The most valuable experience in our process of being catechized in the faith is our participation in Liturgical Prayer and thus the prayer must reflect fully the authentic Catholic Faith.
I attended the Divine Liturgy today in the Byzantine Rite—something I like to do—and I noticed that in the Byzantine/Orthodox calendars July 20 is the feast of the Prophet Elijah. In the First and Second Book of Kings, Elijah was the great defender of True Faith against those Israelites who had fallen into superstitious practices. The wealthy and secure of Israel had fallen into the worship of the Baals—the local deities, mostly fertility cults—that promised them prosperity. Elijah was an especial defender of the poor as the Protected of Yahweh, against those of the great and powerful who tried to exploit them for their own gain.
History shows us that this often happens with religion, even Christianity, when religious leaders for their own greed or power become too close to the politically and economically powerful interests. Religion, for its own power, will often forget the interests of the poor. In the history of the Catholic Church we see how this happened in the Ancien Regime, the alliance of Throne and Altar that came tumbling down with the French Revolution. In the late Middle Agnes and in the Age of Absolutism in the 16th, 17th, and 18th century, the Church too often was part of the problem and not part of the solution—the Gospel Message of Good News for the poor.
This wasn’t just a Catholic problem. I remember writing a paper for a course in graduate school in which I explored how the Anglican Prayer Books of 1549, 1552, 1559 and 1662 incorporated a political ideology into the Liturgy that reinforced the absolute authority of the King as well as instructing people to be happy with their subordinate places in society.
One of the reasons that I am committed to the liturgical changes of the Second Vatican Council is that the Church’s worship embodies and teaches the faith of the Church and the current rites most accurately reflect the faith of the Church as it stands today. People’s belief is shaped by the way in which we worship. Liturgy is highly symbolic and the symbols impress on our hearts and our minds the Truth in which we put our faith. Indeed, not the catechism or the documents of the magisterium, but the liturgy itself is the primary agent of catechesis: faith formation.
The liturgy in the pre-conciliar rites expressed a theological worldview which was appropriate to the time but to which the Church no longer adheres. In 1570, when Pius V issued the Missal that incorporated the liturgical changes and direction ordered by the Council of Trent, the Church still held that the earth, not the sun, was the center of the solar system, indeed the center around which the entire universe revolved. This, in turn, reflected a cosmology which presumed that man was the main point in creation and that all else in creation was subordinate to the relationship of Creator and his human creation. Stars were not known to be suns and the universe itself was seen to be much smaller than we have come to know it to be. God was in a heaven only an angel-laden ladder away and the devil was in a hell that occasionally belched fire and brimstone into our atmosphere in Vesuvius and Etna. In 1570 the Catholic Church still held that absolute monarchy was the best form of government because the (supposed) Divine Authority of Kings modeled in an earthly fashion the Divine Authority of God himself and thus kings were to be obeyed and reverenced. In the 16th century the Church still held that European culture was inherently superior to the other cultures of the human family and the Church produced a Liturgy that in language and symbol system was exclusively European with a disregard for the newly discovered worlds of the Americas, Africa, and the Far East. In the sixteenth century the Church still held to the idea of the Great Chain of Being in which each person occupied the position: King, rich person, woman, leper, bishop, mental defective, widow, etc. to which the Divine Plan had ordained them and in which they must remain. The Mass reflected these and other ideas which over the subsequent centuries faded. The Liturgy was designed to mimic the ceremonial of a royal court. Women, because of their menses, were excluded from entrance into the altar area and were not permitted to exercise certain functions. The Liturgy was designed to emphasize the mediatorial role of the priest between God and the mere faithful. The priest offered the sacrifice on behalf of the assembled faithful whose role was to watch and to listen. They were separated from the sacrifice by railings that divided the church into the section for those ordained and those assisting the ordained, and where the ordinary people could gather. The use of an arcane language which only a few of the faithful understood (and not all priests really understood) was another separation keeping the ordinary faithful at a distance from the sacred action.
Over the intervening centuries the Church’s understanding of the world—both this world and the Eternal—evolved. The French Revolution swept royal absolutism into the dustbin of history. The rise of the Middle Class due to the Industrial Revolution made the common person an agent of history, no longer a bystander to history. The Church accommodated to this. Through the course of the nineteenth century bishops increasingly came from the Middle Class and no longer from the aristocracy. As more and more people became educated, class and social status played less and less a role as the Church itself democratized. While for centuries Popes had come from the nobility, with Pius X the son of a peasant sat on the Throne of Peter. But the liturgy was fixed and frozen and reflected a world of hierarchy resting on the base of a people who were mere sheep to be guided by their betters. Baptism no longer conferred dignity and the royal priestly and prophetic character of the baptized was totally obscured.
