Getting the History Right
Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum pontificum, issued motu proprio (as an executive order), universally permits celebrating the sacrifice of the Mass according to the Roman liturgy that was in existence prior to the reform of 1970. This means that there are two liturgies approved for universal usage. The new, reformed liturgy, contained in the Roman Missal promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1970, is now termed the ordinary expression of the lex orandi, or rule of praying, of the Catholic Church of the Latin rite. The Roman Missal promulgated by St. Pius V and reissued by Blessed John XXIII in 1962 is to be considered an extraordinary expression of the same rule.
The missal of Trent, issued under Pius V in 1570 (revised under St. Pius X in 1920 and John XXIII in 1962), has its roots in a difficult period in which Catholic teaching on the sacrificial nature of the Mass, the ministerial priesthood, and the real and permanent presence of Christ under the eucharistic elements seemed threatened. In response to requests for the vernacular in the liturgy, Trent taught that the eucharistic sacrifice is, first and foremost, the action of Christ himself. According to this reasoning, the manner in which the faithful take part in the Mass does not affect the efficacy belonging to it. Trent then anathematized anyone who maintained that “the rite of the Roman Church prescribing that a part of the canon and the words of consecration be recited in a low tone of voice should be condemned,” as well as anyone who claimed “that the Mass should be celebrated only in the vernacular.” It also anathematized anyone maintaining that the faithful ought to receive the Eucharist under both species. While prohibiting the use of the vernacular in the Mass, Trent directed that pastors “frequently give instructions during Mass, especially on Sundays and holydays, on what is read at Mass and that among their instructions they include some explanation of the mystery of this sacrifice.”
The General Instruction of the Roman Missal, revised under Pope John Paul II in 2001, declares that the Second Vatican Council completed and improved the liturgical norms of the Council of Trent, bringing to realization the efforts of the past four hundred years to move the faithful closer to the sacred liturgy. The decades before Vatican II had already brought a gradual lessening of the separation between the people and the priest celebrating the Mass, a separation that had been maintained for more than a thousand years. For example, in 1897, the prohibition against translating the Ordinary, or fixed ritual prayers, of the Mass into the vernacular was finally removed in the revision of the Index of Forbidden Books issued by Pope Leo XIII. The subsequent spread of the missal in different languages allowed the faithful to read the prayers of the Mass along with the priest. That would be followed by the so-called dialogue Mass, in which the entire congregation, and not just the altar servers, responded to the celebrant. In 1905 and 1910, the decretals of Pius X advocating frequent Communion and the Communion of children at an early age marked another significant step.
Vatican II’s Constitution on the Liturgy (Sacrosanctum concilium) emphasizes that “it is through the liturgy, especially, that the faithful are enabled to express in their lives and manifest to others the mystery of Christ and the real nature of the true church” (section 2). Referring to the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch, the constitution emphasizes that “the principal manifestation of the church consists in the full active participation of all God’s holy people in the same liturgical celebrations, especially in the same Eucharist, in one prayer, at one altar, at which the bishop presides, surrounded by his college of priests and by his ministers” (section 41). Communal liturgical celebrations in parishes, “under a pastor who takes the place of the bishop, are the most important, for in some way they represent the visible church constituted throughout the world” (section 42). In the postconciliar implementation of liturgical “renewal,” altars again became tables at which the ordained presider faced the assembly, and the rail that had separated the people from the so-called sanctuary was removed. It bears reiterating that such changes were not something “new” but a creative retrieval of the eucharistic experience of the assemblies of the earliest centuries.
From the second to the fourth centuries, the Eucharist, presided over by the bishop or by the presbyter who represented him, was a celebration in which the entire assembly of the faithful actively participated. The very term ekklesia meant the assembly of faithful who, as Augustine declared, became what they received, the Body of Christ. All were gathered around one table. The Western practice of having more than one altar in a church began during the sixth century. After 600, a surge in the number of Masses celebrated for personal devotion and for special intentions—often for the souls of the deceased—brought a related increase in the number of altars, which became gathered together as side altars in the main church. The symbolism of a local church being united through its assembly for one Eucharist began to fade, since a local community was now often fragmented into groups attending different Eucharists at the same time, in the same building. Remarkably, in the Roman basilica of Pope Liberius, which Sixtus III (432–40) rededicated as St. Mary Major, side chapels and altars were not added until the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The main altar of that basilica and of St. Peter’s, among others, remained a free-standing table at which the presider faced east, and toward the people. But, after 1000, partly in order to make room for the growing number of clerics, the main altar in most other Western churches was moved back and made into a shelf at which the priest prayed with his back to the people. Barriers, such as rood screens, separated the people from the area around the altar, which now began to be called the sanctuary.
To accommodate the proliferation of Masses all being celebrated at the same time, priests no longer sang the liturgy lest they disturb one another; instead, they now read in whispered tones. Such private, “low” Masses soon became standard. The priest “said” Mass in Latin for the particular intention of the person who had given a stipend. If any congregation attended, it passively “heard” the Mass. Often, no one except the server was in attendance, despite the fact that earlier episcopal directives, such as the Capitulary of Bishop Theodulph, had opposed solitary celebration of the Eucharist without a community of people who could respond standing around the priest. The people’s relationship to the Eucharist was changed. The Eucharist came to be understood as an action of the priest, who celebrated silently and often privately. Such developments, in turn, altered the understanding of the church.
