambiguity," purposely worded in such a manner that the more conservative could place their construction upon it, and reconcile their consciences to using it, while the Reformers would interpret it in their own sense and would recognize it as an instrument for furthering the next state of the religious revolution....11This was a conscious and deliberate strategy, he notes:
In the earlier and critical period Cranmer and his friends saw that it was wisest to introduce the Reformation by stages, gradually preparing men's minds for more radical courses to come. At times compulsion or intimidation was necessary in order to quell opposition, but their general policy was first to neutralize the conservative mass of the people, to deprive them of their Catholic-minded leaders, and then accustom them by degrees to the new religious system.12There was little enthusiasm for the changes among the mass of the faithful, and sometimes fierce opposition. Commenting on the introduction of Cranmer's first (1549) Prayer Book, the Protestant historian Sir Maurice Powicke explains with admirable clarity why this was something that tens of thousands of humble Catholics would not tolerate, and why the peasants of the west rose in rebellion: "The real cause of the opposition of country clergy and Devonshire peasants was the proof which the Prayer Book seemed to give that all the agitations and change of the last few years really were going to end in a permanent cleavage between the past and the present, and the familiar was to give way to something strange, foreign, imposed."
According to Father Fortescue, "The Protestant Reformers naturally played havoc with the old liturgy. It was throughout the expression of the very ideas (the Real Presence, Eucharistic Sacrifice and so on) they rejected. So they substituted for it new Communion services that expressed their principle but, of course, broke away utterly from all historic liturgical evolution."13 It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of Father Fortescue's insistence that in composing new services the Protestant Reformers "broke away utterly from all historic liturgical evolution." In 1898, referring to the reform of Cranmer, the Catholic Bishops of the Province of Westminster insisted that local churches are not entitled to devise new rites:
They must not omit or reform anything in those forms which immemorial tradition has bequeathed to us. For such an immemorial usage, whether or not is has in the course of ages incorporated superfluous accretions, must, in the estimation of those who believe in a divinely guarded, visible Church, at least have retained whatever is necessary; so that in adhering rigidly to the rite handed down to us we can always feel secure: whereas, if we omit or change anything, we may perhaps be abandoning just that element which is essential.... [T]hat they were permitted to subtract prayers and ceremonies in previous use, and even to remodel the existing rites in a most drastic manner, is a proposition for which we know of no historical foundation, and which appears to us absolutely incredible.14An accepted principle with regard to liturgical worship is that the doctrinal standpoint of a Christian body must necessarily be reflected in its worship. Liturgical rites should express what they contain. It is not necessary for the Catholic position to be expressly contradicted for a rite to become suspect; the suppression of prayers that had given liturgical expression to the doctrine behind the rite is more than sufficient to give cause for concern. This principle is embodied in the phrase legem credendi lex statuat supplicandi ("let the law of prayer fix the law of faith") -- in other words, the liturgy of the Church is a sure guide to her teaching. This is usually presented in the abbreviated form of lex orandi, lex credendi, and can be translated freely as meaning that the manner in which the Church worships (lex orandi) must reflect what the Church believes (lex credendi). Monsignor Hughes insists that the 1549 Prayer Book made it clear that a new religion was being imposed:
This prayer book of 1549 was as clear a sign as a man might desire that a doctrinal revolution was intended and that it was, indeed, already in progress. Once these new sacramental rites, for example, had become the habit of the English people the substance of the doctrinal reformation, victorious now in northern England, would have transformed England also. All but insensibly, as the years went by, the beliefs enshrined in the old, and now disused rites, and kept alive by these rites in men's minds and affections; would disappear -- without the need of any systematic missionary effort to preach them down.15In other words, when for decades the faithful were forced to worship as Protestants they became Protestants. Their faith had been destroyed by liturgical reform.
The Reform of St. Pius V
History thus makes clear to us the distinction between true and false liturgical reform. The essence of a true liturgical reform is that it contains no drastic revisions of the liturgical traditions that have been handed down. Its most evident characteristic is fidelity to these traditions, as was the case with the reform of St. Gregory the Great. This is equally true of the reform of St. Pius V in 1570, which was the response of Rome to the Protestant liturgical revolution, "The Council of Trent (1545-1563)," Father Fortescue explains, "in opposition to the anarchy of these new services, wished the Roman Mass to be celebrated uniformly everywhere."16 In its eighteenth session the Council appointed a commission to examine the Missal, to revise it and to restore it "according to the custom and rite of the Holy Fathers," using for that purpose the best manuscripts and other documents. "They accomplished their task very well," comments Father Fortescue. "On 14th July, 1570, the Pope published the reformed Missal with the Bull Quo Primum. Its title was: Missale Romanum ex decreto ss. Concilii Tridentini restitutum."17 St. Pius is honored by the Church as an instrument chosen by God ad conterendos Ecclesiae hostes et ad divinum cultum reparandum -- "for the overcoming of the enemies of Thy Church and for the restoration of the beauty of Thy worship."
References and Notes
Some of the sources referred to in the notes have been abbreviated as follows:
- ESR -- F. Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation (Devon, 1980).
- RIE -- P. Hughes, The Reformation in England, 3 volumes (London, 1950).
- RRL -- K. Gamber, Reform of the Roman Liturgy (New York, 1993).
- ST -- Summa Theologica.
- TM -- A. Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (London, 1917).
- Michael Davies, The Wisdom of Adrian Fortescue (Roman Catholic Books, 1999). See Part II, Chapter I, for Fr. Fortescue's magisterial exposition of the nature of Catholic liturgy. [back]
- Summa Theologica, III, Q. 65, Art. 3 (referred to as ST in subsequent notes). [back]
- Ibid., Q. 83, Art. 1. [back]
- Epist. LXIII, n. 17 (PL, vol. IV, col. 388-89). [back]
- De Officiis ministrorum. lib.1, cap. 48 (PL, vol. XVI, col. 101). [back]
- G. Smith, The Teaching of the Catholic Church (London, 1956), p. 839. [back]
- ST, III, Q. 83, Art 5, ad 1. [back]
- A Fortescue, The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy (London, 1917), p.173 (referred to as TM in subsequent notes). [back]
- TM, pp. 183-84. [back]
- P. Hughes, The Reformation in England, vol. II (London, 1950), p. 158. RIE in subsequent notes. [back]
- F. Clark, Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Reformation (Devon, 1980), p 182. ESR in subsequent notes. [back]
- EST, p. 194. [back]
- TM, pp. 205-6. [back]
- The Cardinal Archbishop and Bishops of the Province of Westminster, A Vindication of the Bull "Apostolicae Curae" (London, 1898), p. 42. [back]
- RIE, vol. II, p 111. [back]
- TM, p. 206. [back]
- TM, pp. 206-7. [back]
N.B. -- See list of bibliographical abbreviations at top of the footnotes.[Michael Davies was president of Una Voce International and the author of many books on Catholic history and liturgy. One of his last works was Lead kindly light: The life of John Henry Newman (Neumann Press). The present article, "True and False Liturgical Reform: The First of Two Parts," was originally published in Latin Mass: A Journal of Catholic Culture and Tradition (Summer 2002), pp. 26-30, and is reprinted here by permission of Latin Mass Magazine, 391 E. Virginia Terrace, Santa Paula, CA 93060.]
Art credits: (1) The Last Supper (detail) by Andrea del Sarto; 2) The Mass of Saint Gregory, by Adrian Isenbrant; (3) Madonna with the Host, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.