At the basis of all Catholic liturgies is the divine and apostolic Tradition. In this tradition, we observe the fundamental structure of the Eucharistic action, which Christ Himself commanded the apostles to do in His remembrance. This action, according to the scholastics, has at its very heart and essence the Sacrifice of Christ on Calvary. This is like the “liturgical prime matter” of the liturgy of the Mass. In scripture we also observe that part of the liturgy called the synaxis, the rite of readings, which originated from the pre-Christian Jewish tradition of the Synagogue. In the early Christian Church, the synaxis and the Eucharist were two distinct things that eventually merged to form the most basic outline of the Mass as we know it. This outline – the “Shape of the Liturgy” as it is called by the Anglican liturgical scholar Gregory Dix – is now the basic factor which is common to all Catholic Eucharistic liturgies. It is, so to speak, what makes the genus of Catholic Eucharistic liturgy. A similar genus might be identified for the liturgy of the Divine Office as well, consisting primarily of the singing of the Psalms.
It is important to note that in the early days of Christianity, this liturgical outline was followed because, in its constituents, it had been handed down in Tradition from the time of the Christ and the apostles. Tradition forms the very basis of Catholic liturgy, in order for it to be Catholic at all. And yes, this is Tradition with a big T, so far.
As time went on, customs developed which added a new “layer” atop this basic shape, and so the different liturgical rites were born. Our distinction between the Western and Eastern liturgies began, more or less, in this fashion (its history is somewhat more complex than our broad distinction might seem to imply). The point is that these liturgies were truly different liturgies, developed by the growth of traditions around the basic Tradition. The Shape of the liturgy remained at the basis of all of these liturgies, which incarnated it in various forms. It might be said that to the genus of Catholic liturgy were added certain specific differences, making for the various species of Catholic liturgy.
These forms came into being by a gradual process. The basic outline of the liturgy was always there, but the customs of Christians throughout the world differed in their manner of incorporating and manifesting this shape. This development was unconscious; no single individual or group of individuals thought to make his or their own liturgy on the spot. Certainly individual men contributed to the development of the liturgy, but only within the bounds of what they had received from the apostolic Tradition. This Tradition assumed various forms in the traditions of the early Christians.
These traditions were in practice a continuation of the Tradition of the apostles. This is important: although in reality these traditions are theoretically distinct from the Tradition of Christ and the apostles, in practice there was little distinction except that the one came later, as a continuation of the earlier Tradition – the addition of a new “layer.” The fathers of the Church, when they speak of the concept of tradition, do not even bother to make the theoretical distinction, but lump liturgical traditions together with dogmatic Traditions. And history shows how, in practice, these two were received simultaneously and in a similar fashion each to the other, even if new liturgical traditions would be born. The very first days of Christianity witnessed a continuation of the process of handing on Tradition, with new traditions coming into being alongside the elder Traditions of Christ and the apostles.
The whole subsequent process of liturgical development followed this same pattern: each new development was in some way a continuation of what came before it by adding to it. Hence we see that each species of Catholic liturgy underwent considerable development in itself, incorporating new elements into the past received structures. Moreover, under each liturgical species it often happened that further subdivisions would develop, following the same developmental pattern as their parent liturgies. The Tridentine liturgy is one example of such a liturgy: it is, as it were, one species of the Roman rite. Always the substance of the previous liturgical tradition was preserved; its development consists primarily in the addition of new “layers” to the long-standing older “layers.” This development was a continuous, unconscious process, effected by the universal Church throughout the centuries. Individual action, even at the level of ecclesiastical authority, did not become the norm of liturgical growth until the 20th century; rather, it was always at the service of and limited by tradition. The words of Gregory Dix again are most pertinent:
The depth and breadth and allusiveness of the classical rites comes just from this, that their real author is always the worshipping church, not any individual however holy and gifted, any committee however representative, or any legislator however wise. The results in every tradition were codified from time to time by men with a gift or a taste for this sort of work. But all the time such men were working within a tradition, with materials supplied them by the immense eucharistic experience of the whole worshipping church of the past. . . No one man is great enough or good enough to fix the act of the Body of Christ forever according to his own mind and understanding of it. The good liturgies were not written; they grew. (The Shape of the Liturgy, pg. 718).
What lesson can modern Catholics take away from this simple truth of history? A liturgy formed on the moment purely by the inspiration of any individual or group of individuals, consciously inventing the liturgy according to their own ideas or desires, is bound to be a departure from tradition. This is not a continuation of what came before, and a replacement of it. Such a liturgy might still utilize the basic shape of the liturgy, and to that extent be Traditional and Catholic. But it would not be a continuation of the long process which began with that original outline and continued in a single pattern. Herein lies the defect of those liturgies which have, in the last century, been constructed according to the whims of the men in authority: for these men were no less individuals than the normal layman. They produced entire liturgies of their own accord, rather than contributing to the development of the liturgy which they had received. Granted, these liturgies are still Catholic and Traditional to the extent that they preserve that most primitive, basic Shape of the liturgy. But the entirety of Catholic tradition, as witnessed by history alone, is much more than just its primitive historical beginnings. Starting from those beginnings a considerable development took place which bequeathed to the Church a wealth of liturgical and spiritual traditions. This development was practically cast aside in the liturgical reforms of the last century.