Liturgy Presentation 1: History

Notes and Study Guide for the First Liturgy Presentation
Fr. Tom Welbers, Church of the Good Shepherd, Beverly Hills
July 7 & 9. 2012

History: Why Do We Celebrate Mass the Way We Do?

(You can download and print these notes here.)

  1. Origins
    1. What do I want to accomplish in this series of presentations on the Church’s liturgy, specifically, the Eucharist as Summit and Source of the Christian Life and Mission?  My goal in any teaching is not just to communicate knowledge, but to facilitate understanding.  Once we begin to understand who we are, where we have come from, what our ancestors in faith did. and why — then we can begin to make the choices that we need to about what to do today, and why and how.  This is important for individuals, but it is also essential for communities, both small and large.  Our present reality is built upon our past heritage.
      1. While we will start with the Bible and the Early Church, and finish with the liturgy of Vatican II, this is not going to be a strictly chronological presentation.  We are not going to include the whole of history, nopr even all the important stuff. My chief aim will be to try to understand the reasons behind the way we celebrate what is at the center of our life ofaith: the Eucharist, described by the Vatican Council and recent Popes as “the summit and source of Christian life and mission.”
      2. An understanding of where we have come from to shed light on where we are today.  This will avoid extreme positions and polarization.  There was no “golden age,” and we need to learn from the whole spectrum.
      3. First and basic question is “Why do we celebrate Mass?” And the answer to that is simple, “Because Jesus said so?”  The second question, however, is much more complex: “How do we, in practice, celebrate Mass today, and why do we do it the way we do?” The answer to this can be found only in exploring how the disciples of Jesus — in the beginning and through the ages — heard that his command and put it into practice
    2. Apostolic
      1. St. Paul (1 Cor 11:23-26) written around 52 or 53 AD, only about 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, in response to problems of disunity:
        For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
      2. Synoptic Gospels
        1. Last Supper Institution: variations, but all have the command: Take and eat … take and drink … do this in memory of me.
        2. Multiplication of loaves and fishes – “shape” of Eucharist: took, blessed, broke, gave
      3. Acts 2:42 –”They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers.”
      4. John, chapter 6: (whole chapter important, but here’s vv 53-57):
        Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I have life because of the Father, so also the one who feeds on me will have life because of me.
  2. Late Antiquity — the next “generations”: persecution, imperial establishment in the East, and the barbarian ancestors of Western Christianity
    1. How did Christians of the first generations and centuries hear and put this into practice?  In the time of the apostles, by the end of the first century, small communities were established in major population centers around the Mediterranean, as well as eastward into Persia and perhaps India.
    2. Word and Meal/Breaking of the Bread became joined early on, as did gathering for both on the First Day of the Week.
    3. Movement from “House Churches” to dedicated buildings.
    4. Structure of community leadership.  May have been household, but always designated by the apostle: leadership seemed to focus more on designation than election, although community acceptance/reception was always a value.
    5. Catacombs, such as in Rome, were primarily burial places, and caves, such as the famous “Cave of St. Peter in Antioch, were shrines and possibly served as churches, but they were not hiding places.
    6. a word about persecutions
      1. periodic and usually local, sometimes intense
      2. 90% of the time: uneasy peace and tolerance
      3. never any need, nor possibility, for Christians to do extensive, long term hiding; they often had to be discreet, but also many were impelled to give public witness, even in face of opposition.
      4. most intense and widespread persecution was in 303-c. 310 at the end of Diocletian’s reign, just before Constantine — at lost of early Christian buildings, probably small, were confiscated and destroyed or re-used — little trace.
    7. Even before Christianity became legitimate, four great centers began developing different “styles”
      1. Jerusalem: Jewish Christians faded out; it was respected for origins, but not a center of influence
        the next three were “Apostolic” churches that became the major centers of influence in the first three centuries
      2. Antioch: Hellenistic (Greco Roman) Culture
      3. Rome: Practical; increasing “Barbarian” influence
      4. Alexandria: Center of Learning (Philosophy)
    8. Fourth Century: The Church becomes legitimate and official
      1. Constantine and freedom (Edict of Milan, 313): church buildings and organization
      2. Center of power moves to Constantinople (330)
      3. Theodosius I: Christianity becomes official religion (380)
    9. Fifth to Eighth Centuries
      1. Liturgy in the East influenced by both imperial court and monastic austerity
        1. increasingly elaborate rituals
        2. deeply symbolic mysticism
        3. icons and iconoclasm very important — legitimacy of images as reminders and objects of veneration, not worship (idolatry).
        4. Orthodox and Eastern Catholic liturgies today have not changed much since these times.
      2. Liturgy at Rome remained relatively simple and basic
      3. Greater political responsibility fell in pope’s lap, especially dealing with “Barbarians” from the north.
      4. Roman liturgy adapted by northern and western peoples
        1. began to develop “penitential” character
