HOW MASS GREW THROUGH THE EARLY CENTURIES
Fr. Clifford Howell, S.J.
Most Catholics have won
dered how Mass was celebrated in Apostolic days and how it developed until the -Liturgy reached the form they know today. Fr, Howell dealt with , this in a revealing address at the recent Wimbledon discussion on the Liturgy. Here is the full text. FIRST I want to draw a very important distinction. It is vital to a proper understanding of the active particiPatiOn of the people in the liturgy. The distinction is between the Mass itself and the liturgy of the Mass—between the underlying theological reality and the audible and the visible form of that reality.
At the Last Supper Our Lord
commanded His Church to "do this." in memory of Himself. And " this " consisted essentially in taking bread and wine, consecrating them into His Body as given and His Blood as shed, and distributing them to those present as nourishment for their souls. "This" is the Mass; provided "this." is done, then no matter how it be done, we have the Mass.
But in the course of history "this" has been done in various ways; "this" has been surrounded by prayers and actions intended not merely to invest the proceedings with solemnity, but also to expand, to explain, to manifest ever more clearly all that was involved in these actions of Our Lord. And this arrangement of prayers prayers and actions which enshrine the "this," the Mass. which Our Lord instituted, is the Liturgy of the Mass.
The Liturgy of the Mass, therefore. is not the same thing as the Mass. The Mass is what is done in memory of Christ; the Liturgy is the way in which it is done. It is possible to share in the Mass. the " what," without sharing in the Liturgy. the " how." But this sharing in the Mass, in the " what." is more intense. more fruitful. more complete if it be done by the means devised by the church. that is, by sharing in the "how"—in the Liturgy. That is Why the great Pope St. Pius X teaches us that " the primary and indispensable source of the true Christian spirit is active participation in the liturgy."
The ideal, then, is to share not only in the Mass, but also in the Liturgy of the Mass. The Mass has no history except the fact that Christ did "this" at the Last Supper and said " Do ' this' in memory of Me." The Liturgy of the Mass, by contrast, has an immense, complicated and utterly fascinating history of which all too little is known by our people at large. IP"t"lie WEhardlykng
details of the way rine I ' S
in which the Apostles used to "do this," that is, our knowledge of the Liturgy of the Apostolic age is very slight. All we know is that the Christians titer together for what was called " the breaking of bread." Our one certainty about it, therefore. is that it was the affair of a community— it was social.
It seems to have taken place in the evening after a community supper, called the Agape or Lovefeast," and to have featured preaching by an Apostle. An example of a Mass celebrated by St. Paul and the Christians of Troas is described in Acts Lx, 1-12. But later the doing of "this" became separated from the supper and was put instead at the end of a morning meeting which consisted of communal prayer and instruction in the Holy Scriptures. BY the middle of the second cenSeCOlid tury the outlines had emetics's, become clear in the form of what we might call a "general meeting " of all the Christians of any one place. It was a weekly " general meeting" and took place early on Sunday morning. The Bishop presided— he literally " took the chair," which was called his cathedra. He usually had a few priests and deacons with him, and these were his entire clergy. In fact, a primitive diocese was in many ways rather like a parish of to-day, and the relationship of bishop to clergy and people was like that of a parish priest now-a-days to his curates and congregation.
From an account left to us by St. Justin Martyr. and dating from the year A.D. 155. we know that the meeting began with readings from " the memoirs of the Apostles "—that is. what we would call Epistles and Gospels. Which passages were read, and how long they should be, was not then fixed
by any custom but was determined then and there by the Bishop. After the readings the Bishop expounded what had been read. Then there were some communal prayers, though Justin tells us nothing of their form. But he goes on to say that " bread and a chalice with wine and water are brought to the president of the brethren; he takes them, gives thanks to the Father of all in the Name of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and continues at some length with his prayer of thanksgiving. When he has finished this prayer of thanksgiving, the whole crowd standing by cries out in agreement: amen. Amen is a Hebrew word and means: So be it. After the thanksgiving of the president and the answer of the people. the deacons distribute the bread and wine over which the thanksgiving has been pronounced."
