Recovering Western Liturgical Traditions
These are frustrating times for Vatican II loyalists, as the council’s mandated liturgical renewal comes under attack by those who “look back in anger”—to borrow the title of John Osborne’s 1956 play—at real or imagined deficiencies of the liturgical renewal carried out after the Second Vatican Council. I have been asked to comment on the present situation from my perspective as a specialist in the liturgical heritage of the Christian East. Note that I am neither a liturgist nor a liturgical reformer, but a historian of the liturgy who believes his task is to point out the facts of liturgical history and what they might mean for today. As such, I maintain that the Roman Catholic liturgical renewal in the wake of Vatican II was an overwhelming success, returning the liturgy to the people of God to whom it rightly belongs. The reform mandated by the council was not perfect, because nothing but God is perfect. But it was done as well as was humanly possible at the time, and we owe enormous gratitude and respect to those who had the vision to implement it. So rather than re-examine what has already been done well, I will concentrate on what the reform did not do well.
My list of what was not done well or not done at all leaves aside the overly creative liturgies and other abuses that accompanied the reform. These were the fault of individuals, and not what Vatican II mandated. Nor does my list include anything the “reformers of the reform” want to reverse, like the celebration of liturgy in the vernacular, Communion in the hand, Mass facing the people or the removal of the tabernacle to a sacrament chapel.
A list of work still to be done would include the order of the Christian initiation of infants, the Liturgy of the Hours, the practice of taking holy Communion from the tabernacle during Mass and the retreat from any meaningful reform of the sacrament of reconciliation, which has left confession a disappearing sacrament, at least in North America. Regarding all of these except the last, Catholics might learn from the East.
Liturgical Renewal and the Christian East
In the pre- and post-Vatican II Roman Catholic liturgical renewal, the following were directly inspired by the East: the restoration of Holy Week and the Easter Vigil under Pius XII, liturgy in the vernacular, the Spirit-epiclesis in the new post-Vatican II Roman-rite anaphoras (which calls on the Spirit to consecrate these gifts), eucharistic concelebration, Communion under both species, the permanent (and married) diaconate, the recomposition of the ancient unity of Christian initiation in the justly famous Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, revisions in the rites of ordination and confirmation, and the attempts (in my view unsuccessful) to restore the Liturgy of the Hours.
This influence resulted from a long process of maturation in two fundamental phases: a felt need and a search for solutions consonant with tradition. The need was to renew the Roman liturgy so that, as the council’s “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy” says, the faithful might “be led to that full, conscious, and active participation in liturgical celebration which is demanded by the very nature of the liturgy, and to which the Christian people...have a right and an obligation by reason of their baptism” (No. 14). The solution consonant with tradition demanded that the rites “be restored to the vigor they had in the tradition of the Fathers” (No. 50).
That is where the East came in, when the liturgical movement among francophone Catholics drew inspiration from contacts with the Orthodox of the Russian emigration who had found refuge in France in the aftermath of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. As a protagonist and historian of the liturgical movement, Dom Olivier Rousseau, O.S.B. (1898-1984), explained, this was because “the Orthodox Church has preserved the liturgical spirit of the early church, and continues to live by this spirit, to drink from it as from its purest source.... This church has never departed in its piety and its offices from the liturgical spirit of the early church, to which it has always remained faithful.”
What the liturgical movement did, however, was not so much imitate existing Eastern usage, as make decisions on the basis of perceived pastoral need and then find justification and support in patristic and Eastern precedents, as interpreted in the light of those needs. In other words, Western Catholics’ view of Eastern liturgy and its presumed virtues is simply a mirror of their own deepest longings.
One such virtue is that Eastern liturgy has remained a stable, holistic, traditional synthesis of ritual and symbolic structure that permits liturgy to do what it is supposed to do without the self-consciousness of present-day liturgy in the West. There is a sameness, familiarity and repetitiveness at the very basis of day-to-day human culture, and Eastern tradition has retained this. Men and women who wish to gather to praise God need regularity and consistency in their prayer, which is why people object to having their worship changed every time their pastor reads a new article.
The West might learn from the East to recapture a sense of tradition, and stop getting tripped up in its own clichés. Liturgy should avoid repetition? Repetition is of the essence of ritual behavior. Liturgy should offer variety? Too much variety is the enemy of popular participation. Liturgy should be creative? But whose creativity? It is presumptuous of those who have never manifested the least creativity in any other aspect of their lives to think they are Beethoven and Shakespeare when it comes to liturgy.
Where Vatican II Failed
With a view of liturgy as tradition in mind, let me return to my list of what the Second Vatican Council failed to do well or did not do at all.
Initiation. In the theology of the fathers of the church, the church’s earthly song of liturgical praise was but the icon—in the Pauline sense of mysterion, a visible appearance that is bearer of the reality it represents—of the once-and-for-all accomplished salvific worship of the Father by his Son. God the Father saves through the saving economy of his incarnate Son, Jesus, who is the icon of that saving God’s work. The church is the present, living icon of that saving Jesus, and the church’s ministerial acts—what we call the liturgy—are the efficacious signs of Jesus’ salvific ministry at work among us.