Moves to unfreeze the liturgy began over a century ago. Pius X wanted to increase the active role of the faithful in the Liturgy and wrote the motu proprio Tra la Sollectitudine relegating polyphony to the concert hall and restoring the primacy of chant to the Mass precisely to break the monopoly of choirs and encourage congregational singing. It was, of course, highly ignored. Pius also permitted the ordinary Catholic to receive communion daily without permission of his or her pastor or confessor and he restored the communion of the faithful to a place within the Mass and not a private ceremony for the few communicants after Mass was over. Such changes may seem rather minimal to us, but it heralded a different approach to the Liturgy than had been taken for four centuries.
Even before Pius’ legislation to increase the participation of the faithful in the Liturgy, he and his predecessor Leo XIII had taken the Church for an interesting turn towards recapturing its own historical character. Both Leo and Pius—and even Leo’s predecessor the arch-conservative Pius IX—were big on restoring the ancient churches of Rome. They went into many of the older churches—San Giorgio in Velabro, Santa Maria in Cosmedin, Santa Maria in Dominica, San Stefano Rotondo, Santa Costanza, Santa Sabina and others—and stripped away the baroque ornamentations that had been added in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They recovered the ancient Roman basilica form. Their work showed that Rome had never oriented its churches—they did not all face east but the churches of Rome faced every direction of the compass. Moreover, their historical restorations revealed that the custom in Rome had always been for the priest to face the people across the altar. Stripped of the baroque decorations, the churches stood in their ancient simplicity devoid of statues though often decorated with ancient mosaics and icons. Suddenly the baroque liturgy of 1570 was startlingly out of place in these ancient temples. It triggered historians and patristic scholars to research the development of the rites and suggest modifications to the Roman Rite to restore its ancient character. Those modifications began to take shape with the restoration of the Holy Week rites in 1955 and then more and more appeared in the years during and after the Council until the Missal of 1970 gave shape to the current official rite.
Pius XII who reigned as pope from 1939-1958 encouraged these studies and wrote two encyclicals that reflected the developing theology of the Church and understanding of its liturgy: Mystici Corporis (1943) and Mediator Dei (1947). The first—appropriately—returned to a patristic theology of the Church (as opposed to the scholastic approach of Trent and the post-Tridentine theologians such as Bellarmine) and the second gave a vision of the Liturgy that reflected this patristic ecclesiology. These documents—among other writings of Pius XII—provided the theological basis for the Second Vatican Council.
The Council itself marked significant developments in Catholic doctrine. The priestly role of the laity was clearly restored in the Dogmatic (repeat Dogmatic) Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. (Some people dismiss Vatican II as not being a dogmatic Council: they need to read the documents that are dogmatic constitutions to see their error.) The Church abandoned its proclaimed right to be established by law in civil society and affirmed the right of the individual conscience to believe according to whatever lights were given it. It was acknowledged that the Church is the community of the baptized and not only those in full communion with the Roman Pontiff—though, the fullness of Christ’s Church subsists in the Roman Communion. There were dramatic changes.
And the Liturgy issued by Pope Paul VI to implement the changes mandated by the Council has been designed to express more fully the theological realities as proclaimed by the Church today. Safeguarding the unique graces and responsibilities conferred upon the ordained, all the baptized share in the priestly, royal, and prophetic office. All the faithful, with each according to his or her proper order, join Christ the High Priest in offering the Eucharistic Sacrifice with full active conscious participation. New church buildings reflect this ecclesiology with the faithful gathered around the altar. Railings have been removed so as to unite priest and people around the Lord’s Table. The Eucharist is more clearly both meal and sacrifice. The Chalice has been restored to the faithful to fulfill Christ’s command: “take and drink…” While the properly vertical nature of the Mass has been maintained, the communal nature of worship has been emphasized over the private by restoring an appropriate horizontal awareness among the community of worshippers. The baptized are recognized by being given ministries proper to them as lectors, cantors, and even “extraordinary” ministers of the Eucharist. Indeed the artificial distinction (see Galatians 3:28) of male and female has been—to an extent—removed as women join men in the various ministries open to the Order of the faithful. There remains more work yet to be done for a fuller expression of our ecclesiology to be reflected in our Liturgical celebrations.
The cultural variations of the Church as it finds itself around the globe—and even as it finds itself in certain societies such as our multi-cultural America—gives varied expression to the Mass and indeed to all our prayer. Gospel Music in one place, Mariachi in another, and the Fauré Requiem have all found their place. In Africa you need dancers if you are to consecrate a church; in America only if you want to give the bishop a coronary. A priest in India might be seated at a low table-altar for Mass while a priest in Nigeria dances around it holding a bowl of incense.
The 1970 and the 1570 rites each express the faith of the Church as it was defined at that particular period in history. I always enjoy a trip to colonial Williamsburg, but that is not the America of today. I don’t particularly enjoy the usus antiquior of the Mass and I am troubled by it because, unlike Colonial Williamsburg, the Mass is something far to sacred to relegate to historical re-enactment. The Mass embodies and enshrines the faith of the Church, not the Church that was in God’s yesterday but the Church that is in the grace of God’s Present moment. Of course, if your faith is static and removed from this world in which the Divine Word incarnated himself, that is another matter—one for Elijah who stood against the false gods of his day.