        2. devotional life tended towards “getting to heaven” more than “union with God.”
      5. Ninth-tenth centuries were “Dark Ages” in West; culture continued to develop and flourish in the Byzantine and Muslim Empires
    10. What do some of the significant developments in Roman and Western Liturgy mean for us today?
      1. People stopped receiving Communion
        1. “Barbarian” sense of unworthiness
        2. Communion replaced by, well, all sorts of things
          1. other kinds of celebrations, festivities, devotions, mystery plays, etc.
          2. emphasis on private prayer and “seeing the host”
          3. neglect of communion from the chalice
          4. minimalistic laws: e.g., “Sunday obligation” (attendance only, not Communion), “Easter duty”
          5. reservation of the consecrated bread became an occasion for adoration
      2. Distinction between Liturgy of the Word and Liturgy of the Eucharist was lost
        1. The “Sacred Action” became increasingly removed from the assembly’s participation, and the people became passive spectators: the priest “said Mass” or “read Mass,” the people “attended Mass.”
        2. Scripture became less and less important
        3. Necessity of “sanctuary bells” to call people to attention to the “moment of consecration,” as well as elevations (sometimes prolonged).
        4. Consecration seen more as the result of the repetition of the words of Institution than the whole Eucharistic Prayer. (The East maintained the emphasis on the whole prayer as consecratory.)
        5. Clergy often poorly educated, performing the rites mechanically and inattentively; often living immoral and worldly lives.
      3. Language: why did language remain Latin in the West, while in the East greater attention was given to the language of the people: Greek, Syriac, Arabic, Aramaic, Coptic, Slavonic, etc.?
        1. In the East: understanding and participation by all the people remained an important value
        2. In the West:
          1. Latin remained the language of educated people
          2. In the development of the “Romance languages,” most people could still understand something of Latin, even though they did not speak it. But understanding and participation, except by educated elites (clergy and monks) became less and less a value.
      4. History of posture
        1. Early Church (East and West) people stood through whole liturgy: movement separated liturgy of the Word from Eucharist;
          1. Gathered around “word” at ambo
          2. Procession (solea) and all facing east for Eucharist
        2. kneeling during consecration introduced only in the West: originally more of a penitential posture than praise (orans); adoration was not a primary focus of Eucharist; praise and thanks, offering and prayer for transformation were emphasized
      5. Theology: Real Presence – origin of “transsubstantiation.”
        1. Defining “real presence” became an issue only after it was denied, following withdrawal of “popular” participation.
        2. St. Thomas Aquinas used categories of Aristotelian philosophy to try to understand and express how “real presence” was compatible with no change in appearance.
        3. Transsubstantiation basically means that “what it is” (substance) is changed, but all physical properties (accidents) remain unchanged.
        4. Therefore Christ is not physically in the Eucharist, but is substantially present.  If you stop and think about it, it makes sense, but it remains a mystery. (Thomas was very careful not call it a “miracle.”)
        5. In the West, interest in “how it works”; in East emphasis was more on “mystical union” — moment of consecration, rather than whole prayer as consecratory
      6. Eucharistic exposition and adoration
        1. Reservation originally for Viaticum, communion to the sick,and communion outside Mass
        2. By extension, it is appropriate to adore the presence of Christ in the reserved sacrament
        3. Adoration should flow from participation in the Mass, but it often became a substitute for it.
  1. Reform and Adaptation: the last five centuries have been characterized by both the need for reform within the Church for the Church to be faithful to its mission, as well as the need for adaptation to the rapidly changing world around us.  It’s clear that the Church cannot stand still, but the actual responses to these needs will always be the subject of controversy.  I hope to shed some light on these controversies and their implications especially for our celebration of liturgy today, but I do not pretend to have the last or best  word.
    1. Reform then: Protestant Reformation and Council of Trent
      1. Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries
        1. Need for Reformation
          1. Selling indulgences
          2. worldliness and power of the church
          3. exaggerated notion of “sacrifice of the Mass”
        2. The Protestant Reformation
          1. “sola Scriptura” did not recognize the authority of any form of tradition to maintain and interpret scripture; individual interpretation denied value of community
          2. early reformers kept Eucharist, and sought to reform it, but also reinterpreted as merely symbolic; soon reform concentrated solely on scripture; this in turn influenced design of the church, from place of liturgical assembly, with splendid architecture and adornments to a simple and severe “lecture hall” primarily for sermons.  Protestants introduced pews, which American Catholics later adopted and made “standard” (many churches in Europe still don’t have them, or at least have ample space to “move around.”)
          3. “baby with bathwater” — fragmented, and repudiated anything “Roman”
      1. The Council of Trent
        1. concentrated more on doctrine (which was being attacked), reform of abuses in church order (education and moral life of clergy; service to the poor) than on liturgical practice