Now remember that St. Justin was writing in Greek, and that the verb " to give thanks " was, in Greek, ettcharistein. We could thus make a less elegant—but to us Catholics more meaningful— translation by saying that the " president Eucharistised the bread and wine ...when he has finished his Eucharistic prayer the people cry Amen; and the deacons distribute the Euchtiristised bread and wine to those present."
When it is put that way we can see clearly enough the general outline of what happened; there was Epistle, Gospel, Sermon, offertory. Canon and Communion—the basic shape of the Mass-Liturgy as we have it now. 1
Third rT1HIS sort of thing used to be done every Sunday by Century Bishops all over Christendom. They did it in the language of the people—Aramaic, Syriac. Greek, Coptic, or whatever the language might happen to be in that place. But not, at first, in Latin, That did not come until there were Christian communities whose everyday speech was Latin — and there were none such till about the middle of the third cen
The Bishop made up the prayer as he went along, and the precise words did not matter so long as he stuck to the point, which was to thank God for all the benefits He had given to mankind through Christ, and to remember the great deeds of Christ while doing again what Christ had done at the Last Supper as a memorial of Himself. The Liturgy was, so to speak, the public proposing of a " vote of thanks " to God; and just as nowadays some great benefactor of a community may be honoured by a public meeting at which a chair man proposes a vote of thanks. makes a presentation on behalf of all, and evokes tremendous applause at the end of his speech, so also was the Liturgy of the Mass something in the same spirit and the same form. God was the great Benefactor; the Bishop was the chairman of the meeting; he made a speech of thanks (the Eucharistic prayer) in the course of which he presented the community's gift (theEucharistised " Bread and Wine) and concluded amidst the applause of the audience (the Amen of the people. St. Jerome wrote that in the great basilicas of Rome this Amen of the people used to reverberate like a thunderclap).
What. then, was the purpose of the Epistle, Gospel and sermon which preceded this vote of thanks? It was chiefly to awake sentiments of gratitude in the people by reminding them of what Christ had taught and done during His earthly life which, after all, He had lived for their sakes.
Having heard these things they were in a suitable mood for appreciating the vote of thanks and applauding at its end. But it was the vote of thanks itself, the " Eucharistic prayer," which was the centre of the whole Liturgy, even though this was followed by a banquet (Communion), as may well happen after a speech-making and presentation to some benefactor of to-day, AS I have said, Bishops used St. Gregory to make up a fresh speech for each time; hut gradually certain forms of words became customary, and by the fourth century some of them were even written down. Thus there grew various " local liturgies." Things went on like this till about the sixth century.
At the end of that century came a very great Pope, St. Gregory. He made a collection of the customs in vogue throughout the Western (and by now Latin-speaking) Church; from this material and one or two additions of his own insertion he fashioned a Liturgy for his own diocese of Rome. He did not impose it on other Bishops; but what he compiled was so good that others began to copy it. and it ended by sprseiding gradually all over the West. We still have in our modern Mass almost everything that was in the Mass of St. Gregory's day.
But many additions have been made to it; and the very manner in which even the original Gregorian elements arc now used has been altered so much that the clear outlines have been obscured. And this altered use of it has completely changed the attitude both of clergy and people who do not now regard the Liturgy in the way in which the people of old used to regard it.
What we might call the "concept of Liturgy" is completely diferent. It now looks and seems differeet and has a completely different impact.
Originally it was seen to be, was in fact. and was thought of as the corporate action of the community. But now it is seen to be. is in fact. and is consequently thought of, as the individual action of a priest
watched by a community if one is present,
In ancient days the Liturgy was obviously a social affair in which everybody was interested from beginning to end. Everything done concerned the entire community in some way. though there were numerous officials of different ranks, each with his own task. There were parts for celebrant, deacon, sub-deacon, choir and people; and all these actually did their own parts, never the parts which belonged to anybody else.
The celebrant never did the deacon's part; the choir never did the people's part; every single word of everybody's part was both heard and understood by everybody else; there were no such things as silent prayers; the purpose of each part of the Liturgy was perfectly clear and was actually attained. The community did, in fact, sing together, pray together, hear the sctiptures and receive instruction together; the people actually presented the bread and wine, they heard and understood the great Eucharistic Prayer of the celebrant wherein God was praised and thanked for His benefits, wherein these gifts were transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ and presented in memory of the redemptive work of Christ; the people did, in fact. acclaim this prayer with their Amen. and did eat and drink together of the sacrificial gifts in the sacred banquet.
