Thursday, 9 January 2014

Liturgical History and the Novus Ordo

Adrian Fortescue (1874-1923)
I am no liturgical scholar (yet), but recently I have been acquiring some little knowledge of liturgical history over and above what I previously had. It has, I think, helped me understand better the liturgical questions surrounding the current crisis in the Church. With a closer reading of authors such as Adrian Fortescue, the historical development of the traditional Roman Rite has become clearer, as has the rupture with this tradition in the mass of Paul VI. Aside from all the theological problems with regard to tradition, the importance of liturgical tradition can be deduced from the fact that history demonstrates that that is simply how the Church works, and has always worked. The norm of tradition has always governed the development of Catholic liturgy, not only in the Roman Rite, making for a development that is real, but continuous and organic, always preserving the same substance.

The earliest example we have of the liturgy is, of course, at the Last Supper. With additional information given in the Epistles of St. Paul, it is possible to deduce the broader elements of the Eucharistic liturgy as it may have been: Jesus gives thanks; He blesses the bread and wine and pronounces over them the Words of Institution - whereat it is believed the sacrifice itself is made present; there are prayers commemorating Christ's sacrifice and death; and the disciples partake of the host and chalice. All of this, Christ commanded the Apostles to do, in memory of Him. In addition to this, there are other liturgical elements, distinct from the Eucharist liturgy, but not necessarily unrelated to it, that can be deduced from the Bible. Many of these elements originate in the services performed in the Jewish Synagogue. Generally, this includes the reading of scripture, sermons, the singing of psalms and hymns, other prayers, a profession of faith, etc. All of these elements are visible, in some form or another, in our present liturgies. 

Going beyond the scriptural evidence of the liturgy, the precise development of the liturgy in the first centuries is notoriously difficult to trace. Liturgy at this time seems not to have been formally written down, but rather was prayed more or less freely, but with habitual repetition - which alone is evidence for the traditional and habitual nature of liturgical prayer. Despite the lack of formal written sources, however, there are a few sources that give casual hints and indications as to what the liturgy was like at that time - I won't go through them all now. Suffice it to say that these sources point again towards a general structure or outline that was followed uniformly, albeit with certain local variations. This structure or outline is very likely the same as that given in the eighth book of the fourth-century work known as the Apostolic Constitutions, a treatise on early Christian doctrine, discipline, worship, and that sort. This liturgy also bears striking resemblances to the liturgy of the Roman Rite itself. There are still the readings from Scripture and the sermons; there is the kiss of peace; there are silent prayers said by the priest over the offering of the gifts, corresponding to the Secret (or the oratio super oblata) in the Roman offertory; there is a prayer of thanksgiving corresponding to the Roman preface; there are the Words of Institution said at the consecration; there is the reception of Communion; and several other elements which demonstrate with remarkable surety that the order of the liturgy in the Apostolic Constitutions is the same as that of the early Roman Rite. This is seen by a comparison of this order with certain liturgical references among the writings of the Roman fathers, particularly Clement of Rome and Justin Martyr. 

From the fourth century onward, the development of the liturgy is somewhat easier to trace. It seems to be the case that the structure of the liturgy given in the Apostolic Constitutions served as a universal outline for the liturgies of all early Christians, with their local differences of course. Around the time of the fourth century and thereafter, this general structure took on the particular forms of the four parent rites of Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Gaul. All of these rites preserved the general liturgy of the Apostolic Constitutions, with some of their own particular variations. There is, however, a mist which hangs over the precise history of how the particular parent rites, especially the Roman Rite, sprang forth from the primitive general liturgy described in the Apostolic Constitutions. In any case, it is certain that the Roman Rite retained this general liturgical outline in its core and essence, with the added Roman elements. These elements soon became definitive of the distinct, mature Roman Rite itself. The Roman Rite as known in the Tridentine missal is not altogether the same as this early Roman Rite, but has even further additions of Gallican influence. This is not to say it lost any of its previous identity: on the contrary, Fortescue points out that it lost nothing of its essence, but only gained new elements.