This is the unitary patristic vision that the Flemish Dominican Edward Schillebeeckx recovered in his sacramental theology, systematizing in modern terms what fathers like Pope Leo the Great said in his Homily 74on the Ascension: “What was visible in our Redeemer has passed over into sacraments.” What Jesus did during his earthly ministry remains permanently, visibly and tangibly available in mystery through the liturgical ministry of the church. The breakdown of this holistic patristic vision into its component parts in the medieval church—leading to a list of seven discrete sacraments—ultimately dissolved in the West the ancient order and unity of the triple mystery of initiation in baptism-chrismation (confirmation)-Eucharist.
The denouement of this collapse came, ironically, as a result of one of the most successful liturgical reforms in history: St. Pius X’s decree Sacra Tridentina Synodus (1905) on the frequency of Communion, and his lowering of the age of first holy Communion from adolescence to the age of reason in Quam Singulari (1910). Pius X’s stunningly successful reform had the deleterious side effect of shifting the time of first Communion to before confirmation—an unheard-of novelty totally contrary to the universal ancient tradition of East and West—and displacing first confession so that it preceded first Communion. This destroyed the age-old sequence of the rites of Christian initiation. And it turned the sacrament of penance, originally intended to reconcile grave sinners, into one of the rites of Christian initiation in the Catholic West.
The Liturgy of the Hours. Similarly, in the East the Liturgy of the Hours has remained what it was meant to be, an integral part of the worship of God’s people. Here too the West has lost its balance, reducing the Divine Office to the prayer of clergy and monastics. In the discussions of the post-Vatican II commission for the reform of the Divine Office, the overriding concern was to produce a prayer book for clergy and religious that would be prayed for the most part in private. Celebration “with the people” was deemed desirable, but the whole tenor and vocabulary of the commission discussions show that this was not the point of departure for understanding the Liturgy of the Hours.
The historical basis underlying much of the debate was gravely deficient, based as it was almost exclusively on post-medieval Latin tradition, with its defects of clericalism, privatization and ignorance of early and Eastern tradition. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that the new Roman Liturgy of the Hours, despite its title, is no liturgy at all, but still just a breviary, or book of prayers.
Communion from the tabernacle. Distributing holy Communion during Mass from hosts already consecrated at a previous Eucharist was totally unthinkable in the early Christian East and West. It is still inconceivable in any authentic Eastern Christian usage today. Nevertheless, it would become and has remained a common practice in Roman-rite usage despite its repeated rejection by the highest Catholic magisterial authorities: in Pope Benedict XIV’s encyclical Certiores Effecti (1742); in Pope Pius XII’s encyclical Mediator Dei (1947); in the 1962-1965 instructions and norms for the distribution of holy Communion at Mass; and most recently in the third edition (2002) of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (No. 85).
The reason for disapproval is obvious to anyone familiar with eucharistic theology. The dynamic of the Eucharist is one continuous movement, in which the common community gifts are offered, accepted by God and returned to the community to be shared as God’s gift to us, a sharing of something we receive from God and give to one another—in short, a communion.
Communion from the tabernacle is like inviting guests to a banquet, then preparing and eating it oneself, while serving one’s guests the leftovers from a previous meal. The symbolism of a common partaking of a common meal is completely destroyed. Holy Communion is the ecclesial communion of the faithful with one another in Christ by sharing together the fruits of his sacrificial heavenly banquet they are offering together. Communion from the tabernacle can hardly claim to signify this. The Latin Middle Ages had forgotten it, and the widespread continuance of the practice of Communion from the tabernacle, which as been repeatedly stigmatized by the highest magisterium, shows that Western Catholic eucharistic piety is still stuck in the same medieval rut.
In the last analysis, the solution to Roman Catholic liturgical problems lies not in an idealization of the Council of Trent or the East. Western Catholics, largely ignorant of the riches of their own living tradition, mistakenly look elsewhere for what they already have. I am disappointed at the failure of contemporary Catholics to understand, appreciate and market the riches of their own Latin tradition. Stuck in the aridity of late-medieval theology, the Catholic West has stalled the great movement of patristic ressourcement initiated in postwar France by authors like Yves Congar, O.P., Marie-Dominique Chenu, O.P., Jean Daniélou, S.J., and Henri de Lubac, S.J.
The Catholic West does not need to turn East, or to a dead-and-gone-forever medieval or Tridentine past; it needs to return to its roots. Latin Christianity is just as apostolic, ancient, traditional, patristic, spiritual and monastic as that of the East. A Christian culture that produced Chartres and Mont-Saint-Michel; Augustine and Cassian; Benedictine monasticism and Cîteaux; Francis of Assisi, Dominic, Ignatius Loyola, John of the Cross and Charles de Foucauld; Teresa of ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux and Blessed Mother Teresa; and the popes of my own lifetime does not have to copy anybody except Jesus Christ.
Read Father Taft's article "Mass Without the Consecration?" from May 12, 2003.