During the first four centuries, all the faithful who assembled for liturgies received the Eucharist, taking it in their hands and even carrying a portion home to be eaten before the first meal each day. But there soon followed a precipitous drop in reception of the Eucharist. One of the causes was a feeling of unworthiness among the faithful. Frequent reception was likewise not fostered by requiring three days of fasting prior to Communion, along with abstinence from sexual relations for married persons. The Synod of Agde in Gaul in 506 insisted that Communion should be received at least three times a year, at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 reduced the requirement to “at least once a year at Eastertime.”
The church always believed that Christ was present in and through the Eucharist. In the ninth century, however, a debate arose about how to explain the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. During the eleventh century, Berengar of Tours reopened and intensified the debate by denying that bread and wine could become the body and blood of Christ without changing in “appearance.” In 1079, Berengar had to subscribe to a formula which declared that the bread and wine are “substantially changed” into the body and blood of Christ. The concept of transubstantiation (in which “substance” is understood as “that which makes a thing be and be what it is”) was beginning to emerge, although the term itself would not be used before the latter part of the twelfth century.
The intensified emphasis on real presence resulting from the controversies made believers in the medieval period more eager to “see” the Eucharist. Thus, the seldom-received Eucharist began to be “exposed” for the adoration of the faithful, who would rush into churches when they heard the bell signaling the now heightened “moment of consecration.” The elevation of the host, introduced during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, would sometimes be prolonged for minutes. The practice of genuflecting before the Eucharist (in imitation of what one did before an earthly king or prince) emerged after the controversies of the eleventh century and began to make its way into the rituals of the Mass during the fourteenth century. The same century brought the practices of ceremonially exhibiting the host outside Mass and of concluding with a blessing or benediction with the host. Attaching a tabernacle to the main altar became common practice only after the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The medieval church did come to deeper insight about real presence, but no longer was one loaf of bread broken and shared by the many who thereby became one body (1 Corinthians 10:16–17). By the eleventh century, the priest was usually the only one who ate and drank the Eucharist. He came out to see if anyone else wished to receive only after removing his vestments at the end of Mass. Union with Christ was mediated visually, and by spiritual communion, rather than by a sacramental eating and drinking. Latin writers of the seventh to the ninth centuries had still linked Eucharist and church as cause to effect, in the manner of Augustine and John Chrysostom before them. But as fewer and fewer of the faithful received Communion, the seldom-received Eucharist would be less and less perceived as grounding the unity of the church. The previous emphasis on “all being united into the body of Christ” through the Eucharist was gradually replaced by a focus on individual, personal union with Christ through reception of the sacrament. A devotional aspect of that perspective endured in the pre–Vatican II practice whereby communicants, after returning to their pews, immediately covered their face with their hands to commune privately with Jesus in personal prayer.
Given a situation in which the faithful seldom received the Eucharist while, at the same time, private Masses proliferated, the “power to effect transubstantiation” effectively became separated from the role of building up the church. A priestly “sacrificial” power was isolated from the role of gathering and presiding at an assembly that “celebrated” the Eucharist together with the priest. Ordination was theologically understood to empower priests to change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, rather than to empower them to bring together a community by proclaiming the Gospel, and then to actualize the unity of that assembly, or church, by celebrating a Eucharist through which those “assembled” become what they received, the Body of Christ. In that context, sacraments were usually not experienced as communal or ecclesial celebrations proclaiming and effecting God’s presence and activity. Rather, they were predominantly understood as rituals administered by those “empowered” through ordination in order to “confer grace” on individuals.
The twentieth-century liturgical movement and the reforms initiated by Vatican II were delayed corrections of such past developments. Admittedly, the reformed liturgy coming from the council has not received a universally positive reception. Some, sadly, even separated themselves from communion with the church. Others remain nostalgic for the old liturgy, claiming that the new liturgy lacks an air of mystery and an openness to transcendence. For some, the new liturgy seems more focused on the gathered community than on God’s presence. And to these objections it must be conceded that there is always a need for improving liturgical celebration. But it needs to be remembered that mystery does not depend on worshiping in a language that few understand. As the Epistle to the Ephesians (1:3–10) reminds us, God “has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time.” The mystery of our religion is Jesus who “was revealed in flesh...believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). For this theologian, who sometimes remembers all too well the Latin Masses of his youth, Vatican II’s liturgy better proclaims Jesus, the risen Christ, by reminding us that we are made into his body and sent out into the world. The Tridentine liturgy, by contrast, carries on the story of silent observers praying each on his or her own.
Read more responses to Summorum pontificum: The Old Rite Returns
Related: Re-oriented, by Richard R. Gaillardetz
About the Author
Bernard P. Prusak teaches theology at Villanova University.