The original, early Roman Rite, can be seen in the well known books called the Sacramentaries, and other sources. The Sacramentaries contained all the prayers of the priest, omitting those sung by the choir or read by lectors; there was not yet a complete missal, containing all the prayers of the mass (the first complete missal would appear in the 15th century). The earliest Sacramentaries are three in number: the Leonine, the Gelasian, and the Gregorian Sacramentaries. The names of these are of the Popes to whom these works are attributed; but it is in fact not altogether certain who authored each. The first of these three, the Leonine, is the oldest, and exists in only one manuscript which dates from the seventh century. This book is a compilation of ancient proper prayers, primarily the orations and prefaces, lacking the ordinary parts of the mass or the Canon. Many of the prayers in this text are still in use. The Gelasian Sacramentary exists in several manuscripts which have some slight differences amongst themselves. This text is considerably more "Gallicanized" than the Leonine text. In its content, the Gelasian Sacramentary contains considerably more than the Leonine, still having the proper prayers for certain days and seasons, but also, significantly, adding the complete text of the Roman Canon, as it exists word for word in the Tridentine missal. Finally, the Gregorian Sacramentary, which was sent to Charlemagne by Pope Adrian I, when the former wished to impose the Roman Rite upon Gaul. This text contains the ordinary of the mass, some of the Propers, and prayers for ordinations, and seems in many ways to have its origins in the earlier Gelasian text. Being sent into Gaul, the Gregorian Sacramentary naturally underwent many revisions and additions of Gallican elements. Combined with those elements, the Gregorian Sacramentary forms much of the basis of the later Tridentine missal.

Other early liturgical books were the Antiphonaries or Graduales, which contained the proper chants sung by the choir or schola - Introit, Gradual, Offertory, and Communion. Also the Lectionaries, which contained the lessons and readings which were read by the lectors - Epistle and Gospel readings, as they are in the Tridentine missal. In the very early liturgy of the Church, there were often several readings; whereas the Roman Rite normally had only two or three. There was not a great deal of normality as to the number of readings until later. 

Following Fortescue's lead, based on all these sources, and stripping away the Gallican additions, the early Roman mass would have consisted of the following, in order: Introit, Collect, Epistle, Gradual, Gospel, Offertory chant, Secret, Preface, Canon, Pater Noster, Kiss of Peace, reception of Communion, Communion Chant, Postcommunion, and Ite Missa Est. It might perhaps be possible to define the ancient Roman Rite itself according to these elements, as being essential to it; for throughout the very long history of the Roman Rite, from approximately the fourth-sixth centuries, these elements have always existed as its necessary constituents. (There may be other essential elements too, such as in the calendar - I'll address those at another time.) These essential parts exist also in the later Tridentine missal, but with the addition of later elements from outside of Rome. These later elements gradually became absorbed into the Roman structure, until many of them were officially approved as part of the Roman mass by Pope Pius V. These are elements such as the Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Offertory prayers, Lavabo, Agnus Dei, Last Gospel, and some other smaller elements, both in prayer and in ritual. (Might these, or some of them, be said to belong essentially, not to the pure Roman Rite, but to the Tridentine Roman Rite?) It would be wrong to say, simply because these are later additions to the pure Roman Rite, that they are not properly a part of the liturgical tradition. Even these are very ancient, and were very good and spiritually beneficial additions to the Roman Rite. Thus they were legitimate additions to the more ancient tradition. It is not necessary, for something to be traditional, that it have its origins in the earliest days of Christianity. Ecclesiastical traditions can begin at any time in the course of history; the question is whether "new traditions" are harmonious with, or a truly beneficial addition to and improvement of, what came before. There have been legitimate changes and even innovations in the history of the liturgy; but these were added to the more basic traditions and fitted into the already existing liturgy, and were improvements on that liturgy. This is very different from reinventing the liturgy altogether.