        2. decided vernacular and Communion under both Species: needed but not yet
        3. Ordered reform of Roman Missal based on available sources
      2. The “Tridentine Mass”: Missal of Pius V (1570)
        1. Respected diversity of local liturgies, but ordered their reform according to principles by which the Roman rite was reformed
        2. Gutenberg and Economics
        3. The Sacred Congregation of Rites became “watchdog”
    1. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries
      1. Centuries of revolution and retrenchment
      2. Archbishop John Carroll, first bishop in the USA, requested permission to celebrate the liturgy in English in the USA, which was denied.  In 1787 he wrote:”Can there be anything more preposterous than an unknown tongue; and in this country either for want of books or inability to read, the great part of our congregations must be utterly ignorant of the meaning and sense of the public office of the Church. It may have been prudent, for aught I know, to impose a compliance in this matter with the insulting and reproachful demands of the first reformers; but to continue the practice of the Latin liturgy in the present state of things must be owing either to chimerical fears of innovation or to indolence and inattention in the first pastors of the national Churches in not joining to solicit or indeed ordain this necessary alteration.”
      3. Rome/Vatican was very cautious about any change, even in missionary countries.  Because of Protestant-Catholic wars and alienation, there was little desire or movement toward liturgical change, lest we become “too Protestant.”
  1. Reform now: what led up to Vatican II
    1. Nineteenth and early and mid-twentieth century scholarship
      1. Pius X promoted frequent Communion (as norm for attending Mass), early first Communion, and reform of liturgical music to be simple, reverent, and accessible to the people.
      2. Many early manuscripts were discovered in 19th and 20th centuries that were unknown at the time of the Reformation and Trent, provided a much clearer and fuller picture of what the early church life and liturgy was like. These were found in obscure corners of old libraries as well as in archaeological digs. Prior to this time, there was no interest or understanding of archaeology or systematic study of the past.
      3. Archaeology uncovered what early churches looked like; systematic Bible scholarship made fundamentalist literalism impossible; theology, looking at early patristic sources recovered a sense of Church as Body of Christ, more than monarchical authority
      4. “Liturgical Movement,” initiated largely by Benedictine monasteries, in late 19th and early 20th centuries sought to promote active participation of the laity at liturgy, rather than passive presence.
    2. The experience of World War II: Catholics and Protestants, along with Jews, thrown together in concentration  camps, confronting together Great Evil; therefore began speaking to and listening to one another
    3. Pius XII as reformer
      1. 3 great encyclicals” Mystical Body of Christ (1943), Sacred Scripture (1943), and Sacred Liturgy (1947) all affirmed the trends of scriptural, theological, and liturgical scholarship and movements.
      2. made small changes: reform of Easter Vigil, reduction of Communion fast.
    4. John XXIII and his background as pastor
      1. in medical corps during WWI, seminary prof in Italy, papal representative in Bulgaria, Turkey and France; the Archbishop of Venice; actually placed in line for papacy by Pius XII
      2. in his later years, Pius XII spoke of the need for a Council to tackle the Church’s relationship to the modern world, but knew he was not in sufficient health to pull it off.
    5. What did the Second Vatican Council do?
      1. Four sessions from October 1962 to 1965, brought together bishops from around the world in a truly unprecedented gathering.  Never before had so many church leaders (over 2500 bishops!) representing the entire world been in close, extended communication, both formally and informally, speaking and listening to one another
      2. Brought into the mainstream church the trends and reforms that had already been beginning.
      3. Not intended to define or defend doctrine, but to be a pastoral council: how should the church address the world we live in
      4. Reform of the liturgy was seen as its first task, and the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, was its first document, put forth on December 4, 1963, called for a reformed liturgy to be more accessible to all the faithful and encourage “full, conscious, and active participation.”
      5. The process of reform began over the next seven years, including sources from the early liturgies of the Church, which were not available to the 16th century reformer, and producing the Missal of Paul VI in 1970.
      6. This is the way we celebrate Mass today, and we will now — in subsequent presentations — concentrate on the Mass today.  Next one (in two weeks) we will identify the principles at work behind our celebration of Mass.  Then we will look at liturgical ministries, and finally, a step-by-step guided tour of the Mass which will bring it all together.
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Author: tomwelbers

I have been a Catholic priest for nearly fifty years, most of that time serving in parish and college campus ministry. I also have professional degrees in theology and liturgy, as well as institutional management, and continue avidly to explore pastoral theology, Scripture, liturgy, ecumenical and interfaith relations, and spiritual direction. I have a passion for sharing insight into our Christian heritage through teaching, writing, and leading pilgrimages, especially to Early Christian World sites in Turkey. Now actively retired from parish ministry, I live at Nazareth House in Los Angeles.

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