8th (111(1 9t h B UT this C el. furies loaf staffairs did not more than two or three centuries—though these were the centuries during which a predominantly pagan world became totally Christian. The social celebration of the Liturgy ran into difficulties during the course of the eighth and ninth centuries when the language of thts people began to change from Latin into what we might call primitive Italian. primitive French, Spanish and sPtohritsugpurenscee.
ss of change went on the people became increasingly incapable of understanding the Continued on page 6 Continued from page 4
prayers and readings of the Liturgy and increasingly unable to sing those parts which they used to sing. They gradually dropped out and were left in the position of uncomprehending spectators. The skilled singers of the schola took over their parts, and began to ornament them with ever more artistic, and thus more complicated, chants, The length of these chants used to keep the celebrant waiting for the next action, and so the custom grew of filling up these pauses with silent prayers. Once the principal of inaudible prayers was admitted, this led to the recitation silently of some prayers which formerly were chanted aloud—in particular, the Secret prayer and the Canon. The whole Liturgy gradually became a series of prayers and actions performed by the clergy alone; it beCarrie. in fact. an exclusively clerical affair rather than the combined action of the entire community.
Pri ANOTHER Pri ANOTHER vate powerful factor working towards the Masses same conclusion was the great increase in private Masses which began about the saane period,
From early times there had been. indeed, occasional private Masses in addition to the public Masses which were normal. But these were not private Masses as we know them now, that is Masses celebrated by a priest and server but with no people present.
The early private Mass was always for a small group having some unity of its own, for example, a family at a graveside or a party about to go off on a pilgrimage. At such Masses the priest took over the parts of the absent deacon, subdeacon and choir. merely reciting them all. Thus was evolved the Low Mass, designed for use with small groups of people. But from about the eighth cen. tury onwards such Masses were celebrated sometimes with no peapie present at all; and as the custom of daily celebration by each priest gained ground, the practice became very common—in fact. usual.
The next stage was to import this private form of Mass into public gatherings. even on Sundays; that is why to-day the form of the Mass most frequently used in public is the Low Mass. We are, in feat, using in public a form of Mass originally intended for use in private; we are using, when a congregation is present, a Liturgy devised for occasions when the congregation was absent. No wonder difficulties have arisen in the sphere of active participation of the people; for the attempt to get them into it is an attempt at inserting them into something that makes no provision for them.
0111. Present T Task. canR
solution to this problem except a reform of the Mass-Liturgy; if the people are ever to have again full active external participation in the Liturgy then the I.iturgy has got to be redesigned in a manner which makes practical provision for this. But liturgical reform is not within our competence; only the Holy See can bring that about; and though there are most encouraging signs that such reforms may he expected in the not hopelessly distant future, they have not come yet. So our task at present is to discuss ways and means of making better use of the unreformed MassLiturgy which we now possess. Many such ways and means have been worked out by practical liturgists during the past 30 years. They are all but partial solutions —compromises necessitated by present circumstances—and none of them is a complete answer to the problem. But all of them are useful as steps towards the ultimate goal: all are valuable as helping to prepare the minds of the faithful for what lies in the future; all of them are beneficial in helping clergy and people 'to regain the authentic concept_of Liturgy as the corporate action of a community rather than as the personal action of a priest watched by a community. But we must also remember this: though we are free to discuss in theory the advantages and disadvantages of the various expedients advocated and used in various places, we cannot in practice make use of them in any diocese beyond the extent to which the Bishop of that diocese will permit them.
Conditions vary from place to place; what is good in itself may not always be expedient. It belongs to the Bishop alone to decide whether any particular practice, even though good in itself, is expedient here arid now in the prevailing conditions of his diocese.
Wherefore our freedom of ideas is limited by nothing hut the dictates of truth; but our freedom of action is limited by the dictates of he Bishop.
The first rule of all liturgical aposiolate is absolute obedience to the Bishop of the diocese.