This, then, is a very brief and incomplete sketch of the historical development of the mass. Does the Novus Ordo fit into this development? Does it retain the essential elements of the traditional Roman Rite? When compared to this old liturgical structure, the mass of Paul VI cannot but be a grave rupture from liturgical tradition and its continuous development. This is seen, first of all, by the extremely widespread revision of the Sacramentary, particularly in the prayers called the Orations - the Collects, Secrets, and Postcommunions. Very many of these, in the traditional missal, were extremely ancient. The core of this ancient collection had been preserved throughout the long development of the liturgy, in many cases for around 1500 years, until Pope Paul VI. Studies have been made of the revised collection of Sunday Collects, showing not only that there is a very great statistical difference, but that there is even a shift in spiritual and theological emphasis - and, on the whole, not a change for the better. Much the same is the case with regard to the Lectionary: a great part of the readings for the mass was fixed at the time of Pope Gregory I, and on the whole the age of the Lectionary was certainly well over 1000 years. Throughout the whole history of the liturgy, there was never any such thing as a three-year cycle. Furthermore, in the new selections of readings there are observable theological patterns that are questionable. In regards to the proper chants, which had been fixed for approximately 1200 years, these have been made optional in the new mass; virtually anything can be sung in their place, to the grave detriment of the identity of the Roman Rite. Finally, there has been a great change to the Roman Canon, which of all Christian prayers is the most revered and the most venerable - next to the Lord's Prayer itself. The history of the Canon alone is very fascinating. Apart from a minor change in 1962 (the addition of the name of St. Joseph), the Canon had remained word for word unchanged since the time of Pope Gregory I, and many of its prayers existed at a much earlier date. That such a sacred prayer, so important and essential a part of the traditional Roman Rite, could be reduced to a mere option is simply incredible, almost inconceivable to the religious soul imbibed with a love for tradition. The Canon was meant to be a fixed rule for all masses, the unchanging norm by which the sacrifice of Christ was made present on the altar - that is, in fact, the very significance of the word "Canon." This ideal was done away with by the liturgical reformers. Even if the text of the Canon itself remains in the missal as an option, it now no longer retains the venerable place it once held, as the heart, core, and essence of the Roman liturgy.

The new liturgy also does damage to some of the later elements which were added to the pure Roman Rite, and which appeared in the Tridentine missal. A prime example is the Offertory. The traditional Offertory prayers, albeit a later addition to the Roman Rite - having originated from private prayers of the priest - contained a wealth of doctrinal and spiritual content that was lost in the new mass, and replaced by prayers which completely lack the rich doctrinal and spiritual content of the old prayers.

These changes altogether are enough to render the Novus Ordo to be just that: a new order of the liturgy. It is truly a new order, a new rite, a different construction, as attested by its authors. The essence of the Roman Rite, as it existed for around 1500 years, as well as the additional elements which had accumulated around it, was destroyed. And aside from this, it is highly doubtful whether many of these changes considered in themselves were really beneficial for the spiritual welfare of the Church (there may be a few exceptions, but only a few). On the whole, it is beyond doubt that the destruction of a 1500 year-old tradition was not beneficial.

Much more could be said of these and many other related matters. This post has been only a very general summary of the problems. I am currently endeavoring to deepen my own knowledge of the liturgy and its history, both in its general outlines and its particular parts. Hopefully I will be able to display some more of the results of my studies on this blog in the future.


  1. I would recommend you and your readers take a peak at Appendix I of Cuthbert Atchley's translation and commentary on the Ordo Romanus Primus (the oldest extant account of a distinctly Roman Mass). Appendix I is a reconstruction of what a Pascha (Easter) Sunday Mass would have looked like in the year 800 AD. It is something to consider:

  2. Very interesting, thank you. (Did you mean Appendix III?). I had seen, but not yet read very closely, your post about it at your own blog. I can definitely see the roots of the current traditional mass there.

  3. In the Novus Ordo Mass, elements of The Byzantine Rite are present. In the Prior English Translations of Novus Ordo Prayers, Dignum Et Justum East, used a Variation of The Byzantine Rite Response, which was Greek & Slavonic, minus the Sign of The Cross. The Doxology of The Pater Noster is also a Byzantine Prayer, but, again, the Sign of The Cross was left out. Standing for Holy Communion is Eastern, as is reception of The Blood of Christ, though in The Byzantine Rite, Body And Blood zte received via spoon.