Virtually every Catholic has been at Mass and heard the phrase, "In the early Church...." Often this phrase is followed by some deviance from the norms of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal. To wit: A seminarian once told me how his pastor decided to say Mass like they did in the early Church — at least his version of it. He came out of the sacristy in blue jeans and a T-shirt; what followed was an abomination. The thinking is that what the Church prescribes in the present is somehow deficient and the individual must heed the call to return to some former practice that either was abolished or fell into disuse.
This kind of liturgical antiquarianism, which seeks to reinstitute practices of old without proper Church authority, is explicitly condemned by Pope Pius XII in his 1947 encyclical Mediator Dei. Pope Pius did not prohibit alterations of the Mass; indeed, he himself modified the rites of Holy Week. Nonetheless, Pius asserted definitively that the Church has jurisdiction over her liturgical rites.
Mediator Dei begins with praise for those who study the past forms of the liturgy and sacraments of the Church, and with an immediate assertion that these rites belong to the Church: "This Apostolic See has always made careful provision for the schooling of the people committed to its charge in the correct spirit and practice of the liturgy;...it has been no less careful to insist that the sacred rites should be performed with due external dignity" (#6).
In many parishes, some older Catholics still pray the rosary during Mass or engage in some other personal devotion closely related to the Holy Sacrifice. Mediator Dei specifically states that interior participation remains more important than external participation:
When devotional exercises, and pious practices in general, not strictly connected with the sacred liturgy, confine themselves to merely human acts, with the express purpose of directing these latter to the Father in heaven, of rousing people to repentance and holy fear of God, of weaning them from the seductions of the world and its vice, and leading them back to the difficult path of perfection, then certainly such practices are not only highly praiseworthy but absolutely indispensable, because they expose the dangers threatening the spiritual life; because they promote the acquisition of virtue.... (#32)Prayerful meditation, the rosary, and other devotional exercises that assist a person in drawing nearer to God during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass should not be prohibited. All the liturgies of the Church, and those things that surround them, need to be focused on the Almighty.
Emphasizing the hierarchical nature of the Church, Pius reminds the faithful that liturgical rites fall under the purview of Church authority: "Since, therefore, it is the priest chiefly who performs the sacred liturgy in the name of the Church, its organization, regulation and details cannot but be subject to Church authority" (#43). The immemorial saying lex orandi, lex credendi reflects this reality as the Church enshrines and emphasizes her teachings through her liturgical rites while at the same time giving God worship. For example, as the reality of Jesus' presence in His body, blood, soul, and divinity in the Most Blessed Sacrament has been denied throughout history, the rites of Holy Mass emphasize this reality with genuflections, elevations, incense, and bells. Even the restriction of the chalice to the priest resulted from a denial of our Lord's presence under both species. This is not found in the liturgical rites of the East because this reality was never denied.
Historical circumstances can have a profound effect on the nature of liturgical rites. Persecution during the first three centuries of Christianity forced Christians to worship in the catacombs and in private homes, yet no one would think of re-instituting that because it would be an antiquarian practice with little or no benefit to the faithful. This is why in the liturgical rite of the western Church we celebrate the Feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of St. John Lateran: Not only is it the cathedral of Rome, home to the papal throne, but it was the first public building used for offering the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass following the end of the Roman persecutions.
As Pius XII points out, the gradual addition of the practices and pieties of various groups throughout history are human elements that may be changed — and have been changed — throughout the 2,000-year history of the Church, which flows out of Jewish worship in the synagogue and temple. The development of the synagogue grew out of the inability of Jews to go to the temple during the Babylonian exile. This organic development of Jewish worship remained even after the exile ended because it deepened the Jews' understanding of the Word of God and was a clear benefit to the Jewish faithful. The institution of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was a development of the Passover meal. No evidence exists that suggests that early Christians celebrated Mass the exact way Jesus did in the upper room, nor would the Church attempt such a feat.
Where does that leave us today? Nathan D. Mitchell, writing in the November 2007 issue of Worship, suggests that Popes Pius V and Paul VI both acted in accordance with tradition "by excluding previous missals and mandating new ones." Pius V's apostolic constitution Quo Primum, authorizing his 1570 missal, "shows that an apparent rupture (that is, a significant change) in ritual practice does not cancel continuity but, on the contrary, makes it possible." But what are we to make of Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict XVI's 2007 motu proprio that allowed for a wider availability of the extraordinary form of the Roman rite?
Mitchell points out that before Summorum Pontificum the laity had never had the power to petition a priest for a particular form of the Mass, and that this reflects a fundamental split in the Church over community and transcendence. Overtly recruiting people to the extraordinary form (the Tridentine Latin Mass) and referring to it as "more sacral" than the ordinary form (the Novus Ordo Mass), he says, is in fact discontinuous with tradition and encourages a type of consumerism with regard to worship.
The answer to Mitchell's objections can be found in the highest law of the Church, which Pius XII cites in Mediator Dei: The Church has the authority to regulate liturgical rites for the good of souls. In his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Benedict cites the "deformations of [the ordinary form of] the liturgy which were hard to bear" as one of the reasons for his permitting a wider use of the extraordinary form of the Mass. Doctrinal purity and obedience to the spirit and regulations of the liturgy were concerns of both Pius XII and Benedict XVI.
Ormond Rush, an Australian theologian, claims that the Church cannot have a macro-rupture but can and does have micro-ruptures. A macro-rupture would concern matters of dogma; micro-ruptures concern such matters as liturgical practice, relations with the Jews, and the explanation of religious freedom. If one considers a micro-rupture as a change in the praxis of the Church, then it can be seen as harmonious with a guiding principle of Mediator Dei:
As circumstances and the needs of Christians warrant, public worship is organized, developed and enriched by new rites, ceremonies, and regulations, always with a single end in view, "that we may use these external signs to keep us alert, learn from them what distance we have come along the road, and by them be heartened to go on further with more eager step...". (#22)It stands to reason that a particular practice that no longer has meaning to the faithful or has led to a misunderstanding of Jesus Christ may be discontinued for a time. Should circumstances change in the future, a discontinued practice may be favorably restored by ecclesiastical authority. Another practical example of a change in practice is the Church's more liberal approval of burial rites for Catholics who commit suicide, based on a deeper understanding of human psychology. [For a discussion of this topic, see canon lawyer Edward Peters's guest column, "State-Sanctioned Suicide & Ecclesiastical Funeral Rites," June — Ed.]
With regard to the Divine Office, Pius XII mentions that it was the norm for both Jews and Christians to pray at various hours throughout the day, as testified to in the Acts of the Apostles. This ancient practice continues in the present, albeit in slightly different form: "Thanks to the work of the monks and those who practice asceticism, these various prayers in the course of time became ever more perfected and by the authority of the Church are gradually incorporated into the sacred liturgy" (#141). The Breviary and all its predecessors grew from the Jewish patterns of prayer and organically developed into what is now referred to as the Divine Office. To give in to antiquarians and limit the Church to the Psalms or other prayers would be to the Church's detriment, for she would lose the beautiful offices of the saints, such as Thomas Aquinas's Adoro Te Devote or the Dies Irae from the Office of the Dead. What a tragedy to poetry, musical tradition, and the spiritual good of souls.
In Summorum Pontificum, Pope Benedict likewise emphasizes continuity. As Fr. Richard John Neuhaus observed in the October 2007 issue of First Things, Benedict's motu proprio is "of a piece with...[his] long-standing campaign against the idea that there is a ‘pre-Vatican II church' and a ‘post-Vatican II church.'" Benedict has strengthened "the continuity of Catholic tradition in matters pertaining to lex orandi, as John Paul II's hermeneutic of the Second Vatican Council strengthened that continuity in matters pertaining to lex credendi." In his letter accompanying Summorum Pontificum, Benedict pointed out that "there have been exaggerations and at times social aspects unduly linked to the attitude of the faithful attached to the ancient Latin liturgical tradition." He calls for charity, the highest of the virtues, in dealing with those who request the extraordinary form, which remains an important part of the West's liturgical heritage. The Pope also recognizes the organic development of the liturgy throughout the Church's history: "In the history of the liturgy, there is growth and progress, but no rupture. What earlier generations held as sacred, remains sacred and great for us too, and it cannot be all of a sudden entirely forbidden or even considered harmful." In essence, Benedict's assertion that the extraordinary form of the Roman rite be widely permitted is rooted in the Church's solicitude for the salvation of souls who, for whatever reason, find great attachment to this earlier form of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. For those who worry over a bifurcation of the Roman rite, Fr. Adrian Fortescue pointed out that "uniformity in liturgy throughout the Church has never been a Catholic ideal" (The Mass: A Study of the Roman Liturgy, 1930).
Benedict's Summorum Pontificum goes hand in hand with Pius's Mediator Dei. The latter states, "Obviously unwise and mistaken is the zeal of one who would go back to the rites and usage of antiquity, discarding the new patterns introduced by the disposition of divine Providence to meet the changes of circumstances and situation" (#63). Thus, the reintroduction of the extraordinary form is not an exercise in antiquarianism but is an attempt to meet the change in circumstances in which the Church finds herself without diminishing in any way the legitimate reforms of Vatican II. Comparing Mediator Dei (MD) with Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC), the Council's "Constitution on Sacred Liturgy," Fr. Aidan Nichols posits:
The renaissance to which we look forward will include, I venture to suggest, the recovery of liturgical objectivity married with devotionalism of MD but also SC's looking beyond the Church here and now to the final Church arrayed in the glorious garments of the redeemed when Christ comes with all his saints. (A Pope and a Council on the Sacred Liturgy, 2002)Pope Benedict has deftly charted a course respecting the norms of Mediator Dei and Vatican II, a Council that theologians continue to dissect and analyze. The priesthood of Jesus Christ is a "living and continuous reality through all ages until the end of time" (MD, #22), and this priesthood is exercised in and through the mediation of Holy Mother Church. We should therefore expect liturgical rites wherein that priestly office is most clearly expressed as a living and continuous reality and not a static object in a museum display.
[Harold B. McKale, ordained a transitional deacon for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia on May 9, 2009, is currently assigned to Our Lady of Fatima Parish in Secane, Pennsylvania. The foregoing article by Harold B. McKale, "The Case Against Liturgical Antiquarianism," was originally published in New Oxford Review (October 2009), pp. 22-26, and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]